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Towards an Objective Theory of Rationality

2. The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes

Book cover: Lakatos: An Introduction by Brendan Larvor

I accept Lakatos' description of science as a system of competing research programmes to be substantially correct. It does exhibit minor weaknesses and I offer some suggestions in remedying these in my Allan [2016b].

How did Lakatos see the nature and function of the research programme? Lakatos had considered that the unit of appraisal in science was not the isolated theory, but a research programme. To know whether a theory constitutes a part of science, according to Lakatos, it is necessary to know its history. If it had been arrived at by content reducing ad hoc modifications, in the face of anomalies, of earlier theories, it is not 'scientific'. It is a series of theories—a research programme—then, that is deemed 'scientific' or 'pseudo-scientific'.

Book cover: The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution by David Wootton

A research programme, Lakatos explained, is composed of a 'negative heuristic' and a 'positive heuristic'. The 'negative heuristic' specifies the 'hard core' of the programme; its metaphysical foundations or conceptual framework. This 'hard core' is deemed irrefutable by the methodological fiat of the programme's proponents. Every worthwhile research programme develops in an ocean of anomalies. It is the function of the 'negative heuristic' of the programme to prevent such anomalies from refuting the 'hard core' by directing the scientists' attention to the revision of the 'protective belt' of auxiliary hypotheses and initial conditions. Just how the 'protective belt' is to be modified is specified by a partially articulated plan; the 'positive heuristic'.

A research programme was regarded by Lakatos as 'progressive' if the successive modifications of its protective belt satisfy the following two conditions. Firstly, each successive modification must be 'theoretically progressive', or have 'excess empirical content' in the sense that the new theory, which consists of laws of nature, auxiliary hypotheses and initial conditions, must predict some hitherto unexpected, novel fact. Secondly, the modifications must be 'empirically progressive' in the sense that the predicted novel facts must be at least occasionally corroborated. Conversely, a programme that is not 'progressive' is deemed 'degenerating'. Lakatos considered that for a research programme to be 'scientific', it must be at least theoretically progressive. For one research programme to supersede a rival, he added, it must be progressive while its rival is degenerating. Furthermore, it must satisfactorily explain the previous predictive successes of its rival. I now turn to his second thesis concerning theories of rationality.

Copyright © 2016

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