Towards an Objective Theory of Rationality

3. Is Science a Rational Enterprise?

Book cover: Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge by Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave

Lakatos had not only argued that his methodology of scientific research programmes (MSRP) is the best available characterization of scientific method, but that it is also the most adequate theory of rationality. According to his theory of rationality, it is rational to epistemically value progressive research programmes while epistemically devaluing degenerating programmes. Naturally, he considered it irrational to do the converse. In his [1978a: 119], Lakatos attempted to defend this thesis in a novel manner.

Lakatos' argument was this. All of the methodologies of science so far proposed have been offered as normative criteria for scientific rationality. Each methodology serves to provide a different rational reconstruction of the history of science. Furthermore, they differ on where to place the dividing line separating what is to be explained 'internally' as the idealized application of scientific method and what is to be explained 'externally', in socio-psychological terms, as the difference between the rationally reconstructed 'internal' history and actual history.

Conventionalist methodologies are notoriously difficult to criticize on logical and epistemological grounds. However, Lakatos proposed, they may be criticized for how inadequately they provide a rational reconstruction of the history of science. Judging how well a methodology rationally reconstructs the history of science by using that methodology itself, however, is inadequate as all methodologies fail their own standards. A more adequate normative historiographical meta-criterion is a meta-methodology of scientific research programmes or, what Lakatos termed, a 'methodology of historiographical research programmes' (MHRP). Different methodologies are now seen as the hard cores of normative historiographical research programmes. A progressive problem-shift in the research programme is marked by its ability to reconstruct more of the basic value judgements of scientists as rational, lead to an empirically progressive revision of some previously held basic value judgements, predict novel historical facts and anticipate further basic value judgements.

The advantage of the MHRP is that it allows the proponents of a historiographical research programme to ignore anomalies in the history of science as long as the programme is progressing. Secondly, the proponents of the programme need only take notice of criticism if it is constructive; that is, if the criticism will further our knowledge of method. On this meta-criterion, the MSRP is progressive since it reconstructs more of the history of science as rational, has led to the reversal of some historiographical appraisals and has successfully predicted novel historical facts.[3]

Lakatos [1978a: 132] was correct in 'maintaining that a theory of rationality has to try to organize basic value judgements in universal, coherent frameworks'. However, he failed to raise, let alone answer, the question of why Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment physics should be regarded as the paradigm of rationality. Lakatos had given us no argument as to why it is not more reasonable to accept, say, the basic value judgements of fundamentalist theologians as exemplars of rationality and test our rational reconstructions of the history of fundamentalist theology against these judgements. 'Rational reconstructions', therefore, cannot be methodologically instructive unless we have some defensible reason for our choice of historical subject matter.[4]

So, a methodologist, faced with a failure of his methodology qua rational reconstruction of science to stand up to historical tests, has the option of retaining his methodology while discarding the thesis that science is a rational enterprise. For Lakatos simply to charge such people with 'disrespect' [1978a: 127] and 'temerity' [1978a: 129], and to leave it at that, is just not good enough.

Book cover: Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge by Robert Audi

In spite of its plausibility in judging rival theories of rationality, the MHRP lacks persuasive force on its own. The arguments Lakatos advances in its favour are simply a meta-level application of the MSRP and so will not be persuasive to those not already partial to this particular methodology. For example, the supposed advantage that the MHRP can judge progress by the extent to which a methodology successfully postdicts novel facts will only have weight for those methodologists that already recognize the epistemic worth of corroborated novel facts. This is a serious weakness of Lakatos' meta-level defence of the MSRP.

I do think, though, that Lakatos' thesis is of some value if it is supplemented with an argument for the prima facie rationality of the scientific enterprise. Such an argument would refer to the way in which the spectacular predictive and technological success of the sciences was foreshadowed by deliberate theoretical developments, making it even more unlikely that this success was due to 'fantastic networks of coincidences'.[5] Any alternative theory of rationality must adequately explain this predictive and technological power as being the byproduct of irrational and non-rational forces. Seen in this light, the testing of methodologies against the history of science has prima facie plausibility.

In spite of this support, such dependence on a prima facie case for the rationality of science serves to weaken the force of tests of methodologies using the history of science. The arguments for Lakatos' meta-criterion partly presuppose the cogency of the MSRP as a theory of rationality. In this respect, it is of limited effect in independently supporting the MSRP. It is for these reasons that I have sought to provide independent arguments for the MSRP. My aim is to achieve this through demonstrating that its criteria are demanded by an analysis of the requirements of an objectivist epistemology. Before beginning this task, I want to look briefly at what Lakatos had to say about rationally justifying the MSRP independently of a prior acceptance of the rationality of science.

Lakatos' remarks on this are altogether uninspiring. (His brief discussions are contained in [1978a: 99–101, 154–67, 170–93; 1978b: 220–3]). For Lakatos, all we can do is 'hopefully guess' that the historical succession of scientific theories is leading us closer to the truth. [1970: 175; 1978a: 101 n.1; 1978b: 191, 223] However, there is even more depressing news. 'The body of science . . . cannot be the object of rational belief', Lakatos asserted, because this is a concession to psychologism in epistemology, and, anyway, the body of science is inconsistent [1978b: 176, 220]. Furthermore, the growth of knowledge is via research programmes, and one cannot 'rationally believe' a programme since a programme is more than a static set of propositions [1978b: 221]. Lastly, throughout the long history of human belief systems, there was no 'sudden change from animal belief to rational belief' [1978b: 221].

So, we are left with the paradoxical conclusion that the methods of science are rational, and yet all that we can do is base their epistemic value on 'hope'. There is also another paradox here. And that is that the epistemic value of the methods of science, and which deems such methods rational, is based on non-rational beliefs. Lakatos wrote:

We may claim that progressive problemshifts do move us 'more likely than not' towards Truth rather than away from it. But this inductive principle which confers an epistemological status on our convention as to how to appraise problemshifts, is, in turn, backed by mere animal belief. Therefore problemshifts receive their epistemological rationality from animal belief (or, if you wish, from a bare postulate — an intellectual theft, as Russell used to characterize such 'posits').

[Lakatos 1978b: 221]

And further on, in the same vein, he continued, 'There is no ultimate proof that, even where Elizabethan beliefs were replaced in the course of progressive problemshifts (like beliefs about heat, magnetism), we have been heading towards the Truth. We can only (non-rationally) believe, or, rather hope, that we have been. Unless hope is a "solution", there is no solution to Hume's problem.' [1978b: 223] In his 'Reply to Critics', he even more strongly attacked beliefs, regarding the belief that a hard core of a programme is true as one of the 'weaknesses of the human psyche', and even that it is 'naïve to believe either that one particular step [in the pursuit of Truth] is already part of the Truth or even that one is on the right path' [Lakatos 1970: 175].

So, according to Lakatos, the methods of science are especially rational, but the belief on which this rationality of science is based is naïve and non-rational, being 'animal belief'. To escape the charge that the ordaining of science as 'rational' is thus, at the very least, arbitrary (that is, why not, for example, believe that the methods of biblical fundamentalism are leading us closer to the Truth?), either the 'rationality' of science must be surrendered or we must admit that at least one belief is rational. But, if one belief is rational, why not more? In the next section, I will develop such a theory of 'rational belief'.


  1. [3] I don't think Lakatos' defence of his MHRP as a meta-criterion is wholly adequate. In my Allan [2016b], I propose what I think is a more successful vindication of Lakatos' criteria.
  2. [4] Feyerabend has forcefully argued this point in his [1975: 201–14] and again in his [1979: 109–20].
  3. [5] In presenting one form of this argument, Shimony [1976: 474–8] refers to the difficulty in accounting for the success of science as the result of 'fantastic networks of coincidences'. Worrall [1976: 164] also briefly alludes to the prima facie plausibility of the rationality of science.

Copyright © 2016

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