Towards an Objective Theory of Rationality

1. Introduction

Citation Information

Allan, Leslie 2016. Towards an Objective Theory of Rationality, URL = <>.

red puzzle pieces with KNOWLEDGE inscribed

Imre Lakatos may be characterized as having held two major theses in the philosophy of science. The first thesis was proposed in answer to the question, 'What is science and what are its methods?' Lakatos' answer to this problem was that science is a body of knowledge arrived at by a methodology of competing research programmes.[1] His second thesis was in answer to the problem of developing and testing theories of rationality. Lakatos proposed that a theory of rationality can be judged by how well it reconstructs the history of science as a rational enterprise. Not surprisingly, he offered his theory of rationality, based on his methodology of scientific research programmes, as the most adequate candidate for such a reconstruction.[2]

In this essay, I critically examine and further develop Lakatos' second thesis concerning theories of rationality. Lakatos' criteria for rational appraisal based on the successful prediction of novel facts are a significant advance on previously proposed criteria. Although, I shall argue, his attempted validation of his criteria by turning to the history of science is not altogether satisfactory. The major part of this essay will be devoted to remedying this deficiency by characterizing the demands of a general objectivist epistemology and demonstrating how Lakatos' criteria satisfy these demands.

I attempt this endeavour in two stages. In the first stage (§4), I introduce five criteria for objective theory choice. These five criteria explicate the necessary logical dependence relationships between evidence-statements and the theory under evaluation, on the one hand, and the necessary historical and psychological independence of evidence-statements from the theory on the other.

To complete the conditions for rational theory choice requires a commitment to either an idealist or realist metaphysical framework. In the second stage (§5 and §6), I make a case for realism and, on that basis, submit two further criteria for the rational acceptance of observation statements.

I conclude with a mapping of my seven criteria for objective theory choice to Lakatos' methodology and a review of two outstanding issues for objectivism. The first of these that I deal with is the problem of logical incommensurability between rival scientific theories. The second is the fact that different scientists claim to use different scientific methods. I show how neither of these is an impediment to the acceptance of my criteria for rational theory choice. At the end of the day, I will have achieved my objectives if I have gone some way in answering Feyerabend's question, 'What's so great about science?' [1979: 110]

  1. [1] See Lakatos [1978a: ch. 1], also reprinted in Lakatos and Musgrave [1970: 91–196]. For an earlier formulation, see Lakatos [1978b: part 2, ch. 8, §6].
  2. [2] See Lakatos [1978a: ch. 2].

Copyright © 2016

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