Great review of my book!

Karim Bschir, a philosopher of science at the University of St. Gallen, St. Gallen, Switzerland, has published a very detailed review of my book The Great Paradox of Science in the April 29, 2021 issue of the journal Metascience (This is a Springer journal and is thus behind a paywall. You can read it in full if you have the institutional access that universities often provide.) It is always gratifying for an author to have their book assigned to a reviewer who not only has a deep knowledge of the subject matter, but has clearly also read the text very carefully and summarized its content accurately and succinctly.

Since the review is behind a paywall, I will just provide the conclusions at the end where he looks at how I try to resolve the paradox that is central to the book, of why scientific theories work so well even though we have no reason to think that they represent the truth about the world or even that they are approaching the truth. (That is what the ‘anti-realist’ position referred to in the review means to philosophers of science. It does not mean that I live in some imaginary world!) Bschir’s summarizes my argument even better than I could and I hope it encourage readers of the review (and this blog!) to obtain and read my book.

The resolution involves a specific view of the historical development of science and the way scientific progress must be understood. Singham draws an analogy to biological evolution and the fact that although species are very well adapted to their environment, we need not think of evolution as directed toward a specific goal or purpose. Likewise, we can understand the success of scientific theories without presupposing that science as a whole progresses toward ever greater truth. Similar to biological species, scientific theories emerge at a given time in a given environment, and they are successful insofar as they are well adapted to that specific historical context. Although it is tempting to assume some sort of directionality in historical processes, neither biological evolution nor the historical development of science is teleological.

The author then pushes the evolutionary metaphor one step further by inviting his readers to imagine an evolutionary tree of science where the branches do not represent various scientific paradigms, but one limb represents the actual historical path of science with the entirety of the currently accepted scientific knowledge at the top. All the other limbs in the tree of science are hypothetical paths that the development of science might have taken if the historical circumstances had been different, and if the scientific community had accepted paradigms others than the ones it actually did at every branching point. By using this metaphor Singham not only renounces the truth of our current best scientific theories, he also depicts the history of science as highly contingent. What is more, the alternative sciences that could potentially have emerged are beyond our grasp and imagination: “The only way that we can experience possible alternatives untainted by our own history is if we could communicate with extraterrestrial beings whose evolution of scientific knowledge occurred completely independently of ours, along a different branch of the Tree of Science” (273).

At this point, Singham’s strong anti-realist stance becomes clearly visible in that he tries to provide an explanation of the success of science without assuming the truth of scientific theories in the sense of some sort of correspondence to or veracious representation of reality. Doing so requires a response to what philosophers call the miracle argument, according to which the successes of science, predictive and otherwise, would appear as a miracle if scientific theories were not true in some strong sense of the word. According to this line of argument, only scientific realism, i.e., the view that scientific theories represent and describe reality as it actually is, can provide a good explanation for the success of science. Like almost all anti-realists, Singham tries to counter the miracle argument by providing an alternative explanation for the success of science by divorcing truth from success. He has to show that truth is not necessary for explaining the success of science.

Singham’s anti-realist approach shares some obvious similarities with Kyle Stanford’s problem of unconceived alternatives presented in Exceeding Our Grasp (2006). The problem arises due to the fact that there are conceivable but presently unconceived fundamentally distinct alternatives to our best current scientific theories, that would be, if actualized, as well-confirmed by the available evidence as the currently accepted ones. The problem of unconceived alternatives has strong implications for the realism debate and the question of how science develops over time. Stanford’s contribution has induced a lively debate among philosophers of science in recent years. Unfortunately, Singham neither refers to Stanford’s book nor to the rich body of literature that philosophers of science have produced on this topic. Doing so might have helped him to engage in a more self-critical evaluation of his own position.

The Great Paradox of Science covers a vast number of important topics with references to historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science like Duhem, Popper, Lakatos, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Kitcher, Putnam, Laudan, Longino, Bloor, Collins, Latour, Dennett, Chalmers, Shapin as well as scientists like Darwin, Einstein, Goedel, Bohr, Bohm, Bell, Feynman, and many more. However, there is a lack of engagement with more recent contributions from the history and philosophy of science. In spite of Singham’s appreciation of the value that philosophy, history, and sociology can bring to the understanding of science, he seems to underestimate the fact that the latter are also developing over time and that, like in science, covering recent literature is an important part of scholarship. The Great Paradox should therefore not be considered as a systematic contribution to current scholarship in the history and philosophy of science. Professional philosophers and historians of science will hardly find anything novel in it. But that does not dimmish the book’s merits, as its main target audience are neither philosophers nor historians of science, but rather working scientists and people with a general interest in foundational questions about science. For the latter, Singham’s book offers many interesting and challenging thoughts that can help to illuminate important aspects of scientific knowledge production. The author does a great job in conveying highly intricate arguments and ideas in an accessible and enjoyable fashion using many illustrative examples from the history of science. Many readers will walk away from this book with an increased curiosity for philosophical questions about science and a better sense for the importance of a refined understanding of the role of science in society. [My emphasis-MS]

I am really sorry that I was not aware of Stanford’s work when I wrote my book. None of the four reviewers of my manuscript that Oxford University Press sent it to mentioned him to me, even though his book was also published by OUP, though they pointed out many, many other books and authors that I followed up on. It is clearly a glaring omission since the review indicates to me that Stanford and I were thinking on parallel lines and I hate not giving credit where it is due.


  1. steve oberski says

    A thought experiment I’ve read about illustrating the difference between religion and science asks one to consider what would happen if humanity collectively forgot all of our acquired knowledge.

    Presumably new religions would emerge but they would bear no resemblance to pre “great amnesia” religions since they are made up with no real reference or dependency on reality but we would expect to see analogues to scientific principles like Ohms Law or Bernoulli’s principle albeit with different names.

    But if I understand the review, no such thing would necessarily happen.

    Oh well, I’m just going to have to buy the book and read it.

    Your fiendish ploy has worked.

  2. steve oberski says

    Which reminds me of a science fiction novel by Walter M. Miller Jr., “A Canticle for Leibowitz”, that I read many years ago which describes a post-apocalyptic world that is slowly recovering and touches on the rediscovery of scientific principles by post-apocalyptic scholars, who for example are rediscovering “electrical essences”.

    Although I disagree with the basic premise of the book, the Catholic Church acting as a beacon of hope in a sea of darkness, it is beautifully written and well worth reading.

  3. garnetstar says

    Hey Mano, that’s great! I’m so happy for you and your book! It’s wonderful to have intelligent readers.

  4. Keith Valachi DDS says

    Just, and finally, ordered your book, Mano. Looking forward to the experience.

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    I prefer ‘nonrealist’ to ‘anti-realist’. Less confrontational 😉

  6. bmiller says

    In some ways, though, the Catholic Church was a beacon in the darkness of the post-Roman world? As well as being a blazing hellfire for those who it defined as heretics, of course.

    The interesting, fatalistic argument of Leibowitz, of course, is the fallen nature of man leads to humanity making the exact same mistakes again…and blowing up the world with the rediscovered bomb.

    Of course, Canticle is unrealistic in the sense that re-industrialization would be more u likely given that modern industrial civilization already found and “used up” so many of the relatively rare, easily obtainable metals and materials. We won’t have a “do-over” in recreating modern technological society.

  7. Jazzlet says

    Mano you can not give credit to someone you didn’t know about, but when the second edition comes out you wwill be able to include Stanford 😉

  8. Bruce says

    In retrospect, many “true” ideas could have been developed differently. For example, the Newton law of gravity can be viewed as pone possible simplification of Einstein’s General Relativity, but not necessarily the only simpler form. One could speculate about an Earth history in which Newton had guessed a different almost-true simplification. Might we have discovered Relativity 50 years earlier, or 50 years later?
    So I see how science explanations could have been very different “true” subsets of reality.
    It is interesting to contrast different possible realities of science history with different possible examples of the history of reviewing Mano’s book. If it were 50/50, which it never is, then there is only one chance out of 16 possible worlds in which none of the four reviewers mentioned Stanford’s work. In most worlds, more than one reviewer would have nentioned it and then Mano would have analyzed and discussed its relevance. Thus, there was no reason for this reality to have happened this way, yet it is the one reality we have. That is, while science is likely less contingent than reviewing science and everything else, science is still contingent, within a frame limiting things to subsets of “true” reality, whatever that is.

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