Draft: Science as a Pragmatic Social Utility: Implications on Freedom

All things are subject to interpretation; whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.
-Friedrich Nietzsche

According to Paul Feyerabend, the most egregious accusation made about science is that it is nothing more than a modern day religion. In his essay How to Defend Society Against Science, Feyerabend claims that science threatens freedom by being presented as equivocal to truth and enlightenment. The argument maintained in this essay is not that an external reality does not exist, but rather it is an individual’s conceptual system, derived from socialized ideologies, that dictate the experience of reality through pragmatically justified ends. This aim of this essay is to explore Feyerabend’s arguments against science and examine whether the science presented today poses a legitimate threat to freedom.

This essay will provide an account that explains why teaching science as truth is advantageous from a political and economic perspective. The central thesis of this argument is that science serves as a social utility that facilitates economic and political power over a community. Citing Peirce, the arguments presented will elucidate the utility of science from an individual and national level and show how science and political power serve as complimentary forms of powers.

When Feyerabend (1988) wrote How to Defend Society Against Science, his stated intention was to “defend society and its inhabitants from all ideologies, science included”, with his central concern involving the preservation of freedom and liberation of man. (p. 35) Feyerabend believes that what is paramount in preserving freedom is perspective, or the relation of ideas amongst other ideas. He charges the scientific discipline with growing dogmatic over the years and increasingly resistant to other comprehensive systems of thought. Feyerabend believes that science is devoid of a system of checks and balances that is vitally important in preventing the tyranny of a single ideology of truth from prevailing.

The case Feyerabend presents against science runs contrary to the conventional thinking of the status quo. He begins his argument by claiming that scientific dogma is arguably comparable to religious dogma. He claims that education indoctrinates students by teaching scientific “facts” in a systematic manner that resembles the instruction of religious doctrine. There is even a comparable reverence of authority between religious clergy and educational instructors. While criticism is not entirely absent in education it is almost never exemplified against the discipline of science. (p. 36)  Those that do challenge science may not be condemned as heretics, says Feyerabend, but they are given the “most severe” sanctions society offers. And the only reason they aren’t burned at the stake or killed is a result of the improved quality of our society rather than any inherent value contained in science.  Put simply, Feyerabend says that “science has become rigid, that it has ceased to be an instrument of change and liberation, without addition that it has found the truth¸ or a large part thereof.” (p. 36)

Feyerabend indicates that the word “truth” is often used as a pleasant guise by ideologies to leverage its authority and reinforce the faith of its followers. The reality is that nobody would deny that truth is good and lies are bad, but to manipulate the conventions of one’s everyday affairs into an ideological truth is simply a dogmatic defense of that ideology (p. 36).  Rather than presenting itself as a conventional utility, science masquerades as truth and propagates ideologies as infallible. While there is a clear and distinct social utility in science, namely to provide a uniformity of experience by referencing an external permanence of reality, there are also a clear and distinct threats an individual’s freedom. (Peirce, p. 46)

Feyerabend (1988) points out that humans are guided by a variety of ideas, and that following truth is as optional as following the ideas of freedom and mental independence. When a truth is posited by an ideology that conflicts with another idea, such as freedom, a choice is rendered. This choice yields a disjunctive dilemma, such that either one rejects the truth and retains freedom, or one rejects freedom and follows truth. (p. 37)  As Feyerabend points out, one can also adopt Hegel’s dialectical method by creating a synthesis that preserves both and posits a third, more sophisticated option. Feyerabend’s claim is this: “modern science inhibits thought.” (p. 37)

To support this claim Feyerabend aims to prove that the arguments in favor are unsupportable. He presents the arguments for science in the following way: “(1) that science has finally found the correct method for achieving results and (2) that there are many results to prove the excellence of this method.” (p. 37)

Feyerabend says that science’s claim as a correct method for achieving results wrongly infers that a collection of facts infers a theory. He rightfully points out that “theories never follow from facts in the strict logical sense”, saying it was the “conventionalists and transcendentalists who pointed out that theories shape and order facts and can therefore be retained come what may.” (p. 37) While the alternative conception that theories “may yet be supported from facts” would be sufficient, there is no formulation available today that has dealt with clear methods of verification in the face of exceptions. (p. 37) This type of thinking mistakenly assumes that what is true for the mind is also true for the world, i.e. “it works in a regular fashion.” (p.37)

Feyerabend cites that Mill’s theory of science as too flimsy to accurately reflect the choice or success of a theory. Mill’s standards of judgment reflect sentiments of Darwin’s ‘struggles for existence’ in that they act purely as competing instruments of success and disregard any competing theories altogether. The drawback of Mill’s account is that theories fail to account for the possibility of increased sophistication garnered as a result of learning from failed theories. (p. 38) Because choosing among competing theories is arbitrary and historically dictated, judgments leave no room for distinguishing any merits of value and the result is an absolute valuation, which Feyerabend rejects. (p. 38) Feyerabend also rejects Popper’s attempts at formulating standards of judgment saying that his clear, unambiguous, and precisely formulations are too rigid and fixed and do not reflect the nature of science as unclear, ambiguous and imprecise. Furthermore, he dismisses Kuhn’s theories altogether for being too vague and useless all around (p. 38)

Feyerabend asserts that Lakatos’ conception of science as a research program that progresses due to novel predictions is the only theory sophisticated enough to accommodate the success of science without imposing a rigid methodology. (p. 39) The truth or falsity is irrelevant with regards to methodological rules which tell the scientist to retain or discard a research program. As a result, Feyerabend concludes that Lakatos’ research programs most accurately reflect the methodology of current science. It assumes no consistent methodology to its methodology. Novelty is the only instigator and mark of progress.

As for the argument that science produces results that are uniquely special, Feyerabend contends that such a claim could only be supported if I could be demonstrated that no other ideology has produced results (p. 39). As evidence to the contrary he cites examples of science utilizing non-scientific disciplines for their advancement, specifically citing Copernicus utilizing Pythagoras’ ideas to develop his heliocentric theory and China’s advancement in medicine due to its adoption of traditional medicine. (p. 40)

From these examples Feyerabend says that no argument exists that could justify sciences exceptional role in society today, claiming that there is “nothing inherent in science or in any other ideology that makes it essentially liberating”. (36)  Many ideologies have contributed to the development of societies, whether they are religions or superstitious. However, Feyerabend remarks that most people in society believe that “science and enlightenment are one and the same thing- even the most radical critics of society believe this.” (p. 35)

Feyerabend claims that science is a myth that masquerades as truth. It is an ideology, just like any other ideology, superstitious or religious, that serves a special instrumental function. Feyerabend says the purpose of education is to introduce the young into life, that is, “into the society where they are born and into the physical universe that surrounds the society”. (p. 41) The function of myth and ideology is to provide a framework or context for assimilating and categorizing matters of fact contained in experience. C.I. Lewis’s (1929) ‘contextual pragmatism’ provides an account on how the myths proposed by Feyerabend may serve to introduce an individual to his world. Conceptual pragmatism holds that when objects are perceived, conceptual systems of understanding (categories, classifications, definitions) are brought a priori to experience in order to render it intelligibly according to pragmatically justified ends. These a priori concepts of understanding mediate between subjective judgments of perception to yield objective judgments of experience.[1] In essence, scientific facts are not facsimile representations of reality; therefore there is no direct access to external reality.[2] As a result, a priori conceptual systems being applied determine the objective concepts of experience, and anything objective can be freely disputed by asserting alternatives.

According to Feyerabend, all ideologies should be treated equally and to give one priority over the other is to subjugate equal choice. The aim of Feyerabend’s (1974) critique of science is to point out the dangers of failing to question the conceptual systems dogmatically dictated by societal ideologies, viz. science education, and the importance of asserting the freedom to create and choose novel ideas. (p. 43) Specifically he is referring to the resistance of science’s closed rationality to contrary thought. When patterns of thought are broken, new worlds will emerge. In this way, “Any ideology that breaks the hold a comprehensive system of thought has on the minds of men contributes to the liberation of man. Any ideology that makes man question inherited believes is an aid to enlightenment.” (p. 35) Myths operates to provide understanding, to aid in the navigation of world.  As a corollary, instruction must emphasize the retention and understanding of these myths (p. 42). In this way myths are instrumental and any contrary or counterbalancing myths should present no threat.

The problem is that science, or any form of rationalism, is not taught like other myths. The instruction of science is devoted to a single paradigm and strengthens minds “against any easy acceptance of comprehensive views”. (p. 42) This type of convergent thinking prevents people from developing “contrary” and “counter-suggestive” views found in free and creative divergent thinking.  Feyerabend argues that the imagination must be preserved in order to develop the “full spirit of contradiction”. (p. 42) By acknowledging the mind as freely independent and a priori of experience, individuals can choose to create and stipulate their own conceptual systems and create novel ideologies for rendering experience from reality.

Feyerabend asserts that science is but one of many ideologies that “propel society”, concluding that “the most important consequence us that there must be a formal separation between state and science just as there is now a formal separation between state and church.” (p. 40)

This leads to the second part of this thesis which explores science as a social utility that facilitates political power over a community. The argument presented is that, so long as the state and education are conjoined, science serves political and even economic interests. While Feyerabend wants to retain the individual freedom of man, there are social costs for maintaining an individual’s beliefs. This portion of the essay will reference Charles Peirce (2010) to delineate the associated costs of legitimizing subjective beliefs as well as the costs of legitimizing a science backed by the authority of the state. (p. 41)

In his essay The Fixation of Belief, Peirce (2010) elucidates the various problems that arise when beliefs are justified by individuals via interior illumination. He refers to these subjective ratiocinations as the method of fixation and argues against its practicality due to the social impulse against it. (p. 43) This is because private beliefs are inconsistent among men which cause contradictions and lead to conflict. Peirce remarks that a standard of uniformity is necessary among men, saying “we shall necessarily influence each other’s opinions; so that the problem becomes how to fix belief, not in the individual merely, but in the community.” (p. 43)

The alternative to the method of fixation is the method of authority as demonstrated by religion and states throughout history. “Let the will of the state act, then, instead of that of the individual. Let an institution be created which shall have for its object to keep correct doctrines before the attention of the people, to reiterate them perpetually, and to teach them to the young; having at the same time power to prevent contrary doctrines from being taught, advocated, or expressed.” (pp. 43-4)  The problem with this method is that the “only test on that method is what that state thinks; so that it cannot pursue the method wrongly” and that “the method of authority will always govern the mass of mankind”. (p. 47)

Peirce argues that it is important for a standard in which the beliefs of all men may lead to the same ultimate, true conclusion. He argues that Real things, or the external permanence of reality, be that standard, and that the scientific method of investigation provides such a method of inquiry for its establishment.[3] (p. 46-7) “The question of validity” he says “is purely one of fact and not of thinking,” claiming that objects of observation do not result in such confusion in that they can hardly be disputed. (p. 39) According to Peirce, “to satisfy our doubts, therefore, it is necessary that a method should be found by which our beliefs may be determined by nothing human, but by some external permanency- by something upon which our thinking has no effect.” (p. 46) In this way Peirce elucidates the necessity of external permanency as an objective standard to settle opinion. He stated that “there are real things independent of us that affect our senses according to laws through different relations to objects, and through reason we ascertain how these laws work.” (p. 46)

These statements come across as Pollyanna, leaving a reader wondering if Peirce attributes too much faith in the scientific method for satisfying doubts and establishing beliefs. As noted earlier, matters of fact derived from experience are never facsimiles of reality but are influenced by the a priori conceptual systems brought to experience. Nevertheless, Peirce believes that “what is more wholesome than any particular belief is integrity of belief, and that to avoid looking into the support of any belief from a fear that it may turn out rotten is quite as immoral as it is disadvantageous.” (p. 49) He believes that they will stand the test of truth so long as they carry an individual to his point of aim and not astray. (p. 49) Through this essay Peirce shows that truth is a reflection of utility according to individual ends.

This coincides with Feyerabend’s (1988) claims that science is more of an ethical enterprise than a truth seeking enterprise and that the standards and criteria for determining truth are subjective valuations that change, and will continue to change, throughout history. (p. 38)

Returning to the implications of science as a social utility, we might ask: what utility does it serve to accept science backed by the authority of the state, and for whom? We may refer to Nietzsche’s quote: “All things are subject to interpretation; whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.” The method of authority, used by a state that appeals to the scientific method, ensures a uniform standard that establishes the coherent experience necessary for governing the masses. (Peirce, p. 48) In this way it can be shown that science facilitates the political power of the governing state.

In addition, it can be argued that such an appeal to science has great economic implications as well. Although the entire argument is outside the scope of this paper, one can easily see how the reliance of science’s naturalistic assumptions gives way to materialism. In a society where scientific truth is the reigning authority of beliefs, materialism becomes the only legitimate measure of value. This emphasis on material valuation contributes to economic activity as the exchange and consumption of goods leads to economic growth.

In conclusion, Feyerabend is right in assuming that science subjugates freedom. The fact is that the governance of society relies on an authority that is uniform and consistent. This is the only way that debates and disputes can be settled. As Peirce notes with his method of fixation of belief, giving credibility to superstitions and ideologies with no external reference for others to debate would only serve to create an inconsistency and a disunity of experience which would cause contradictions and conflicts among society. While Feyerabend’s sentiments are felt and strong, it is important to realize that he is advocating for a broad freedom that resembles anarchy more than democracy. As a society we are bound by certain ideologies and beliefs, and it is through this uniformity of values that we are able to function harmoniously. So while science may over emphasize its truth value, it most definitely lives up to its utility to unite and unify.




Works Cited

C. I. Lewis. (1929). Mind and the World Order: Outline of a Theory of Knowledge. Manicola, NY: Courier Dover Publications.

C. Peirce. The Fixation of Belief. In R. B. Talisse; S. F. Aikin. (2010). The Pragmatism Reader. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


Feyerabend, P. How To Defend Society Against Science. In Klemke. E. D., Hollinger R., Kline A.D., (1988). Introductory Readings in the Philosophy of Science. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.


[1] Judgments of perception are derived from a posteriori sensations and a priori pure intuitions. (Kant, Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics)

[2] a priori concepts of understanding act as the ‘interpretative lens’ or ‘conceptual structure’ used to intelligibly render and organize and categorize experience.

[3] “External permanency would not be external, in our sense, if it was restricted in its influence to one individual. It must be something which affects, or might affect, every man. And, though these affects are necessarily as various as are individual conditions, yet the method must be such that the ultimate conclusion of every man shall me the same.” (Peirce, p. 46)

One thought on “Draft: Science as a Pragmatic Social Utility: Implications on Freedom”

  1. Ah, reminds me of the famous quote “Writing is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.” – Winston Churchill

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