Science as Mythology

For is it not possible that science as we know it today, or a “search for the truth” in the style of traditional philosophy, will create a monster? Is it not possible that an objective approach that frowns upon personal connections between the entities examined will harm people, turn them into miserable, unfriendly, self-righteous mechanisms without charm or humour? “Is it not possible,” asks Kierkegaard, “that my activity as an objective [or critico-rational] observer of nature will weaken my strength as a human being?” I suspect the answer to many of these questions is affirmative and I believe that a reform of the sciences that makes them more anarchic and more subjective (in Kierkegaard’s sense) is urgently needed.

– Paul Feyerabend

evolution touches god


Epistemological anarchism is an epistemological theory advanced by Austrian philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend which holds that there are no useful and exception-free methodological rules governing the progress of science or the growth of knowledge. It holds that the idea that science can or should operate according to universal and fixed rules is unrealistic, pernicious, and detrimental to science itself.

The use of the term anarchism in the name reflected the methodological pluralism prescription of the theory, as the purported scientific method does not have a monopoly on truth or useful results. Feyerabend once famously said that because there is no fixed scientific method, it is best to have an “anything goes” attitude toward methodologies. Feyerabend felt that science started as a liberating movement, but over time it had become increasingly dogmatic and rigid, and therefore had become increasingly an ideology, and, despite its successes, science had started to attain some oppressive features, and it was not possible to come up with an unambiguous way to distinguish science from religion, magic, or mythology. He felt the exclusive dominance of science as a means of directing society was authoritarian and ungrounded. Promulgation of the theory earned Feyerabend the title of “the worst enemy of science” from his detractors.

The theory draws on the observation that there is no identifiable fixed scientific method that is consistent with the practices of the paradigm of scientific progress – the scientific revolution. It is a radical critique of rationalist and empiricist historiography which tend to represent the heroes of the scientific revolution as scrupulous researchers reliant on empirical research, whereas Feyerabend countered that Galileo for example, relied on rhetoric, propaganda and epistemological tricks to support his doctrine of heliocentrism, and that aesthetic criteria, personal whims and social factors were far more prevalent than the dominant historiographies allowed.

Scientific laws such as those posited by Aristotelian or Newtonian physics that assumed the stance of objective models of the universe have been found to come short in describing the entirety of the universe. The movement of universal models from Aristotelian to Newtonian physics to Einstein’s relativity theory, where each preceding theory has been refuted as entirely universal model of reality, illustrates for the epistemological anarchist that scientific theories do not correspond to truth, as they are in part cultural manifestations, and ergo not objective. Feyerabend drew a comparison between one scientific paradigm triumphing over or superseding another, in the same manner a given myth is adapted and appropriated by a new, triumphant successor myth in comparative mythology. Feyerabend contended, with Imre Lakatos, that the demarcation problem of distinguishing on objective grounds science from pseudoscience was irresolvable and thus fatal to the notion of science run according to fixed, universal rules.

Feyerabend also notes that science’s success is not solely due to its own methods, but also to its having taken in knowledge from unscientific sources. In turn the notion that there is no knowledge outside science is a ‘convenient fairy-tale’ held only by dogmatists who distort history for the convenience of scientific institutions. For instance, Copernicus was heavily influenced by Pythagoras, whose view of the world had previously been rejected as mystical and irrational. Hermetic writings played an important role in the works of Copernicus as well as Newton. There exists fairly accurate astronomical knowledge that reaches back even to the Stone Age, measured in stone observatories in England and the South Pacific. Pre-Modern inventions such as crop rotation, hybrid plants, chemical inventions and architectural achievements not yet understood like that of the pyramids are all examples which threaten the notion that science is the only means of attaining knowledge.

Feyerabend also criticized science for not having evidence for its own philosophical precepts, particularly the notions of Uniformity of Law and of Uniformity of Process across time and space. “We have to realize that a unified theory of the physical world simply does not exist,” said Feyerabend; “we have theories that work in restricted regions, we have purely formal attempts to condense them into a single formula, we have lots of unfounded claims (such as the claim that all of chemistry can be reduced to physics), phenomena that do not fit into the accepted framework are suppressed; in physics, which many scientists regard as the one really basic science, we have now at least three different points of view… without a promise of conceptual (and not only formal) unification”.

Furthermore, Feyerabend held that deciding between competing scientific accounts was complicated by the incommensurability of scientific theories. Incommensurability means that scientific theories cannot be reconciled or synthesized because the interpretation and practice of science is always informed by theoretical assumptions, which leads to proponents of competing theories using different terms, engaged in different language-games and thus talking past each other. This for Feyerabend was another reason why the idea of science as proceeding according to universal, fixed laws was both historically inaccurate and prescriptively useless.


Physical objects are conceptually imported into the situation as convenient intermediaries not by definition in terms of experience, but simply as irreducible posits comparable, epistemologically, to the gods of Homer … For my part I do, qua lay physicist, believe in physical objects and not in Homer’s gods; and I consider it a scientific error to believe otherwise. But in point of epistemological footing, the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter our conceptions only as cultural posits.

– W. V. Quine

It appears that, in single instances of the operation of bodies, we never can, by our utmost scrutiny, discover any thing but one event following another, without being able to comprehend any force or power by which the cause operates, or any connexion between it and its supposed effect. The same difficulty occurs in contemplating the operations of mind on body- where we observe the motion of the latter to follow upon the volition of the former, but are not able to observe or conceive the tie which binds together the motion and volition, or the energy by which the mind produces this effect. The authority of the will over its own faculties and ideas is not a whit more comprehensible: So that, upon the whole, there appears not, throughout all nature, any one instance of connexion which is conceivable by us. All events seem entirely loose and separate. One event follows another; but we never can observe any tie between them. They seemed conjoined, but never connected. And as we can have no idea of any thing which never appeared to our outward sense or inward sentiment, the necessary conclusion seems to be that we have no idea of connexion or force at all, and that these words are absolutely without meaning, when employed either in philosophical reasonings or common life.

– David Hume

We see that science also rests on a faith; there simply is no science “without presuppositions.” The question whether truth is needed must not only have been affirmed in advance, but affirmed to such a degree that the principle, the faith, the conviction finds expression: “Nothing is needed more than truth, and in relation to it everything else has only second-rate value.”

Thus the question “Why science?” leads back to the moral problem: Why have morality at all when life, nature, and history are “not moral”? No doubt, those who are truthful in that audacious and ultimate sense that is presupposed by the faith in science thus affirm another world than the world of life, nature, and history; and insofar as they affirm this “other world”—look, must they not by the same token negate its counterpart, this world, our world?—But you will have gathered what I am driving at, namely, that it is still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests—that even we seekers after knowledge today, we godless anti-metaphysicians still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by a faith that is thousands of years old, that Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato, that God is the truth, that truth is divine.

A “scientific” interpretation of the world, as you understand it, might therefore still be one of the most stupid of all possible interpretations of the world, meaning that it be one of the poorest in meaning. This thought is intended for the ears and consciences of our mechanists who nowadays like to pass as philosophers and insist that mechanics is the doctrine of the first and last laws on which all existence must be based as on a ground floor. But an essentially mechanical world would be an essentially meaningless world. Assuming that one estimated the value of a piece of music according to how much of it could be counted, calculated, and expressed in formulas: how absurd would such a “scientific” estimation of music be! What would one have comprehended, understood, grasped of it? Nothing, really nothing of what is “music” in it!

– Friedrich Nietzsche

The man who is striving to solve a problem defined by existing knowledge and technique is not, however, just looking around. He knows what he wants to achieve, and he designs his instruments and directs his thoughts accordingly. Unanticipated novelty, the new discovery, can emerge only to the extent that his anticipations about nature and his instruments prove wrong… There is no other effective way in which discoveries might be generated.

If these out-of date beliefs are to be called myths, then myths can be produced by the same sorts of methods and held for the same sorts of reasons that now lead to scientific knowledge.

– Thomas Kuhn

Long before quantum mechanics, the German philosopher, Husserl, said that “All perception is gamble.”

Every type of bigotry, every type of racism, sexism, prejudice, every dogmatic ideology that allows people to kill other people with a clear conscience, every stupid cult, every superstition, written religion, every kind of ignorance in the world all results from not realizing that our perceptions are gambles.

We believe what we see and then we believe our interpretation of it, we don’t even know we are making an interpretation most of the time. We think that this is reality. In philosophy that is called naïve realism. “What I perceive is reality.” And philosophers have refuted naïve realism every century for the last twenty-five hundred years starting with Buddha & Plato, and yet most people still act on the basis of naive realism.

Now the argument is maybe my perceptions are inaccurate but somewhere there is accuracy. The scientists have it with their instruments. That’s how we can find out what’s really real. But relativity and quantum mechanics have demonstrated clearly that what you find out with instruments is true relative only to the instrument you are using and where that instrument is located in space-time.

So there is no vantage point from which real reality can be seen, we are all looking from the point of our own reality tunnels. And when we begin to realize that we are all looking from the point of view of our own reality tunnels, we find it is much easier to understand where other people are coming from. Or, the ones who don’t have the same reality tunnels as us do not seem ignorant or deliberately perverse or lying or hypnotized by some mad ideology. They just have a different reality tunnel, and every reality tunnel might tell us something interesting about our world, if we are willing to listen.

– Robert Anton Wilson

Science manipulates things and gives up living in them. It makes its own limited models of things; operating upon these indices or variables to effect whatever transformations are permitted by their definition, it comes face to face with the real world only at rare intervals. Science is and always will be that admirably active, ingenious, and bold way of thinking whose fundamental bias is to treat everything as though it were an object-in-general – as though it meant nothing to us and yet was predestined for our own use.

– Maurice Merleau-Ponty

See Also

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea

The Limits of Science

Doing Away with Scientism

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