"Paul Feyerabend's Choice for Freedom"
By Phillip E. Johnson
A Review of
Killing Time, the autobiography of Paul Feyerabend
Published as "Wundergadfly" in Books and Culture
If I had to describe Paul Feyerabend in two words, "brilliant,"
and "irresponsible" are the two that would immediately come to
mind. Both qualities are on display in this engrossing autobiography, completed
just before the author's death from a brain tumor in 1994.
Let's start with the brilliance. As a young man in Hitler's Austria Feyerabend
trained to be an opera singer, and had a promising future in that profession
when he was drafted into the army in 1942. He rose through the ranks to
become an officer, and ended up commanding a battalion in the last stages
of the disastrous retreat on the Russian front. His physical courage earned
him the Iron Cross and wounds so severe that for the rest of his life he
was on crutches, in continual pain, and sexually impotent. Despite these
incapacities he was fabulously successful as a scholar, a lecturer, a connoisseur,
a lover, and a raconteur.
After the war Feyerabend studied physics, and then more or less drifted
into philosophy of science. He started as a protege of Karl Popper, but
soon carved out his own position and became notorious as the leading voice
for "epistemological anarchism," the precursor of what today we
call post-modernism. In his most famous book, Against Method, Feyerabend
denied that there is any single form of reasoning that can be labelled "the
scientific method," asserting brazenly that the basic rule in science
is that "anything goes." Many scientists were not amused.
Although his irreverence towards science outraged conventional scientists
and philosophers, Feyerabend became and remained an academic superstar.
He taught at Berkeley for most of his career, but was constantly wooed by
other prestigious universities and accepted or rejected their offers according
to his mood of the moment. That he never got into serious trouble either
with the Nazis or with the liberal academic elite indicates that he knew
how to be provocative without saying anything unforgivable, and indeed Feyerabend
admitted that his thinking was made up of "a rather unstable combination
of contrariness and a tendency to conform."
That brings me to the irresponsibility. Feyerabend was the kind of professor
who sometimes failed to show up for classes, who didn't want an office because
he didn't want to hold regular office hours, and who was always flying off
to give lectures somewhere else. At Berkeley he ostentatiously took the
side of the student radicals, apparently for no deeper reason than that
he enjoyed all the hellraising. He was profligate in love, until late in
life his fourth wife turned him into a devoted husband who hoped to become,
with medical assistance, a father.
As a philosopher Feyerabend was particularly concerned with the tension
between truth and freedom. Once we have found some final truth, something
that is true beyond question, must we give up our freedom to doubt? Jesus
claimed to be the only way to the Father, and also said "You shall
know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." This is a scandal
to modernists, for whom the idea of absolute truth implies oppression, not
freedom. C.S. Lewis memorably caricatured the modernist mentality in The
Great Divorce, in the form of a theologian who refuses to enter heaven
unless the celestial powers guarantee that he will find there an atmosphere
of free inquiry. The ministering spirit responds that, on the contrary,
"I will bring you to the land not of questions but of answers, and
you shall see God." The theologian spurns this "ready-made truth
which puts an end to intellectual activity" and opts for hell -- where,
as in a deconstructionist English Department, the absence of truth allows
an unlimited scope for interpretation.
Modernism has its own exclusive road to truth, however. As a young scholar
Feyerabend was a positivist who dismissed all statements about God from
serious consideration by proclaiming that "the idea of a divine being
simply had no scientific foundation." He explained that "science
is the basis of knowledge; science is empirical; nonempirical enterprises
are either logic [as in mathematics] or nonsense." People who say things
like that have seen a God whose name is Science, and a very jealous God
The later Feyerabend came to see science not as the only road to truth but
merely as one of the ways of interpreting reality that a pluralistic society
ought to include. In a famous 1974 lecture "How to Defend Society Against
Science," he argued that we should regard all ideologies, science
included, "like fairytales which have lots of interesting things to
say but with also contain wicked lies." He argued that, although science
was a liberating influence in the 17th and 18th centuries, in contemporary
times it had become another stifling orthodoxy.
In education, he charged, scientific "facts" are now taught just
as religious "facts" were taught a century earlier, with little
attempt to stimulate the critical faculties of the students. At the professional
level, "Most scientists today are devoid of ideas, full of fear, intent
on reproducing some paltry result so that they can add to the flood of inane
papers that now constitutes 'scientific progress' in many areas." Nonetheless,
"the judgment of the scientist is received with the same reverence
as the judgment of bishops and cardinals was accepted not too long ago."
Even theologians pursue a project of "demythologization" on the
assumption that, in any clash between science and religion, religion must
always be in the wrong. Feyerabend anticipated the obvious retort to this
indictment, which is that science has earned its preeminence not by suppressing
dissent but by discovering truth. "For once we have discovered the
truth -- what else can we do but follow it?" He responded that "a
truth that reigns without checks and balances is a tyrant that must be overthrown....
My criticism of modern science is that it inhibits freedom of thought. If
the reason is that it has found the truth and now follows it, then I would
say that there are better things than finding and then following such a
The last sentence echoes C.S. Lewis's theologian, who by renouncing truth
achieved not freedom, but absurdity. Without the goal of truth at the end
of the process, freedom of thought is an exercise in futility, like a treasure
hunt without the treasure. In reading Feyerabend we always have to discount
the overstatements, but when we do so we often find that his real point
was perfectly sensible. In this case Feyerabend was not renouncing the search
for truth, or implying that we can preserve freedom by repealing the law
of gravity. He was proposing that we should encourage competition rather
than monopoly in epistemology, just as we do in government (by separation
of powers), in religion (by the prohibition of a religious establishment),
and in the economy (by antitrust laws).
Up to a point this is orthodox. Ask any scientist why science is reliable,
and he will cite the checks and balances, such as repeatable experiments,
peer review, unfettered debate, and the fierce competition for prizes. Whether
these mechanisms always operate as advertised, especially when political
or financial interests are involved and funding is centralized, is an important
question which I will not attempt to address here. The broader point is
that, even under ideal circumstances, scientific debates occur only within
the profession, which means among those who share the professional mindset.
In this respect science is like the medieval Church, which permitted theological
debates among the scholars (in Latin), but expected the laity to leave judgments
about such matters to the clergy. Feyerabend wanted to break the clerical
monopoly by making room in scientific debates for persons who know about
science "without being taken in by the ideology of science." That
ideology is roughly the position the young Feyerabend advocated and then
outgrew, whether it is called positivism, empiricism, naturalism, materialism,
or scientific atheism. Is reality truly limited to the things scientists
can study, or should science itself take account of a reality outside the
ken of science? Only outsiders can raise questions like that. If insiders
tried to raise them, they wouldn't be insiders for long.
The need for outside perspectives in science has grown in the twenty-one
years since Feyerabend delivered his lecture. For example, in the New York
Review for November 30, 1995, the eminent John Maynard Smith brought into
the open the bitter schism in evolutionary biology over issues like "gradualism"
and "adaptationism." Maynard Smith commented that although Stephen
Jay Gould, the leader of the anti-adaptationist party, "has come to
be seen by non-biologists as the preeminent evolutionary theorist,"
nevertheless "the evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed
his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly
worth bothering with, but who should not be publicly criticized because
he is at least on our side against the creationists."
In the same essay, Maynard Smith off-handedly pronounced ideological judgments
as if they were findings of biology. "We see humans as the joint products
of their genes and their memes - - indeed, what else could they possibly
be?" From this philosophy dressed up as biology Maynard Smith derives
moral relativism, because "If a person is simply the product of his
or her genetic makeup and environmental history, including all the ideas
[i.e., "memes"] that he or she has assimilated, there is simply
no source whence absolute morality could come." Other evolutionary
biologists, including Gould, frequently say this sort of thing because they
have lost sight of the difference between ideology and science, if they
ever recognized a difference.
Evolutionary biology now consists of at least two factions who disagree
fundamentally over how evolution is supposed to have occurred but who share
a common determination to exclude the "creationists," meaning
all those millions of people who think that a creator may have had something
to do with the history of life. As they learn that what is at stake is not
the Genesis chronology but the very idea that a source of absolute morality
could conceivably exist, more and more people are going to insist on a right
to participate in the arguments that divide the ideologists of evolutionary
I would like to think that Paul Feyerabend, wherever he may be, is looking
on and enjoying the fun.
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