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Scientific Pluralism (Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science

by Stephen H. Kellert, Helen E. Longino, and C. Kenneth Waters, Editors
University Of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2006
272 pp. Illus. 1 b/w. Trade, $50
ISBN: 0-8166-4763-1.

Amy Ione
1312 Curtin St
State College PA 16803


Scientific Pluralism, edited by Stephen H. Kellert, Helen E. Longino, and C. Kenneth Waters, tackles a topic now at the forefront of studies in the history and philosophy of science. Drawing upon the research of 10 leading scholars, the essays largely answer yes to the book’s primary question: Can pluralism be advanced as a general interpretation of science? In coming to this conclusion, the contributors demonstrate that they support the idea that the world is too complicated (or too indeterminate) and our cognitive interests are too diverse to validate the monist ideas that predominated in scientific discussions historically. As the editors tell us, it is because the scientific enterprise is itself a complicated phenomenon that no single disciplinary approach can provide a fully adequate account of its conceptual phenomena. Thus, in their view, only a pluralistic approach can provide a comprehensive explanation of its conceptual, technical, cognitive, psychological, social, historical, and normative aspects.

Overall, Scientific Pluralism firmly grapples with why it is unreasonable to aim to achieve a single all-encompassing conclusion adopting an epistemological thesis. Essays provide case studies generally advancing local rather than universal schemata. As a whole, the case studies reject a priori commitments to either unity or multiplicity, allowing the scientific evidence to decide the particulars. The willingness of the contributors to suggest there are serious limits for metaphysical conclusions from science, even within the pluralism approach, is a strong point of the book. Equally impressive is the way the pluralists observe that scientists present various—sometimes even incompatible—models of the world. In addition, the book benefits from the historical context offered in the introduction and several of the essays. Key players in the move toward pluralism (e.g. Patrick Suppes and Nancy Cartwright) are introduced and credited for opening evaluation within the history and philosophy of science field. The varied historical references also encourage the reader to appreciate the need for (and value of) interdisciplinary approaches within science studies.

Given that Scientific Pluralism effectively demonstrates the viability of the view that some phenomena require multiple accounts, it is perhaps ironic that this volume fails to include any voices critical of the pluralistic thesis. The authors address the view that some think that pluralism could arise from slicing the same unitary but complex pie through different axis, but there is no essay in the volume that promotes a unitary framework over the pluralistic vantage point. This skews the arguments somewhat since no thinkers express why some continue to favor and pursue unification models. Albert Einstein’s legendary commitment to unity was demonstrated by his refusal to accept quantum inconsistencies. His bedevilment with the situation, as he held fast in his search for a Unified Field Theory, is a primary part of his biography. In this case, Einstein aspired to describe all fundamental forces and the relationships between elementary particles in terms of a single theoretical framework, one in which electromagnetism and gravity would emerge as different aspects of a single fundamental field. Although he never accomplished this feat, the search continues. Contemporary thinkers such as Stephen Hawking continue to hold to a unitary ideal as they search for a Theory of Everything. Indeed, to some it is hard to argue that there is not an underlying reality governing all phenomena, especially when the laws of physics operate over 60 orders of magnitude, only (supposedly) breaking down at the Planck scale.

What the book does make clear is that the monistic assumption holds that all different accounts can be reconciled into a single, unified explanation or that there is a single perspicuous representation system within which all correct accounts can be expressed. The authors represented in Scientific Pluralism convey that this type of position is philosophically related to fundamentalism, (which holds there is one law—or very few laws—from which all correct accounts can be derived) and challenge its underlying assumptions naturalistically as well. The volume also demonstrates that the pluralistic stance, by contrast, rejects both monism and fundamentalism, including the metaphysical solutions that are often proposed to fill the gaps.

When seeing this kind of collection, critics of scientific pluralism are apt to ask if pluralism is a way to avoid answering difficult questions. The essayists in this volume do respond to the conundrum of several views by addressing the task of identifying which situations require multiple approaches as an empirical question. As the editors explain in their introduction, the pluralists respond to the unity/plurality dilemma within science studies by asking whether the kind of scientific inquiry that leads to monism should itself be treated as an empirical question. Given that it is one the pluralists postulate we cannot answer, it is hardly surprising that the theorists holds that there is no definitive argument for monism and, therefore, it seems unreasonable that the ultimate aim of science is to achieve a single, comprehensive account. With this assumption guiding the analyses, the authors do achieve the volume’s goal in explaining that pluralism provides a means of avoiding senseless controversies and helps emphasize the particularity of scientific knowledge.

Themes range from the behavioral and biological to physical and mathematical sciences. Thus, in essence, the book is pluralistic both on its own terms and argumentatively as well. Alan W. Richardson’s essay, "The Many Unities of Science: Politics, Semantics, and Ontology," provides an examination of the history of unity/disunity themes, demonstrating that there is greater flexibility in the older ideas than was appreciated in the mid-to-late twentieth century philosophies of science. As he shows, pluralistic attitudes enable us to see deeper connections with social and political concerns than advocacy of a single approach does. Drawing on the findings of perceptual psychology, Ronald Giere offers a general empirical argument for pluralism using perception and color vision as a metaphor. He argues there is no way to say which perspective is correct, although one perspective might be deemed richer than another in certain respects. Michael Dickson argues that mathematical constraints of quantum theory are insufficient in a way that makes it difficult to pick out one of several dynamics. Carla Fehr examines the scientific literature on the evolution of sex and identifies a number of different explanations, none of them completely satisfying, in her view. Fehr also points out that these explanations are typically viewed as opposing one another. Geoffrey Hellman and John Bell, C. Wade Savage, and Esther-Mirjam Sent also make solid contributions.

In essence, Scientific Pluralism makes a well-rounded case for a pluralist approach philosophically with the authors adeptly explaining how this stance integrates with concerns about metaphysics and metascience. Although the book does not, in my view, adequately address the circularity some see within the pluralistic arguments since no "outsiders" speak, it does point out that the basic task of metascience is to work with certain aggregate of facts, asking: How can one construct a theory that describes these facts effectively and makes correct predictions? This task, unlike the more commonly adopted metaphysical alternative to anomalies within traditional scientific narratives, makes us aware that scientific inquiry typically represents some aspects of the world well, at the cost of obscuring, or perhaps even distorting, other aspects. Finally, although I agree with this volume’s pluralistic agenda, I wished the book had included one or two critical voices, as explained above. Without analytical entries from opponents of the pluralistic view, the arguments seemed to exist in a vacuum. Even with this disclaimer, I would recommend this book. It is a clear, comprehensive, and informative contribution to studies in the history and philosophy of science.



Updated 1st May 2007

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