Science as it could have been: Discussing the contigent / inevitable aspects of scientific practices

Participants

Catherine Allamel-Raffin, Michel Bitbol, Mieke Boon, Hasok Chang, Harry Collins, Catherine Dufour, Jean-Luc Gangloff, Ronald Giere, Yves Gingras, Ian Hacking, Jean-Marc Lévy-Leblond, Andrew Pickering, Claude Rosental, Joseph Rouse, Jean-Michel Salanskis, Léna Soler (organiser), Eran Tal, Emiliano Trizio, Frédéric Wieber

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Eran Tal Mieke Boon Jean-Marc Levy Leblond Michel Bitbol Jean-Luc Gangloff Léna Soler Emiliano Trizio Jean-Michel Salanskis Joseph Rouse Ian Hacking Claude Rosental Catherine Dufour Frédéric Wieber Catherine Allamel Raffin Yves Gingras Andrew Pickering Hasok Chang

Review

Science as it could have been: Discussing the contigent / inevitable aspects of scientific practices
by Léna Soler
31 août – 5 septembre 2009

The conference has focused on a crucial issue that contemporary Science Studies have often neglected the issue of contingency within science: can certain aspects of the scientific practices belonging to our history of science – most of all those who enjoy the status of established facts or reliable accomplishments – be detached from the accidental details of this particular history and be granted the status of inevitable elements of any possible science? Those who are inclined to give a positive answer can be called, following Ian Hacking, “inevitabilists”; and their opponents “contingentists”.

The conference comprised 18 talks.

On the basis of their content and of the exchanges that have followed, two general discussions have been organized.

• One on the notion of success involved in the idea of an alternative science incompatible with ours but as successful as ours (what might the success mean? What kind of measure can we hope to find to compare the success of two wildly different sciences?…).
• The second on the topic of contingency/inevitability as a heuristics for practitioners (are not real scientists inevitably inevitabilists? And isn’t it the most motivating and fruitful position with respect to their scientific productivity? Could they gain anything by becoming contingentists? …).
The conference opened with an introductory overview (by Catherine Allamel-Raffin and Jean-Luc Gangloff) that provided a general common framework for the subsequent debates and introduced multiple tools and general distinctions, thereafter exploited throughout the discussions of the following talks (differentiation of the question depending on the kind of science we consider, the scale of the science under scrutiny, the scale of the temporal sequence taken into account…).

The different contributions discussed the matter in reference to various disciplines: physics (Catherine Dufour, Yves Gingras, Jean-Marc Levy-Leblond, Léna Soler, Eran Tal, Emilio Trizio); biology (Joseph Rouse); geology (Ronald Giere); psychology (Michel Bitbol); logic (Claude Rosental); mathematics (Ian Hacking, Jean-Michel Salanskis). They examined the contingency/inevitability of different kinds of scientific ingredients: a circumscribed experimental fact (Y. Gingras for the ondulatory aspects of the electron; L. Soler for the existence of weak neutral currents); a theorem (C. Rosental for a logical theorem in the field of artificial intelligence); a scientific standard (E. Tal for the time standard – the second unit); a scientific method (M. Bitbol for introspection in psychology); a whole discipline (I. Hacking for mathematics)… They took into account multiple scales of analysis (micro / macro studies); differentiated the configuration in the short and long terms (Harry Collins); developed general arguments (L. Soler, E. Trizio…) as well as detailed case studies (Y. Gingras, C. Rosental…) in favor of one position; and called for a huge number of thought experiments of different kinds in order to investigate the question (Joseph Rouse, L.Soler…).

The relation between the issue of contingency / inevitability, when it is applied to science on the one hand and when it is applied to human history in general on the other hand, has been investigated, especially through an analysis of the debate that currently exists among historians and philosophers of history about the legitimacy of the use, the power and the potential fecundity of the so-called “counterfactual history” or “what-if scenarios” (R. Giere, Frédéric Wieber).

The reasons why our inevitabilist intuitions are so strong and so deeply entrenched have been investigated (Andrew Pickering).

The relation of the contingency/inevitability issue to the more traditional issue of scientific realism has also been explored in several talks (Mieke Boon, E. Trizio…). It became clear that the two issues, in spite of their mutual relations, are distinct and should be distinguished. By taking into consideration the contingency debate in itself, it becomes possible to enrich the space of the viable philosophical views about science and to point to the specific contribution that the contingency debate adds to classical arguments about realism.

The relation of the contingency/inevitability issue to the pluralist/monist stance has also been an object of reflection (Hasok Chang, L. Soler). It appeared that our science, as it is conceived and practiced today, is dominated at the same time by inevitabilist and monist commitments, and that these two kinds of commitments are essentially intertwined, in a relation of mutual reinforcement. The potential benefits of a more pluralist active policy for our science, which would drop the requirement of a unique best theory or inevitable solution in a given stage of research and would encourage a more contingentist stance, have been considered.

From the different talks and exchanges, it appeared that it is important to investigate what lies behind the inevitabilist instinct that is active in each of us in a form or another. It is important for at least three reasons.

First, because under careful examination, behind this instinct, it is not so easy to find strong arguments able to support a true inevitabilism.

Second, because, while analyzing what lies behind the inevitabilist intuitions, we find very fundamental and pivotal commitments which seem inherent in the very idea of what we value as science (and perhaps also, more generally, in the idea of any activity that goes with a descriptive pretension about a targeted object whatever its nature): especially the commitment to uniqueness that goes with the idea of genuine knowledge, at least as a regulative ideal and in reference to a hypothetical ‘end of research’, uniqueness that is fueled by the commitment to the thesis that knowledge is knowledge of one unique word that is what it is once for all. The contingentist/inevitabilist issue can be viewed as a mean to reveal such commitments, to examine the work they accomplish in our lives, to try to imagine what could be an alternative enterprise of knowledge and alternative forms of life that would shift them, and, along the way, to assess their desirability.

Third, because while trying to give a sense to inevitabilism, we are immediately led to understand that it cannot be but a conditional inevitabilism, and, trying to specify the conditions under which something could be said to be inevitable, we are led to understand better how historical reconstructions are built, according to what kind of processes, criteria and intuitions we draw the frontier between anecdotic/irrelevant circumstances, conditions of possibility, and factors in virtue of which what has indeed happened had inevitably to happen.

On the whole, the conference has confirmed that the contingency/inevitability issue is a crucial one that helps us to identify some pivotal commitments of our form of life, of our ways of thinking historical realities and of our conception of what science and knowledge are and should be. It has allowed to progress collectively towards the conceptualization of this issue and the unfolding of its implications, and to formulate and assess the arguments that can be given in favor or against the two positions.

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