Episode 33

#33 (C&R Series, Ch. 3) - Instrumentalism and Essentialism


October 25th, 2021

40 mins 10 secs

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About this Episode

Galileo vs the church - whose side are you on? Today we discuss Chapter 3 of Conjectures and Refutations, Three Views Concerning Human Knowledge. This is a juicy one, as Popper manages to simultaneously attack both philosophers and physicists, as he takes on instrumentalism and essentialism, two alternatives to his 'conjecture and refutation' approach to knowledge. We discuss:

  • The conflict between Galileo and the church
  • What is instrumentalism, and how did it become popular?
  • How instrumentalism is still in vogue in many physics departments
  • The Problem of Universals
  • The essentialist approach to science
  • Stars, air, cells, and lightning
  • "What is" vs "How does" questions
  • The relationship between essentialism and language, and its influence on politics.
  • Viewing words as instruments

See More:

Few if any of the physicists who have now accepted the instrumentalist view of Cardinal Bellarmino and Bishop Berkeley realize that they have accepted a philosophical theory. Nor do they realize that they have broken with the Galilean tradition. On the contrary, most of them think that they have kept clear of philosophy; and most of them no longer care anyway. What they now care about, as physicists, is (a) mastery of the mathematical formalism, i.e. of the instrument, and (b) its applications; and they care for nothing else.
-- C&R, Page 134

Thus my criticism of essentialism does not aim at establishing the non-existence of essences; it merely aims at showing the obscurantist character of the role played by the idea of essences in the Galilean philosophy of science (down to Maxwell, who was inclined to believe in them but whose work destroyed this belief). In other words my criticism tries to show that, whether essences exist or not, the belief in them does not help us in any way and indeed is likely to hamper us; so that there is no reason why the scientist should assume their existence.
-- C&R, Page 141.

But they are more than this, as can be seen from the fact that we submit them to severe tests by trying to deduce from them some of the regularities of the known world of common experience i.e. by trying to explain these regularities. And these attempts to explain the known by the unknown (as I have described them elsewhere) have immeasurably extended the realm of the known. They have added to the facts of our everyday world the invisible air, the antipodes, the circulation of the blood, the worlds of the telescope and the microscope, of electricity, and of tracer atoms showing us in detail the movements of matter within living bodies. All these things are far from being mere instruments: they are witness to the intellectual conquest of our world by our minds.

But there is another way of looking at these matters. For some, science is still nothing but glorified plumbing, glorified gadgetmaking—‘mechanics’; very useful, but a danger to true culture, threatening us with the domination of the near-illiterate (of Shakespeare’s ‘mechanicals’). It should never be mentioned in the same breath as literature or the arts or philosophy. Its professed discoveries are mere mechanical inventions, its theories are instruments—gadgets again, or perhaps super-gadgets. It cannot and does not reveal to us new worlds behind our everyday world of appearance; for the physical world is just surface: it has no depth. The world is just what it appears to be. Only the scientific theories are not what they appear to be. A scientific theory neither explains nor describes the world; it is nothing but an instrument.
-- C&R, Page 137-8.

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