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For Against Method



So I've just given up on Paul Feyerabend's Against Method. It's by no means the first book I've stopped reading; only recently I skipped big chunks of Accelerate by Nicole Forsgren, Jez Humble, and Gene Kim, shortly before that I dumped Douglas Rushkoff's Team Human, and further back Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things by George Lakoff moved off my bedside table and back onto the book shelves. 

Why? Well sometimes I feel like I know the content already, sometimes I feel like I don't or won't have a context in which the information is useful, sometimes I'm just not feeling it for whatever reason. So I stop, or skip, or cherry-pick, or all three. 

What was the problem with Feyerabend's book? It was too dense, referring to too much that I don't know without looking it up, and I have too much on my mind to be able to concentrate at the depth needed to consume it. Also, Feyerabend helpfully provided a summary of his argument, broken down by chapters, right at the start. It's essentially a self-authored crib sheet that gives me the high-level insight that the friend who recommended the book thought would interest me. Maybe its time will come again later. For now, it's sitting next to Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar (which I did finish) waiting.

Boiled down, the insight that I took from the book is that:
  • scientific theories always have holes
  • ... and we generally understand this
  • ... and historically use theories pragmatically (e.g. classical and quantum mechanics)
  • but we do risk becoming wedded to a theory
  • ... and accept its weaknesses as just the way things are
  • ... to the extent that we stop questioning and work only within its constraints
  • we can break out of this potential stranglehold
  • ... by actively looking for alternatives
  • ... and not just scientific alternatives based on observation, but metaphysical, hypothetical, and even self-contradictory ones
Counterinduction  is what Feyerabend calls this process of deliberately challenging by comparison. Crucially, counterinduction does not require the challenger to have the same explanatory power as the theory being challenged: if it can fill some gap in some way, it's worthy of consideration. 

If the challenger is radically different from the challenged, such as when religious doctrine is set against scientific method, so much the better for jolting those people running on theoretical rails off them. For Feyerabend, significant scientific advances tend to come through these left-field challenges rather than incremental refinement of a dominant ideology.

I was unfamiliar with the term counterinduction, and am still unfamiliar with the bulk of the philosophy and the details of the scientists and theory that Feyerabend calls on to back up his claims, but I find the idea appealing. My intuition has long been that I want to pick and choose methods that I think could be helpful in any given situation. 

I am suspicious of people who want to dichotomise the world into the right answer and everything else. For me, a pluralistic perspective will provide more potential avenues to explore and doesn't rule out the "right answer" either; it's always an available option. 

This is one of the reasons that I was so enamoured with Koen's Definition of the Engineering Method recently: the heuristic mindset is an open mindset, implicitly challenging available techniques against potential alternatives and being alert to the prospect of failure in any given application and context.

So, yes, I gave up on Against Method yet still got something new from it to slot into my model of how I work and how I want to work. I count that as a win rather than a loss for both me and Paul Feyerabend.
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