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Instrumentalism

In skepticism on 15/06/2011 at 2:51 pm

Things that succeed teach us little beyond the fact that they have been successful; things that fail provide incontrovertible evidence that the limits of design have been exceeded. Emulating success risks failure; studying failure increases our chances of success. The simple principle that is seldom explicitly stated is that the most successful designs are based on the best and most complete assumptions about failure. (Henry Petroski, Success Through Failure)


The problem with an instrumentalist solution, at least as I see it, is that scientific theories aren’t employed as instruments.

We keep our instruments, even though they have limitations. We use the hammer for pushing nails into wood; we wouldn’t use the hammer as a screwdriver, would we? But while engineers may use a false–but limited–theory, this doesn’t happen in science. When a theory is found to have a limitation, a scientist searches for a better theory, one that overcomes this limitation. Do you think scientists ought to behave like engineers and stop superseding theories with broader theories?

Thus, instrumentalism doesn’t take the progress of science seriously, or it makes no sense by its lights: it’s not interested in the quest for truth.

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