Of What is Rationally Permitted

In critical rationalism, empiricism, van fraassen on 21/07/2011 at 2:52 am

Bas van Fraassen’s work is, to use the words of another philosopher said to me during a brief Skype conversation, “one of the best philosophers of science alive.” But why? The concluding pages of his article The False Hopes of Traditional Epistemology (2000) stand out as bucking the trend in philosophy of science and epistemology in much the same way Bartley and Popper did–he considers the historical problem-situation, finds faults with all the available options, and then reconfigures the problem in such a way as to dig out an underlying assumption.

In this case, his language is still laden with certain terms that make him far more understandable to others that still cling to these assumptions, but his conclusions are, when understood, close enough to critical rationalism as to deserve either catcalls and gnashing of teeth from the traditionalist monkeys that cling to the rafters, or a long time spent reflecting by critical rationalists. I’ve already taken on board several of his positions, and may take on more in time, but even if I should reject them in due course, he has provided, even implicitly, a powerful alternative to critical rationalism.

I take it that what is rational is precisely what is rationally permitted. Thus we are rational in believing something exactly when we are not rationally compelled to believe the opposite. This implies, tautologically, that nothing more than staying within the bounds of reason is needed for this status of rationality–not good reasons, not a rationale, not support of any special sort, not a pedigree of inductive reasoning or confirmation, nothing is needed above and beyond coherence. Thus any truly coherent position is rational.

Now this may strike you as absurd, because it seems to imply that ‘anything goes’, the ugly brought of skepticism’s ‘nothing goes’. But that is simply not so. If it were so, I would have come to an impasse and would have to admit that the constrains of rationality are more than coherence. But it is not so, and we have not in fact come to an impasse.

… Logically speaking there may be infinitely many coherent alternatives to our posterior opinion, but almost none of these will be live options for us. This is not an accidental feature of our situation, but integral to it, exactly because we have prior opinion and prior understanding, which is not laid out for us on the side, like a textbook, but which is already our own. Any small part of it we can think of changing as part of our response, and any large part of it we can think as possibly changed, to any imaginable alterative, over the long run, in the course of time. But we do not have the wherewithal to respond in more than a limited variety of ways at any given time. Many of the imaginable alteratives to what seems plausible to us cannot be incorporated by us.

… It does not mean that there are constraints on rationality beyond coherence, and it does not mean that we are following apliative rules after all. It means simply that the Neurath ‘mariners repairing their boat at sea’ for m of relativism does not lead us into a damagingly enfeebled epistemic enterprise. The ‘already on a boat’ part defeats the skeptical argument based on the ‘at sea’ part.

So here is my conclusion. We supply our own opinion, with nothing to ground it, and no method to give us an extra source of knowledge. Only the ’empty’ techniques of logic and pure math are available either to refine and improve or expose the defects of this option. That is the human condition. But it is enough. (Bas van Fraassen, The False Hopes of Traditional Epistemology, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. LX, No. 2, March 2000, 277-279)


  1. So he is like a non-justificationist coherentist?

    I guess all critical rationalists are on some level, but with more emphasis on the pursuit of truth within those limitations.

    • Lee,

      I think that would be an apt description–he sees far more value to be found in adopting theories are are empirically adequate (coheres with all results of tests) than approaching verisimilitude in theories–and his argument persuaded me: since all tests are inconclusive, we are not approaching truth when we update our theories in light of the result of tests, but keeping all our theories as coherent as possible [and (possibly) moving away from error].

      At least, that’s how I’ve read him.

      • I have been thinking about this recently.

        I almost agree, except one thing. You say “we are not approaching truth when we update our theories in light of the result of tests.” I would say that we may be approaching truth, though we can never justify such a conjecture. Critical rationalists tend to be epistemological optimists: they assume that, more often that not, error correction is successful, problems are solved, and our knowledge closer approximates the truth. They might be wrong.

        The problems of verisimilitude are interesting to me. Even if all test results are inconclusive, we may nonetheless actually be getting closer to the truth (by guesswork). But how does knowledge grow, progress, or get closer to the truth? What does that even mean? These are still outstanding problems even though we may not, in actual fact, be achieving these ends.

        There is also the matter of truth as a regulative ideal for rational discussion.

        • Lee,

          I agree with your sentiment: if we are lucky, we may approach the truth; however, I see no need to even make such a conjecture. In the past few years I’ve felt that CR ought to eliminate positions that, while unjustifiable, are particularly Panglossian. Corroboration is out, as is the objective of increasing the objective degree of verisimilitude in scientific theories. We keep the concept of truth only as a regulatory principle as the negation of falsity, for if we can ‘know’ anything, in much the same way as Plotinus’s Via Negativa, it is that we can know we are wrong.

          The content of our theories, on the other hand, may be said to ‘progress’ in that they increase in their explanatory content, their empirical adequacy, and so on.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s