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Journal ArticleDOI

A New Functional Approach to Scientific Progress

18 Sep 2019-Philosophy of Science (The University of Chicago PressChicago, IL)-Vol. 86, Iss: 4, pp 739-758

AbstractThis paper develops and defends a new functional approach to scientific progress. I begin with a review of the problems of the traditional functional approach. Then I propose a new functional account of scientific progress, in which scientific progress is defined in terms of usefulness of problem-defining and problem-solving. I illustrate and defend my account by applying to the history of genetics. Finally, I highlight the advantages of my new functional approach over the epistemic and semantic approaches and dismiss some potential objections to my approach.

Summary (2 min read)

1. Introduction

  • The functional approach seems to be taken for granted indefensible.
  • This paper aims to develop and defend a new functional approach to scientific progress.

2. The Problems of the Kuhn-Laudan Functional Approach

  • Therefore, Bird concludes that the upshot of the Kuhn-Laudan approach to scientific progress is that radical scientific changes in form of scientific revolutions are not progressive, and thus rejects T1. 2 Though Kuhn’s criterion of puzzle-solving is distinct from Laudan’s, Bird’s thought experiment is applicable to Kuhn’s approach by assuming that the paradigmatic solution relies on a false universal generalization.
  • All use subject to University of Chicago Press Terms and Conditions (http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/t-and-c).
  • Accordingly, there are four main problems of the Kuhn-Laudan functional approach: the problem of sufficiency, the problem of quantitative weighing, the problem of internalism, and the problem of counter-intuition.

3. A New Functional Analysis of Scientific Progress

  • Problem-solving effectiveness is not the only virtue pursued by the scientists.
  • The well-defined research problems should be at least as important as the good solutions in scientific practice.
  • Copyright The Philosophy of Science Association 2019.
  • I argue that not all problems are simply defined in the ways that Kuhn and Laudan suggest.

A solution to a research problem usually consists of the following components: a

  • Vocabulary, which is a set of the concepts employed in the problems and solutions; a set of practical guides, which specify all the procedures and methodology as means to solve the Copyright The Philosophy of Science Association 2019.
  • All use subject to University of Chicago Press Terms and Conditions (http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/t-and-c). 12 problems; a set of hypotheses6, which are proposed to solve the problems; and a set of patterns of reasoning, which indicate how to use other components to solve the problems7.
  • It is evident that these components are intertwined.
  • On the other hand, research problems can be redefined with the process of problem-solving such as conceptualisation and hypothesisation.

A problem and its solution is useful if and only if the way of defining and solving the

  • Research problems is repeatable, and provides a reliable framework for further investigation to solve the unsolved problems and to generate more testable research problems across more different areas (or disciplines).
  • All use subject to University of Chicago Press Terms and Conditions (http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/t-and-c).
  • This is another aspect that my functional approach differs from the Kuhn-Laudan one, according to which, scientific progress is assessed by the amount and significance of the problems solved.

4. Case Study: How Early Genetics Progressed

  • Nobody denies that genetics has progressed greatly since Darwin’s proposal of the theory of pangenesis.
  • The crucial progress made by Mendel’s theory is, as Bateson (1902) points out, that it provides a reliable and testable way to study the “essential nature” of heredity.
  • Moreover, Mendel introduced various hybridisation experiments, the concepts of dominance and recessiveness, and the hypotheses (i.e. Mendel’s law of pea development, law of combination of differing traits, and law of composition of hybrid fertilising cells) to solve the problems.
  • All use subject to University of Chicago Press Terms and Conditions (http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/t-and-c).

5. Beyond Knowledge, Truth, and Intervening

  • There is still one more problem, namely, the problem of counter-intuition, yet to be discussed.
  • The non-theoretical aspect of scientific progress should be taken into account as the theoretical aspect.
  • Rather more know-how (the epistemic aspect) and more wellcorroborated hypotheses (the semantic aspect) may only partially constitute the usefulness of problem-defining and problem-solving (the functional aspect).
  • It is Mendel’s problem-defining and problem-solving rather than Mendel’s capacity to predict, control, manipulate, and intervene the transmission of the morphological traits of Pisum that guides de Vries’, Correns’, and Bateson’s work on heredity.

6. Conclusion

  • I have argued that the functional approach should not be taken for granted as indefensible.
  • I propose that scientific progress is defined in terms of the increase of the usefulness of problem-defining and problem-solving with the illustration of the history of early genetics.
  • I contend that this functional approach provides a fuller analysis of scientific progress, compared with the epistemic and semantic approaches.

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Citation for published version
Shan, Yafeng (2019) A New Functional Approach to Scientific Progress. Philosophy of Science,
86 (4). (In press)
DOI
https://doi.org/10.1086/704980
Link to record in KAR
https://kar.kent.ac.uk/76188/
Document Version
Author's Accepted Manuscript

1
A New Functional Approach to Scientific Progress
Yafeng Shan
The Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas, Tel Aviv
University, Tel Aviv, Israel
ys1@mail.tau.ac.il
Abstract
This paper develops and defends a new functional approach to scientific progress. I begin
with a review of the problems of the traditional functional approach. Then I propose a new
functional account of scientific progress, in which scientific progress is defined in terms of
the usefulness of the problem-defining and problem-solving. I illustrate and defend my
account by applying to the history of genetics. Finally, I highlight the advantages of my
new functional approach over the epistemic and semantic approaches and dismiss some
potential objections to my approach.
Acknowledgements
I would like to thank Jonathon Hricko and two anonymous reviewers for the helpful
comments.
Manuscript
Copyright The Philosophy of Science Association 2019. Preprint (not copyedited or formatted).
Please use DOI when citing or quoting. DOI: 10.1086/704980
This content downloaded from 031.050.017.136 on June 18, 2019 13:59:09 PM
All use subject to University of Chicago Press Terms and Conditions (http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/t-and-c).

2
1. Introduction
Alexander Bird (2007) distinguishes three approaches to characterising scientific progress:
the epistemic approach, the semantic approach, and the functional-internalist approach.
The epistemic approach defines progress in terms of knowledge. The semantic approach
defines progress in terms of truth or verisimilitude. The functional-internalist approach
construes progress in terms of the function of scientific practice. Correspondingly, the
epistemic account of scientific progress is that an episode of history of science is
progressive if it shows the accumulation of scientific knowledge. According to the
semantic account, an episode of the history of science is progressive if either it shows the
accumulation of true scientific beliefs or it shows increasing approximation of true
scientific beliefs. According to the functional-internalist account, an episode of the history
of science is progressive if it shows the success of the fulfilment of a certain function (for
example, problem-solving), where the fulfilment of the function can be judged by
scientists at that time. The recent debate (Rowbottom 2008; 2010; 2015; Cevolani and
Tambolo 2013; Niiniluoto 2014) focuses on the epistemic and semantic approaches. The
functional approach seems to be taken for granted indefensible. However, this view is
unfair and unjustified. This paper aims to develop and defend a new functional approach to
scientific progress. In section 2, I shall identify four problems of the traditional functional
approach. In section 3, I shall propose a new functional account of scientific progress, in
which scientific progress is defined in terms of the usefulness of the problem-defining and
problem-solving and show how the old problems can be solved by this new approach. In
section 4, I shall illustrate and defend my account by applying to the history of genetics. In
Copyright The Philosophy of Science Association 2019. Preprint (not copyedited or formatted).
Please use DOI when citing or quoting. DOI: 10.1086/704980
This content downloaded from 031.050.017.136 on June 18, 2019 13:59:09 PM
All use subject to University of Chicago Press Terms and Conditions (http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/t-and-c).

3
section 5, I shall highlight the advantages of my new functional approach over the
epistemic and semantic approaches and dismiss some potential objections to my approach.
2. The Problems of the Kuhn-Laudan Functional Approach
The most influential functional approach is first proposed by Thomas Kuhn (Kuhn 1962,
1970a), and mainly developed by Larry Laudan (1977, 1981)
1
. This approach emphasises
the significance of problem-solving. Kuhn (1970b, 164) argues that the nature of scientific
progress is the increase of “both the effectiveness and the efficiency with the group as a
whole solves new problems.” Laudan (1981, 145) is also explicit on the point that “science
progresses just in case successive theories solve more problems than their predecessors.”
Kuhn and Laudan differ in the explication of problem-solving, though. For Kuhn (1970b,
18991), a problem P is solved if its solution is sufficiently similar to a relevant
paradigmatic problem-solution. For Laudan (1977, 2223), a problem P is solved by a
theory T if T entails an approximate statement of P. Nevertheless, both Kuhn and Laudan
maintain that scientific progress is nothing to do with truth or knowledge if truth or
knowledge is construed in a classical way. More specifically, whether a problem is solved
is independent of whether the paradigmatic solution assumes any paradigm-dependent
truth (for Kuhn), or whether the background theory is true (for Laudan). As the acceptance
1
Another representative of the functional approach is proposed and developed by Imre Lakatos.
According to Lakatos (1978, 3334), a research programme is progressive if it generates novel and
well corroborated predictions. As the aim of this paper is to develop the Kuhn-Laudan functional
approach, I shall not delve into the detailed discussion on Lakatos’ account. However, it does not
downplay its significance.
Copyright The Philosophy of Science Association 2019. Preprint (not copyedited or formatted).
Please use DOI when citing or quoting. DOI: 10.1086/704980
This content downloaded from 031.050.017.136 on June 18, 2019 13:59:09 PM
All use subject to University of Chicago Press Terms and Conditions (http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/t-and-c).

4
of a problem solution is determined independently of external factors like truth or
knowledge, whether a progress is achieved can be judged by the scientific community
itself. Thus, the central tenets of the Kuhn-Laudan functional account of scientific progress
can be summarised as follows.
T1. Scientific progress is solely determined by the problem-solving power.
T2. The problem-solving power is assessed by the amount and significance of the
problems solved.
T3. The problem-solving power is independent of whether the solution is true or
knowledge.
T4. Scientific progress is judged and known by the scientific community.
There are two obvious problems of the Kuhn-Laudan functional approach. One is the
problem of sufficiency. For Kuhn and Laudan, if a scientific community is working better
and better on the effectiveness and efficiency of problem solving, it implies scientific
progress. On the contrary, if the effectiveness and efficiency of problem-solving decreases,
then it marks a regress in science. The problem of sufficiency can be illustrated with a
thought experiment proposed by Bird (2007, 6970). Suppose there is a widely accepted
but false theory. The scientific community accumulates the solutions to the problems
derived from the false theory suggests the progress, according to Laudan’s approach.
However, it seems implausible for many to accept that there is an ongoing progress in
science, as the false solution statements (derived from the false theory) accumulate. What
Copyright The Philosophy of Science Association 2019. Preprint (not copyedited or formatted).
Please use DOI when citing or quoting. DOI: 10.1086/704980
This content downloaded from 031.050.017.136 on June 18, 2019 13:59:09 PM
All use subject to University of Chicago Press Terms and Conditions (http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/t-and-c).

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This paper develops and defends a new functional approach to scientific progress. Finally, I highlight the advantages of my new functional approach over the epistemic and semantic approaches and dismiss some potential objections to my approach.