Paul Feyerabend's Choice for Freedom

A Review of Killing Time, the Autobiography of Paul Feyerabend
Published as "Wundergadfly" in Books and Culture, March/April 1996


Phillip E. Johnson

If I had to describe Paul Feyerabend in two words, "brilliant," and "irresponsible" are the two that would immediately come to mind. Both qualities are on display in this engrossing autobiography, completed just before the author's death from a brain tumor in 1994.

Let's start with the brilliance. As a young man in Hitler's Austria Feyerabend trained to be an opera singer, and had a promising future in that profession when he was drafted into the army in 1942. He rose through the ranks to become an officer, and ended up commanding a battalion in the last stages of the disastrous retreat on the Russian front. His physical courage earned him the Iron Cross and wounds so severe that for the rest of his life he was on crutches, in continual pain, and sexually impotent. Despite these incapacities he was fabulously successful as a scholar, a lecturer, a connoisseur, a lover, and a raconteur.

After the war Feyerabend studied physics, and then more or less drifted into philosophy of science. He started as a protege of Karl Popper, but soon carved out his own position and became notorious as the leading voice for "epistemological anarchism," the precursor of what today we call post-modernism. In his most famous book, Against Method, Feyerabend denied that there is any single form of reasoning that can be labelled "the scientific method," asserting brazenly that the basic rule in science is that "anything goes." Many scientists were not amused.

Although his irreverence towards science outraged conventional scientists and philosophers, Feyerabend became and remained an academic superstar. He taught at Berkeley for most of his career, but was constantly wooed by other prestigious universities and accepted or rejected their offers according to his mood of the moment. That he never got into serious trouble either with the Nazis or with the liberal academic elite indicates that he knew how to be provocative without saying anything unforgivable, and indeed Feyerabend admitted that his thinking was made up of "a rather unstable combination of contrariness and a tendency to conform."

That brings me to the irresponsibility. Feyerabend was the kind of professor who sometimes failed to show up for classes, who didn't want an office because he didn't want to hold regular office hours, and who was always flying off to give lectures somewhere else. At Berkeley he ostentatiously took the side of the student radicals, apparently for no deeper reason than that he enjoyed all the hellraising. He was profligate in love, until late in life his fourth wife turned him into a devoted husband who hoped to become, with medical assistance, a father.

As a philosopher Feyerabend was particularly concerned with the tension between truth and freedom. Once we have found some final truth, something that is true beyond question, must we give up our freedom to doubt? Jesus claimed to be the only way to the Father, and also said "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." This is a scandal to modernists, for whom the idea of absolute truth implies oppression, not freedom. C.S. Lewis memorably caricatured the modernist mentality in The Great Divorce, in the form of a theologian who refuses to enter heaven unless the celestial powers guarantee that he will find there an atmosphere of free inquiry. The ministering spirit responds that, on the contrary, "I will bring you to the land not of questions but of answers, and you shall see God." The theologian spurns this "ready-made truth which puts an end to intellectual activity" and opts for hell -- where, as in a deconstructionist English Department, the absence of truth allows an unlimited scope for interpretation.

Modernism has its own exclusive road to truth, however. As a young scholar Feyerabend was a positivist who dismissed all statements about God from serious consideration by proclaiming that "the idea of a divine being simply had no scientific foundation." He explained that "science is the basis of knowledge; science is empirical; nonempirical enterprises are either logic [as in mathematics] or nonsense." People who say things like that have seen a God whose name is Science, and a very jealous God it is.

The later Feyerabend came to see science not as the only road to truth but merely as one of the ways of interpreting reality that a pluralistic society ought to include. In a famous 1974 lecture "How to Defend Society Against Science," he argued that we should regard all ideologies, science included, "like fairytales which have lots of interesting things to say but with also contain wicked lies." He argued that, although science was a liberating influence in the 17th and 18th centuries, in contemporary times it had become another stifling orthodoxy.

In education, he charged, scientific "facts" are now taught just as religious "facts" were taught a century earlier, with little attempt to stimulate the critical faculties of the students. At the professional level, "Most scientists today are devoid of ideas, full of fear, intent on reproducing some paltry result so that they can add to the flood of inane papers that now constitutes 'scientific progress' in many areas." Nonetheless, "the judgment of the scientist is received with the same reverence as the judgment of bishops and cardinals was accepted not too long ago." Even theologians pursue a project of "demythologization" on the assumption that, in any clash between science and religion, religion must always be in the wrong. Feyerabend anticipated the obvious retort to this indictment, which is that science has earned its preeminence not by suppressing dissent but by discovering truth. "For once we have discovered the truth -- what else can we do but follow it?" He responded that "a truth that reigns without checks and balances is a tyrant that must be overthrown.... My criticism of modern science is that it inhibits freedom of thought. If the reason is that it has found the truth and now follows it, then I would say that there are better things than finding and then following such a monster."

The last sentence echoes C.S. Lewis's theologian, who by renouncing truth achieved not freedom, but absurdity. Without the goal of truth at the end of the process, freedom of thought is an exercise in futility, like a treasure hunt without the treasure. In reading Feyerabend we always have to discount the overstatements, but when we do so we often find that his real point was perfectly sensible. In this case Feyerabend was not renouncing the search for truth, or implying that we can preserve freedom by repealing the law of gravity. He was proposing that we should encourage competition rather than monopoly in epistemology, just as we do in government (by separation of powers), in religion (by the prohibition of a religious establishment), and in the economy (by antitrust laws).

Up to a point this is orthodox. Ask any scientist why science is reliable, and he will cite the checks and balances, such as repeatable experiments, peer review, unfettered debate, and the fierce competition for prizes. Whether these mechanisms always operate as advertised, especially when political or financial interests are involved and funding is centralized, is an important question which I will not attempt to address here. The broader point is that, even under ideal circumstances, scientific debates occur only within the profession, which means among those who share the professional mindset.

In this respect science is like the medieval Church, which permitted theological debates among the scholars (in Latin), but expected the laity to leave judgments about such matters to the clergy. Feyerabend wanted to break the clerical monopoly by making room in scientific debates for persons who know about science "without being taken in by the ideology of science." That ideology is roughly the position the young Feyerabend advocated and then outgrew, whether it is called positivism, empiricism, naturalism, materialism, or scientific atheism. Is reality truly limited to the things scientists can study, or should science itself take account of a reality outside the ken of science? Only outsiders can raise questions like that. If insiders tried to raise them, they wouldn't be insiders for long.

The need for outside perspectives in science has grown in the twenty-one years since Feyerabend delivered his lecture. For example, in the New York Review for November 30, 1995, the eminent John Maynard Smith brought into the open the bitter schism in evolutionary biology over issues like "gradualism" and "adaptationism." Maynard Smith commented that although Stephen Jay Gould, the leader of the anti-adaptationist party, "has come to be seen by non-biologists as the preeminent evolutionary theorist," nevertheless "the evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with, but who should not be publicly criticized because he is at least on our side against the creationists."

In the same essay, Maynard Smith off-handedly pronounced ideological judgments as if they were findings of biology. "We see humans as the joint products of their genes and their memes - - indeed, what else could they possibly be?" From this philosophy dressed up as biology Maynard Smith derives moral relativism, because "If a person is simply the product of his or her genetic makeup and environmental history, including all the ideas [i.e., "memes"] that he or she has assimilated, there is simply no source whence absolute morality could come." Other evolutionary biologists, including Gould, frequently say this sort of thing because they have lost sight of the difference between ideology and science, if they ever recognized a difference.

Evolutionary biology now consists of at least two factions who disagree fundamentally over how evolution is supposed to have occurred but who share a common determination to exclude the "creationists," meaning all those millions of people who think that a creator may have had something to do with the history of life. As they learn that what is at stake is not the Genesis chronology but the very idea that a source of absolute morality could conceivably exist, more and more people are going to insist on a right to participate in the arguments that divide the ideologists of evolutionary biology.

I would like to think that Paul Feyerabend, wherever he may be, is looking on and enjoying the fun.