Tag Archives: Richard Feynman

Contingency in the natural sciences

By Tim Harding

In Chapter Three of his book ‘The Social Construction of What? Ian Hacking (1999:63-80) discusses three ‘sticking points’ or topics of dispute between social constructionists and scientific realists.  He calls these sticking points contingency, nominalism and explanations of stability.  I would like to briefly analyse the sticking point of contingency.

As I understand it, contingency in this context refers to the possibility of science arriving at alternative sets of scientific theories or explanations of observed phenomena.  The significance of contingency in a discussion of social reality is that the particular set of scientific theories accepted can influence the course of further scientific research.  This is somewhat analogous to different scientific paradigms as described by Thomas Kuhn in his highly influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Kuhn, 1962).  According to Kuhn, ‘normal science’ operates within scientific paradigms that not only determine which scientific theories are acceptable, but define scientific communities and even the areas of research undertaken (Kuhn, 1962: 10-11).

I suspect that Kuhn’s work may have influenced the social constructivist view, as described by Hacking, that scientific knowledge is essentially a social construct (Hacking, 1999: 65).  This thesis implies that scientific paradigms control the process and therefore the products of science – a claim that is apparently troubling to scientific realists, especially physicists.  To illustrate the scientific realist view, Hacking cites the thesis of the Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist Sheldon Glashow, that physical science is an assemblage of ‘eternal, objective, ahistorical, socially neutral, external and universal truths’ (Hacking, 1999: 78).  For instance, Glashow claims that an alien scientist (from another planet) would arrive at the same system of fundamental physics that our scientists have arrived at on planet Earth (Hacking 1999: 74-75).

Interestingly, Hacking steers a middle course between these polar opposite views – not in any sense of compromise, but because he believes (as he explains in Chapters one and five of his book) that something can be both real and a social construction.  The best argument I can see for this middle view is that of another physicist, Richard Feynman who discusses three different mathematical formulations of what we now call the law of gravitation: ‘Newton’s law’, ‘the local field theory’ and ‘the minimum principle’ – which each give exactly the same consequences (Hacking, 1999: 76-77).  This is a good illustration of how science can arrive at different explanations of the same phenomena, or contingency, yet not quite going as far as the social constructionist view.  In this way, Hacking maintains that ‘the contingency thesis itself is perfectly consistent with such scientific realism” (Hacking, 1999:80).

Bibliography

Hacking, Ian (1999) The Social Construction of What? Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Kuhn, T.S. (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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