John Horgan

American science journalist

Director of the Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology. 

Was Philosopher Paul Feyerabend Really Science's "Worst Enemy"?

Feyerabend, who defended astrology and creationism, denied that he was anti science

(Scientific American, October 24, 2016)


Paul Feyerabend attacked science not because he actually believed it was no more valid than astrology or religion. Quite the contrary. He attacked science because he recognized science’s vast superiority to other modes of knowledge, and he worried that science could become a totalitarian force.

The weirder things get, the more relevant Paul Feyerabend becomes. Maybe that’s why the name of this philosophical trouble-maker has been popping up so much lately. See for example this four-part riff by philosopher Massimo Pigliucci on Feyerabend’s “defence of astrology.” I interviewed Feyerabend in 1992, and profiled him—as well as Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn--in my 1996 book The End of Science. I like to emphasize all the ways in which things are getting better (see for example “Yes, Trump Is Scary, but Don't Lose Faith in Progress”), but Feyerabend’s  ferocious critiques of “progress” seem more apt than ever. Below is an edited version of my write-up of one of the most challenging, entertaining thinkers I’ve ever met. –John Horgan

In a 1987 essay in Nature, "Where Science Has Gone Wrong," two British physicists fretted over the public’s growing antipathy toward science. They blamed this trend on philosophers who deny that science discovers objective, absolute truths. The essay featured photographs of three "betrayers of the truth”: Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend. Feyerabend, whom the physicists called science’s “worst enemy," looked especially subversive. Smirking at the camera, he seemed to be plotting some great mischief.

All philosophical skeptics are vulnerable to self-contradiction. Popper and Kuhn both fell into this trap in their interviews with me. Popper, who railed against certainty in science and politics, pounded the table and insisted that he was not dogmatic. Kuhn twisted himself in knots trying to explain precisely what he meant when he talked about the impossibility of true, objective communication.

One way for a skeptic to sidestep this pitfall is to embrace--even revel in--paradox, irony and rhetorical excess. That was Feyerabend’s strategy. His first and most famous book, Against Method, argued that philosophy cannot provide a rationale for science, since there is no rationale to explain. He derided Popper's emphasis on falsification as "a tiny puff of hot air in the positivistic teacup," and he argued that Kuhn's model of scientific revolutions could apply to organized crime. Feyerabend summed up his anti-credo with the phrase "anything goes."

Feyerabend's penchant for posturing made it all too easy to reduce him to outrageous sound bites. He likened science to voodoo, witchcraft and astrology. He sympathized with religious fundamentalists who wanted creationism to be taught in public schools. His Who's Who entry remarked: "My life has been the result of accidents, not of goals and principles.  My intellectual work forms only an insignificant part of it. Love and personal understanding are much more important. Leading intellectuals with their zeal for objectivity kill these personal elements. They are criminals, not the liberators of mankind."

At the end of Farewell to Reason, Feyerabend addressed an issue "which has enraged many readers and disappointed many friends--my refusal to condemn even an extreme fascism and my suggestion that it should be allowed to thrive." Feyerabend suggested that condemning fascism would imply, wrongly, that it has been vanquished:

"I say that Auschwitz is an extreme manifestation of an attitude that still thrives in our midst. It shows itself in the treatment of minorities in industrial democracies; in education, education to a humanitarian point of view included, which most of the time consists of turning wonderful young people into colorless and self-righteous copies of their teachers; it becomes manifest in the nuclear threat, the constant increase in the number and power of deadly weapons and the readiness of some so-called patriots to start a war compared with which the holocaust will shrink into insignificance. It shows itself in the killing of nature and of 'primitive' cultures with never a thought spent on those thus deprived of meaning for their lives; in the colossal conceit of our intellectuals, their belief that they know precisely what humanity needs and their relentless efforts to recreate people in their own sorry image; in the infantile megalomania of some of our physicians who blackmail their patients with fear, mutilate them and then persecute them with large bills; in the lack of feeling of many so-called searchers for truth who systematically torture animals, study their discomfort and receive prizes for their cruelty. As far as I am concerned there exists no difference between the henchmen of Auschwitz and these 'benefactors of mankind.'"

In the early 1990s, eager to interview Feyerabend, I called the philosophy department at the University of California at Berkeley, from which he had recently retired. Former colleagues didn’t know where he was, and they predicted my efforts to find him would be in vain. He had a habit of accepting invitations to speak at conferences and not showing up. He invited colleagues to visit him at his home, but when they arrived he wouldn’t answer the door.

Skimming Isis, a journal of the history of science, I came upon a book review by Feyerabend that displayed his talent for one-liners. In response to the book’s critique of religion, Feyerabend retorted, "Prayer may not be very efficient when compared to celestial mechanics, but it surely holds its own vis-a-vis some parts of economics." I called the editor of Isis to ask how I could contact Feyerabend, and he gave me an address near Zurich, Switzerland.

I mailed Feyerabend a fawning interview request, and to my delight he responded with a hand-written note agreeing to an interview. He enclosed a photograph of himself standing before a sink full of dishes. (see below). "If we ever get together and have our exchange," he wrote, "I would like you to use the enclosed picture, which shows me at my favorite activity, washing dishes for my wife."

Feyerabend wrote again to say he was coming to New York City with his wife, Grazia Borrini, a physicist, and would be happy to meet me. He said I should interview Borrini, whose work was much more interesting than his.

On a chilly night a few days before Halloween, I met Feyerabend at the luxurious Manhattan apartment of a former student, who wisely abandoned philosophy for real estate. She led me into her kitchen, where Feyerabend and Borrini sat at a table sipping wine. He thrust himself up from a chair and stood crookedly to greet me. Only then did I remember that Feyerabend had been shot in the back during World War II.

Feyerabend had the angular features and manic charm of a leprechaun. He declaimed, sneered, wheedled and whispered--depending on his point or plot--while whirling his hands like a conductor. Self-deprecation spiced his hubris. He called himself "lazy" and "a bigmouth." When I asked his "position" on a certain point, he winced. "I have no position!" he cried. "If you have a position, it is always something screwed down." He twisted an invisible screwdriver into the table. "I have opinions that I defend rather vigorously, and then I find out how silly they are, and I give them up!"

Watching this performance with an indulgent smile was Borrini, whose manner was as calm as Feyerabend's was agitated. She took Feyerabend's class at Berkeley in 1983, and they married six years later. Borrini entered the conversation sporadically--for example, after I asked why Feyerabend infuriated scientists.

"I have no idea," he said, the picture of innocence.

Borrini said she had been infuriated when another physicist first described Feyerabend's views. "Someone was taking away from me the keys of the universe," she explained. When she read his books, she realized his perspective was far more subtle than his critics claimed. "This is what I think you should want to write about," Borrini told me, "the great misunderstanding."

"Oh, forget it, he's not my press agent," Feyerabend said.

Born and raised in Vienna, Feyerabend loved the arts and sciences. In his teens, he envisioned himself becoming an opera singer and astronomer. “I would spend my afternoons practicing singing, and my evenings on the stage, and then late at night I would observe the stars,” he said.

Germany occupied Austria in 1938, and in 1942 Feyerabend, then 18, enlisted in an officers’ school. He ended up in charge of 3,000 men on the Russian front. While fighting against (actually fleeing from) the Russians in 1945, he was shot in the lower back. "I couldn't get up," Feyerabend recalled, "and I still remember this vision: 'Ah, I shall be in a wheelchair rolling up and down between rows of books.’"

He recovered the ability to walk with the help of a cane. Studying at the University of Vienna after the war, he vacillated between physics and history and settled on philosophy. His talent for advancing absurd positions through sheer cleverness fostered his suspicion that rhetoric trumps truth. "Truth itself is a rhetorical term," Feyerabend asserted. Jutting out his chin he intoned, "'I am searching for the truth.' Oh boy, what a great person."

Feyerabend studied under Popper in London in the early 1950s. After teaching at the University of Bristol, in 1959 he moved to Berkeley, where he befriended Kuhn.

Just as Kuhn had when I interviewed him, Feyerabend denied that he is anti-science. His insistence that there is no scientific method is pro-science. Science’s only method is “opportunism,” he said. “You need a toolbox full of different kinds of tools. Not only a hammer and pins and nothing else." This is what he meant by his much-maligned phrase "anything goes" (and not, as is commonly thought, that one scientific theory is as good as any other). Restricting science to a particular methodology--such as Popper's falsification scheme or Kuhn's “normal science”--would destroy it.

On the other hand, Feyerabend objected to the claim that science is superior to other modes of knowledge. He hated the tendency of western states to foist the products of science--whether the theory of evolution or nuclear power plants--on people against their will. "There is separation between state and church," he cried, "but none between state and science!"

Science "provides fascinating stories about the universe, about the ingredients, about the development, about how life came about, and all this stuff," Feyerabend said. But the public, whose taxes pay for research, should be free to reject theories and technologies.

Feyerabend added, "Of course I go to extremes, but not to the extremes people accuse me of, namely, throw out science. Throw out the idea science is first. That's all right. It has to be science from case to case." After all, scientists often disagreed among themselves. "People should not take it for granted when a scientist says, 'Everybody has to follow this way.'"

If he was not anti-science, I asked, what did he mean by his statement in Who's Who  that intellectuals are criminals? "I thought so for a long time," Feyerabend said, "but last year I crossed it out, because there are lots of good intellectuals." He turned to his wife. "I mean, you are an intellectual."

"No, I am a physicist," she replied.

Feyerabend shrugged. "What does it mean, 'intellectual'? It means people who think about things longer than other people, perhaps. But many of them just ran over other people, saying, 'We have figured it out.'"

Feyerabend launched into a critique of the western concept of progress. Kung! bushmen in Africa "survive in surroundings where any western person would come in and die after a few days," he said. "Now you might say people in this society live much longer, but the question is what is the quality of life, and that has not been decided."

Illiterate tribal people may be happy, I said, but they are ignorant. Isn't knowledge better than ignorance? "What's so great about knowledge?" Feyerabend replied. "They are good to each other. They don't beat each other down." They also know far more about their environments, such as the properties of local plants, than so-called experts do. "So to say these people are ignorant is just...This is ignorance!"

I asked Feyerabend about his defense of creationism. Didn’t he worry about helping religious conservatives, who were quite powerful in the U.S., attack science? "Science has been used to say some people have a low intelligence quotient," he growled. "So everything is used in many different ways. Science can be used to beat down all sorts of other people."

But shouldn't children be taught the difference between scientific theories and religious myths? "Of course. I would say that science is very popular nowadays," he replied. "But then I have also to let the other side get in as much evidence as possible, because the other side is always given a short presentation."

Feyerabend was beginning to sound like a run-of-the-mill cultural relativist, trying to protect the colorful belief systems of the world against the bully of science. I unloaded my gotcha question: Isn't there something contradictory about the way he uses the techniques of rationalism to attack rationalism?

Feyerabend was unperturbed. "Well, they are just tools, and tools can be used in any way you see fit," he said mildly. "They can't blame me that I use them."

Feyerabend seemed bored with the topic. He regained his enthusiasm when he told me about a book he was working on, The Conquest of Abundance, about the human passion for reductionism. It would address the fact that "all human enterprises" seek to reduce the natural diversity, or "abundance," inherent in reality.

"First of all the perceptual system cuts down this abundance or you couldn't survive." Religion, science, politics and philosophy represent our attempts to compress reality still further. Of course, these attempts to conquer abundance simply create new complexities. "Lots of people have been killed, in political wars. I mean, certain opinions are not liked." Feyerabend, I realized, was talking about the quest for The Answer, the secret to the riddle of reality.

But The Answer will forever remain beyond our grasp, according to Feyerabend. He ridiculed the belief of some scientists that they might someday reduce reality to a single theory. "Let them have their belief, if it gives them joy. Let them also give talks about that. 'We touch the infinite!' And some people say"--bored voice--"Ya ya, he says he touches the infinite.' And some people say"--thrilled voice--"'Ya ya! He says he touches the infinite!' But to tell the little children in school, 'Now that is what the truth is,' that is going much too far."

All descriptions of reality are inadequate, Feyerabend said. "You think that this one-day fly, this little bit of nothing, a human being--according to today's cosmology!--can figure it all out? This to me seems so crazy! It cannot possibly be true! What they figured out is one particular response to their actions, and this response gives this universe, and the reality that is behind this is laughing! 'Ha ha! They think they have found me out!'"

Language “has been created by dealing with things, chairs, and a few instruments. And just on this tiny earth!" Feyerabend paused, lost in a kind of exaltation. "God is emanations, you know? And they come down and become more and more material. And down, down at the last emanation, you can see a little trace of it and guess at it."

Surprised by this outburst, I asked Feyerabend if he was religious. "I'm not sure," he replied. Raised Catholic, he became an adamant atheist. "And now my philosophy has taken a completely different shape. It can't just be that the universe--Boom!--you know, and develops. It just doesn't make any sense."

As I prepared to leave, Feyerabend asked if I was married. Yes, I said, adding that I had taken my wife out to dinner the previous evening to celebrate her birthday. How did the dinner go? Feyerabend asked. Fine, I replied. "You're not drifting apart? It wasn't the last birthday you will ever celebrate with her no?"

Borrini glared at him. "Why should it be?"

"I don't know!" Feyerabend exclaimed, throwing his hands up. "Because it happens!" He turned back to me. "How long have you been married?" Three years, I said. "Ah, just the beginning. The bad things will come. Just wait 10 years." Now you really sound like a philosopher, I said. Feyerabend laughed. He confessed that he had been married and divorced three times before he met Borrini. "Now for the first time I am so happy to be married." He beamed at Borrini, and she beamed back.

Turning to Borrini, I mentioned that her husband had sent me a photo of him washing dishes, his “favorite activity.”

Borrini snorted. "Once in a blue moon," she said.

"What do you mean, once in a blue moon!" Feyerabend cried. "Every day I wash dishes!"

"Once in a blue moon," Borrini repeated firmly. I decided to believe the physicist rather than the philosopher.

Less than two years after my meeting with Feyerabend, The New York Times reported that a brain tumor had killed the "anti-science philosopher." I called Borrini in Zurich to offer my condolences. She was distraught. Paul had complained of headaches, and a few months later he was dead.

Recalling Feyerabend's excoriation of the medical profession, I could not resist asking: Did he seek medical treatment for his tumor? Of course, she replied. He had had "total confidence" in his doctors' diagnosis and was willing to accept any treatment they recommended; the tumor had simply been detected too late for anything to be done.

Beneath Feyerabend's rhetorical antics lurked a deadly serious theme: the human compulsion to find absolute truths, however noble it may be, often culminates in tyranny. Feyerabend attacked science not because he actually believed it was no more valid than astrology or religion. Quite the contrary. He attacked science because he recognized--and was horrified by--science's vast superiority to other modes of knowledge. His objections to science were moral and political rather than epistemological. He feared that science, precisely because of its enormous power, could become a totalitarian force that crushes all its rivals.