To write about the research of Professor Alan Musgrave is to start as far back as the birth of modern science, to wander through centuries of its subsequent history, and then to climb a hill he has put together over half a century of dogged academic effort.
This vicarious journey begins with Musgrave’s student days under the illustrious Karl Popper at the London School of Economics, and culminates with him taking his own place in the ranks of the foremost philosophers of science of the twentieth century. Throughout, Musgrave’s research output has been both prodigious and influential. Furthermore, it has always been readily comprehensible. Partly because of his working class Mancunian roots, partly because of the influence of Popper’s own notorious intolerance of obscurity, Musgrave is an outspoken opponent of intellectual opacity.
Yet philosophical research is, by nature, a purely intellectual exercise. There are no labs, no experiments, no surveys, no data. “It’s thinking,” says Musgrave, in typically straightforward manner. “It’s writing. It’s re-writing. It’s discussing things with friends and colleagues and trying to work out the best answers to important and long-standing problems.”
Musgrave’s particular problems are to do with scientific realism and scientific rationalism, the twin theses he has helped to develop to explain what we can know about the universe, including our own place in it. Scientific realism (or critical realism, as Musgrave also calls it) is the view that science aims to describe the world that exists independently of us and our experiences or descriptions of it. This view is contrary to postmodernist theories, such as structuralism or constructivism, which say that the world, or at least the world that we can know about, is somehow formed or constructed out of our experience or out of the words we use to describe it.
“If science is to be believed,” says Musgrave, “postmodernist wisdom is folly – the universe existed long before we came along and cooked up words and theories to describe it.”
Scientific rationalism posits that the process of theory change in science has been governed by principles of what constitutes good evidence. As Musgrave has successfully argued, it’s rational or reasonable for us to believe something that may not be true if it’s the most plausible theory at the time. Of course – and crucially – the fact of our believing it to be true does not necessarily make it so, as its later discounting might demonstrate. And, of course, if the theory is proven false afterwards – as many theories have been throughout the history of science – it’s no longer rational to believe it. But it does not mean that we were unreasonable ever to have believed it.
“It’s rational for us to believe those views that we have tried to criticise, but have not been able to show are false,” says Musgrave. “Failing to show that a view is false does not show it to be true or prove it, but it does show that it is rational to accept it, for the time being anyway.” To use perhaps the most clichéd of examples, long ago it was reasonable for people to believe the world was flat, but it is not reasonable to think so today. Members of the contemporary Flat Earth Society – and there are some – are paradigms of irrationality. In such a way, argues Musgrave, scientific knowledge has progressed. Electrons, to cite another example, may not exist, but that does not mean it’s not reasonable for us to believe that they do and to progress science on that basis.
In an era of science idolatry some might question the value of such research into the nature of belief, knowledge and truth. But Musgrave’s approach demonstrates that the scientific theories on which we base our thinking and, indeed, our political and economic decisions today might well be proven false tomorrow.
Still, science is the best means we have of finding out how things are – how they really are, independently of us and of our thoughts and feelings about them. If global warming is occurring, we might wish that it were not, but we cannot wish it away.
Musgrave distinguishes between what he calls research and research. The secret of good, original research, he suggests, is to either find a question that nobody has asked before, let alone answered – something of a challenge these days – or to justify asking a known question again by showing that the existing answers to it may not be correct.
Musgrave is an excellent example of following his own advice, for his own distinguished research has better refined the answers provided by Popperian critical rationalism. His words also serve as a description for the process of scientific progress with which he has largely been preoccupied, for what is scientific progress if not the refinement of existing theories and the formulation of new ones?
Perhaps, unsurprisingly, Musgrave counts Charles Darwin – one of the greatest revisionists of all time – as his ultimate hero. He is also a proponent of science’s duty to be understood by more than just scientists. And he thinks that the best way to understand science and how it works is through studying its history. Which is where Musgrave’s research provides useful and readily comprehensible answers.
“There’s a big problem in academia and that’s the problem of specialisation,” says Musgrave. “People speak in their own esoteric tongues to specialised audiences – it’s a real intellectual danger. “Academics need to try to make themselves understood by people outside their particular fields. I know this is difficult, especially for scientists. But philosophers have a special duty to make themselves understood by people who aren’t philosophers. And they may even be able to teach such people something about science, as well.”