Larry Laudan


Larry Laudan

Larry Laudan (b. Austin, Texas 1941) is a contemporary philosopher of science and epistemologist. He has strongly criticized the traditions of positivism, realism, and relativism, and he proposes his own way to maintain science as a privileged and progressive institution, in the face of popular challenges.

His most outstanding work in the philosophy of science is "Progress and its Problems" (1977). Laudan charges philosophers of science of paying lip service to the view that “science is fundamentally a problem-solving activity” without taking seriously the implications that this view has for the history of science and its philosophy, and without questioning certain issues in the historiography and methodology of science.

First and foremost, he identifies the activity of problem-solving with the function of theories: “Theories matter, they are cognitively important insofar -and only insofar- as they provide adequate solutions to problems” (p. 13). On his view, solved scientific problems always stand in a relationship with a theory, with the consequence that the activity of problem-solving is addressed philosophically only by way of its relationship to theory formation and theory appraisal. This should not be surprising, since Laudan’s main objective in this book is to provide a problem-based characterization of scientific progress.Laudan offers a general taxonomy of the types of scientific problems as well as a method for grading their relative importance (for if “the problem-solving approach is ever to become a useful tool for appraisal, it must be able to show how, and why, certain problems are more significant than others, p. 31).Problems may be empirical or conceptual. Empiricist epistemologies of science have traditionally dealt with the first, but they have largely ignored the second. Laudan offers to amend this.

Empirical problems are “substantive questions about the objects which constitute the domain of any given science” (p. 15). Despite “apparent functional similarity between talk of problems and problem solving and the more familiar rhetoric about facts and the explanation of facts” (p. 15), solving a problem and explaining a fact are not the same thing, on Laudan’s view.

There are three kinds of empirical problems, and this taxonomy is construed on the basis of the relationships between problems and theories:1. Unsolved problems (unsolved by any theory)2. Solved problems (solved by a theory)3. Anomalous problems (unsolved by a particular theory but solved by one or more of its competitors)

Using this terminology, Laudan characterizes scientific progress as “the transformation of anomalous and unsolved problems into solved ones” (p. 18). Laudan shares with Kuhn, Popper, and Lakatos (among others) the view that anomalous instances are “among the most important components of scientific rationality”, albeit with a difference. While on the traditional view, rational scientists would abandon a theory in the occurrence of an anomaly because it is logically inconsistent with the theory, on Laudan’s view anomalies need not be inconsistent with the theories that present them, and although they raise rational doubts about the theory, they do not presuppose its abandonment. Anomalies are important for the process of theory appraisal, but they are not definitive; they are only one among many elements determining scientific acceptability of a theory.

Larry Laudan is currently based in Mexico, teaching at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). He now works primarily on legal epistemology.

Larry Laudan wrote a section of "The Challenge of Terrorism" entitled "Should We Be Afraid?" A brief overview of the section is "An expert on risk urges that moral outrage and compassion are the proper responses to terrorism, but fear for oneself and one's life is not. The risk that the average American will be a victim of terrorism is extremely remote."

External Links

[http://www.larrylaudan.com Larry Laudan]


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