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Understanding Progress: An Introductory Blog-post

This is the first blog-post in a series of posts by members of the project Understanding Progress, in Science and Beyond, hosted at the University of Iceland and funded by the Icelandic Research Fund. In this first post, the project‘s principal investigator, Finnur Dellsén, provides an introduction to the project. In future posts, other members of the project, such as the project’s co-investigator Insa Lawler and its postdoc James Norton, will survey more specific aspects of the project. The editor of this blog is Victor Karl Magnússon. 

The origin of this project is a simple question: What is it for science to make progress? In particular, when do changes in scientific theories, hypotheses, or models constitute an improvement on what came before? Consider, for example, the five successive models of the atom proposed by John Dalton, J.J. Thomson, Ernest Rutherford, Niels Bohr and Erwin Schrödinger, respectively (see picture): Each one of these was an improvement on the previous model, even if we now think that only Schrödinger’s final model is a correct representation of the atom. But what exactly makes this a case of scientific progress? 

Picture credit: Fundamentals of Chemistry – wps.prenhall.com (retrieved on January 9, 2020). 

This question sparked my interest a few years back in part because it is almost universally agreed that science frequently does make progress in this respect, and that regress (the opposite of progress) rarely occurs in science. Note that in many other kinds of human endeavor, e.g. arts and politics, most of us are less optimistic that we are constantly making progress and almost never regressing. (Indeed, many would argue that the political situation is currently regressing in many countries!) So the question “What is it for science to make progress?“ is in part an attempt to understand what makes science special as compared to other human endeavors.  

While there is a wide consensus that science makes progress with regard to scientific representations, there is much less of a consensus regarding what such progress consists in. When I started thinking about the issue a few years ago, philosophers had given three types of answers to this question: 

  • One answer is that progress with regard to some phenomenon amounts to getting closer to the truth about that phenomenon. This “closeness to the truth” is called verisimilitude, following the well-known philosopher of science Karl Popper. Accordingly, the view is named the verisimilitudinarian account. Unfortunately, what verisimilitude is has turned out to be very difficult to define with precision, but there are many sophisticated attempts.  
  • Another answer is that progress amounts to having fewer unsolved scientific problems, either by solving problems or by eliminating problems that perhaps cannot be solved. On this view, it doesn’t matter whether these problems are built on true assumptions, or whether the solutions are correct. This view as been called the functional-internalist view, but I prefer to simply call it the problem-solving account
  • The third answer is that progress consists in accumulating knowledge. Philosophers have spent a great deal of time analyzing the concept “knowledge” in epistemology, but roughly it refers to a well-founded and true belief. Thus, this epistemic account holds that progress requires, among other things, that theories be well-supported by scientific evidence if their introduction into science is to be progressive. 

While each one of these answers contains valuable insights, I quickly became dissatisfied with them all. It seemed to me – and it still does – that each of these three accounts are only plausible in so far as they approximate, in different ways, a fourth view of scientific progress. On this view, scientific progress with regard to some phenomenon consists in increasing scientific understanding of that phenomenon. Since the Greek word “nous” is often translated as understanding (just as “episteme” is often translated as knowledge), I have chosen to call this view the noetic account of scientific progress. 

The concept of “understanding” is related to that of “explanation”: When we understand something we are normally in a position to explain it. But I’ve argued that the concepts also come apart in important ways, e.g. because we can understand something that we know to be unexplainable, such as a coincidence. Instead, I have suggested that understanding can be identified with being able to correctly model dependence relations, such as the causal links, in the understood phenomenon. Since explanations normally appeal to such dependence relations, there is still a close connection between understanding and explanation on this view. 

The purpose of this project is in part to explore whether this noetic view of scientific progress, with its associated view of scientific understanding, really is an improvement on the other three views outlined above. But the project will also explore whether this philosophical account of scientific progress can be extended to progress in philosophy itself. The key idea, then, would be that philosophical progress can also be identified with increasing understanding, although this type of understanding would of course have less to do with the natural phenomena studied by the empirical sciences and more to do with various phenomena of specifically philosophical interest, such as morality, normativity, existence and the fundamental structure of reality. 

In addition to these two aims regarding the noetic account of scientific progress and its extension into an account of philosophical progress, the project’s members will also undertake related research into various aspects of progress and understanding. For example, Insa Lawler has worked on the relationship between understanding and knowledge, and understanding and idealization, and she will develop her views of understanding as part of this project. Similarly, James Norton works on metaphysical explanation and its relationship to understanding (see also) and will thus contribute to the project, inter alia, by researching how the key concepts of the project appear in metaphysics, which is an important philosophical field. 

This project is expected to run for around three years from this point onwards. In June 2020, we will be hosting a conference on “Understanding Progress and Progress in Understanding” in Reykjavik, Iceland, for which we are currently accepting abstracts. If you are interested in the topics described above, please consider submitting an abstract through this site and/or contacting us

Further reading: 

There are three recent overviews of the philosophical debate about scientific progress that readers might find useful, written by proponents of the verisimilitudinarian, noetic and epistemic accounts respectively: