CHARACTERIZING THE ROBUSTNESS OF SCIENCES AFTER THE “PRACTICAL TURN OF PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE”
The disciplines whose scientific status is not brought into question, such as physics, are characterized by what is normally described as “successfulness”, “reliability” or “solidity” of their theoretical, experimental or technical accomplishments. Today the philosophers of science often talk of “robustness”. At first sight, robustness seems beyond doubt, and its nature intuitively clear. Yet, it is far from easy to give a precise account of just what is implied by this notion. What exactly lies at the basis of the robustness of physics? How is robustness historically generated and improved upon? What does it mean that a scientific result or a developmental stage of science is “more robust” than another? Behind these questions, crucial epistemological issues await us. Indeed, nothing less than the very nature of science and its specificity with respect to other human practices, the nature of rationality and of scientific progress; and science’s claim to be a truth-conducive activity. In relation to these questions, William Wimsatt’s contributions constitute a fundamental reference point. In a seminal article published in 1981, Wimsatt introduced into philosophy of science, beside the vague and widespread usage of the terms robustness, a more specific and technical one that, while preserving the common association with the ideas of solidity, reliability and successfulness, allows a more precise characterization. In the article, he defines robustness as the use of “multiple means of determinations” to “triangulate” the existence and the properties of a phenomenon, of an object or of a result. The idea is that any object (a perceptual object, or a physical phenomenon, or an experimental result, or etc…) that is sufficiently invariant under several independent derivations (in a wide sense of the term “derivation”: means of identification, sensorial modalities, measurements processes, tests, models, levels of description…) owes its solidity (i.e. its robustness) to this situation; and that the higher is the number of the independent derivations of which it lies at the intersection, the more robust it can be considered. Historically, the question of the reliability and solidity of physics has been first formulated, within philosophy of science, as a problem concerning the relations between statements. This conceptualization has been deeply transformed in the context of the so-called “practical turn” of science-studies that began in the ’80s. The practical turn has led to an enlarged characterization of science that includes several aspects previously ignored or underplayed on the grounds of their alleged epistemological irrelevance: tacit knowledge, know-how and professional skills, local norms and standards, instrumental and material resources, geometry of the laboratory and short-term concrete feasibility, if not the available financial resources, the institutional organization, the power of convincing peers, decision-makers, sponsors and the like.. As a result, the question of reliability requires redefinitionin more complex terms, insofar as the network of the elements that “fit together” and that thus yield “robustness” is no longer simply a system of statements. Taking scientific practices as a starting point, physics appears as a process of “conciliation” of extremely diverse items. Scientific practices try to harmonize in the best possible way the greatest number of ingredients (especially experimental and theoretical ones), and sometimes they succeed: what emerges then, are good co-stabilizations, holistic unities of a kind endowed with a certain quality of stability and autonomy, which can be described as “closed systems” (Hacking) or as “scientific symbioses” (Pickering). It is with respect to such unities, to their stability and relative autonomy as unities, that, the robustness of the science must be understood. For, if what is often mentioned is the robustness of a certain particular result taken in isolation, this robustness always turns out to be dependent on a huge number of other elements with which the result happens or has happened to be intertwined within scientific practices. Ultimately, the robustness of an element is always dependent on an interconnected network of elements. If we admit this conclusion, the real difficulty lies in the search for a fine and operational characterization of the nature and of the dynamic process of constitution of the reticular entities that are likely to be involved. This is precisely the subject of the international conference of June 2008.
CONTRIBUTORS Catherine Allamel-Raffin and Jean-Luc Gangloff Mieke Boon Catherine Dufour Ralf Krömer Thomas Nickles Andrew Pickering Terry Shinn Christian Sichau Léna Soler Emiliano Trizio Frédéric Wieber William Wimsatt