His dreams were unusual, even for dreams

Ed Regis

  • Killing Time: The Autobiography of Paul Feyerabend
    Chicago, 192 pp, £18.25, June 1995, ISBN 0 226 24531 4

Never before has so much been known about the world, and the time has long passed – if it ever existed – when one person could collect it all in a single consciousness. Science is the paradigmatic case of the accumulation of knowledge: it has given us knowledge in the truest, most certain and genuine sense, and has been fabulously successful at it. Biologists have tracked life to its molecular basis. They’ve identified the main functional molecule of living things, DNA. They’ve mapped its structure, broken it apart, spliced it together again, and have manipulated the molecule to make new living organisms. They’ve corrected faulty gene sequences in human beings, thereby curing people of diseases from which they would otherwise die. And within the last twenty years they’ve wiped at least one ancient and dread disease off the face of the planet.

Astronomers have mapped the large-scale structure of the universe, traced its evolution back to the first three minutes of its existence and projected its ultimate end. Chemists have broken the world down into its hundred-odd types of constituents and have explained precisely how those elements fit together to make up everything that exists. Experimental physicists have isolated and studied the tiniest particles and have manipulated the atoms themselves. Theoretical physicists, meanwhile, have produced one of the most successful theories in human history, quantum electrodynamics, which has lasted for over fifty years essentially unchanged, has been checked over distance scales ranging from one hundred times the size of the earth down to one-hundredth the size of an atomic nucleus, and has been found to be accurate to nine significant digits. So wildly successful has physics been, in fact, that researchers have seriously contemplated the ‘end of physics’. They’ve talked about a Final Theory, a ‘Theory of Everything’, that will embrace all known physical phenomena in a single overarching explanatory scheme. Physicists, in other words, may be running out of things to discover.

Every bit of evidence, then, points to the conclusion that science, long regarded as the highest and most genuine species of human knowledge, one of the glories of humanity, is nearing a sort of culmination. All of which is understandable. Knowing things is what people do, it’s one of life’s main events. If you’re a plant, it’s photosynthesise; if you’re a fish, it’s swim; if you’re a human being, it’s know things. You can’t avoid it: gaining knowledge about the world is inescapable and involuntary – beyond your full control. If you’re a conscious and intelligent being, you can’t avoid knowing at least something about the world outside your head.

How ironic, then, that throughout human history intellectuals have said that knowledge is impossible, that no one in fact knows anything, that the hope of gaining knowledge is fantasy and illusion. This was as true in ancient times as it is today: as far back as 400 BC the philosopher Cratylus maintained that no true statement can be made about anything. He therefore uttered no words, and wagged his finger simply to show that he heard you. Unfortunately, Cratylus was one of the few anti-knowledgians in history to abide by his own teachings. Some 2500 years later, in 1975, the philosopher Peter Unger published a book called Ignorance: A Case for Scepticism, in which, at the stupendous length of 323 pages, he argued that no one knows anything, ever did, or could ever do so.

How even more ironic, given the success of the scientific method, that the most strident denials of knowledge have been levelled against the sciences. This, too, goes back to the Greeks, especially to Sextus Empiricus, who, in a work called Adversus Mathematicos, offered various ‘proofs’ that the knowledge claimed by logicians, physicists, mathematicians and astronomers was in principle impossible and fictitious. But Sextus and Cratylus, extreme as they were, amounted to rank amateurs, absolute novices, when it comes to what might be called ‘science criticism’. The world champion at this activity was Paul Feyerabend.

Feyerabend did not start out as a philosopher and never wanted to become one. It’s not clear, indeed, that he wanted to become anything other than an opera star. He did not have an enviable life. He seems to have been born in Vienna at some point – his autobiography does not say exactly where or when – into unhappy family circumstances. ‘Aunt Pepi was quite beautiful; she drank, became an alcoholic, and committed suicide.’ She ‘was married to Konrad Hampapa, a railwayman and heavy drinker himself’. They had two children – one of whom, Konrad junior, was retarded and died in an insane asylum. His mother, a seamstress, was no better off. ‘She tried to commit suicide twice.’ On the second attempt, she succeeded. Feyerabend did not seem unduly affected by this. ‘I felt absolutely nothing,’ he reports. At the funeral ‘people remarked on how cold I looked.’

The family seems to have lived in a bad neighbourhood: ‘Wives beat their husbands (and vice versa), parents beat their children (and vice versa), neighbours beat each other.’ We hear a lot about Feyerabend’s dreams – which were unusual, even for dreams. In one of them, he made love to his mother, ‘without much pleasure, even with revulsion’. ‘I often dream of having committed treason or murder,’ he says. In waking life, ‘I firmly believed in angels and demons.’ He seems never to have been either happy or healthy. As a boy, ‘I had a nervous affliction, similar to epileptic fits: my eyes rolled up, I made strange noises and fell to the ground (at 15 I added sleepwalking to my repertoire). The doctor was hardly ever called.’

In school, he was not what could be regarded as the teacher’s pet. ‘I began to throw up as soon as the first letter appeared on the blackboard. I was sent home and cleaned; papa issued a solemn warning: “Don’t repeat this performance or you’ll get it!” Again I was in school, sitting in my place, trying to stay calm; again the teacher went to the blackboard, wrote a few letters, and again I threw up.’ Apparently, he always had a sense of humour – or could be credited with one if you could ever be sure whether he was kidding or being serious. When asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he replied: ‘I want to retire.’ When finally he escaped from this mess of a childhood, it was into literature, movies, theatre and opera. He particularly loved adventures, romances and mysteries. ‘I burst into tears over Uncle Tom’s Cabin and often could not sleep after a dramatic tale.’

Feyerabend got interested in astronomy as a high-school student, and pursued this discipline for a while in half-hearted fashion. Later, as a soldier in World War Two, a bullet lodged in the small of his back, paralysing him, after which he was impotent, crippled and in constant pain. Incredibly, these afflictions did nothing to sour an already bleak outlook: ‘I didn’t mind being a cripple. I was content; talked to my neighbours; read novels, poems, crime stories, essays of all kinds.’

At the university – which seems to have been the University of Vienna – he decided to study history and sociology instead of astronomy and physics. ‘History will make me understand what just happened,’ he hoped, referring to recent world events. It failed to do so, however, and so he went back into science. He seems to have emerged with an undergraduate degree in physics – although the autobiography does not exactly tell you this.

During these years Feyerabend met Wittgenstein (‘ “His face looks like a dried apple,” I thought’), but wisely does not pretend to understand him. ‘His writings sounded like fragments of a novel, but it was not clear who the actors were and what their actions meant.’ He had better luck with Niels Bohr. ‘He came for a public lecture and conducted a seminar, both in Danish. I had prepared myself by reading newspapers and philosophical articles, and I understood every word of the lecture. That was quite an achievement. Rumour had it that Bohr was incomprehensible in any language.’

Feyerabend married four times, but never happily until the last time. The most enduring love of his life was opera, and much of the book is devoted to the various operas he attended, descriptions of his favourite singers, songs and the sound of his own voice. ‘Readers who know only intellectual joys can hardly imagine the pleasure derived from using a well-trained voice that has power as well as beauty ... When at my best, I could do almost anything with my voice.’ Except land a role with it, that is. At his first audition, ‘I got confused, excused myself and ran away.’ Singing lessons, back then, had slightly different standards and customs. ‘A teacher may interfere with the personal life of a student,’ he recalls. ‘For example he may advise a virgin soprano to get laid in order to add some sparkle to her voice.’

When finally he took up a professional career as a philosopher of science, it was largely by accident. He got his doctorate in 1951 – in physics or philosophy, he doesn’t say precisely which – and went to study with Karl Popper, whom he’d met in 1948, at a summer school in the Tyrol. Feyerabend, to put it mildly, was highly sympathetic to Popper’s way of thinking: here was an acceptable way of denigrating the sciences. ‘It had been fun to heap scorn on venerable traditions by showing that they were “cognitively meaningless”. It was even more exhilarating to criticise respectable scientific theories by raising the magic wand of “falsifiability”.’ Later he regarded Popper – and even Thomas Kuhn, who taught that scientific doctrines come and go like women’s hair styles – as too conservative in his critique.

Meanwhile, Feyerabend got an academic job, and in 1955 ‘began what is technically known as my career’. He was hired by the philosophy department at the University of Bristol after telling the scientists at his job interview: ‘You are scientists. That doesn’t mean you know everything. As a matter of fact, you often make mistakes.’ Such bluntness always served him well, especially as he became more famous. At a later job interview, at Zurich Polytechnic, the school’s president asked him:

Why do you want to come to Zurich?
Because I’m restless and I like change.
But why Switzerland?
Because the pay is good and the teaching load minimal.
Do you need an office?
No. (No office meant no office hours.)

The president responded by showering Feyerabend with a full professorship, retirement at 60 per cent of his full salary, plus round-trip air fare between Zurich and Berkeley, where he also had a tenured position. (At one point he held tenured positions at four universities simultaneously.) The Polytechnic’s president, apparently, wanted to demonstrate his ‘independence’ from higher authorities: ‘Even a Feyerabend can’t ruin a big school like the Polytechnic,’ he is reported to have said.

In his later years, Feyerabend acquired the reputation of the ‘world’s worst enemy of science’. Science, he says, is just another human activity – no more special or privileged than anything else. Scientists are not paragons or gods – quite the contrary. Intellectuals, ‘with their zeal for objectivity, are criminals, not the liberators of mankind’. Science itself is no more ‘objective’ than voodoo or witchcraft, but a ‘story’, a ‘fairy tale’.

This ‘storytelling’ interpretation is now highly popular among philosophers of science. Indeed, it’s popular even among some scientists. In The Collapse of Chaos, Jack Cohen (a biologist) and Ian Stewart (a mathematician) argue that the laws of nature are not ‘true’ in any real sense: ‘Our prized laws of nature are not ultimate truths, just rather well-constructed Sherlock Holmes stories.’ This view might have made good sense back in the days when what passed for science wasn’t science or knowledge at all – when chemistry was alchemy, medicine magic, and cosmology superstition. It is no longer supported by available evidence, however.

But Feyerabend’s outlook isn’t meant to be supported by evidence – certainly not by any evidence that emerges from the sciences. Nor is it supported by philosophy, a discipline in which you’re obliged to give adequate reasons for your beliefs. Feyerabend’s attitude towards science goes far beyond any doubts, misgivings or fears that are adequately warranted by reason. It is, in fact, just that: an attitude, impervious to reason and judgment. It’s a commitment, a faith, a secular religion. Scientists may wonder how his brand of irrationalism ever managed to escape from the ranks of the medieval demonology with which it ought to be classified.