Wender Bell, Futures Studies, and the Conception of Foundations of a Science

Are there natural sciences? Surely, there exist what are known as natural sciences, i.e. sciences that study natural phenomena, but my question concerns sciences as phenomena – are some sciences more natural than others? This question may sound weird. Sciences[1] are human creations and therefore they are not natural in the same sense as elephants are. One could even claim that the whole question is nonsense; it does not make any sense to ask whether football, for example, is natural or not.

I think the question should be asked. There is some personal background to this view. Last year I was teaching an intermediate philosophy of science class. Usually, I have not spent much time on Thomas Kuhn’s ideas in my classes. There are many reasons for this, one being that Kuhn discusses so enormous issues that it is difficult to teach anything more specific after Kuhn has captured everyone’s imagination. Another reason is that it is difficult to give a balanced overview of the merits and epistemological basis of Kuhn’s views in a limited amount of time. The worry is that if Kuhn’s views are the take-home lesson that my classes end up providing, the students might have a somewhat shaky picture of how science is thought from the philosophical point of view. However, in my class last year, I decided to devote a couple of lectures on Kuhn. My worries were unfounded. However, outside the seminar room I was thinking about the nature of philosophy of science and what it can contribute to people.

I started to think about the consequences of teaching – and even the existence of – philosophy of science. I think that philosophy of science is a tool. There are views on science and some of them might even be correct, but I still think that the best thing philosophy of science can achieve is to strengthen the ability to think about science and its role in the society. However, the existence of a tool does not determine the purposes, good or bad, for which it is used. It has to be admitted that the philosophy of science (or the caricatures of it) has the potential to be abused in arguments that are unmotivated. That’s life. Everything can be abused. However, what I find interesting are the unintended consequences of philosophy of science, i.e. consequences that are not based on explicit adoption of philosophy of science for some specific purpose.

Imagine, for the sake of brainstorming, that there exists a natural development of science, Kuhnian for example. In this development, there is a phase of normal science when puzzles are solved and everything is nice and smooth except for anomalies that pile up. Once there are enough important anomalies, a revolution takes place and a new paradigm takes over. Assume that Kuhn got it right and this is in fact how things used to go. But then we learned Kuhn’s theory and taught it in mandatory classes for science students. The students become aware that some unsolved problems are anomalies; that at some point anomalies become very important; and at some point there is an inevitable shift of a paradigm, where old ways of thinking (concepts, standards, values) are abandoned. Would this awareness not have consequences for how science will develop? I think it would have. In the actual world, paradigm-talk is present everywhere and discussions about paradigm shifts in this or that field have been introduced ad nauseam. In a scenario where Kuhn was taken dead-seriously (unlike in today’s paradigm-jargon) people would be even more interested in finding anomalies and establishing new paradigms than we are. Now, the question is not whether this is a good or a bad thing but whether awareness of certain philosophical ideas has an effect on the development of science.

Imagine further that people changed their actions once they became aware of Kuhn’s views and focused all their energy on defining some problems as anomalies and building alternative paradigms to get their name in the history. In these conditions, science would no longer work the way Kuhn described. There would be no calm phases of normal science where anomalies are slowly defined, nor paradigm shifts that arise only in extreme circumstances. This means that if people became aware and serious about Kuhn’s views and used them as a guide to action, the views would no longer apply to science. Science would have become unnatural (from a Kuhnian point of view).

Are there natural or unnatural sciences outside our thought experiments? Prima facie, if mere presence of ideas about the nature of science make a scientific activity unnatural, then all science is unnatural and the term loses its meaning. Of course, scientist have some conception of what they are doing. There is no human activity that is not guided by some conception about what that activity is. This seems to be a necessary fact about intentional actions. However, one could still say that too much philosophical self-reflection in a science makes that science unnatural. Kuhn seems to hint such view. He thought that a part of a revolution (an “extraordinary” phase) is an increase in all sort of philosophical pondering. A constant questioning of theories and standards simply makes normal science paralyzed.

Moreover, even though there are, in science, philosophical assumptions about how science works or should work, these assumptions are usually not the result of academic philosophy of science. Kuhn was not attempting to explicate what scientist thought about their activities all along. On the contrary, he was attempting to challenge some (seemingly) naïve assumptions about science. However, we can ask what, then, the point of Kuhn’s theory is from the point of view of scientific practice. Of course, the theory is an intellectual accomplishment in its own right, but from the practical point of view, it might be difficult to understand its possible value. One could argue that if science has been able to develop without making explicit the Kuhnian structure, then awareness of that structure can only change the development of science in the future. Do we want that? What is wrong with what science has achieved? Everything depends on whether the history of science was desirable and to whom. The paradox is that Kuhn thought that there is no other way to think of the nature of science than through its history and it seems therefore difficult to understand against what (some a priori idea? counterfactual scenarios?) we should compare the desirability of the actual history. A descriptive account, if it has unintended consequences, needs to tackle normative issues.

The trilemma is this: (i) If philosophy of science is merely descriptive, then it does not add anything to science and can be ignored; (ii) If philosophy of science is merely descriptive but changes the way scientists (and people who make science-related decisions) think, then the descriptive philosophy turns into a normative one; (iii) If philosophy of science is normative, then we need to tell how that normativity is justified.

Moreover, there have been arguments (Kukla 1994, Tosh 2007, 192-3, Virmajoki 2019, 6.7) that philosophical interpretation of the ontological and epistemic commitments of science can be (at least in most cases) separated from scientific practices. To take an example from my (2019, 6.7), consider the following explanations:

(I) The measurement of high levels of carbon dioxide were made because there was a certain amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

This explanation appears to be committed to the real existence of carbon dioxide. However, this explanation can be read in different ways:

(Ib) An instrument I had the reading R because the conditions C [one replaces “C” with the preferred interpretation of “there is an amount A of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere”] obtained.

One can then say “Had C not been the case, the measurement would not have been made” and specifies that the antecedent is the case due to an intervention. (For example, two persons could agree that burning less fossil fuels would count as an intervention even if they disagree on the reality of carbon dioxide.) For every realist-looking claim there must be a corresponding reinterpretation as long as the disagreement is philosophical and not scientific (both sides accept scientific theories and views but disagree on their interpretation [–]. [We do not have to commit to scientific realism]. All that is needed is a commitment to dependency relations holding between two states of affairs that science captures with more or less ontological depth.

If philosophical interpretations are essentially independent of everyday scientific practice, then something unnatural seems to happen if those theories affect the development of science. If they do have an effect on the everyday practice, one should wonder where the normativity stems from.

Let’s pause for a moment and see where we are. We have seen that general theories of science that study science from the outside are problematic. They seem to assume that there exists some natural development of science and describe that; or they take for granted the scientific theories, concepts, models etc. and interpret them. We can think about these philosophical theories as accomplishment in their own right. It is important to understand whether the history of science evolved in Kuhnian cycles or whether scientific theories can be interpreted as having ontological depth, as realist suggest. However, the theories also have a life of their own, and philosophical views mix with scientific practice. A natural development of science does not exist and probably never did. Suggestions concerning the “proper” ontological assumption, methods and inference-patterns have always been made in science. For example, Newton’s theory implied action at a distance, a possibility rejected by many of his influential contemporaries, and a debate concerning the methodological ground for such ontological postulate followed. It is impossible to separate philosophical ideas that were part of the course of the “natural development” of science from those that came from the outside. Science never exists in an intellectual void.

This means that philosophy of science must, as naturalist have claimed all along (see Laudan 1990), be seen as a part of science and judged as a part of science. To put it bluntly, a philosophy of science in useful as long as it clarifies issues in science, identifies problems and limitations and suggest how those might be overcome. An important aspect of this kind of approach is that there is no pretending that philosophy of science is outside science. Philosophy of science makes claims and, if taken seriously, these claims have consequences – intended or unintended – that shape sciences for better or worse.

Thin long introduction takes us to theme I was planning to discuss in this post, Wendel Bell’s (1924-2019) book Foundations of Futures Studies: Human Science for a New Era, vol. 1. The book is extremely rich in the topics it discusses. However, I will focus on some of the books basic tenets:

1. Futures studies’ status as a science and the unity of the field

2. The philosophical interpretation of futures studies

3. The sources of knowledge in futures studies.

As we will see, a project of laying the foundations of a discipline is an interesting case from the point of view of applying philosophical analysis on a science and therefore the reflections in the first part of this post on the nature of philosophy of science has some interesting consequences when discussed in connection to a foundations-laying project. In the case of a discipline that does not have a clear or explicit identity (i.e. one that requires foundational study), the already problematic distinction between descriptive and normative philosophy of science is even more unclear.

1. As is often done in books that lay the foundation of a field, the question of scientific status of the field is discussed. Often these discussions can be ignored as philosophically uninteresting science politics. However, let’s put cynicism aside for a moment. Why would it be important to know whether some field is a science?

One possible answer is that it is an interesting observation that certain research traditions have developed up to a point where they satisfy the requirements of a science. However, this would hardly be a foundational claim. The science would already exist and have its foundations established.

More likely is that one attempts to describe the foundations by showing how certain requirements are satisfied. Bell describes what he calls “transdisciplinary matrix” (TDM) of futures studies. This approach is inspired by Kuhn’s idea of paradigm (“disciplinary matrix”) defining a science. To be more precise, the idea seems to be that once we identify the ingredients that a paradigm includes, we are able to identify a science. What is striking in Bell’s list of items that belong to the TDM of science is its inclusiveness. The list goes as follows [for technical reasons the list is copied from Bell (2002)]:

– A perspective encompassing both past change and possibilities for the future different from the present.

– A belief that futures thinking can increase the effectiveness of human action.

– A faith in the use of knowledge in policy formulation and implementation.

– A self-identity as a futurist.

– A shared set of assumptions.

– Common purposes (e.g., making the world a better place where all human beings will have an equal and good chance of living long and satisfying lives, a commitment to the well-being of future generations; toward that end: studying possible, probable, and preferable futures; exploring images of the future; investigating the knowledge and ethical foundations of futures studies; interpreting the past and orientating the present; integrating knowledge and values in designing social action; increasing democratic participation in imaging and designing the future; and communicating and advocating a particular image of the future).

– Shared methods and exemplars.

– Shared key concepts (e.g., image of the future, future shock, tempocentrism, time frames, time horizons, alternative futures, possible futures, probable futures, preferable futures, post-industrial society, sustainable development, self-altering prophecy, issues management, scenarios, trends, life-sustaining capacities of the Earth, human values, among others) [–].

– A similarity in underlying theories of human behavior and social change, involving active human agency and socio-cybernetic processes (despite the fact that futurists have no GUTs—i.e., no consensus on a Grand Unifying Theory).

– An orientation toward conscious decision-making and social action aimed at adapting to or controlling the future.

– A wide-ranging use of the knowledge of many disciplines as needed to understand the phenomena under consideration in any study or project.

– A holistic perspective as necessitated by the information needs of social action.

– A concern with the social implications of scientific and technological changes and, more generally, a concern with the consequences of all human behavior, both intended and unintended.

– A dedication to understanding the general processes of change, be they psychological, political, economic, social, or cultural.

– Shared values (e.g., the freedom and well-being of humans, a concern for all living things, and a concern for the life-sustaining capacities of the Earth, both now and for the indefinite future).

If we put aside some controversial claims about inherent ethical goals, it is difficult to see what the list leaves out. For example, in Bell (2009, [1997]) the methods are presented in more detail and they range from “pragmatic prediction of one variable by another” to “ethnographic futures research”. The problem is that a very inclusive description of a science, like Bell’s list, surely captures what is going on and is descriptively adequate but such a description does not identify any problems or tensions within the field. This is where the question “Is some X a science?” again leads us astray (see my writing here). The philosophically interesting and foundational question is not whether futures studies is a science (i.e. whether we can list items that belong to its paradigm) but to understand how, exactly, it works and what problems, limitation and tensions exist in the field. An “all abroad” approach is understandable for science policy reasons but its foundational significance is more difficult to find. If it was the case that there existed some natural development of a science and a natural set of issues that a science must solve as it evolves, then saying that some X is science would automatically tell us how X will evolve. However, there do not exist such natural developments. Philosophical analysis, among other things, affect science. When Bell suggests that futures studies incorporate many different theories, methods etc., he is in effect guiding the field in a pluralistic direction. I think such pluralism is the only way to go in many disciplines as we should use all available methods to understand important problems but the endorsement of pluralism should not hide the tensions and problems between different methods and approaches. The most important philosophical work is probably not foundational in the sense that it provides a general outlook of the futures studies but a more piecemeal investigation of local problems in specific approaches within the field. And of course I am not blaming Bell for his general strategy as it has its own historical background. I just want to point out how the philosophy of science has been driven away from general theories of science towards the analysis of more specific problems. (I would say this specialization is a sign of epistemic humbleness; some could say it is cowardly turning away form the grand challenge of understanding the science as a whole.)

Another way of putting the problem is that since Kuhn’s philosophy is a macro-account (describing very wide patterns of scientific change) that looks at science from the outside, as it were, and because Bell builds on Kuhn’s thinking, Bell does not sketch any strategy to how the assumptions, methods, theories etc. of futures studies can be evaluated while practicing it. The problem with Kuhn already was that, even though he pointed out that there are much more to science than theory and observation, in Structures he did not discuss how the “everyday philosophizing” in science should take place (however we find discussion about this in Kuhn 1977). This would have been foundational with respect to piecemeal improvement of scientific practice. If Bell had identified many possible disciplinary matrices, he would have given us the opportunity to critically examine the components of each matrix by comparing them (in the same way as we can compare the assumptions of Einstein’s and Newton’s physics (see Kuhn 1970).

Finally, we can say that Bell succeeds in establishing that futures studies is a natural science [note the unusual use of this expression, see the first paragraph of this post] in the sense that it has developed from approaches that were reactions to important problems by attempting to estimate the future. However, (i) the inclusiveness of Bell’s view seems unnatural and hides the tensions between different components. It seems that he creates an artifact rather than describes a natural unity in different methods (and in theories and assumptions behind them). Moreover, (ii) this naturalness is an illusion if we think that the development of the field will take care of itself (in the same way as the development of physics did in the popular caricatures of scientific revolution; i.e. those that tell that once experiment, observation and the idea of mathematical models were in place, no ontological, methodological or epistemological questions was left to be debated). There is no natural science and therefore it is the responsibility of every discipline to constantly discuss its philosophical underpinnings.

2. Bell devotes the fifth chapter of his book to discussion about positivism, postpositivism, postmodernism and critical realism, defending critical realism as “an appropriate theory of knowledge for futures studies”. I think it would be fruitful to distinguish between two (interrelated) senses of “theory of knowledge” of a field. First one concerns the interpretation of knowledge claims: Do the claims in the field concern mind-independent reality, can knowledge be fallible, to what extent context affects knowledge-claims, what is the role of pragmatic considerations in knowledge-claims etc. I would call this the philosophical interpretation of the science. Second concerns the possible sources of knowledge in the field. I would call this the empiricalmethodological base of the science. In Chapter 5, Bell discusses theories of knowledge in the first sense, and we will see his discussion about a theory of knowledge in the second sense later in this post. I think Bell is mostly correct in his claim that critical realism provides a natural interpretation of science and  I think it is a good thing to point out, in a book on the foundations of a science, that such level-headed and balanced interpretation exists. However, I think that the fight against what Bell calls “postmodernism” is unnecessary in order to establish the foundations of the field.

First, any field of science uses all possible means and theoretical frameworks to produce new knowledge (see also below). The philosophical interpretation of science follows this first-order task and attempts to understand it. Moreover, the philosophical interpretation of science does not affect the scientific practice in many cases. For example, both instrumentalist and realist take for granted that science contains well justified descriptions of laws and regularities. The difference is in the interpretation of the ontological commitments of this aspect of science. If postmodernism is merely a philosophical interpretation of science that looks science from the outside, the debate about its merits is not necessary when establishing a new field. A foundational study has been successful when it establishes the methods, the sources of knowledge, the general values and the standards of a field.

Secondly, if postmodernism is more than an interpretation and contains the claim that the knowledge claims made in this or that (or everywhere) science are wrong, then “postmodernists” should provide evidence for the claim on the same level as science provides evidence for its claims. If it did, then we would have an ordinary scientific controversy. In this case, there is nothing philosophically interesting about postmodernism in particular.

Finally, postmodernism could be a threat if it affected the integrity of scientists who accept it. I do not think that blockading such craziness belongs to the foundations of any fields. If someone wants to do bad science, then there is not much we can do about it except to state the sorry state of affairs and condemn the work. As long as any given field is able to produce the kind of knowledge that is judged as valuable in some relevant context, there should be no inclination to pronounce the efforts of the field pointless. Philosophically interesting work concerns, again, how that knowledge is produces and how it could be improved. If a field, such as astrology, is not able to produce relevant results, then we should leave the field behind rather than continue practicing it with a postmodernist mind-set.

Moreover, while critical realism seems prima facie a good interpretation of futures studies, the plurality of the field should not be forgotten. For example, in some cases of scenario-building, it could perhaps be useful to use tools from the philosophy of historiography to interpret the results. For example, Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen has argued that even if historiography is constructivist, “[a] historian’s construct can be seen as epistemically authoritative if it [–] is a persuasive manifestation of reasoning for a thesis; it is an exemplary employment of epistemic values, including references to actual historical objects with regard to non-colligatory expressions; and it is a successful argumentative intervention in the relevant argumentative context”. Even if we have to abandon critical realism in some cases, there are still useful frameworks to be used in interpreting the cases.

To sum up, a philosophical interpretation of a field deserves its place in a book on the foundations of the field but a more interesting questions concerning scientific practice lay elsewhere. Moreover, different parts of the field may require different philosophical interpretation.

3. Bell discusses the “bearing of reality on the future” (2009 [1997], 174) and points out that the following things are relevant to the future:

(I) The present images of the future and expectations for the future that people hold.

(II) People’s belief about the most likely future.

(III) The goals, values and attitudes people hold.

(IV) Present intentions of people to act.

(V) Obligations and commitments that people have to others.

(VI) Knowledge of the past.

– Tradition.

– The use of trend analysis.

– Restatement of scientific explanations in predictive form.

– Analogy.

– Past images of the future.

(VII) Knowledge of the present.

– The design perspective.

– Present possibilities for the future.

I want to point out this list to illustrate (a) what a knowledge base could mean in addition to the philosophical interpretation of knowledge (see the distinction above), and (b) what kind of philosophical questions concerning a science are still left after the big “foundational” picture is in place and how a “piecemeal” philosophical analysis of a field would proceed (in contrast to foundational work). (In the future, I will write a post on how the items in the list are related to estimating the futures of science, so stay tuned.)

First of all, I think it would have been better if the list was introduced along with the methods. Given that the world develops causally from past to present to future, it is natural that the list of relevant aspects of past and present reality is very inclusive. However, the interesting questions concern how this “empirical basis” can be used to produce knowledge (or warranted beliefs or what have you) about the future and the relationships between different types of empirical basis and their hierarchies. For example, I would be inclined to think that the relationship between explanation and prediction (or estimation) is a kind of a “super-tool” in estimating the future and the question is how the other items on the list can be used in (i) explanation-building, and (ii) assessing the possibilities of projecting an explanation into the future. For example, it seems that we could use people’s conceptions of the future in both (i) and (ii). In some case, we could say that people’s pessimism towards the future explains the raise of certain political ideas, and in this case the explanation that pointed out the relevance of people conceptions of the future would give us a possible prediction. In another case, we could take the explanation “once certain political ideology achieves a threshold T in popularity, its popularity will decrease” and use people’s conceptions of the future to estimate whether the explanation will be applicable also in the future by asking them how probable they think it is that they vote for the party that shares the ideology. This kind of discussion concerns the methodology of a field and the empirical basis of a field cannot be identified or understood independently of methodological considerations.

Secondly, Bell produces the list of empirical basis when he discusses the problem that future is not factual. I will not do metaphysics here and discuss the reality of past vs. future or how causal asymmetries between past and future affect our knowledge. I want to point out that no science can escape the future or, in general, things that are not present in our intermediate surroundings. Every science (I think even historiography) has implicit commitments to generalizations and general considerations that, if true or adequate, will also hold in the future. If the ontological or epistemic status of future is somehow obscure, then there exists “a general problem of the future” in sciences. However, that problem does not reveal anything about futures studies in comparison to other disciplines. It would be useful if there was more analysis of the special or unique problems of future that the futures studies face. Surely, there are such problems as the field is more explicitly (or even by definition) attempting to know the future. One has to subdivide the general problem of the future into more precise problems that affect this or that method of futures studies. For example, there probably are different problems in (i) understanding how the current values of people could be used to estimate the values they adopt in the (unfortunately probable) future where climate is much more challenging, and (ii) in understanding how the current climate models can be used to estimate the changes in climate. Some problems of projecting models into the futures are shared between futures studies and other sciences, some problems of knowing the future perhaps not. Again, we would require a piecemeal philosophical analysis of these problems and their frequency and uniqueness in different scientific contexts. The question “how the future can be known in general” has to be replaced by a series of questions “how is this or that approach limited in the way we can use it to know the future and how the limitations can be overcome”.

Finally, it would have been interesting, again, to read about the possible tensions between approaches that are based on different categories of the “empirical basis”. For example, the study of people’s intentions might be a useful but not straightforward way of analyzing the present possibilities for the future, as I argued in a previous post (here). While an explication of one unified disciplinary matrix is perhaps practically useful in a book on the foundations of a field, it often hides tensions that require a detailed analysis. Different categories might not fit naturally together, and the nature of different approaches may prevent us from unifying them. Can we act against the nature?


I hope that this post was able to clarify different ways in which philosophy of science (and philosophy of a science) may proceed and how the current trends in philosophy of science often pull away from general foundational questions and towards more specific problems. I also hope I was able to show Wendell Bell’s work on the foundations of futures studies in a new angle by contextualizing its philosophical underpinnings this way.

The consideration in this post are also relevant to attempts to estimate the futures of science. We have learned about (I) how estimating the future of science can be philosophically analyzed, and (II) the nature of science, both of which are relevant to estimating the futures of science.

(I) Estimating the futures of science (EFS) is one component in our wider efforts to estimate and understand the future. As we have seen, futures studies is a heterogenous field and its different appoaches probably require different philosophical treatment. This means that we should not expect that EFS can be neatly captured by some universal approach of estimating the future. While we can – this is my hypothesis – provide a general outline of how EFS proceeds and find similar logical and conceptual structures in EFS and other futures research, we should still pay great attention to the differences between them and find the special problems that are present in EFS (as I have indicated in earlier posts (here, here, here).

(II) Science is a complex practice that is affected by how scientists and people around them think. The complexity of this process has to be appreciated. Moreover, philosophical ideas affect science and therefore we cannot expect that the philosophical analysis of EFS can proceed from the outside, as it were. What we know about science affects science, and these changes in science affect our views of science. However, there is no vicious circle here but rather a naturalistic observation about the interdependence of different fields of knowledge.


Bell, Wendell (2009 [1997]). Foundations of Futures Studies, Volume 1: Human Science for a New Era. [Fifth printing.]

Bell, Wendell (2002). “A community of futurists and the state of the futures field,” Futures 34. 235-47.

Laudan, Larry (1990). Normative naturalism. Philosophy of Science 57 (1):44-59.

Kuhn, Thomas S. (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions [2nd ed.]. The University of Chicago Press.

Kuhn, Thomas S. (1977). “Objectivity, value judgment, and theory choice”. In The Essential Tension. University of Chicago Press. 320-339.

Kukla, André (1994). Scientific realism, scientific practice, and the natural ontological attitude. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 45 (4). 955-975.

Kuukkanen, Jouni-Matti. (2015). Postnarrativist Philosophy of Historiography. Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Tosh, Nick (2007). “Science, truth and history, part II. Metaphysical bolt-holes for the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge?”. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 38 (1). 185-209

Virmajoki, Veli (2019). Cementing Science.

[1] I do not use science to mean only natural sciences but academic disciplines in general.

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