The Mythic and Metaphoric Level of Philosophy of Science

This post is a continuation from the previous post.

Sohail Inayatullah (1998) has formulated a method of futures studies called Causal layered analysis (CLA)This method “is concerned less with predicting a particular future and more with opening up the present and past to create alternative futures” (815). It is a “method that reveals deep worldview committments [sic] behind surface phenomena” (815). CLA consist of analysis in/of four levels:

“The first level is the ‘litany’—quantitative trends, problems, often exaggerated, often used for political purposes. [–]

The second level is concerned with social causes, including economic, cultural, political and historical factors. [–]

The third deeper level is concerned with structure and the discourse/worldview that supports and legitimates it. [–] The task is to find deeper social, linguistic, cultural structures that are actor-invariant (not dependent on who are the actors). [–] Discerning deeper assumptions behind the issue is crucial here as are efforts to revision the problem. [–]

The fourth layer of analysis is at the level of metaphor or myth. These are the deep stories, the collective archetypes, the unconscious dimensions of the problem or the paradox. [–] This level provides a gut/emotional level experience to the worldview under inquiry. The language used is less specific, more concerned with evoking visual images, with touching the heart instead of reading the head.” (Inayatullah, 1998 pp. 820).

Myths and Metaphors in the Philosophy of Science

In order to understand the mythic and metaphoric level in the philosophy of science, let us consider three famous philosophical theories about the core goals and possibilities of science, falsificationism, Kuhnian revolutions, and scientific realism.

Popper’s falsificationism (1963) is based on the idea that science does not attempt to verify theories but falsify them. A good theory provides us with risky predictions which might be false. If a prediction of the theory is false, the theory is falsified; if the prediction is correct, the theory is corroborated.

In Kuhn’s theory, there are (mainly) two kinds of periods in the development of science: normal science and revolutionary science. A normal science period is a one in which a paradigm defines the research in a scientific field. A paradigm is a “universally recognized scientific achievement that for a time provides model problems and solutions to a community of practitioners” (Kuhn 1970, viii). A paradigm, then, is the condition under which science can develop in a steady fashion. Revolutionary science, on the other hand, is a period in which an existing paradigm is challenged due to its inability to solve important problems and a new paradigm is established. Different paradigms are mutually incommensurable, as there are no shared standards that enable scientists to choose between competing paradigms in the period of revolutionary science.

According to scientific realism, science has been able to produce approximately true theories of a mind-independent world. Our successful and mature theories are approximately true descriptions of both observable and unobservable world. (E.g., Psillos, 2009 pp. 4.)

Popper’s falsificationism and Kuhnian theory of revolutions both have an explicit anecdotal base that is appealing. There is a famous story of how Popper became dissatisfied with psychoanalysis because all behavior could be interpreted in accordance with its theories, and how, at the same period, Popper heard about Einstein’s theory and Eddington’s observation of the gravitational deflection which put Einstein’s theory under a severe test. (See Hacohen 2000, 93-96). Kuhn, on the other hand, has told a story of how he wondered how absurd Aristotle’s physics was until he understood Aristotle’s system of science as a whole and in terms different from modern science (Kuhn 1977, xi-xii). We can understand the theories of Popper and Kuhn by understanding these stories that belong to level 4 of CLA. The stories make understandable the gut feelings that the theories of Popper and Kuhn attempted to explicate: That knowledge is improved by taking intellectual risks and abandoning one’s views (Popper) or that the development of science introduces fundamental changes in our understanding of the world and that “the proponents of competing paradigms practice their trades in different worlds” (Kuhn 1970, 150). Realism, on the other hand, has been critically summarized in a metaphor of desk-thumping, foot-stamping shout: “What then of the realist, what does he add to his core acceptance of the results of science as really true? […] what the realist adds on is a desk-thumping, foot-stamping shout of “Really!””. (Fine 1984, 97). Even though originally used in a critical tone, the metaphor can be interpreted as revealing the basic conviction that science is about the world we live in, never mind the philosophical quibbling about the nature of truth and reality. Another famous slogan for realism that explicates the gut feeling is “if you can spray them, then they are real” (Hacking 1983, 23).

The remarkable thing is that there are many severe criticisms for all the theories above. It is extremely difficult to formulate and justify the theories even if the gut feeling is strong. For example, we know that, contra Popper, all observational tests of a theory require background assumptions and simple falsification is not possible. In the case of Eddington, for example, Einstein’s theory was corroborated only because Eddington interpreted the data against his knowledge about instruments (Kennefick 2019). On the other hand, there have been, contra Kuhn, unexpected discoveries with wide-reaching consequences that did not lead to a scientific revolution, such as the discovery of the structure of DNA (Bird 2018, 6.1.). Finally, it seems that there have been, contra realism, successful theories that were not approximately (Laudan 1981, known as the pessimistic meta-induction).

It is remarkable that all the positions can be found in many science-related debates. For example, there is a debate on whether to build and what to expect from the Future Circular Collider (FCC). Sabine Hossenfelder (2020) has argued that the cost of the FCC is too great given the chances of possible discoveries. Michela Massimi (2020) has argued that the FCC can be defended once we understand scientific progress not in terms of “great” discoveries but in terms of excluding possibilities. The baseline of the debate concerning FFC is colored by scientific realism. “With the new machine, particle physicists want to measure its [Higgs boson] properties, and the properties of some previously discovered particles, in more detail” (Hossenfelder 2020). However, the Popperian and Kuhnian pictures are in the mix: For example, Massimi (2020) explicitly argues that “particle physics community has long stopped (if ever did) following any Popperian method of hypotheses-testable predictions-falsification” and the possible future of the FCC should not be understood in those terms. Massimi also makes an important note on the scientific revolutions: The direction of a revolution is not arbitrary. Rather, revolution can only change a field whose foundations have been examined by a long tradition of detailed research. We cannot expect a revolution in the foundations of the Standard Model without “the ongoing, unfailing, and indefatigable efforts of experimentalists at places like Cern”.

Recognizing different myths and metaphors that lurk behind our conceptions of science is an essential step in revealing deep commitments in those conceptions. However, it is important to notice that the mythic or metaphoric core or origin of a conception does not mean that it is incorrect or benign. We need to both cherish the core and distance ourselves from it. The cherishing means that we attempt to stay faithful to the core and understand what it might capture about science that might be extended into the future. Intellectual courage? Fundamental changes in the scientific worldview? Epistemic optimism? The distancing means, in this context, that we come to understand different mythic and metaphoric cores that might dominate the visions of the future of science. Moreover, recognizing the mythic and metaphoric core enables us to understand where our desires for a particular type of future comes from. Why we want impressive experiments? Why do we want to measure the properties of particles? Finally, cherishing the mythic and metaphoric core is essential when an explicit theory of the structure, belonging to level 3 of CLA, is constructed. We need to ask what insight the theory, despite all the inevitable problems it will face, attempts to capture. Distancing is necessary, at level 3, in order to understand that the gut feeling might be wrong after all and that the theories that attempt to capture the feeling are dead ends (as falsificationism probably is, see Hansson 2006; Lakatos 1978).


Bird, Alexander, “Thomas Kuhn”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Fine, A. (1984). “The Natural Ontological Attitude”. in Leplin (ed.). Scientific Realism. 83-107

Hacking, Ian (1983). Representing and Intervening: Introductory Topics in the Philosophy of Natural Science. Cambridge University Press.

Hacohen. M. H. (2000). Karl Popper—The Formative Years, 1902–1945: Politics and Philosophy in Interwar Vienna, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hansson, Sven Ove (2006). “Falsificationism falsified”. Foundations of Science 11 (3):275-286.

Hossenfelder, Sabine (2020). “The World Doesn’t Need a New Gigantic Particle Collider”. Scientific American.

Inayatullah, Sohail (1998). “Causal Layered Analysis. Poststructuralism as Method”. Futures, Vol. 30, No. 8, pp. 815–829.

Kennefick, Daniel. 2019. No Shadow of a Doubt: The 1919 Eclipse That Confirmed Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kuhn, Thomas (1977). The Essential Tension. Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change. The University of Chicago Press.

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

Lakatos, Imre (1978). The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes. Cambridge University Press.

Laudan, Larry (1981). “A confutation of convergent realism”. Philosophy of Science 48 (1):19-49.

Massimi, Michela 2020. “More than prediction”. Frankfurter Allgemeine.

Popper, Karl (1963). Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, London: Routledge.

Psillos, Stathis (2009). Knowing the Structure of Nature: Essays on Realism and Explanation. Palgrave Macmillan.

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