Star Wars, Punctuated Epistemology, and the Triumph of the Medieval


Few would argue with the proposition that the replacement of medieval scholasticism 400 years ago with the scientific method unleashed major advances in the human condition.

That triumph of facts and reason over interests and faith rests on the invention of a self-correcting cybernetic process known as the modern scientific method. Science can be thought of as a process of Observation-Hypothesis-Test. According to the eminent philosopher of science Karl Popper, the essence of scientific proof is TESTING under the Principle of Falsification. That is, an hypothesis can not be proven to be true, it can only be proven to be false by banging its predictions against the real world.

For a scientific hypothesis to have meaning, therefore, it must be constructed in such a way that it is possible to falsify it by rigorous testing. Under these logical conditions, any test that confirms an hypothesis establishes "truth" on a conditional basis only. The conditional truth is always subject to further testing, elaboration, or possible falsification. The result is a gradually expanding edifice of conditional truth punctuated on rare occasions by stunning shifts in world views, known popularly as scientific revolutions or paradigm shifts, to use a much abused term.

The Michelson-Moreley Experiment in the late 19th Century is perhaps the most spectacular example of punctuated epistemology in action; it falsified the Newtonian world view, which was previously accepted as being true, and helped to open the door to Einstein’s new world view. Under the Principle of Falsification and the Theory of Conditional Truth, science and the evolution of knowledge can be thought of, paradoxically, as a creative search process for identifying what does not work.

Engineering is a similar self-correcting search process, but in this case, it can be viewed as a trial-and-error process of Observation–Design–Test. The emphasis on design gives engineering a slightly different motivating force, even though its method is the same as that of science. In contrast to science, Engineering can be thought of as a creative search process for what works in the sense of combining existing scientific principles (conditional truths) and technologies into new products that satisfy or create human needs. Engineering can be thought of as the practical application of the scientific method, where a "design" replaces a hypothesis. The principle of falsification takes the form of realistic testing of a prototype design. Once this approach determines a design that is viable in the real world, production resources can then be committed with relatively low economic or performance risk.

Tests that are biased to prove success violate the principle of falsification and the self-correcting essence of the scientific method. In the case of science, the result is quackery. In the case of engineering, problems get suppressed and products go into production prematurely with major design flaws, with the end result being products that don’t work or incur excessive costs to make them work.

So, engineers use the self-correcting scientific method to evolve new and useful product designs at an acceptable cost. They do this by synthesizing and debugging a sequence of increasingly comprehensive experimental prototype designs. In short, engineers discover what works by a search process that fixes things that do not work. This tinkering process is not just technological; it also includes tests related to management, production economics, and market research as well as anything else that defines what works in the real world (including, perhaps, a testing of the designer’s faith that a novel product will create a new market, as happened in the case of the invention of snowmobile)

Classical prototyping can also be thought of as a decision-making strategy for reducing technical and economic risks while preserving management’s freedom of action to terminate the effort, should testing reveal a product design to be fundamentally flawed or its costs are unaffordable.

The decision makers goal is to have the engineers work the bugs out of a design before a decision is made to commit substantial resources to its factors of production (manufacturing engineering, specialized machine tools, unique factory facilities, a network of supplier relationships, and the hiring of production workers). Production engineers should work closely with design engineers during a prototype’s design phase to insure the final product can be produced efficiently and economically. Moreover, as more detailed information flows out of the design and testing activities, production engineers should begin planning for an orderly transition to production by continuously refining their plans for factory layouts, machine tools, worker skills, sub contractors, etc. But under a classical prototyping strategy, the decision to commit resources to production would be deferred until rigorous testing demonstrated the product met its specifications.

The iron logic governing a classical engineering process is that any decision to commit more resources to an ongoing design effort must be justified by the demonstrated performance in prototype tests to date. In the end, ruthless testing of the final product in the competitive market or the battlefield will be the ultimate arbiter of success or failure of life or death of what really works. Prototyping can also be thought of as the engineering way of realistically preparing to meet that ultimate test. (Students of evolutionary biology will recognize immediately that this kind of tinkering and testing of prototypes is also nature’s way of evolving new designs that work in the real world — what surprise, a living process follows the pattern of life!.)

Viewed from these slightly different but overlapping perspectives, the roots the engineering process all lie in the fertile soil of the scientific method evolved by Bacon, Galileo, Newton, Darwin and their successors, as well as by the natural processes in evolutionary biology. At the heart of this method is the theory of conditional truth revealed by testing and the principle of falsification. While the scientific method of searching for truth in the material world has contributed much to Western Culture over the last 400 years, the theory of conditional truth has always been viewed as anathema by certain primitive religious sects, fortune tellers, swamis … and the power brokers or lobbyists or so-called transformationists in the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex (MICC).

For those or you who may be wondering why I have included the courtiers of Versailles on the Potomac in a medieval milieu that that includes religious swamis and fortune tellers, I urge you to read Fred Kaplan’s essay on the intellectual conditions (really, the triumph of interest and faith over facts and reason) predicating the collective decision to deploy the ballistic missile defense system before it is realistically tested.

For those readers who might wonder why our political process would risk our national treasure on an irrational edifice with this kind of spooky intellectual foundation — I would urge you to consider the possibility that a medieval scholasticism of a Buy Before You Fly procurement strategy (and accounting chaos) makes perfect sense to the courtiers of Versailles, because they make and benefit from decisions to risk other people’s money (and spill other people’s blood).

At least Plato’ Cave would have been a comfortable residing place for the post-modern world of the neo-Kantian anti-mind.

FRANKLIN C. SPINNEY is a longtime Pentagon analyst. His writings are available at the excellent Defense and the National Interest Website. He can be reached at: spinney@counterpunch.org.

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