Wile E. Coyote & the Pursuance of Scientific Progression

Carnivorous Vulgaris[i]Omnis Determinatio est Negatio[ii]

1— the Coyote

            In 1949 the LooneyTunes animation studio released the first episode of a long series that is casually referred to as, The Coyote and the Road Runner. This cartoon series had a formulaic plot that was repeated throughout every episode and the plot primarily unfolded as follows:

  • Coyote designs an elaborate plan to capture the Road Runner
  • Coyote poorly executes the elaborate plan and/or it fails because of external factors.
  • The Roadrunner is dismissive of the Coyote’s failures and taunts him with the well known catch phrase: beep beep
  • And the episode ends when the Coyote is met with a tragic, yet humorous, demise.

The purpose of this paper is to analyze the methods implemented by the Coyote through the eyes of Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper as both a means of explicating their theories, in addition to being a conduit for analyzing their methods against each other. I will then conclude by positing a reconciliation of their two methods that may have been outside of the scope and intent of both Kuhn and Popper, but notwithstanding their own respective systems of belief, it could be seen as adequate dialectical compromise between the two extremes of dogmatism and critical analysis.

2— Popper and the Coyote

Popper’s theory of science begins with a hypothesis, or rather, “tentative theory” that must first be a conjecture and capable of falsification and secondly, after being tested it is either corroborate or refute. Popper believed that criticism is born of rationalism, or as he states, “rationalism is an attitude of readiness to listen to critical arguments…” (Popper, OSAIE, Vol 2, p. 249).   In other words, Popper in light of recognizing that theory corroboration is possible, the objective of a rational (and critical) scientists is to refute. The Coyote never corroborates a theory and, in fact, all of his hypotheses are falsified in some way. Is this to say that according to Popper we can say that the Coyote was acting in accordance with how science functions?

            Through analysis of the many Coyote experiments we can see that the experiments failed in one of two ways (or a combination): either the experiment itself failed or, the roadrunner foiled the plan.   If the telos of Popper’s theory is to assume that through a process of conjecture and refutation the scientist would perpetually and positively progress in some way, as you continue to retool (to use the Kuhn word), then we would have to think that the Coyote would learn from his failings and progress in some sense.   The Coyote does not progress.

We could argue that the failings of the Coyote are not because he failed to progress and/or learn from this failings, but more that he lacked what Popper calls “dogmatism,” which is a rather poor word choice as his explanation makes it seem like he intended to mean studiousness (or diligence), as he is referring to a studious work ethic and not claiming that scientists should adhere to a set of dogmatic beliefs. This poor word choice becomes more apparent in Popper’s criticism of Kuhn by arguing that dogmatic scientists are “victims of indoctrination” (Rowbottom, P. 118). Popper states that “dogmatism allows us to approach a good theory in stages…” and we shouldn’t “…accept defeat to easily…” (Popper, C&R, p.4) and, with this in mind, we could say that the Coyote failed because he only tested each experiment once. It would have been better science (according to Popper) if he had tested different elements of a single hypothesis in stages and not given up so quick and worked towards perfecting the experiment in the process of trying to refute it. Or, put simply, if the objective was mere falsification then one could easily ‘straw man’ all their experiments to act in accordance to science— this would serve no purpose in advancing science.

To be sympathetic to our Coyote friend we could give credence to the Roadrunners foiling capacity to show why the Coyote perpetually failed at his goal at hand.   In the essay The Logic and Evolution of Scientific Theory Popper uses evolution theory to illustrate his scientific methods: an Amoeba implicitly has a hypothesis for life and if it dies: death is falsification of said theory; and if it lives (due to some adaptive trait): life is confirmation of said theory (Popper, ALIPS, pp. 3-22). Maybe things are that simple in the isolated thought experiment of the Amoeba with a non-evolving environment. But, this is not the case with the Coyote, as a large component of his experiments is another living being with agency, who can also evolve. In an article published in 2005 by K. Brad Wray this point is succinctly illustrated by showing that the cheetah evolved over time to be faster in order to catch the Gazelle, however, concurrently, the Gazelle evolved to outrun the Cheetah (Wray,48). Although Wray uses this to argue why science is not progressive, it is a good example to help argue that perhaps the Coyote failed because his ability to advance conjectures evolved in tandem to the Roadrunners ability to advance competing conjectures.   The two-species evolving model is similar — as Wray claims — to social sciences, insofar as a psychologist can interact with their patient and adversely affect the scientific process.

Popper considers psychology and political theories (such as Marxism) as pseudo-science because their conjectures cannot be tested in the same way that you can test harder sciences like physics (Smith, 71) and in this regard, Popper, I posit, would consider the Coyote as falling victim to pseudo-science as there is no way to soundly and probabilistically test the Coyote’s experiments in isolation with the dynamic variable of the Roadrunner always in play.   In conclusion I would argue that Popper would say the Coyote failed first by not attempting to test the experiments in a controlled (non-roadrunner) environment and secondly failed by failing to adhere to “some dogmatism” that would enlighten the Coyote on “where the real power of [his] theories lie(s).” (Popper, NSD, p.55)

3 — Kuhn and the Coyote

Kuhn’s theory of science is significantly more complicated than Popper’s as Kuhn argues for two different scientific modalities that he denotes as “normal science” and “scientific revolutions”.   For the purpose of our examination we will only be reviewing the modality of “normal science”, this is not to say that our Coyote does not have revolutionary potential, but is merely because examining a revolution can only be done by examining a larger dataset. Kuhn argues that scientists work within a paradigm, which can be defined as a set of methods, theories, standards and assumptions that a specific group of scientists operate within. We could say that the Coyote is working in the animal trapping paradigm or, maybe, the RoadRunner trapping paradigm. The Coyote then would be perceived (by Kuhn) as merely a puzzle-solver who is diligently working towards solving many menial tasks within his paradigm to help solve the fine details of the paradigm. Can we simply conclude that the Coyote is a tinkering normal scientist operating within the parameters of his paradigm? If this is so, then we must conclude that the Coyote is acting in accordance to how science functions.

We can yet again be sympathetic to our Coyote friend and assume (for whatever reason) that his paradigm dictates that Roadrunner Trapping must be done with an elaborate plan and that it also operates with the assumption that Roadrunner trapping is efficacious. If we accept the methods, standards and assumptions of the Coyote as being part of his paradigm, then perhaps he is operating in normal science and if this is true then he is utterly failing at his puzzle-solving, which may indicate that the Coyote is beginning to or is going through what Kuhn calls a “crisis”.

A crisis is when scientists within a paradigm begin to experience that their assumptions (for whatever reason) no longer hold true or are hindering their process to solve puzzles.   Kuhn fails to denote the parameters and/or any timeline to how/when this occurs within any given paradigm — although he is criticized for being vague on this issue — and, any attempt to formulaically predict a timeline — barring a historical qualitative analysis of the temporal factors of science — would be purely speculation. With that said, time is a variable we must disregard and since our dataset only includes one scientist, we could assert that the Coyote is in crisis and is dogmatically adhering to the assumption that Roadrunner trapping is efficacious. Although the state of crisis may in time help bring upon yet another paradigm with a whole new set of methods, standards and assumptions to bring the Coyote back to puzzle-solving bliss.

We could conclude from this that if we are being sympathetic to the Coyote we can assume he is in a state of crisis and properly operating within his paradigm in normal science. Conversely, if this was not the case, then without any evidence to showcase that he can solve puzzles we have to either conclude that either Kuhn’s system is wrong, or simply that the Coyote is a very poor scientist. Although, Kuhn does specifically note that it is reasonable that when a scientist is in a “prolonged crisis” it “probably reflect[s]…a less rigid educational practice” (Kuhn, 166), or, in other words, its very probable that the Coyote is just a poor scientist. So is it Kuhn or the Coyote that failed? The latter is most likely the case.

4— Kuhn and the Popper

In 1965 at the International Colloquium of the philosophy of science in London “Pearce Williams put forth the idea that Kuhn’s system is based on what scientists do, whereas Popper’s system is concerned with what scientists ought to do (but do not)” (Zollinger, 517-518). Is it that simple? Is Kuhn illustrating a descriptive theory while Popper is advancing a normative theory?

First to critique Popper, as Williams states, even if science ought to act like Popper posits, they do not. It would seem that from the breadth of historical evidence advanced by Kuhn that it would be easy to say that Popper may have had an interesting normative theory of how science should work but to argue that it reflects actual science is, ipso facto, false. This leads us to the question of why? If the difference between these two theories is — in actu that black and white then I will try to explicate why this is the case.

Heinrich Zollinger argues through a case-study on chemistry — of which is irrelevant to our discussion — that Popper’s theory “exploited [perhaps naively] the logical asymmetry between corroboration and refutation”; which is to say from a psycholinguistic perspective there is a “psychological barrier” in the “mental process” that limits (prevents) one from the act of negation (Zollinger, 526).   This concept is succinctly explicated by Francis Bacon in stating that “…human understanding when it has adopted an opinion…draws all things else to support and agree with it.” Or, in other words, Popper fails to recognize that theory corroboration cannot exist without theory falsification and vice versa. So perhaps it would be ideal for scientists to accept a skeptic approach that is driven from only a desire to falsify and never accept any ideas as true (or certain), but, as stated earlier, this view may not have any efficacy in reality and perhaps may run against the grain of human understanding.

Kuhn, on the other hand, I would like to say is dichotomously juxtaposed to Popper, which would allow me to argue the opposite argument— that Kuhn is failing to recognize the relationship that refutation is interrelated to corroboration, but, that is not the case. Kuhn, as it seems, is not making epistemological claims nor is he making metaphysical claims.   He is merely, through historical analysis of science, illustrating the process of how science functions and notes that science progress does not imply progression towards anything, nor does all science develop through intention or through some bold forward thinking conjecture. Scientists function in response to their predecessors and not by conjecturing an idea to a progressive future state. And sometimes this happens from the product of accident and error. We could say, perhaps, that Kuhn is a pragmatist and dismisses epistemological and metaphysical apriorisms as invalid or merely unnecessary to his project. This, in contradistinction to Popper, who advances the bold conjecture that science can (or does) function idealistically towards a positive progression — not necessarily progressing towards anything; but, positive, nonetheless.

5 — Can we reconcile?

Centuries before both Kuhn, Popper and Sir Francis Bacon, Spinoza, in a letter, inscribed the latin expression omnis determinatio est negatio, which translates as every determination is negation. This simple idea that we cannot determine anything independent of its negation and vice versa became greatly exploited by Hegel as the master/slave dialect and the cornerstone to his project in whole. I preface my reconciliation with this further expansion of the previously inscribed critique of Popper to segue towards a reconciliation inspired/suggested by Hegel.

In a paper written by Darrell P. Rowbottom in 2011 he argues to reconcile Kuhn and Popper by arguing for a “resolution on the group level” which argues that within any given paradigm you are going to have individual scientists who dogmatically work towards a particular solution to a puzzle while another may work on a contradicting approach to the same puzzle and in some regard we could say that a group of scientists as an amalgam of collective processes function as Popper argues (Rowbottom, 123). This interesting interpretation (and sympathetic) view of Popper I think does not go far enough in trying to reconcile the two theories. If we expand this further and try to view Popper’s theories through a broad lens of history we argue perhaps that one paradigm advances a conjecture implicit in the assumptions they assert and it is the eventual crisis that serves to finally falsify their conjecture, ad infinitum.

This macroscopic interpretation of Popper could be perceived as akin to Hegel’s theory of history— history is a perpetual process of “unfolding truth” that cannot be independently assessed in any single moment of time nor can any individual moment in time be used towards alluding to comprehension of progress of the past/future in the particular or in the universal (Hegel, ENC, Vol. 1 §140A)(Hegel, POS, §2, 4) — and it stands to reason that if we accept Hegel and presume that scientific discovery will unfold as Hegel argues then it stands to reason that both Popper and Kuhn would fail at comprehending the particulars and universals of scientific progress. Leaving us with a theory reasoned in logic and the limits of induction (Popper) and a theory reasoned in an assessment of history (Kuhn), but both seem to be incomplete or missing something. A scientist would most likely act with disdain towards Kuhn’s pragmatic and humble approach, and, conversely, pridefully accept Popper’s idealistic approach.   What is missing?

From Hegel’s view of history we can argue that without Newton, there is no Einstein; without Darwin there is no Dawkins; without Freud there is no Deleuze; without Popper there is no Kuhn and without Spinoza, there is no Hegel. And, moreover, without everything that was before everything that is now: there is nothing. That is to say, scientists may loath at being reduced to Kuhn’s model, but perhaps it is Popper who helps insert spirit into the scientific process and give hope towards something anew. Or as, Popper states, “I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to truth” (Popper, OSAIE, Vol. II p.249) and along the way towards this nearing of truth we find humility in Kuhn, idealism in Popper and in our Coyote friend— we find humor. As any given scientist, philosopher and/or human when assessed as an isolated individual are not necessarily spectacular, but when all combined as one collective unit of humanity we find spirit as either an encapsulation of the process in of itself, or as the transcendental totality of all that is.

Or, in short, to reconcile Kuhn and Popper is to not to say that one in isolation is right or wrong or that combined they become something superior, but it is to persist that they do not explicate scientific progress, but rather they are part of scientific progress and without them both this investigation need not exist.

 

 

 

Sources:

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, and Arnold V. Miller. Phenomenology of Spirit (POS).                   Oxford England: Clarendon, 1977. Print.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, and Klaus Brinkmann. Encyclopedia of the                             Philosophical Sciences in Basic Outline (ENC). Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010. Print.

Melamed, Yitzhak Y. Spinoza and German Idealism. Cambridge [England: Cambridge UP, 2012. Print.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2nd ed. Chicago: U of                                 Chicago, 1970. Print.

Popper, Karl R. All Life Is Problem Solving (ALIPS). London: Routledge, 1999. Print.

Popper, Karl R. Conjectures and Refutations (C&R); the Growth of Scientific                          Knowledge,. New York: Basic, 1962. Print.

Popper, Karl, R. Normal Science and its Dangers (NSD), In Lakatos & Musgrave, 1970,  (pp-51-58)

Popper, Karl R. The Open Society and Its Enemies (OSAIE),. [5th ed. Princeton, N.J.:                    Princeton UP, 1966. Print.

Rowbottom, Darrell P. Kuhn vs. Popper on Criticism and Dogmatism in Science: A               Resolution at the Group Level. 2011. Print.

Smith, Peter. Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science.                                 Chicago: U of Chicago, 2003. Print.

The Coyote and the Road Runner, (1949), Warner Brothers, Burbank, California

Wray, K. Brad. “Does Science Have a Moving Target?” American Philosophical                          Quarterly 42.1 (2005): 47-58. Print.

Zollinger, Heinrich. “Logic and Psychology of Scientific Discoveries: A Case Study in                Contemporary Chemistry.” Perspectives on SCience 5.4 (1999): 516-32. Print.

 

 

Footnotes:

[i] Translated from latin as the common meat-eater, this was used in the first episode of the cartoon to describe The Coyote. Vulgaris as ‘common’ connotes that the Coyote is ordinary and not spectacular. Contrary to the Coyote’s self-proclamation of being a “genius” — irony to ensue.

[ii] Translated from latin as Every determination is negation, this was coined in a letter by Spinoza on June 2nd 1674. This could be argued to have had a substantial influence on Hegel’s master/slave dialect — although Hegel never granted any credit to any such influence. (Melamed, 175-196)