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TOWARDS SCIENTIFIC AND TECHNOLOGICAL CONSCIOUSNESS: A PANASEA FOR AFRICAN DEVELOPMENT

By AUGUSTINE, AKINTUNDE FARINOLA

ABSTRACT

This paper engages in a conceptual analysis of the word ‘revolution’ as it is applied in the phenomenon of ‘technological revolution’. It analyses the linguistic meaning of the word ‘revolution’ and probes it usage in the context of scientific, political and industrial revolutions.   The paper, after highlighting various technological revolutions and exposing salient innovations that emerged from each, argues the usage of the word ‘revolution’ in ‘technological revolution’ portrays the idea of new technology evolving and wiping out the existing technologies, a sort of sharp discontinuity. The paper further contends that technological revolutions, such as ‘power revolution’, ‘the information and computer technological revolution, do not just affect one technology but several technologies in that particular era, thereby reshaping the culture and material condition of the people.

Keywords: revolution, technology, technological revolution, scientific revolution, culture.

  • INTRODUCTION

The civilizations we experience in various human societies are results of our effort to improve the conditions of our existence. As generation upon generation passes, our ideas about nature and our understanding of the best means of interacting with our world changes. To depict some of these changes in our human inquiries and techniques, we deploy linguistics terms like ‘progress’, ‘advancement’, and ‘revolution’. As part of the task of the philosopher of technology, we are advised (by Don Ihde) to reflectively analyze ‘technology’ in such a way as to illuminate features of the phenomenon of technology itself[1].  In obedience to this mandate, this essay shall embark on the conceptual analysis of the concept of ‘revolution’ as applicable to ‘technological revolution’ with reference to various instances in the course of human history.

We shall examine the idea of ‘technological revolution’ to confirm whether it connotes a sort of incorporation of existing technologies as new ones emerges or whether it portrays a ‘sharp discontinuity’ from the prior technologies. We shall begin by examining the dictionary definitions of ‘revolution’ in order to appropriate its usage in relation to technological advancement, progress, evolution or change.  Then we shall critically explore historical accounts of technological revolutions with an attempt to narrate what happened. Afterwards, we shall juxtapose scientific and technological revolutions in order to highlight their influences on each other and how the concept of ‘revolution’ could be said to be applied in the same sense to both fields of human inquiry.

 Finally, we shall make some inferences, on the nature of technological revolution, from our previous exposition and analysis. This will help us to finally display our understanding of the concept of ‘revolution’ as applicable to technological revolutions, and conclude with a discourse on the proper reaction of Africans towards the ongoing technological revolution.

  • CONCEPTUAL CLARIFICATION
    • What is Technology?

The word ‘technology’ has evolved in its implications. It could be thought of as a piece of physical hardware, which tends to be a layman’s view of the meaning, or as the knowledge that made the hardware possible. Harvey Brooks defined technology as ‘knowledge of how to fulfill certain human purposes in a specifiable and reproducible way”[2].

For Brooks, technology does not consist of artifacts but of the knowledge that underlies the artifacts and the way they can be used in society. So, a holistic understanding of the term ‘technology’ must not be limited to just a piece of hardware but much be inclusive of the bodies of rules and techniques, the large knowledge base that is specific to the creation of a particular piece of hardware and that made its production and application possible. In support of this view, Joseph C. Pitt said that technology is not a thing in itself; it is the techniques and methods, including machines, tools, social systems, etc, we use to make our way in the world.[3]

            The instrumental and anthropological definition of technology portrays it as a means to an end (the manufactured and used things themselves, and the needs and ends that they serve) and as a human activity (the manufacture and utilization of equipments, tools and machines). This definition surely holds for both handicraft and modern technology except for the fact that Heidegger felt that though it is correct, it does not show us technology’s essence. [4]

It should be noted that the term ‘technology’ should not be confused with the term ‘innovation’. The latter is the process by which technology is created and deployed in society, implying the creation as well of whatever support systems are necessary to install and use a technology. Let’s illustrate this point by using Thomas Edison’s inventions: the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and a long-lasting, practical electric light bulb. These inventions were of little social significance on their own, they became technologies as the knowledge of how they operated became reproducible, and they became innovations when support systems – including other inventions – became available: electric- power grids, home wiring, accounting and sales bureaus in commercial organizations, and other elements of systems able to deliver power to customers[5].

  • What is Revolution?

In the first place, the word ‘revolution’ originates in the word ‘evolution’…to re-evolve. So, as applicable to technological revolution, we might simply say that the efficiency of technology has evolved. So, the question then is: what does it mean to ‘evolve’? The linguistic meaning of ‘evolution’ means ‘to develop gradually from a simple to a more complicated from’[6]. Secondly, the word ‘revolution’ point to ‘an epochal and irreversible change’. This understanding of ‘revolution’ was applied in a systematic way to events in science and politics. In just this sense, the first revolutions may have been the scientific revolution, and the ‘American’, ‘French’, and ‘Russian Revolutions’ are its progeny. Ordinarily in some of those instances listed above, the word ‘revolution’ might simply imply the overthrow of one power structure by another[7].

From antiquity through the modern period, a ‘revolution’ invoked the idea of a periodically recurring cycle. Later on, we have the idea of revolution as a radical and irreversible reordering -that is, the bringing about of a new state of affairs that the world had never witnessed before and might never witness again. Meanwhile, our analysis in this essay will aid us in arriving at a proper sense in which the concept of ‘revolution’, properly understood, could be applicable to ‘change’ or ‘evolution’, but not ‘progress’, in ‘technology’. Technological progress is quite different from technological revolution or change because the term ‘change’ is a neutral term but ‘progress’ is neither neutral nor value-laden. For Hans Jonas, technological progress refers to the restlessness of modern technology, in which a technology in itself begets the problems which it is then called upon to overcome by a new forward jump.[8] 

  • TECHNOLOGICAL REVOLUTIONS

In the history of ideas and events within the human planet, we have obtained accounts of technological revolutions such as Neolithic Revolution, Agricultural Revolution, Green Revolution, Metallurgical Revolution, Industrial Revolution, Information and Communication Technological Revolution. Due to the time and space constraint of this essay, we shall briefly probe into three of these instances.

  • Neolithic Revolution

            It is first and foremost a socioeconomic and technological transformation which involved a shift from food-gathering to food-producing[9]. Neolithic revolution represents a change of historical direction initiated by humans themselves in response to their changing environments. The Neolithic revolution was a techno-economic process that occurred without the aid or input of any independent science[10].

            This first major technological revolution (the domestication of plants and animals) points the transformation of hunter-gatherer societies into pastoral, horticultural, or agricultural societies. Such that plant and animal domestication allowed societies to adapt to the nexus of population and resource pressures, solutions were provided to problems such as malnutrition, starvation, epidemic disease, social inequality, and environmental degradation.[11] There are instances in which innovation itself can also be considered a technology when and if it is reduced to a set of specified rules and procedure.

  • Industrial Revolution

The industrial Revolution was a confluence of technological breakthroughs that began roughly with the invention of steam-powered equipment in the 18th century. Steam power amplified the horse-power (that is, the hydro, wind, and animal powered systems already in place) being applied in the world’s production process. This new technology overcome the previous constraints that limited the distance between the power source and the production activity, and the modern factory an new forms of transportation was born as we have steamships and railroads (instead of canal boats) and the motion of the world accelerated[12].

In the case of Industrial revolution, the conversion from invention to full assimilation was drawn out over roughly half a century. For instance, it took nearly forty years, after its invention, before electricity was brought to U.S households[13]

 

  • Transportation and Communication Technological Revolution

            This revolution occurred at the turn of the 20th century along with the invention of publishing, telephone, radio, photographic, and motion picture industries[14]. In this same period, the widespread use of computers was revolutionary too as computers makes new products and services possible[15].

  • SCIENTIFIC-TECHNOLOGICAL REVOLUTION: An Analysis

Considering the complex relationship that exists between science and technology, any analysis of technological revolution that excludes scientific revolution will obviously be inadequate. Meanwhile, it would be wrong to think that science is the basis of technological revolution. Using the scientific communities in the West (as distinct from those in the Islamic world or the East) as instances, those technological developments so essential for science and for the economic growth of the West were not themselves the products of scientific research. Some preceded the origin of the new science, others were developed without scientific understanding of how or why they worked; many, in fact, provided the impetus for development of new scientific fields[16].

It will be pertinent at this point to note the sense in which we distinguish between ‘science’ and ‘technology’. By ‘science’, we strictly refer to the modern sciences of physics, chemistry, biology, and geology – and their numerous extensions: psychology, nuclear physics, biochemistry, cosmology, and more. While by ‘technology’, we refer primarily to the modern activities of making ad using artifacts, especially in applied science, engineering, medicine, decision-making, and management.[17] As noted, we could notice that these two terminologies are different though interrelated. While science provides descriptive knowledge of the world, technology provides increasingly powerful means.  Meanwhile, we cannot deny the fact that some aspects of technology are highly dependent on scientific knowledge or theory (for example, designer materials, computers, biotechnology, and genetic engineering). So, one might simply say that science and technology as similar in the sense that they independently produce both the devices as well as the knowledge and differs in the sense that while the aim of science is to find truth about the physical world, technology aims at solving practical problems.[18] As Hans Jonas puts it, ‘mutual feedback operates between science and technology; each requires and propels the other. It is either they live together or must die together’[19]

So, technological revolution is not necessarily based on prior progress in science, but on prior technological revolutions. The question then is whether technological revolution is a sort of improvement over the earlier or existing technologies or whether is a sharp ‘discontinuity’ from the prior technologies. If we understand the concept of revolution taking a leap from one of the leading figures that has played a comparable role for contemporary technology studies, Thomas Kuhn, we will argues too that technological revolution connotes the idea of new technology evolving and wiping out the existing technologies, a sort of sharp discontinuity or ‘paradigm’ shift. 

In The Structure of Scientific Revolution (1970), Thomas Kuhn discussed diverse individual revolutions with particular emphasis on Corpenican, Newtonian, Chemical and Einsteinian revolutions. He suggested that scientific revolutions have a three-beat sequence of stages. The pattern begins with a period of ‘normal science’, within which scientists apply and extend a dominant ‘paradigm’. The second stage is a period of conflict within which supporters of a second paradigm seek to overthrow the hitherto dominant paradigm. And the third stage is a new period of normal science under the victorious second paradigm[20]. It should be noted that a number of historical developments traditionally labeled “revolutions” appear to fit the Kuhnian pattern: Transition from Aristotelian physics to Newtonian physics, from Phlogiston chemistry to oxygen chemistry, from Newtonian mechanics to general relativity theory, and from classical physics to quantum physics[21]. Can we say that technological revolution also follows this pattern?

Scientific revolution might point to a coherent, cataclysmic, and climatic event that fundamentally and irrevocably changed what people knew about the natural world and how they secured proper knowledge of that world.[22] It could be interpreted as a process of rethinking older experience. This revolution witnesses the contributions of individual disciplines and was an event that primarily has to do with not just the mathematical and physical sciences but also possessed chemical, pharmaceutical, or medical features as well.[23]

From a historical point of view, we can establish the fact that the revolutions in science over the last fifty years impacted a revolutionary style to technology and the reciprocity between the two concurrent steams (take Nuclear physics as an instance). It’s obvious that an agent of restlessness is implanted in modern technology by its functionally integral bond with science.

  • CONCEPTUAL UNDERSTANDING OF TECHNOLOGICAL REVOLUTION

Technological revolution changes the conception or definition of technology, a sort of paradigm shift. Technology has previously been defined as comprising the use of artificial implements for the business of life, together with their original invention, improvement, and occasional additions. But this conception changes with the advent of modern technology. That was why Hans Jonas argued that new technologies sometime suggest or impose new ends:

“who had ever wished to have in his living room the Philharmonic orchestra, or open heart surgery, or a helicopter defoliating a Vietnam forest? Or to drink his coffee from a disposable plastic cup? Or to have artificial insemination, test-tube babies, and host pregnancies? Or to see clones of himself and other walking about?[24]

Technological revolution occurred more by accident than by design. In other words, they are not consciously created changes. This fact could be supported with instances from Agricultural revolution and the Metallurgical revolution.

Technological revolution is an occurrence which affects not just one technology but several technologies. This fact is well illustrated using Power revolution as an instance. The creation and spread of new sources of power is the fundamental revolution of all. The power revolution laid the foundation for the new technologies that transformed transportation, communication, and production. It hastened the settling of the continent, multiplied the productivity of a people short on labour, and became an indispensable engine driving material progress[25].

Just as scientific revolution led to technological advancement, the latter also advances the former. For instance, advances in chemistry produced a host of new products from coal tar such as medicine, perfumes, aniline dyes, benzene, and carbolic acid. They also gave the world glucose syrup, nitroglycerine, cheap aluminum and fertilizers. In turn, the industrial revolution of the 19th century brought the discovery of germ theory, use of anesthesia, artificial limbs, antiseptic surgery, and other advances. New telescopes, microscopes, and spectroscopes transformed the field of optics, and the kinetoscope offered the promise of a seductive new form of entertainment in the form of moving pictures[26].

Technological revolution makes old ideas and old ways of doing things obsolete. This fact is obvious from the instances of recent technological revolutions such as revolution in Information and Communication Technology (starting with the advent of the telephone to the present age of wireless and internet enabled computers) and The Military Technological Revolution (with the development of new war-fighting technologies). The ICT revolution brought about a faster and less expensive means of transmitting data and ideas around the globe. It is changing the world of ideas in essentially the same way that railroads changed our conception of physical transportation.[27] That was why Maury Klein argued that Technological revolutions rewrite not only the material conditions of our existence but also reshape culture and even human nature[28].

Technological revolutions rewrite not only the material conditions of our existence but also reshape culture and even – perhaps – human nature[29]. The scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, the consumer revolution, and the industrial revolution are among the most important revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that were deemed to have ushered in the modern age.[30]  The succession of scientific, industrial, and political revolutions really ushers in the modern age, and this lasted through at least the middle of the twentieth century.[31] It was actually the emergence of industrial society in the eighteenth century that resulted in an industrial revolution – a revolution that was made possible by technological innovations in metallurgy, chemical technology, and mechanical engineering. As a matter of fact, the recent emergence of an information society is also the product of a largely technological revolution, in information technology.[32]  Many authors point specifically to the revolution in information technology as a moment of entering into an information age (or, equivalently, a postindustrial age) in which an economy based on information, not goods, has become the organizing principle of society.[33]

 

  • CONCLUSION

In this essay, we have been engaged in a descriptive and analytic view of technological revolution without delving into the issue of whether technological revolutions increase inequality, promote violence, threaten cultures or harm the environment. Such ethical concern is not within the scope this paper. Meanwhile, we shall use the insights obtained from our analysis to probe the current technological trend so as to recommend the proper attitude developing nations in Africa needed to display towards ‘technological revolution’.

            In this 3rd millennium, the emerging technologies aim at just one thing – to create better humans! Towards this end, we have witnessed a lot of research efforts in the discipline of science and technology (fields such as Biomedical engineering, Genetic engineering, Neurobiology, Neurosciences, Biophysics, Biotechnology and Nanotechnology). The dissatisfaction of researchers, technologists, and innovators behind this revolution is in the limitation of our human nature. This provokes this call their restless zeal to create ‘SUPER HUMANS’.  Today, Genetic Engineers claim to have gained the ability to ‘create life’ to ‘specification’ and to temper with human genes in order to create a better human. Recently, we witnessed the interchanging of organs between species and growing of human organs on animal tissues.

            In Computer and Communication Technology, attention has shifted from creating computers to the creation of robots. Robots, they think, would assists mankind as they are built to surpass humans in various activities and to do what humans literally cannot do. Countries like Japan, China, Germany, UK, France, South Korea, Canada, Italy and Brazil lead in robotic technology as they deploy researchers, engineers, technocrats and specialists in artificial intelligence, and 3D Artists in developing robot that could respond to quick actions. Some of their inventions include: Multi-legged Robots, NASA’s Robot Astronaut, NEXI-Robot, SEROPI-2,ALPHA-DOG-Robot,HUBO,ASIMOetc.

            Furthermore, experts in Robotics engineering and the field of Artificial Intelligence, in collaboration with Biomedical engineers, Neurobiologists, Neurosurgery, Biophysicists, Biotechnicians, and engineers of Nanotechnology, have presented their ‘breakthroughs’ in creating spare parts or laboratory grown organs for vital human heart, kidney, liver, and lungs; in keeping a human brain alive outside the body ( or even transporting a human head from one body to another); in understanding and manipulating brain processes and signals through the use of microchips or tiny electrode that could replace part of the brain or posses more brain power; and in understanding and altering human DNA Code in order to remake humans. From our analysis above, are these not instances of technological revolution?

            This paper recommends that Africans, in their effort to adopt and adapt  various outputs of technological revolutions emerging from the leading nations (United State, China, Germany, UK, France, South Korea, Canada, Italy), need to realize that the ongoing technological revolution, unlike previous ones, is a pure abuse of science and technology which will eventually have a ‘backfire’ on humanity.  Africans should never be carried away be the eloquence of advocates of adoption of technological revolution, but carefully adopt only those ones that will be suitable to our environment, culture, and our location within the Cosmos. The questions that should continue to linger on our minds include: What will the world look like in the next 30 years? Will these restless individuals succeed in creating creatures that will violate or transcend human limits? Are we still going to be considered ‘humans’ when they succeed in transplanting consciousness, human soul/spirit, or human personality? Will Scientists surpass ‘God’ in REMAKING HUMANS? 

 

[1] Don Hide, Philosophy of Technology (New York: Paragon House, 1987), p.38

[2] Harvey Brooks, “Technology , Evolution, and Purpose” in Modern Technology: Problem or Opportunity? Daedalus 109, no. 1 (Winter 1980), p.66

[3] C.f. Joseph C. Pitt, Doing Philosophy of Technology: Essays in a Pragmatist Spirit (USA: Springer,2011), p.viii

[4] C.f. Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology’ in Robert C. Scharff and Val Dusek (eds.), Philosophy of Technology, The Technological Condition: An Anthology (UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2003), p.253

[5] C.f. Eugene B. Skolnikoff, The Elusive Transformation: Science, Technology, and the Evolution of International Politics (Princeton, NJ. Publication: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 16

[6] Oxford Advanced Learner Dictionary, 6th Edition, p.398

[7] C.f. Steven Shapin, The Scientific Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p.2

[8] C.f. Hans Jonas, ‘Towards a Philosophy of Technology’, op.cit., p.193

[9] James E. McClellan III and Harold Form, Science and Technology in World History: An Introduction 2nd Ed. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), p.17

[10] Ibid., p.23

[11] C.f. David Hess, ‘

[12] C.f. Jerry L Jordan, “Riding the S-Curve: Thriving in a Technological Revolution” in Economic Commentary (Cleveland), Jan 1, 2001, p.1

[13] C.f. Jerry L Jordan, “Riding the S-Curve: Thriving in a Technological Revolution”, op.cit, p.3

[14] C.f. Andrea Hornstein, “Growth Accounting with Technological Revolution’ in Economic Quarterly Vol.85, Issue 3, 1999, p.1

[15] C.f. Hedley, R. Alan, “Technological Diffusion or Cultural Imperialism? Measuring the Information Revolution” in International Journal of Comparative Sociology, Vol. 39, Issue 2, June 1998, p.1984

[16] C.f. Eugene B. Skolnikoff, op.cit.,p.15

[17] C.f. Encyclopedia of science, technology and ethics, p. xiii

[18] This opinion is actually a re-affirmation of Kitcher’s argument in his book ‘Science, Truth, an d Democracy’ (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), p.97

[19] Hans Jonas, ‘Towards a Philosophy of Technology’, op.cit., p.195

[20] C.f.,Ibid., p.76

[21] C.f.,Ibid., p.78

[22] C.f. Steven Shapin, The Scientific Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p.1

[23] C.f. Bruce T. Moran, Distilling Knowledge: Alchemy, Chemistry, and The Scientific Revolution (London: Harvard University Press, 2005), p.157

[24] C.f. Hans Jonas, “Toward a Philosophy of Technology” in Robert C. Scharff and Val Dusek (eds.), The Philosophical Condition: An Anthology, op.cit., p.191

[25] C.f. Maury Klein, The Genesis of Industrial America 1879-1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p.15

[26] C.f. M Klein, ibid., p.80

[27] C.f. Jerry L Jordan, “Riding the S-Curve: Thriving in a Technological Revolution”, op.cit, p.6

[28] C.f. Maury Klein, The Genesis of Industrial America (1870-1920) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p.15

[29] C.f. Nick Bostrom, ”Technological Revolutions: Ethics and Policy in the Dark” in Nanoscale: Issues and Perspectives for the Nano century, eds. Nigel M. does Cameron and M. Ellen Mitchell Eds. (John Willey,2007), p.129

[30] C.f. Thomas J. Misa, “The Compelling Tangle of Modernity and Technology” in Thomas J. Misa et al(eds.)., Modernity and Technology (USA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2003), p.6

[31] C.f. Ibid., p.12

[32] C.f. Ibid., p.33

[33] C.f. Philip Brey, ”Theorizing Modernity and Technology” in Thomas J. Misa et al(eds.)., Modernity and Technology (USA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2003), p.43

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Ali Mazrui, (1985), “African Between Ideology and Technology: Two Frustrated Forces of Change” in African Independence: The First Twenty-Five Years, M.C Gwendolen and P.O ‘Mear (eds.) Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Anele, D.I.O (1998), “Topics in Scientific Research and Technology: The Nature of Scientific Explanation,” in Philosophical Science: for General Studies, Jim Unah (ed.), Lagos: Foresight Press.

  1. Skolnikoff, Eugene (1993), The Elusive Transformation: Science, Technology, and the Evolution of International Politics Princeton, NJ. Publication: Princeton University Press.

Bostrom, Nick,(2007), ”Technological Revolutions: Ethics and Policy in the Dark” in Nanoscale: Issues and Perspectives for the Nano century, eds. Nigel M. does Cameron and M. Ellen Mitchell Eds. New York: John Willey.

Brey, Philip (2003), “Theorizing Modernity and Technology” in Thomas J. Misa et al(eds.)., Modernity and Technology USA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology,

Brooks, Harvey, (1980). “Technology , Evolution, and Purpose” in Modern Technology: Problem or Opportunity? Daedalus 109, no. 1.

Bunch, Bryan and Hellemans, Alexander, (2004), The History of Science and Technology U.S.A: Scientific Publishing Inc.

  1. Pitt, Joseph, (2011), Doing Philosophy of Technology: Essays in a Pragmatist Spirit USA: Springer.

Gyekye, Kwame, (1997), “Philosophy, Culture and Technology in Post-Colonial Africa” in Post Colonial African Philosophy: A Critical Reader. Emmanuel Chukwu Eze (Ed.) Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing.

Hans Jonas, (1987), Towards a Philosophy of Technology New York: Paragon House.

Heidegger, Martin, (2003), The Question Concerning Technology’ in Robert C. Scharff and Val Dusek (eds.), Philosophy of Technology, The Technological Condition: An Anthology UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Hide, Don, (1987), Philosophy of Technology New York: Paragon House.

Hornstein, Andrea, (1999), “Growth Accounting with Technological Revolution’ in Economic Quarterly Vol.85, Issue 3.

Ifechukwu, J.A. (1991), O The Secret of Western Technology: Myth or Reality Lagos: Goldland Business Company Ltd.

  1. Misa, Thomas, (2003), “The Compelling Tangle of Modernity and Technology” in Thomas J. Misa et al(eds.)., Modernity and Technology USA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

James E. McClellan III and Harold Form, (2006), Science and Technology in World History: An Introduction 2nd Ed. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Jordan, Jerry L. (2001), “Riding the S-Curve: Thriving in a Technological Revolution” in Economic Commentary (Cleveland), Jan 1.

Kitcher, Philip, (2001), ‘Science, Truth, and Democracy’ New York: Oxford University Press.

Klein, Maury, (2007), The Genesis of Industrial America 1879-1920, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Moran, Bruce T, (2005) Distilling Knowledge: Alchemy, Chemistry, and The Scientific Revolution (London: Harvard University Press.

Oxford Advanced Learner Dictionary, 6th Edition

  1. Alan, Hedley, (1998), “Technological Diffusion or Cultural Imperialism? Measuring the Information Revolution” in International Journal of Comparative Sociology, Vol. 39, Issue 2, June

Shapin, Steven, (1998), The Scientific Revolution Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Uduigwomen, Andrew F. (1996), A Textbook of History and Philosophy of Science Aba: A.A.U Industries Publishing Division.

THE QUESTION CONCERNING SCIENTIFIC PROGRESS AND RATIONALITY: KITCHER’S RESPONSE

By AUGUSTINE, AKINTUNDE FARINOLA

INTRODUCTION

Philip Kitcher is one of the most influential philosophers of science of the past two decades. In “The Advancement of Science (1993)”, he endeavor to probe the notions of progress and rationality in science. His position, in line with his teacher, Thomas Kuhn, was a critique of what he called ‘a legendary view of science’. Thus, he gave new interpretations to the notion of progress and rationality in science. In order to initiate a discourse on Kitcher’s The Advancement of Science”, it will be pertinent to expose his expulsion of ‘legend’ from the conception of science and his removal of ‘illusion’ from the rationality or objectivity of science. Then, we shall expose his understanding of scientific change and progress using notable insights from the philosophy of physics, biology and psychology. Without ignoring previous attempts in the history of philosophy and sociology of science, we shall make a critical examination of his notion of scientific progress and rationality.

 

SCIENCE WITHOUT LEGEND

The image of Science as being the ‘epitome of human knowledge’ has often been held like a dogma that most people believed that any question that science cannot offer immediate answers in the present will surely be addressed by future researches[1]. The Enlightenment also left the legacy that certain types of scientific inquiry (Physics, Chemistry, Geology, and Biology) offer reliable information about particular questions that matter to people.  While Science has been seen to be the “Paradigm of Rationality”, its method has always been praised as ‘The method’. Meanwhile, Enlightenment ideas about science have suffered a great blow from the output of historical and sociological studies of science, and it has been shown that such impression about science is a ‘Legend’.

The Popular image of science presents science to be the pinnacle of all human achievements. The defenders of this image, notably some practicing scientist, some Historians, Philosophers, and Sociologists of Science, argued though there have been mistakes and false steps within scientific practices, all are however geared towards gaining better and better approximations of truth. After all, there are explanations both for the occasional mistakes and for the dominant progressive trend. Science, through its practice, both in attaining truth and in lapsing into error, is thoroughly informed by reason. Furthermore, they claimed that scientist’s success could be attributed to their use of Scientific Method. This impression was been championed by the Logical Positivists, The Logical Empiricists and their philosophical kin (Rudolf Carnap, Carl Gustav Hempel, Ernest Nagel, Hans Reichenbach, and Karl Popper).

During this time, the image that science is magically endowed with an infallible method for achieving absolutely perfect truth lingered on. It becomes ‘irrational’ to defy its intellectual authority or even to discuss the aspects of the world to which science might not apply. It was towards the end of late 1950s that such impression about came to an end, and people began to see those claims about science as smug, uninformed, unhistorical, and analytically shallow. With the historical excavations of Thomas Kuhn (1962) an Paul Feyerabend (1975), the hegemony of science in the contemporary society was questioned, and a conclusion was reached that science is a clearing of rationality in a jungle of muddle, prejudice, and superstition. For them, Scientists are not terribly high-minded individuals, neither are they motivated some pure and disinterested love of truth, but normal fallible humans. For the other critics of this popular image of science, those claims are said to be unproven and to have been refuted when the features of the mental and social worlds in which science operates were put into consideration.

Thomas Kuhn, on his own part, did not simply propose that the existing accounts of good reasoning in science were wrong, or that the idealizations they employed were too simple, or that their vocabulary needed enrichment, he went ahead to suggest that the entire project of finding a ‘calculus of scientific reasoning’ ought to be abandoned[2]. Along this line of reasoning, Paul Feyerabend, in his work ‘Against Method’, concluded that the only maxim that can be applied across all historical instances is “Anything goes”.

Meanwhile, it was Phillip Kitcher that introduced the ideas of ‘Science’ as ‘Legend’[3]. Following the footstep of Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, he questioned the notions of progress and rationality of science as portrayed in the legendary view of science as the epitome of all human knowledge.  He felt that attacks on Legend’s conception of the rationality of science accompany the critique of scientific progress. He explained that in the heyday of the Legend, it was even argued that the idea of ‘non-scientific knowledge’ was a contradiction in terms, as if there were no other reality than the world revealed by science[4].

…the history of science cautions us against writing off any domain of investigation as inaccessible. Given the finiteness of our collective lifespan, the boundedness of our distribution in space, and the limitations of our cognitive systems, it is highly likely that there are some aspects of the universe that we shall never be able to fathom. However, it is not clear that we can come to know which these are without an enormous amount of effort. Casual attempts to write off certain phenomena as beyond the reach of science are typically premature. After all, who would have thought that we would have come to know as much as we do about the composition of matter or the history of life?[5]

 He criticized Legend’s propaganda that scientific knowledge rest ultimately on observation and experiment, and their opinion that science is directed at noble goals, specifically, that of discovering the truth- partial or whole – about the world. Kitcher doubted their claim that science has ever been very successful in realizing those goals, and that successive generations of scientist have filled in more and more parts of the complete true story of (the observable part of) the world.

Meanwhile, if Kitcher and other critics of the Legend claimed that such glorious image about science must not only be challenged but be discarded, on what ground then shall we base the credibility of science? In response, they opined that such credibility depends, as much, on how science operates as a collective social enterprise as it does on the principles regulating the type of information that this enterprise accepts and transforms into knowledge[6].

Today, most of the contemporary philosophers of science see science as a social institution that involves large numbers of specific people regularly performing specific actions which are consciously coordinated into large schemes with the goal of producing quantities of knowledge[7]. They are of the view that scientific institutions, being human, are permeated with folly, incompetence, self-interest, moral myopia, bureaucracy, anarchy, etc. Such that scientific knowledge is not just a disembodied stream of data or books on a library shelf, but knowledge that is generated and received, regenerated or revised, communicated and interpreted, by human minds[8]. Meanwhile, ‘scientific objectivity’ is still being held as probable. For Ziman, such claim can be defended on the ground that the social stability of scientific knowledge is a reasonable indicator of its objectivity[9]. While Phillip Kitcher opined that though ‘values’ play roles in scientific researches, that does not undermine the objectivity of science. To conclude, we realize that the image of science has changed over the years, while it lost the emphasis placed on the supremacy of its method and claim, it retains its objectivity and rationality while being social.

UNDERSTANDING SCIENTIFIC CHANGE

According to Phillip Kitcher, there are as many communities of Scientists or Scientific groups as there are many periods in the history of scientific enterprise. A Scientific group or Community of Scientists is composed on both the Veterans and their Apprentices. These Veterans often come together at a particular period in history to agree on a Consensus Practice.

… there is a community of scientists, viewed by other scientists and members of the broader public as authoritative on a particular range of issues. Virtually everyone is prepared to defer to the scientific group on the range of issues in question and to accept resolutions of the issues when the group has achieved consensus….All the veterans endorse the consensus practice, in the sense that for each the consensus practice is part of their individual practice, but each also subscribes to claims and commitments that go beyond those that are universally shared. There are differences in social position among the veterans. Some have greater credibility or authority than others, in the sense that, on controversial issues, matters thatare not part of consensus practice for the group, their opinions are more likely to be credited by other members of the group.[10]

 

Among the Veterans, there are those considered to be expert and trusted by other scientists and members of the broader public especially with regards to issues outside the consensus practice. In other words, there are variant social positions based on credibility or authority among the veterans. The Apprentices on the other hand are trained by the veterans depending on the aspect of the consensus practice being espoused[11]. It should be noted that different teachers elaborate consensus practice in different ways and because apprentices vary in their early intellectual ontogenies, there is a variation in the individual practice with which they leave the training period and begin their work. So, apprentices join the scientific community with varying degrees of initial credibility determined (in part) by the status of the veterans from whom training is received[12].  So, a consensus practice is constituted by a language; an (impersonal) assessment of significant questions; a set of accepted statements with a (partial) justificatory structure; a set of explanatory schemata; a set of paradigms of authority and criteria for identifying authorities; a set of exemplary experiments, observations, and instruments and justificatory criteria; and, finally, a set of methodological exemplars and methodological principles.[13]

According to Phillip Kitcher, the term ‘Scientific Community’ refers to a group of scientists with shared values, traditions and goals. Initially, as portrayed by the Legend, these scientists were thought to have subscribed to certain general principles of rationality and objectivity, and it was believed that they have high standards of expertise and mutual trust that enhances their working together for the benefit of humanity in the attainment of truth. But historical and social analysis of the real-life situation has shown that within this community, there is competition, jealousy between individuals, intellectual controversies and continuous disputation. Meanwhile, it is an undeniable fact that out of this disorder we obtain ‘organized knowledge’ from this same community. This achievement is not only because of the fact that their behaviour is being regulated by well-established, easily recognized and relatively stable norms, values and laws, but also because they all geared towards the common goals or goal (attainment of truth).

Within the scientific community, there is an iterations of the cycle in which a period, with a consensus practice, shift in focus and content to a new period as a result of change in consensus practice. The descriptive framework for understanding this scientific change goes thus: As mentioned above, each period begins with a community of Scientist (Veterans and apprentices) who are seen as authority on particular range of issues by other scientists and members of the broader public. They are been deferred to on such issues. This group or community of scientists reaches a consensus on those issues and the consensus practice endorsed by all.

It should be noted that unlike the Legend’s account that the notion of experience is the motor of scientific change, Kitcher opined that both experience and conversation (that is, social interactions with peers) leads to scientific change.[14]

…individual practices are modified through conversations with peers and through encounters with nature. As information from others is accepted, modified, extended, or rejected, so assignments of credibility change. Those whose credibility declines sufficiently far are effectively excluded from further conversation, and they may drop out of the community altogether.[15]

 

Kitcher further emphasized that just as there are intellectual practices within the Scientific community, it is obvious that any substantial changes in the social practices of scientists must affect their intellectual practices, and vice versa., there are also social practices which invariably affect their researches and often raise ethical questions with regards to the impact it has on the human and non-human societies. Such social practices and conventions include: intellectual property rights, project proposals and grants,     directed-programmes, contract researchers, global networks, interdisciplinary centers and teams, research performance evaluation. For examples, if scientists became noticeably more secretive about their research, their results would be treated as less trustworthy by their fellow or the general public, and as such considered vulnerable to external interests, and no one would accept the complete objectivity of such research output nor its implementation.

 

THE NOTION OF SCIENTIFIC PROGRESS

“Progress” could either be a normative term or a descriptive term use to depict either a ‘gradual and incremental’ change or ‘sharp discontinuity’[16].  This conceptual understanding was applied to science in order to understand her progress, such that we have both normative accounts (addressing the question: how ought science to be conducted in order that progress be achieved?) and descriptive accounts (addressing the question: what are the repeated patterns that are accepted by the practitioners of science as constituting progress?). Concerning the former, we have those accounts that argued that present theories should account for the achievement of the past theories (i.e ‘The Incorporation Accounts’ given by William Whewell [History of the Inductive Sciences], Logical Empiricists [Ernest Nagel’s The Structure of Science-1961], and Lakatos), those who opined that present theories actually overthrow the past ones by resolving difficulties that beset those previous one (i.e “The Revolutionary Accounts” given by Thomas Kuhn, Cohen and many others)[17]

It is however observed that Whewell and Kuhn’s account of scientific progress append normative recommendations to their description of scientific progress[18].  In The Structure of Scientific Revolution (1970), Thomas Kuhn discussed diverse individual revolutions with particular emphasis on Corpenican, Newtonian, Chemical and Einsteinian revolutions. He suggested that Scientific revolutions have a three-beat sequence of stages. The pattern begin with a period of ‘normal science’, within which scientists apply and extend a dominant ‘paradigm’. The second stage is a period of conflict within which supporters of a second paradigm seek to overthrow the hitherto dominant paradigm. And the third stage is a new period of normal science under the victorious second paradigm[19]. It should be noted that a number of historical developments traditionally labeled “revolutions” appear to fit the Kuhnian pattern: Transition from Aristotelian physics to Newtonian physics, from Phlogiston chemistry to oxygen chemistry, from Newtonian mechanics to general relativity theory, and from classical physics to quantum physics[20].

In The Advancement of Science, Kitcher, taking a leap from Thomas Kuhn’s and Larry Lauden’s accounts, gave a descriptive account of scientific progress. He was not concerned with formulation a necessary or sufficient conditions for scientific progress, but focuses on changes in “consensus practices” within communities of scientists. He introduced three types of problem-solution – practical, conceptual, and explanatory – that contribute to scientific progress. For him, ‘practical and cognitive progress’[21] is achieved through the design and application of scientific instruments. ‘Conceptual progress’[22] is achieved by the revision of categories to better represent the properties and relations of physical systems. And ‘explanatory progress’[23] is achieved by means of the improvement or replacement of patterns of explanation.

To evaluate the practical progress of science is to see whether it has accomplished the goals that enhance human condition:

…science ought to contribute to “the relief of man’s estate,” it should enable us to control nature—or perhaps, where we cannot control, to predict, and so adjust our behavior to an uncooperative world—it should supply the means for  improving the quality and duration of human lives, and so forth.[24]

 

            Kitcher focused on science controversial claims about conceptual progress and explanatory progress. He declared that conceptual progress is made when we adjust the boundaries of our categories to conform to kinds and when we are able to provide more adequate specification of our referents. Such that Copernicus achieved a progressive ‘boundary adjustment’ by including Earth among the plants, while Lavoisier achieved conceptual progress by revising the modes of reference for tokens of Priestley’s term ‘dephlogisticated air’.

To summarize our discourse on scientific progress or change, it should be noted that the modification of consensus knowledge through the alteration of individual practice which consists of language, explanatory schemata, questions, statements,  techniques and instruments, assignments of authority to others, and methodological claims.[25] For instance, the work of Lavoisier and his associates certainly brought about major change in a number of components of chemical practice: the language of chemistry was reformed, questions about the composition of substances and the weight relations among constituents were given for greater significance than hitherto, new schemata for answering these questions were adopted, instruments and apparatus for performing chemical experiments were enormously refined, and Lavoisier’s famous “principle of the balance” furnished a new standard for assessing experiments.[26] So, some of Lavoisier’s work replaced phlogistonian explanations with different analysis as some theories or accounts (e.g of combustion, reduction, chemical reaction) were repudiated.

 

RATIONALITY (SCIENTIFIC REASONING) AND OBJECTIVITY IN SCIENCE

Kitcher argued that the traditional formal accounts of scientific reasoning are inadequate to reveal the epistemic worth of the decision made by scientists at times of great change. One of the historical episodes that testify to this is the ‘chemical revolution’ of the late eighteenth century. This revolution consisted in the replacement of the ‘phlogiston chemistry’ (of Stahl, Priestley and Caavendish) with ‘new chemistry’ or ‘antiphlogistic system’ (of Lavoisier, Berthollet, Fourcroy, and Guyton de Morveau). Kitcher defended the claims that scientists aim at (and sometimes attain) significant truth about nature and that individual scientist modify their practices according to certain procedure. As noted above, his account of scientific progress supposes that the sequence of consensus practices is progressive as explained in the reasoning used in modifying individual practices.

The fundamental realist (stronger version of realism) thesis is that we arrive at true statement about the world. This implies that is an ‘independent reality’ out there; and those justifications for certain beliefs are arrived at through the process of interactions between scientists and nature. Kitcher, while not denying that nature plays a significant causal role in determining the outcome of scientific inquiry, affirms the influence of social forces in the modification of scientific practices. Social forces include the rules for consensus shaping, the conversations with peers, the training process and broader socialization within a larger community.[27] It should be noted that while traditional philosophy of science gives priority to the impact of nature and interest-oriented sociology of science (as advocated by Latour and Woolgar) emphasizes the prior social context, Kitcher combined the two forces, and that makes him a moderate realist.

Observation and Inductive reasoning is part of the tools used by scientists in their inquiry. Kitcher agreed with Kuhn and Feyerabend on theory-ladenness of observation. Kitcher concluded that we can recognize the dependence of observation and of observational reporting so far as we are sure that it was done by the specialists (who possesses good observational skills). The question on how to let past experience guides our anticipations of the future. For Kitcher, the notion of a single rational inductive propensity is a myth, yet he opined that are  good instances of inductive propensities.[28] By inductive propensity, Kitcher refers to a disposition to engage in certain kind of inferences or to frame inductive problems by selecting certain pairs of sets and determinable and to apply the straight rule when the sample is judged to meet a certain condition.[29]

The fact that science is value-laden is the basis for Kitcher’s critique of Legend’s view of scientific objectivity. Phillip Kitcher made it obvious that different types of values play significant roles in the practices of scientists. He opined that general value-judgments about the significance of questions are inevitably part of the background against which the decisions are made. The pretense that such values do not exist has led to the permission of some scientific researches that resulted dire outcomes, involving direct loss of human life, vast disruptions of human communities, drought, widespread loss of shelter, breakdowns in agricultural and famine, new patterns of disease incidence, evolution of new disease vectors.[30] If Kitcher has made such assertion few decades ago, he would be been summed to the court of the advocates of scientific objectivity, who believes that science is free of value or in the value-freedom of scientific investigation. The question that could now be posed to Kitcher is to state those roles that values often play in scientific researches.

            According to Phillip Kitcher, such dominant roles, as evident in scientific practice, come up when the investigators have to determine the problem that deserves their time and effort; when they have to ascertain what contribution such research attempt would make; and the potential outcomes that is most significant among the available problems, and the specific goal that worth achieving. To buttress this point, Kitcher gave an instance of a researcher trying to answer questions surrounding how to synthesize a particular molecule, which may help to construct an overall picture of some range of phenomena, where having a perspective on the phenomena is taken to be something worthwhile. In this kind of value judgment, the ‘significance’ that  would be given preference is that base on the potential value of such research output becoming tools for further experimentation or providing answers that would lead to improvement in human well-being.[31] These considerations are necessary and are often taken, consciously or unconsciously, in various researchers’ decision-making.

            Furthermore, Kitcher noted that a researcher has to take into account what kinds of problems are tractable, given the current state of the field, that is, the existing conceptual and material resources adequate to undertake such project. And those researchers have to consider their own abilities and proclivities (considering where best they could expand their effort). All these value-judgments and many more, easily enter into the assessment of tractability and lead to the conclusion that a specific line of research is best suited to one’s talents.[32]

            Phillip Kitcher strongly believed that there are obvious ways in which value-judgments are deeply embedded in the practice of Science. Taking a look at scientific practices we notice that there are various stages within a research programme: The research is chosen, evidence is gathered and assessed, and investigator reaches an objective judgment about the degree of support garnered by a hypothesis. There is definitely a point in which the researcher has to decide whether what has been done so far is enough to warrant taking the next step. That is where value-judgment comes in. Meanwhile, since the entire outcome of a research is typically not foreseen in advance, as the goal of the researcher adjust and evolve from stage to stage, value-judgment ought to be made or else it would be too late at the end  when the investigation would have gone out of hand.[33]

In this regard therefore, Kitcher recommended that in order to preserve the correct separation between value-free science and practical decision making, scientists must properly restrict themselves to reporting the degree of evidential support for a hypothesis, and leave to the public (or representatives of the public) decisions about how to deploy the value-free information they have transmitted.[34]

            Furthermore, Kitcher observed that historical transitions and the progress witnessed in science can be better explained in relation to value-judgment found in every scientific enterprises or practices. He opined that at early stages, the rival participants appeal to different successes and acknowledge different challenges. They defended their perspectives based on the different schemes of values they have adopted. When schemes of values clash, each side tries to extend its own range of successful solutions, while making trouble for the other. As this goes on, retention of one of the doctrines can easily require modifying the scheme of values, making commitments to factual claims and to value-judgments to co-evolve. It gets to a situation where there seems to be no coherent scheme of values for the losing side to adopt, thus a reasonable resolution is reached.[35] To illustrate this idea that value is an essential key to progress in science, Kitcher explored the scientific dispute between Lavoisier and the Phlogistonians during the ‘Chemical Revolution’[36] of the late 18th century.[37]

            Phillip Kitcher has therefore make us to realize is that values cannot be expunged from all context of scientific decision-making but this in no way alter or belittle the objectivity of scientific method and research procedures. At this point, distinction must be made between the context of discovery and the context of justification. While the latter, which refers to when the scientists are deciding whether or not to accept some hypothesis (or theory) on the basis of evidence) is value-free, the former (when the scientists are deciding on what question or research ought to be pursued) is value-laden. For Kitcher, when it comes to the context of justification, as an aspect of scientific enterprise, Scientist ought to be guided by objective standards ignoring any bias or prejudice or personal interests.

 

CONCLUSION

            In recent times, many scholars, out of ‘ignorance’, still make recourse to science as the only means of explanation and invoke her method as the only channel towards the attainment of answers to questions about the nature of the world. I feel that their arguments are made out of ignorance because they have not updated their understanding of science and realize that such view of science is mere legend (as Kitcher argued), and their appeal to progress, objectivity and rationality in science are mere illusion. A proper understanding of science as a social institution in relation to culture, politics and other social institutions will enable us to realize that ‘science’ doesn’t have ‘the answers’ to our questions about the nature of the world, and that alternative modes of explanation to events should be entertained. Considering recent developments in Nanoscience, Biological sciences, and Cognitive sciences (and their intimate connection with Nano-technology, bio-technology, material technology, information technology and artificial intelligence), it will be pertinent to bring to social awareness that these bodies of knowledge are not certain but built on agreements or consensus within various scientific communities. This awareness will certainly prevents humanity from taking ‘myth’ for knowledge and ‘illusion’ for reality

 

 

[1]C.f. Phillip Kitcher, Science, Truth, and Democracy, p.17

[2] C.f. Kitcher, The Advancement of Science, p.7

[3] The Legend refers to the ‘romantic philosophical conception of science as a method of guaranteed, unassailable competence.

[4] C..f  Ziman, J.M. Teaching and Learning about Science and Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), p. 6

[5] Ibid,p.160-1

[6] C.f. Ziman, J.M. Teaching and Learning about Science and Society, p.58

[7]C.f.,  Ibid., p.5

[8]C.f.,  Ibid., p.6

[9] C.f., Ibid., p.7

[10] Ibid., p.58

[11] C.f., Ibid., p.59

[12] Ibid.

[13] C.f. Ibid., p.87

[14] C.f. Ibid., p.219ff

[15] Ibid., p.59

[16] C.f. John Losee, Theories of Scientific Progress: An Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2003), p.64

[17] C.f.,Ibid., p.67ff. It should be noted that only Karl Popper posited that progress involves both growth by incorporation and revolutionary overthrows. Progress, he said, is achieved when one and the same episode displays both incorporation and overthrow.

[18] C.f.,Ibid., p.96

[19] C.f.,Ibid., p.76

[20] C.f.,Ibid., p.78

[21] C.f. Philip Kitcher, The Advancement of Science, p.92-95

[22] C.f.,Ibid., p.95-104

[23] C.f.,Ibid., p.104-112

[24]  Ibid., p.92

[25] C.f. Ibid., p.221

[26] C.f. Ibid., p.273

[27] C.f. Ibid., p.162

[28] C.f. Ibid., p.237

[29] C.f. Ibid., p.235-6

[30]C.f. Phillip Kitcher, Science in a Democratic Society, op.cit., p.34

[31]C.f. Ibid., p.31

[32]C.f. Ibid., p.37

[33]C.f. Ibid., p.35

[34]C.f. Ibid., p.33

 

[35]C.f. Ibid.,p. 37

[36]This revolution consisted in the replacement of the ‘Phlogiston Chemistry’ (of Stahl, Priestley and Cavendish) with ‘New Chemistry’ or ‘Antiphilogistic System’ (of Lavoisier, Berthollet, Fourcroy, and Guyton de Morveau).

[37]C.f. Phillip Kitcher, The Advancement of Science, op.cit., p.272ff

Kitcher, Phillip. 1993 The Advancement of Science: ScienceWithout Legend, Objectivity Without Illusions, Oxford: Oxford University Press

……………….. 1994 “Contrasting Conceptions of Social Epistemology”, in F. Schmitt, (ed.), Socializing Epistemology. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., pp.111-134.

…………………. 1997 “An Argument about Free Inquiry”, Nous 31:3

………………… 2001 Science, Truth and Democracy, New York: Oxford University Press

………………….2011 “Science in a Democratic Society, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Press.