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James Robert Brown’s Criticisms of the Strong Programme

April 9, 2010

here is an old essay of mine i figure i’d put up. it really influenced my thinking in reards to science

James Robert Brown’s Criticisms of the Strong Programme

In his work The Rational and the Social, James Robert Brown critiques Barnes and Bloor’s Strong Programme. James Robert Brown focuses his criticisms on the four principles Bloor introduces in his work Knowledge and Social Imagery. These four principles are causality, impartiality, symmetry and reflexivity. Brown focuses most of his time addressing the principle of causality, as well as the problems that can be found in the symmetry principle and the principle of reflexivity. These criticisms can be reconciled with the Strong Programme if certain concessions are made, but without undermining the ideas behind the programme.
The first, and primary principle that Brown addresses in his work is the principle of causality. According to Bloor the principle “would be causal that is, concerned with the conditions which bring about beliefs or states of knowledge. Naturally there will be other types of causes apart from social ones which will cooperate in bringing about belief.” (1) According to Brown, Bloor believes that sociological causes are the driving force in the department of scientific beliefs. One important point that Brown brings up is that Bloor does not believe that a reason is a cause. Brown gives four claims one would deny if they believed that reasons are not causes.(2) The first is that the only way to acquire a true belief is by reasoning, second that rationalizations after the fact are causes of belief, third that reasons are the same kind of thing as causes of belief or fourth, that reasons have something to do with belief whenever non-cognitive interests at work. Brown agrees with the first two statements that reasons are causes, but not the second two. (3) Brown offers a couple different approaches to explain his position. The first he calls a look at the common sense linguistic level, which shows that many times cause of or reason for can be substituted in English speech, although Brown does not make a claim whether this is just a linguistic phenomenon or the meaning of something deeper.
Brown also introduces an argument for distinguishing reasons from causes which he believes influenced Bloor. The argument is that to discover the cause of an action requires theorizing, observing and empirical testing, with whatever reason being reached having only tentative status. On the other hand people have privileged access to their own reasons for believing something. The argument concludes “since our knowledge of reasons is certain while our knowledge of causes is only tentative, reasons must be quite a different kind of thing from causes.”(4)
Brown thinks up a number of responses, some being more off the cuff remarks, while others address the strong programme in a more head on way. The first response is to same that some causes can be known with certainty, or to challenge if there is such thing as privileged access to ones inner mental life. Both of these criticisms do not really say anything about the strong programme. Another example is that of the scientists in the Weimar Republic. As Brown shows, these scientists wanted a certain type of society, so they explained quantum mechanics in a non-hetaeristic way. In this case, the reason is the cause. The final response involves Pascal’s wager. Brown says that an atheist would only be convinced by the argument because of pragmatic reasons, not cognitive ones. The important part of the argument is that Brown shows if an atheist converts due to this argument, the cause would be that it is in their best interest, but only because of the reasoning they went through. Brown says “without this reasoning process, the new belief, that God exists, might never have occurred.”(5) Brown goes to say on the next page that the belief that belief in God is not caused by pragmatic reasons, but evidential reasons.
Brown uncovered a weakness in the Strong Programme, because if Bloor still refuses to admit that reasons are causes then he believes in epiphenomenalism. Bloor seems to want to say that beliefs move in only one direction, but at the very least the Pascal’s wager example shows that it is a two way street. Brown concludes that reasons are causes and that this can still fulfill the causal principle.
The next principle Brown looks at is the impartiality principle Describing science, Bloor says “it would be impartial with respect to truth and falsity, rationality or irrationality, success or failure. Both sides of these dichotomies will require explanation.”(6) Brown agrees with this principle but adds that he feels that what Bloor is really addressing with this principle is the difference between the internal versus the external history of science. Bloor thinks the internal history is false, and that the external history is the most important part. Brown does not say much about this idea, but the impartiality principle is something pretty much any side would agree with.
The third and arguably most important principle of the Strong Programme is the symmetry principle. Brown calls it the head of the strong programme. The principle says that proper science “would be symmetrical in its style of explanation. The same types of causes would explain, say, true and false beliefs.”(7) Brown says this principle is directed against those who belief certain types of beliefs have different sorts of explanations. Brown gives three different readings of this principle, with the first being a shallow look, the second closer to the idea, and the third is what I believe Bloor was after.  The first reading is that the principle is false, because if an earthquake knocks a bridge over, how can explain a bridge standing? The second reading is that Bloor is simply advocating scientific explanations for all events, and comes to advocating a causal explanation for everything.(8)
The final reading is that in any given discipline, their theories much be able to account for P but also not P. To continue the bridge metaphor, in this reading if physics or engineering can explain why a bridge is still standing, they have to use those same theories for bridges that have fallen down, which could be for example gravity. Brown however feels that this principle is still undermined because a theory cannot be used to explain itself, as Lewis Carroll showed, but theories depend on other theories to be proven. Brown says “I think we can safely conclude with this: there is no way of interpreting the symmetry principle which gives comfort to the sociologists of knowledge.”(9)
The final principle of the Strong Programme that Brown looks at is the principle of reflexivity. The reflexivity principle says science should “be reflective. In principle its patterns of explanation would have to be applicable to sociology itself. Like the requirement of symmetry this is a response to the need to seek for general explanations. It is an obvious requirement of principle because otherwise sociology would be a standing refutation of its own theories.”(10) To respond to this principle, Brown shows that following Bloor’s own  assumptions can end in a self-refutation of the Strong Programme. Because Bloor claims it is not evidence but instead social factors which cause belief, he also would have to admit then arguments would be causally ineffective.(11)  Brown says that if Bloor is right, that it is not evidence that causes belief but social factors, then his book would have no effect, but because it has had an effect (by evidence I am writing this essay) then it must be false. Brown argues that it has to do with motives. The question is why should people believe in the Strong Programme. Bloor would say it is a sociological cause.
Brown argues that those who embrace the sociological turn, are more likely liberal minded with egalitarian and tolerant views. Brown says “people with such political sentiments are often ethical relativists. Fearing that they might otherwise be standing in moral judgement of other cultures, the liberal-minded will often extend their ethical relativism to cover all beliefs, even those we call scientific.”(12) Brown believes that the political sentiments of sociologists have led them astray, and that Bloor has confused relativism with tolerance.
To finish off the chapter, Brown talks about the difference between correlation and causation and the idea of the principle of the common cause which Brown says is the most powerful in the Strong Programme‘s arsenal. This is the idea that significant correlations have common causes. Brown goes on to show that it is not always true, and that the principle works for sociologists because there are often correlations between the sets of people holding the theories and the various social conditions.(13) Brown brings the debates about phrenology to show that correlation does not equal causation, but that there is often other explanations that are missed. His argument against the principle are weak. It should be obvious that correlation does not always equal causation, but the principle argues that it is only true in the case of significant correlations. In order to get around Brown’s criticism one only has to say that correlations which fail to be true were not significant enough and that someone misjudged something, basically there was an error somewhere.
Brown’s criticism of the first three principles offers valuable insight into the kind of problems that can arise from the Strong Programme. The issue regarding whether reasons can be causes is a good example. Brown shows that Bloor is not really holding the position he seems to be advocating and that a tightening of language can rectify the situation. I think Bloor would have to concede the point on reasons being causes, because the consequences for the programme are too dire. Brown’s response to the impartiality principle shows that Brown and Bloor are actually not too far apart in belief.
Another important part of Brown’s criticism is the readings he gives to the symmetry principle, however I disagree that the third reading is undermined in the way Brown believes it to be so. He says that theories on their own cannot account for themselves and that they need theories helping to explain them. The problem is that when Brown talks about the third way, he switches from talking about physics as a science to talking about specific theories like Newton’s theories in regards to Mars. This is moving the goal posts because at no time does Bloor says that one branch of science cannot influence another or that scientists cannot move from theory to theory. This seems to be an attempt at dismissing the most important part of the Programme. I think that Brown’s reading on the symmetry principle in that each discipline would have to be able to explain both sides of a question is the correct reading, although I would say his conclusions are incorrect.
When Brown addresses the reflexivity principle he makes a self refuting argument based around the idea that Bloor says that the only causes for belief are causal, however if we amend the Strong Programme to include reasons as causes, then the self-refutation disappears. Bloor also does not say that the only causes are sociological, this leaves room for other types of arguments for example. Bloor just says that they would cooperate with the social ones in bringing about belief. Bloor says that if you take a rational argument for something, like the Strong Programme, it just has to work with the sociological causes. Brown talks about how the Strong Programme is something you would believe in if you were a liberal, but if you take into account that rational reasons are acceptable if they co-operate with sociological causes.
In his work James Robert Brown outlines a number of criticisms he has with the Strong Programme’s four main principles. Of these, the only one that truly is constructive is Brown’s comments on reasons being causes. Brown’s comments on the symmetry and reflexivity principles shows a fundamental misunderstanding on the Strong Programme. Brown makes a sort of equivocation in order to dismiss the symmetry principle after offering a good reading of it. I think this is because without refuting the symmetry principle, one cannot show how the Strong Programme is false. If we take into account Brown’s reading on the first and third principles, we can strengthen the Strong Programme inasmuch as it could become a serious contender in the Philosophy of Science.


1.  Bloor, David. Knowledge and Social Imagery. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991. Pg 6
2.  Brown, James Robert. The Rational and The Social. London: Routledge, 1989. Pg. 24                                                                3.  Brown, James Robert. The Rational and The Social. London: Routledge, 1989. Pg. 25
4.  Brown, James Robert. The Rational and The Social. London: Routledge, 1989. Pg. 26
5.  Brown, James Robert. The Rational and The Social. London: Routledge, 1989. Pg. 29
6.  Bloor, David. Knowledge and Social Imagery. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991. Pg 6
7. Bloor, David. Knowledge and Social Imagery. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991. Pg 6
8.  Brown, James Robert. The Rational and The Social. London: Routledge, 1989. Pg. 39
9.  Brown, James Robert. The Rational and The Social. London: Routledge, 1989. Pg. 41
10.  Bloor, David. Knowledge and Social Imagery. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991. Pg 6
11.  Brown, James Robert. The Rational and The Social. London: Routledge, 1989. Pg. 42
12.  Brown, James Robert. The Rational and The Social. London: Routledge, 1989. Pg. 44
13.  Brown, James Robert. The Rational and The Social. London: Routledge, 1989. Pg. 46

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