Archive for the ‘Kuhn’ Category

[Programming Note: This post was written 2 years ago and has been stuck in limbo ever since. It is being published now as-is, so I hope I was right when I wrote this. If not, I have a million excuses.]

I have committed myself to finish my series on Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. There are two last features left to deal with in Kuhn’s SSR, the choice of paradigm and the incommensurability of paradigms. This will occupy my final two posts on Kuhn, respectively. Specifically, a discussion of the incommensurability of paradigms will allow some summary comments on the crisis of rationality that Kuhn’s work provokes for the modern understanding of science that presents truth to the world. The previous posts can be found bunched together here.

Einstein, pointing out the errors in our ways

In the previous post, I mused on the nature of revolutions, political and scientific. I explored the relationship between the imagination and the material needs of a situation in the development of alternative conceptual schemes for both politics and science. But a question remains. Science and politics both are continually plagued by the shortcomings of the reigning paradigm. Einstein, for example, had problems with both Quantum Mechanics and Capitalism, the former because it introduced indeterminacy into the world and the latter because it tended toward cycles of growth and recession. He was right, at least about economics.

Sticking strictly to scientific issues, there continue to be major problems that plague contemporary physics despite its enormous successes. One such issue is the unification of the four fundamental forces: electromagnetic, weak and strong nuclear force, and gravity. In the 19th century, Michael Faraday’s work on field theory paved the way for James Clerk Maxwell’s equations that allowed for the unification of electrical and magnetic forces, culminating in the well-known theory of electromagnetism. The weak and electromagnetic forces were unified in 1968 into the Electro-weak theory, and they were united in 1974 with the strong nuclear force to produce the so-called “Grand Unified Theory,” or GUT. (more…)


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Charles DarwinThe New Yorker has an article up on “Why We Don’t Believe In Science.” This essay, though mainly concerned with a study of our neural reactions to counter-intuitive experiences, begins by citing a recent Gallup poll on what Americans believe when it comes to evolution. Somewhat surprising is the large percentage of Americans (45%) who reject the theory of evolution and instead hold that the world was created within the last 10,000 years by a supernatural agent.* 32% of adult Americans hold what might be called theistic evolution, while only 15% hold to a purely naturalistic account of evolution.**

*Is this regression? Even among those who rejected evolution in the early 20th century, William Jennings Bryan among them, they were generally not this type of “Young Earth Creationist.Instead, they readily proclaimed that “a day is like a thousand years to God,” which allowed them to accept the antiquity of the Earth without abandoning the 7 days of creation in Genesis – a position known as “Old Earth Creationism.”

**Lost in this is the fact that more people accept evolution than reject it. And I have a major bone to pick when it comes to the use of the word “believe” in reference to scientific theories. One does not “believe” a scientific theory, one can only accept it (or reject it) as the theory that makes the best sense of the empirical evidence. And to do this, one must employ logic – the kind of thing that Aristotle developed and was so important for the medievals, even though Aristotle gets kicked around in this article for being naive and erroneous. If you want to know what belief is, go read this. It has nothing to do with science, and to use faith/belief in reference to science is to actually denigrate what science is in the first place.

As my students would tell you, I am a defender of the theory of evolution and work hard to show them that there is no biblical or theological basis for supposing a conflict between Christianity and evolution. Darwin certainly did not think so, nor have most educated Christians since the emergence of Darwinian evolution. This conflict – and this is so crucially important to understand – has been trumped up (by both sides!) as a subset of the (trumped-up!) conflict between the secular and the religious, and is ultimately a political (broadly understood) conflict that has to do with particular configurations of power rather than ideological beliefs. But that is for another post. (more…)

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Just a note: If you have been following my reading of Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (Part I, Part II, Part III) you may be feeling a bit uncomfortable by now. At least, I hope you are (and I hope it’s not because of boredom or the tediousness of my writing!). If you are, its because Kuhn’s analysis leads to what many have called a “crisis of rationality.” Don’t worry, it gets worse. And that makes it much better. I have planned three more posts on Kuhn. We press on.

The Storming of the Bastille

The silly part about Kuhn’s essay is that he relates the progressive activities of science to political revolutions. This is nearly as bad as when athletes consider their “game” (which I thoroughly enjoy watching) to be a “war.” It is no wonder that war is an acceptable part of life today, for we clearly have no idea how truly horrifying it actually is. But I digress…

Popular French weight loss system

Despite my requisite disgust at the use of violent metaphors, there is actually something to the analogy. The revolution is preceded by a growing mistrust of the dominant authority, be it a government or a governing paradigm (it’s interesting, the analogy between a paradigm and a government, isn’t it?). As the unsolved problems multiply, unrest grows and a new solution or framework is sought. Then comes the guillotines. Well, not quite yet, but they are oiling them up, getting them ready for action. (So much for my righteous anger at violent metaphors…)

For Kuhn, the impetus for a paradigm shift is the emergence of anomalies, a “phenomenon for which the paradigm has not prepared the scientist.” However, because of the formative power of the prevailing paradigm, novelty in both experimentation and theory is very difficult to come by. It seems – and this is my conjecture – that paradigms and worldviews have a certain ‘stickiness’ to them (not unlike the blades of a guillotine after a hard day’s work – one must remember to thoroughly clean one’s guillotine if one wants to keep it in working order for a long time!). What I mean by this is that once we are embedded in a system of thought, it is difficult to remove ourselves from the paradigm and invent, for lack of a better term, a new worldview/political system/paradigm. It takes quite a jolt, and according to Kuhn comes only after a long and arduous process. (more…)

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As a pure coincidence – I promise that I did not suggest this to the New York Times, though they may have gotten the idea from my blog on their own – there is a nice little 5-part series on the Times website about Kuhn. It is written by a former graduate student supervised by Kuhn, and looks to be very entertaining.

I mean, what better way to start a series on Kuhn by discussing how he once hurled an ashtray at a student? Not that I endorse such behavior, nor would I practice it in my classroom, but it no doubt leaves a lasting impression on the student.

h/t to the blog It’s Only a Theory.

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Think about the features of working on a puzzle for a moment. From the get-go, we assume that a solution to the puzzle is not only possible, but assured. In the case of a jigsaw puzzle, we begin with the picture on the box and our activity is aimed at reordering the pieces to reproduce that image. In the case of a crossword puzzle, we don’t begin with a final image in mind, but the clues provided and, more importantly, the arrangement of numbered boxes, give us faith that there is in fact a solution to the puzzle.

Rubix cube, in the process of being solved

My favorite (by which I mean infuriating) puzzle is the Rubix Cube. I have never solved even the simplest mix-up of squares on the thing. Despite my long-held belief in the solvability of each arrangement, my attempts to solve the puzzle have always resulted in an epic fail. Generally, I break down – or rather, I break it down – tearing it to pieces and reassembling it in the correct arrangement. Actually, my first attempt at this sort of problem solving was to peel the stickers off the faces and then reapply them, but this doesn’t really work. It’s much better to just destroy the cube and then try to reassemble it, all in the name of science.


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I intended this to be a short post dealing with the phase of scientific history that Kuhn calls “pre-paradigm” science (its not). Basically, in what is an 11-page chapter in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (SSR, for short) Kuhn discusses the nature of the scientific enterprise before a “paradigm” emerges and orders all research projects towards its explication.

A Geocentric Depiction of the Universe

A paradigm, briefly, is a theoretical framework that emerges and functions as a rubric under which scientific research programs take place. The paradigm sets the agenda during its reign, establishing a period of normal science. An example of a paradigm would be the Copernican heliocentric universe, which replaced the geocentric Ptolemaic model (this change is an example of a revolution, or a paradigm shift). The idea here is that prior to the emergence of a paradigm, scientific research is relatively random “fact gathering.” Yet once a paradigm emerges, now experimental research has its problems defined for it. This includes, among other things, the limiting of the scope of meaningful questions to those that are answerable within the paradigm. Those questions that lie outside the paradigm are bracketed off, often labeled “metaphysical,”* though this is not the proper use of the term.

*Just a brief note about what metaphysics is as a discipline. In modern philosophy, particularly in the analytic tradition, metaphysics has come to mean those problems that are not answerable by science. So the mind-body problem for example is a metaphysical problem. However, classically this term referred to a line of inquiry that examined being qua being.

What does this mean? Well, all ‘sciences’ (i.e. methods for gaining knowledge) study ‘being’ (i.e. that which is) under certain aspects. So biology studies being qua (i.e. under the aspect of) living, psychology is the study if being qua mental (psychical?), mathematics studies being qua quantifiable, and physics studies being qua repeatable and mathematically reifiable. All of these sciences (and many more) study certain slivers of being; that is, they study what is (i.e. the universe or reality itself) under a certain aspect. What does metaphysics do? At least in the classical sense it studies being under the aspect of being. It is the most abstract, most universal way of exploring being.


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The first text I will attempt to “blog through” is Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Why this text? To begin with, its impact on 20th century thought – not just in the history of science but in the popular mind as well – is immeasurable and quite possibly unparalleled. His introduction of the idea of a “paradigm,” which I will discuss at more length as we get further on, has infiltrated politics, business, theology, and all manner of scientific enterprises. If you use the word paradigm in any sense for describing the complex of ideas (i.e. a “worldview”) that organize our activities and self-understanding, then you are indebted to Kuhn.

In addition to being such a popular and influential work, it also appears on the majority of syllabi for philosophy of science courses. Again, this can be attributed to the fact that Kuhn’s work established its own paradigm for how scientists understand the history of their discipline and the nature of scientific advancement. While it has come under criticism, most current works in the history of science seem to articulate themselves in relation to Kuhn.

Finally, and most importantly, it raises a number of fairly fundamental questions about the nature of scientific claims to adequately* describe reality. It places itself as a work between logical positivism** and postmodernism, generating criticism from both sides. This seems, then, like a nice place to start a discussion about the nature of scientific discovery and the (ontological) status of theory.


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