Thursday, June 23, 2005

Book 12: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas S. Kuhn

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas S. Kuhn

Paperback: 226 pages
Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; 3rd edition (December 15, 1996)

Paradigm shift.

The expression is part of our common vernacular now, used in IBM commercials, spouted by the title character of D.B. Pierre’s Booker Prize winning novel, Vernon God Little. But like many other oft-repeated catch phrases (Coach Pat Reilly’s copyrighted “3peat” is one example) achieving cultural ubiquity, the phrase has a definitive origin, even if that source is obscure – Thomas S. Kuhn, professor of science and philosophy at such noteworthy academic institutions as Berkeley, Princeton, and MIT. His ideas have permeated throughout society even if his name has not.

Kuhn’s main argument in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is that science advances not in the slowly modified baby steps of Darwinian evolution, but rather in grand leaps, divided and set-off from previous interpretations. When science changes, it occurs dramatically, sparked by a crisis that begs for resolution. These pivoted marks, these rewriting of scientific certainties, show how science is far from a fixed entity, but rather as malleable and capable of change as an organism. Changes of this nature Kuhn labels paradigms and they are what impel science forward.

These replacements do not always occur cleanly. Many professionals in the scientific field undergoing such a transformation resist the change, clinging to the universal “truth” they have worked their entire careers to solidify and prove. Kuhn leaves it to younger generations, those who have missed the blinding indoctrination caused by an education founded in the older paradigm. The colloquialism “think outside of the box”, might provoke Kuhn to shiver if he were still alive as it has been used and abused in an awful fashion. But it is the popularized tagline of one of his most fundamental ideas. It is only those innovators, those renegades possessed with a foresight they might not even recognize, that can see around the problems of one paradigm in order to create another. Just as self-help gurus dumb-down
Heidegger’s philosophy, so too does Kuhn’s complexity suffer from popular oversimplification.

It is Kuhn’s view of interpretation that offers his most groundbreaking intellectual extensions. Kuhn attempts to destroy the concept of the objective man of science, the scientist led by facts, who is not biased by any personal convictions, but merely exposing the facts of nature that his laboratory experiments reveal. Kuhn rejects this notion with the acumen of his scientific background, moving beyond theory and into practice. In his mind, hypothesis so often are supported by experiments, because the scientists’ personal opinions lead to findings which correlate with what they already knew. They are looking to support their accepted paradigm. Information or data that falls out or cannot be explained by the paradigm is ignored, or put aside. But it is when these very problems come to impede progress too significantly that paradigm shifts occur. Think of Copernicus dealing with the errors of the Ptomelic universe or Einstein showing that Newton’s laws only operated in very specific cases.

Scientists are interesting in solving the puzzles that their particular paradigm presents. In this stance, there are two key points. The first is that all scientists (while Kuhn doesn’t want us to, can we extend this to all academics or even all people? As Ignatius Reilly reminds us in Confederacy of Dunces, we all have our particular worldview) subscribe to a distinct paradigm. If they didn’t, they couldn’t engage in research. The paradigm sets the parameters for both the how and the what the research will attempt to resolve. The second point is that scientists focus mainly on the puzzles that their paradigm need solved. The same paradigm can be viewed by scientists in different fields for completely opposing ends and thus the puzzles they set out to solve will be far from analogous. Interpretation, again, is the key. How the scientist “sees” his paradigm is based on personality, other members of the paradigm, and a host of other highly subjective factors. Kuhn isn’t so much saying that scientific research has become a subjective enterprise as he is proclaiming there it was and always has been riddled with personal prejudice. We can’t escape our preconceptions, even when we try to cloak them in the veil of scientific authority.

Kuhn holds that all paradigm shifts are signs of progress. But like his relativistic position on scientific observation, Kuhn also attacks the notion of progress with a distinctly modern sensibility. Showing greatly the Darwinian influence in his work, paradigm shifts are “advances” but like natural selection and evolution, there is no set direction or intention behind these movements. Progress reverts to subjective interpretation. There is no “grand design” behind the throwing off of one paradigm for another. Paradigm shifts occur in times of scientific crises but they are not fixed in time, place, or meaning. They occupy a space more heavily guided by chance than an overarching purpose. In other words, God isn’t planning these up shifts as a way to glorify human reason. We are progressing, but towards what, Kuhn asks. He writes, “we may have to relinquish the notion, explicit or implicit, that changes of paradigm carry scientists and those who learn from them closer and closer to the truth.” A single fixed truth might not exist.

This element of crisis pervades The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Without crisis, there would be no impending need for paradigm shifts to result. But when a scientific worldview reaches a point where it is highly incompatible with the existing body of evidence, change occurs. When these transformations take place is open-ended temporarily, but science cannot live perpetually in a state of crisis. The change will occur at some point. Science is focused on progress and progress can only happen if unresolved questions are answered.

Kuhn’s language is crisp and clear. He doesn’t hide his ideas in overly construed and complicated verbage, but rather expresses himself with the precision only true geniuses can manage. Reading Kuhn is like reading Einstein’s essays – accessible but provoking, lucid but challenging. He died in 1996 at the 73, but his work deserves to live on, being read and discussed in the centuries to come. Science, but also human consciousness in general, owes a great debt to his strivings. He leaves us in a state of relativism, but one in which anything is possible. Instead of their being a set reality to discover, science becomes yet another way for humanity to discover itself.

Paradigm shift, indeed.

More on Kuhn here.

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