The Structure of the Kuhnian Revolution
I recommend Br. Brafford’s post on non-foundationalism for the layman, but I find his treatment of Thomas Kuhn quite unfair:
I’m reading Thomas Kuhn’s controversial classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which Kuhn put forward, among other things, the suggestion that there not be any sense in which we can say that modern science puts us closer to the truth than Aristotelian and Ptolemaic science. Kuhn rejects the kind of foundationalist epistemology that claims we can have objective certainty about our knowledge. Since intellectuals were practically required to take a position on Kuhn in the several decades after he published, I’ve been flipping through the books on my shelf to see if I can make more sense out of discussions of Kuhn the second time through.
As one of the three members of the League born and raised in the greater Cincinnati area, it is incumbent upon (at least one of) us to defend a native son of our fair city and his very important (when correctly understood) philosophical insights.
Kuhn’s work is best analyzed in relation to the the theories of Karl Popper, then dominant in the field of philosophy of science.
The wiki on Kuhn is here helpful:
In this book, Kuhn argued that science does not progress via a linear accumulation of new knowledge, but undergoes periodic revolutions, also called “paradigm shifts” (although he did not coin the phrase), in which the nature of scientific inquiry within a particular field is abruptly transformed. In general, science is broken up into three distinct stages. Prescience, which lacks a central paradigm, comes first. This is followed by “normal science“, when scientists attempt to enlarge the central paradigm by “puzzle-solving”. Thus, the failure of a result to conform to the paradigm is seen not as refuting the paradigm, but as the mistake of the researcher, contra Popper’s refutability criterion. As anomalous results build up, science reaches a crisis, at which point a new paradigm, which subsumes the old results along with the anomalous results into one framework, is accepted. This is termed revolutionary science.
As stated, Kuhn revealed the limitations of Popperian falsification theory by showing the way in which science exists in a scientific worldview or cultural space. This intrinsic worldview element to science, however, does not mean there are no better or worse theories than others, that none give us scientific objective insights. It simply means there is no myth of the given but rather contextualized truth worlds–which generally build upon key insights of earlier worlds.
Because of the adherence to a scientific frame, various scientists observe and seek out evidence confirming the already existing overarching theories. They form hypotheses influenced (if not directly deduced from) said dominant overarching theory (or paradigm cum worldview). The data that emerges via such experiments and observations is data (under almost all circumstances) that makes sense within the dominant paradigm.
Sometimes, however, data will emerge (via a more sophisticated technology perhaps or by sheer luck/accident, etc.) that will reveal new data which disconfirms the dominant scientific narrative. Here is where Kuhn adds an element missing in Popper–in Popper such data intrinsically falsifies the current paradigm. However Kuhn showed historically this was not necessarily the case and it required scientists to open creatively to new framework and thought. To allow themselves to think thoughts (or be thought by thoughts you might say) not arising within the current frame.
Take the move to quantum physics, a (uh-oh there’s the word) paradigmatic example of a scientific revolution.
What would become quantum physics grew originally out of Max Planck’s work on black box radiation experiments. The black box problem studied by earlier scientists had not received an adequate explanatory hypothesis which could predict the known/received data. Eventually Plank’s (correct) solution to the problem undermined the absolute truth of the current reigning physics paradigm. Into that (pun not intended) vacuum came quantum theories.
Or take Einstein and his two theories of relativity (special and general). In both Einstein had to conduct “thought-experiments” (gedankenexperiments) which were in a very real sense experiments of the mind. These thought experiments allowed Einstein to think outside the dominant framework of his day. In special relativity, it involved imagining himself traveling in a train moving at the speed of light. Light was imagined as a beam parallel to his train (which he could see out the window). He then asked, “what would happen to time in this scenario?” In general relativity he imagined himself free-falling in an elevator and asking what would be occurring gravitationally in such a moment?
The later question was particularly important as it allowed Einstein to think outside the framework of Newtonian physics–Newton could explain the effects of gravity but never could figure out what precisely gravity was (i.e. what caused it). Einstein therefore literally (in his imagination!!!) had to put gravity ‘up in the air’ in order to think without thinking/assuming it.
The resulting knowledge that gravity is a consequence of the curvature of space-time is a scientific revolution precisely in Kuhn’s terms. It is also correct. It will also one day undoubtedly (as the dominant framework) be overthrown, just as Newtonian physics was. Someone will figure out that the curvature of space-time is an invitation to a 15th dimensional portal or something I can’t imagine at the current time. It won’t overthrow all elements of Einstein’s physics–just as Newton’s insights still apply though they are now contextualized to predominantly flat space-time curvature (as in for example around Earth).
Kuhn used the word paradigm in two senses–the confusion of which has caused the misunderstanding of “Kuhnian-ism” (of which Kuhn himself said he was not a member) and I think lies at the root of Br. William’s misreading (albeit a fairly widespread misunderstanding I think).
Paradigm meant either 1. the scientific action/experiment itself. 2. The later interpretative theoretical frameworks within which the data (coming from the action) was set.
Both point to the socio-cultural element intrinsic to science–a point missed by Popper’s falsification work and the Vienna Circle’s logical positivism.
When postmodernists (often from cultural studies) talk about “paradigm shifts” they mean paradigm in the second later sense and usually miss the necessity of the former. i.e. You have to do something different to get different data to open your mind to a new theory. “Change the paradigm” becomes some quasi-magical belief system, relativization, and the “culturification” of science as (merely/only) a “language game” or discourse as people are just changing their nominal adherence to various “theories.” As in the classic, “natural selection is just a theory, man.” Which of course (in the scientific provenance) makes natural selection the second highest form of explanatory power behind only a Law, of which there are scant few in science.
The image depicted at the top of this post is a better way (I hold) to think of the relationship between all these philosophies of science–though admittedly in a simplified format. The injunction-action strand qualifies as Kuhnian (in sense #1 used above), the second moment of observation/experience includes the Vienna School, the third strand interpretative includes Kuhn’s second meaning of paradigm as well as the work of Paul Feyerabend, and the last moment Popper’s verification work.