December 13, 2004

Still blathering after all these hours

Posted by Curt at 04:56 PM in Science | TrackBack

Well, I still don’t have much time, but I can’t resist adding just one or two qualifications to my other remarks, with numbers corresponding to my last post:

  1. It should be obvious that the equivalence of “science” and “natural science” is more than just a semantic issue or an abbreviation. The debates in the social sciences such as anthropology, psychology, etc. regarding whether they are sciences or not is somewhat misleading. Most of the people involved in these debates seem to think it is a purely methodological issue, but, as I have already indicated, the methodology of science arises from the materialist philosophy underlying it, so unless these other disciplines are similarly willing to accept that ideological baggage, they cannot integrate into the sciences. Case in point: psychology is now finally starting to be regarded as a true science almost purely via its association with and increasing dominance by neuroscience.

  2. I think Kuhn’s paradigm model is good for explaining the dynamics of research in what he calls periods of “normal science.” But the title of his major work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, is misleading, because that’s just what he doesn’t really explain. As I said, he explains well how a generally accepted scientific principle functions, but not what happens during periods of change from one to another. I guess my criticism is equivalent to Derrida’s criticism of LÚvi-Strauss’ structuralism: it explains how the structure endures, but not how it changes. And I would say that it probably never will if we regard the history of science as blocks of acceptance of a principle broken by intervals of confusion and doubt. I think Kuhn is confusing a difference in scale with a difference in kind. What I mean by that is that he seems to think of only the big ideas like relativity, quantum theory, etc., as being fixed principles, paradigms. Therefore the resolution of a smaller problem is merely “puzzle-solving,” but solving a big one is a “revolution,” a change in paradigm. In reality, every scientist is trying to solve problems, which inevitably entails giving up certain ideas and methods to arrive at a better description and understanding of a physical process. It’s just that in most cases the problem is not as large and involving as many minds as a change in the conception of the nature of light, or of the atom, etc. In short, even in periods of what he calls “normal science” I would say that scientists are doing what the “revolutionaries” do writ large. Now I admit that solving problems is not always accompanied by the belief that the most basic scientific principles must be changed, but what I am trying to say is that the process is essentially continuous. Scientists are always trying to solve problems preserving their most basic beliefs. Concepts like relativity or gravitation are not the most basic scientific beliefs, and when they conflict with a more fundamental one, usually revealed by experimentation, they are changed. But this is basically the same process that goes on every day with big problems and with small. So essentially science is either permanently in a crisis or never is; maybe one could even say that every scientist is a revolution in one man. Notice how this also makes the problem raised by his somewhat awkward likening of scientific revolutions to natural selection, the question of what criterion determines the “selection” of one model over another, unnecessary. If scientists are constantly seeking better explanations, as opposed to clinging dogmatically to one paradigm until a revolution sweeps it away, as Kuhn seems to imply, then the concept of conversion from one view to another is not anomalous. As for their actual reasons for prefering one to another, it’s irrelevant: most likely it varies by case and is not generalizable. So there.

p.s. Sorry if that point involved many acontextual references to one particular book, but a) I don’t have time to fill in the details and b) I doubt that Kuhn is unfamiliar to many of the readers (if any) of this site.


I tend to agree. The major difference, I think, between "normal" scientists and "revolutionary" scientists is not so much attitude but aptitude. Every active scientist is almost constantly checking his premises, re-evaluating whether a different outlook would work better and trying to come up with better explanations for unresolved problems. It's just that the "revolutionary" scientist is one that understands better what is going on and is capable of visualizing the problem better. The "normal" scientists recognize as well as anyone else that what's holding them back is probably an inability to think outside the box (paradigm, if you will), but they lack the creativity to synthesize a new paradigm that better resolves the problem. One could, of course, argue in circles by claiming that this lack of creativity is due to an insistence on adhering to convention, but I think that's rather a narrow view.

Posted by: shonk at December 13, 2004 09:38 PM