(Paradigm) Shift Happens (RJS)

In 1962 Thomas S. Kuhn published a book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Few academic books become classics – must reads in a field, much less more broadly. Kuhn’s book has achieved that status – some 1.4 million copies sold and still counting. And more have heard of the broad concepts of his work than have read the book I am sure. Although Kuhn’s premise – that scientific revolutions represent changes in an accepted conceptual framework more than progress toward an objective truth – is rightly criticized by many, his insight and insistence that the conceptual frameworks of science are always influenced by historical and social factors remains an important, even revolutionary, contribution. In this, its 50th year, Kuhn’s book is again a subject for reflection. The April 27th issue of The Chronicle Review (Section B of The Chronicle of Higher Education) has a nice essay on the book, Shift Happens by David Weinberger (p. B7-B9).

I first became aware of Kuhn’s book and his ideas when I began exploring the relationship between science and the Christian faith. The book was frequently referred to by Christians and used as a means to dismiss and discount scientific theories, most importantly the theory of evolution, as representative of an objective reality. The theories of modern science are merely human constructs to be overturned and overthrown as cultures change. As a result I bought the book, and have read much (but not all) of it. There is no doubt that Kuhn contributed important insight into understanding the progress of science … but this book is also not the end of the story.

Toward the end of his article Weinberger notes:

Consider the popular take on SSR: Science consists of self-coherent bubbles that replace one another without necessarily progressing closer to the truth—a model of nonrationalism. This misunderstanding of Kuhn is understandable given his unwillingness to blurt out what so many of his readers wanted to hear: There are propositions that are true because they correspond to reality. “Does it really help to imagine that there is some one full, objective, true account of nature, and that the proper measure of scientific achievement is the extent to which it brings us closer to that ultimate goal?,” he wrote in SSR. Well, yes, it would, if we’re trying to show that our knowledge is progressively more in accord with that objective reality. But if that approach is closed to us—”We must learn to get along without anything at all like a correspondence theory of truth,” he wrote in 1986—we need another idea of what truth is and how we can ascertain if we’re progressing closer to it.

Thomas Kuhn called into question the right of science and scientists as the priests of a new religion to declare that they had achieved Truth with a capital T. But in doing this all he really did was to bring science down from a pedestal and place it on the same plane as all other forms of human knowledge. “Objective” reality is what we, in our particular time, social environment, and context, make of it. Given this it strikes me as odd that Christians, who believe in an absolute truth, latch on so readily to Kuhn’s ideas.

Why do Christians find Kuhn and his ideas so appealing?

Interestingly enough, Matt Chandler in his chapter on Creation in The Explicit Gospel (see Scot’s post today) makes comments that build on Karl Popper (with shades of Thomas Kuhn at times, although he doesn’t quote Kuhn) … “The bottom line is that science is in a constant state of subjectivity and do-overs.” (p. 95) … “In other words, science is ever-changing.” (p, 96) These ideas are used to argue against evolutionary biology and common descent, although Chandler takes an old-earth historical creation position not a young earth position.

But back to Thomas Kuhn and SSR.

Kuhn did not reject progress in science – and would not claim that Newton, Copernicus, Aristotle, and Ancient Near Eastern cosmology are all equally valid paradigms for understanding.  He also spent much of his effort after SSR studying what he called “normal science,” the everyday work of scientists operating within the accepted paradigm for the discipline – the kind of work that either confirms existing views or uncovers anomalies that just don’t fit. An accumulation of these anomalies brings about the transformation from one paradigm to another, capable of explaining both the old and the new information. But he still refused to be pinned down on nature of progress in science.

According to Weinberger Kuhn tended to view progress in science as an evolutionary process – there is a direction, and the direction is constrained, but it is pushed from behind rather pulled forward. There is no unique goal or outcome to the development of scientific thought and the precise outcome at any given time is determined by the vagaries of the historical path that led to the present. If you are interested in the history of science or the philosophy of science the entire article by Weinberger is worth a careful read.

For the purposes of this post I will concentrate on the metaphysical ideas, as these are of most interest in the discussion of science and the Christian religion. After the paragraph I quoted above Weinberger goes on:

Kuhn rejected our old metaphysics—consciousness consists of an inner representation of an outer reality—as incoherent, impossible, and fundamentally inhuman. That’s why he begins SSR by invoking history not as a discipline that can be applied to science, but as a necessary part of scientific understanding. All understanding is historical, and no human project escapes the characteristics of history-based humanity: fallible, limited, impure of motive, social, and always situated in a culture, a language, and a time. Not even science with its method and its formulas. …

… Rather, they [the problems Kuhn’s ideas] arose and persist because while we increasingly understand that the old metaphysical paradigm has failed, for several generations now we have not found our new paradigm. Our culture has inappropriately latched on to Kuhn’s message as an exaltation of the rootless disconnection of our ideas from the world because we were ready to hear that knowledge is not apart from our knowing of it. But he and we have not yet come to a new shared understanding about what it means to live truthfully as humans.

As a Christian and as an active scientist I find the idea of a rootless disconnect between our ideas and “truth” troubling. There is a real truth and our search for this truth is pulled from the front rather than pushed from behind. As a scientist I really don’t doubt the idea of an objective reality in the world that we aspire to understand and describe – although it will be imperfect and limited understanding at any given time. I am not a positivist, but I am a realist with whatever the appropriate qualifier may be (critical realist, practical realist, …). The thoroughly Christian idea that all truth is God’s truth gives structure and meaning to this search for truth through science. There is objective truth not just because there is a real material world to understand, but because there is a purpose and direction over the whole.

I am interested to hear from others who may have studied the philosophy and history of science in more detail.

Does Kuhn have anything to offer to the Christian search for truth?

Is it reasonable to invoke his ideas in evaluating and discarding the claims of science? If so where and why?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

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  • The big idea as I see it in Kuhn is that all claims about the physical world are conditioned and transformed by the set of lens through which we see the world. As such, any claim about “science” and “what science says” will (consciously or not) first be a statement of one’s own philosophic precommitments.

    You write, “The thoroughly Christian idea that all truth is God’s truth gives structure and meaning to this search for truth through science. There is objective truth not just because there is a real material world to understand, but because there is a purpose and direction over the whole.”

    Case and point. Given this perspective, the “truths” the physical world announces will be quite different than those heard from, say, the positivist perspective.

    What Kuhn suggests, I think rightly–that many in the sciences refuse to embrace–is the reality shifting power and unavoidable role that paradigms have in our understanding of the world. Concepts like “scientific progress,” “truth,” “knowledge,” “ideas,” in fact the very language that we use to describe reality will all be erected, shaped, refined and advocated by our philosophic precommitments–our paradigms.

    After understanding Kuhn, I think Christians would be wise to pause. For hermeneutics and our reading of the Bible, history, tradition, and the creeds will not be able to escape the paradigm problem either.

  • RJS


    Of course – and Kuhn brought some important insights. As the article I linked notes, after Kuhn it is no longer possible to write a history of science without considering the human aspects. His book has become a classic for sound reasons. But it too is the product of a time, place, and culture.

    But … planes won’t cease to fly because we frame a different “science” and the earth won’t suddenly be found on pillars with a firmament. The phlogiston theory isn’t right … and the mathematics of relativity won’t suddenly change in its ability to describe the bending of light around the sun. There is a reality underneath.

    I agree with your last point – many of the factors Kuhn highlights about science can be applied as well to the human framing of the Christian faith.

  • The definitions of terms being used like “fly”, “right theory”, “describe,” “insights,” “important” are not fixed in “reality”.

    There are an assortment of value judgments being made in your comment that cannot be evaluated by scientific means. The proper definition of a words cannot be established by scientific means.

    You may make claims about how you see “reality” using such terms and value judgments–and rightly so. But when you do, I suspect your philosophical precommitments–commitments assumed and not argued for–will quickly emerge. And that’s the point I see in Kuhn.

    Looking forward to your thoughts. Much love brother.

  • phil_style

    @Jeff, “Much love brother”
    RJS is our Sister 😉

  • Bah.

    Much love and Apologies. 🙂

  • RJS


    There are values and subjectivity in any form of human speech … so what?

    Of course an insight that realizes this is of great use. Proper definition of words are not established by scientific means, or though the discipline of analytic philosophy …

  • gingoro

    Good Post. In many ways one might consider the writings of Scot and NT Wright as attempting to change our paradigm of both scripture interpretation and how it applies to our lives. My, very amateur, judgement is that they will be successful at least in adding another acceptable point of view to the current moderate Evangelical understanding, but time will tell. I certainly find them helpful.

    Both Popper and Kuhn show us that science is always tentative and IMO the same applies to our understanding of scripture. Having said that one doubts that concepts in science like entropy will change much and neither will the core understanding of Christianity.
    Dave W

  • Agreed.

    My overall point is that there’s no theory independent way to say things like “really there”.

    The problem showcased in Kuhn is *not* that science isn’t valuable or that one can “discard the claims of science.” Kuhn shows that what “science” advocates is heavily conditioned by one’s presuppositions/theory/paradigm/religion/worldview/etc.

    As such a phrase like “science says” is naive. Yes, the phenomenon of “planes flying” won’t change, but perhaps the reason given for *why* they fly will.

    Grace and peace.

  • AHH

    It has been about 15 years since I read Kuhn’s book, but I have always been surprised to hear him misused by Christians who want to dismiss scientific work. The surprise is for two reasons:
    1) On my reading, Kuhn is pretty much a critical realist. Yes, he emphasizes the human dimensions and cultural influences and role of prevailing paradigms, but I do not get any sense in which he denies that most scientific paradigm shifts move us closer to an accurate understanding of reality. Just because his book focuses on disabusing us of the caricature of science as a purely objective march toward certain Truth does not mean he has gone to the other extreme.
    2) It is ironic that some Christians who have nothing but condemnation for “postmodernism” take such a postmodern approach toward science when it suits their purposes, arguing that scientific paradigms like evolution are just social power plays and can therefore be dismissed by those who don’t like them. Politics and dogmatics make strange bedfellows.

    What can we learn from Kuhn? I think there is value in getting rid of the Enlightenment notion of science giving us certain and perfectly objective Truth — but as RJS noted that just puts science on a similar footing to other areas of knowledge (including theology and Christian doctrine) where cultural factors and historical contingencies play more of a role than people are often willing to admit. People like John Polkinghorne have talked about the similarities between science and theology in terms of “critical realism” being an appropriate framework for epistemology (and people like NT Wright and Lesslie Newbigen have advocated it without talking about science). A framework where we recognize that truth exists, have humility about our human ability to apprehend that truth, recognize the social and cultural factors involved in truth claims, but nevertheless stumble forward and can know many things with reasonable confidence. Newbigen’s Proper Confidence is a good little book in this regard; I don’t remember him saying anything about science but I think what he says is equally applicable in that area.

  • Scot Miller

    I think you are correct that (conservative) Christians who embrace Kuhn and Popper are making a big mistake. They may want to undermine scientific theories they don’t like (like evolution), but Kuhn’s idea of paradigms and normal science and paradigm shifts, etc., is a “two edged sword” and cuts against the Christians’ idea of Objectivity and Truth (with a capital “T”). Once you admit that truth and knowledge and progress are historically conditioned in particular communities (like scientific communities), it’s harder to assert that a particular religious interpretation of scripture is “the Truth.”

    I think Kuhn (and Popper) are really offering a different conception of what counts as objectivity and truth. What counts as objective truth is determined more by agreements reached in the scientific community than anything else. Normal science explores and “mops up” the loose ends of a paradigm, and tends to ignore the anomalies which don’t fit into the paradigm. Eventually when the anomalies pile up and can no longer be ignored, a crisis occurs which leads to a scientific revolution: the emergence of a new paradigm which better explains the old data and the anomalies. Then there’s more normal science, etc. So objectivity isn’t determined by the data of our experience, but by how groups of rational people agree to make sense of the data.

  • Greg C

    Christians are often attracted to various forms of skepticism, not because they don’t believe in “Absolute truth” but because Christianity says our grasp of (some forms of) that truth is a matter of faith, not knowledge. This can lead to unreflective fideism. But it can also lead to a Pascal, or even a Thomas Aquinas.

  • What is the role of the Holy Spirit in the search for Truth?

    Almost all of the descriptions of group thinking — the effect of preconceptions, the blind defense of group ideas, the basis of acceptance or rejection of others, etc. — fit into a value system that is accounted for by human psychologists as being those successful survival practices developed during the process of natural human evolution. These are academic discussions of observed natural human behavior — in interactive areas of social, political, patriotic, religious, survival, etc. These characteristics are not specifically applied to Christians, scientists, creationists, evolutionists, theologians, atheists .. on either side of the issue under present discussion. Nevertheless, the characteristics of evolved natural behavior described by human psychologists still fit “all of the above.”

    Where does “but we have the mind of Christ” fit into all this? (1 Cor. 2:16) Was Paul using an “editorial we” and speaking only for himself? Or, is this a spiritual “vestigial organ” for many of today’s Christians?

  • Darrell

    Why are so many of us so obsessed with ‘objective’ when talking about truth? Is truth as a concept not sufficient? Since ‘objective’ is so philosophically loaded with Cartesian overtones do Christians really show wisdom hitching their wagons to it and thus submitting Christian belief to modernist notions of truth?

  • Sam

    I agree with RJS here, in that I think Kuhn is slightly overrated. For discussions of science’s ability to grasp at an objective reality, Michael Polanyi is a much better read. He acknowledges that science doesn’t deal in absolutely certain truths, but with conclusions that make so much sense of the evidence that you’re willing to commit to them. They might still be wrong, but then that is the element of ‘faith’ that comes in for any sort of rational enquiry.

    Side-note: One of the reasons some Christians may latch onto Kuhn may be because they adopt the tenets of postmodernism. I personally know some people in my life who (paradoxically) claim that there is no such thing as truth, because authority figures in their own lives have used the concept of truth for hurtful purposes. That, and writers espousing critical realism (Polanyi, Bhaskar, Lonergan) have a more common-sense approach to scientific truth, and so don’t get as much notoriety from the ratings-seeking media.

  • Sam

    Oops, wrong word there. Not notoriety, just don’t get as much good press.

  • Tom F.

    Why do Christians find Kuhn so appealing?

    An unreflective instinct that the enemy of my enemy is my friend on the part of those who see science and faith as in conflict. Than, a more reflective response on the part of some less conservative Christianswho see the implications of Kuhn as loosening up some other more rigidly conservative Christian ideas about “Truth”.

    I wonder if this dynamic might account for the way that post-modern ideas more generally have become a hot-button issue in conservative-to-moderate evangelical circles. Some Christians were initially attracted to them for their ability to dissolve the arguments of their traditional opponents, positivist scientists, specifically regarding the “Truth” of evolution. When other Christians who were looking for opportunities to loosen some aspects of the conservative position on faith latched on to these ideas, as they had been somewhat affirmed within conservative circles, the conservative element flipped on these ideas, never having really been attracted to them in the first place.

    Self-disclosure: that resonates at least a bit with my own journey. 🙂

    Does Kuhn have anything to offer?

    As a correction to positivism, absolutely yes. However, Kuhn’s decoupling of scientific progress from any relationship to “objective” reality is not as helpful (there are problems with “objective”, but not exactly sure how else to say it). Without a theory of how the features of the world constrain scientific work, its not clear what separates science from other human scholarship. If science is unrelated to the natural world, than what exactly is it about?

    I think that from a history of science point of view, Kuhn’s ideas are really important. Especially in explaining why certain mistakes were made in science, and why it took so long to correct them. For example, genetic theories about race that led to eugenics and ethnic cleansing are simply wrong (e.g., there is more genetic difference between those lactose intolerant and those who can digest milk than between those who have different skin colors). But why did it take so long for science to correct this mistake? Not simply because the science was hard, but because social conditions made genetically-supported racism plausible and believable, and many scientists were socially influence to pursue research in other directions, rather than challenge this hypothesis. Theories of gender that assumed women’s inferiority are similar.

    But if science has no internal ability to self-correct, even as it is influenced by the societies it takes place in, than the findings of science are epiphenomenal, and science is dissolved into sociology. (Ironically, this is not too different from the way that science sometimes dissolves personhood and agency into biochemisty. Apparently, people in the humanities can play at the reductionistic game too.)

    I think this applies to Christian deconstructions of evolution using Kuhn. If you use Kuhn to deconstruct evolution, than you end up tearing down all of science implicitly. Christians could critique evolution on scientific terms, as being inadequate (I doubt that it is, but still). This would still be a positive move, as it would affirm that science can help to find out truth and can be a helpful human endeavor, even as it may be wrong in one aspect (evolution). I think most of the Intelligent Design stuff is not so great, but at its best, I think it was trying to get at this.

    But if Christians use someone like Kuhn to take down science, than it isn’t clear why anyone should do science. At best, science is irrelevant to the really important stuff (faith), and at worst, it ends up confusing matters of faith. And this is really bad for science, and really bad for faith. Because it is only a matter of time before people use the same decoupling move on faith (i.e., decoupling biblical interpretation entirely from the “reality” of the text).

  • Eric E

    “Why do Christians find Kuhn and his ideas so appealing?”

    1) Most people haven’t read Kuhn. 1.4 million is an impressive number but still a drop in the bucket. Even you admit you haven’t read his entire book.
    2) Because of 1), most people who talk about Kuhn are relying on popular accounts of his work.
    3) Popular accounts of Kuhn tend to focus on “paradigm shifts” and ignore the other stuff (e.g., normal science, incommensurability, anomalies, etc).
    4) Because of this, “paradigm shift” as an idea has been watered down to mean something like “a change in one way of thinking to another.”
    5) Because of this, people who would otherwise be leery of some of the (real or imagined) metaphysical implications of Kuhn’s work don’t see the idea as conflicting with their view of truth.

    In general, for what it’s worth, as far as theories about how science progresses, I find Lakatos and Feyerabend much more convincing then Kuhn. But “progressive and degenerating research programs” just doesn’t flow off the tongue as nicely as “paradigm shift,” so it hasn’t really caught on as a popular phrase. 🙂

    All that being said, I agree with Darrell that the terms “objective” and “absolute” are unhelpful qualifiers for the term “truth” and we’d probably be better off without them.

  • Hi RJS – I read Kuhn in a Philosophy of Psychology class back in 1973-74, and it has shaped my thinking, and my awareness of my thinking, ever since. As a pastor-theologian, I find that Kuhn’s model of paradigms very helpful in theology and Biblical studies. The resistance Kuhn sees in the scientific community to new data that defy the accepted paradigm is equally evident in theology. Witness the resistance to NT Wright’s work from fellow Evangelicals.

    Brian McLaren uses Kuhn’s approach effectively in describing Christianity’s resistance to the discoveries of science (Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin). Kuhn and McLaren see the progress of science and theology as being toward that which is really true while recognizing that our grasp of truth is always partial (1 Cor. 13!). I would love to see Kuhn’s method more consistently applied in theological thought so that we could move forward in both humility and true knowledge.

  • MattR

    “Does Kuhn have anything to offer in the Christian search for truth?”
    Yes, I believe he was the start, though certainly not the last word at this point, of something.

    I am not a scientist, but was introduced to his work when studying theology.

    “All understanding is historical, and no human project escapes the characteristics of history-based humanity: fallible, limited, impure of motive, social, and always situated in a culture, a language, and a time.”
    That is what we need to add to our understanding in the search for truth… embedded in history and community, limited, and fallible, are all classically part of Christian concepts of truth. Unfortunately we have gone through a period where an arrogant positivism (which we labeled ‘objective truth’) has captured our imaginations…. We are still recovering from this!

  • holdon

    “Given this it strikes me as odd that Christians, who believe in an absolute truth, latch on so readily to Kuhn’s ideas.”

    Who wouldn’t believe in absolute truth if he/she knew what that was? Everyone believes something. In that Christians are no different than others.

  • David

    I read Kuhn in a history of science class in college in the early 80’s – it’s easily one of the most influential books I’ve ever read. For years, it mostly influenced my understanding of science and its meaning (I’m a scientist), but recently the same ideas, converging from several sources, have dramatically reshaped my views and experience of faith. I think Jeff’s comment (in the first comment) is really on target:

    “After understanding Kuhn, I think Christians would be wise to pause. For hermeneutics and our reading of the Bible, history, tradition, and the creeds will not be able to escape the paradigm problem either.”

    Except I’d portray it as a “feature” rather than a “problem”, a reflection of how we function as humans in all respects.

  • CGC

    Wow, some impresses responses on Kuhn. Especially noteworthy to me was AHH’s excellent remarks (and yes, one of my favorite books has been Newbigen’s “Proper Confidence”). After saying that, let me get into a little trouble by challenging something that seems like we’re not supposed to challenge, “critical-realism.” It seems like this epistemological paradigm reigns in everything from theology to science (and yes, I love N. T. Wright and this is his epistemological model he works from as well). I just don’t believe this was the model that the earliest Christians were working from a historical perspective. So for me at least, it’s not a given and can certainly be questioned.

  • AHH

    CGC @7:34pm says regarding critical realism:
    I just don’t believe this was the model that the earliest Christians were working from a historical perspective. So for me at least, it’s not a given and can certainly be questioned.

    I would reply with a few thoughts:
    1) I doubt the earliest Christians did much, if any, conscious reflection about epistemology. So the question would be whether there was an underlying assumed epistemology, which likely would be shaped by their culture.
    2) Critical realism basically says “objective truth and reality exist, but humans will never have perfect and objective understanding of it, but often we can get close enough”. I would argue that such an approach is consistent with Christian theology — Paul’s “through a glass darkly” is IMO a critical realist statement.
    3) If early Christians did operate with a different model (and I don’t have the expertise to judge that), is that any reason to think that Christians today should follow them in that regard? There may be some things where we should look to early Christians for guidance, but I don’t know that we should adopt their epistemological model any more than we should adopt, say, their cosmology.

    One can certainly question critical realism (although it seems superior to me — maybe because I’m a scientist), but I don’t know that the epistemological paradigms of early Christians should make any difference in whether or not we do.

  • CGC

    Hi AHH,
    Another influential book I have read is William Abraham’s “Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology.” Abraham shows how the church, pretty early on went from utilizing Scripture, liturgy, the creeds, etc. as means of grace versus using them apologetically as a kind of epistemology. You will have to see how Abraham’s traces this out from the fathers to modern theology. Despite how Abraham may not do justice to Barth and others in how he develops his thesis, I think it can be shown that this is indeed what happened historically from what he calls “from the fathers to feminism” (and after seeing the complementarian/egalitarian debate, I don’t even want to go there).

    Since most of our paradigms are expanding and developing, I would at least utilize caution when people tie any epistemology to the Christian worldview or baptize it as Christian (which I am not saying you are doing). I am not against critical-realism but I quess I approach this issue cautiously as Wright does substitutionary atonement. I’m not against it per se but I think the issues are bigger than this model of understanding reality. Or going back to Wright again, I think critical-realism has been a kind of cart before the horse in a similar fashion as Wright shows what the Reformers did with soteriology trumping or taking priority over Christology. Just my meager .02 cents worth.

  • CGC

    PS – I will say for me at least, the resources of the church as a means of grace are far richer and more substantial than some epistemology we adopt or promote. Sometimes I want to say we need a critical critical-realist approach but I wary of such redundant things (think of all the discussions of “post-post-modernism” etc. What’s next, “post-post-post? 🙂 I also see a strong tendency among critical-realists towards rationalism, naturalism, and scientism. Or to put it a different way, it Kant spoke of religion within the bounds of reason, I think critical-realism goest the same direction (rather than the reverse, reason within the bounds of faith).
    Lastly, I can’t help but see some comparisons for people who utilize critical-realism as something to defend and save the Christian faith like inerrancy was supposed to guard and defend the Bible. Truth is really found not within Scripture but the methodologies that interpret and define Scripture. Feel free to push back but that has been my sense of things for a long time. I will say I also see people who utilize critical realism to be very academically informed and sharp people who are also humble and self-critical of their own dogmas and positions. Maybe like so many things I see in life, critical-realism has an up side and a down side to it?