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.
If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.