The Structure of Theological Revolutions

Review of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn

By KENDRICK KUO

Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996) was a specialist in the history of science and held a professorship at the Massachussets Institute of Technology. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions remains his most famous work, which outlined his theory of paradigm shifts. The common view of scientific progress is a gradual growth of knowledge through new discoveries. In contrast, Kuhn argues that the scientific endeavor evolves through paradigm changes.

Kuhn’s paradigm encapsulates everything from the general theory about nature, methodologies, and desired results. Paradigms take root in scientific communities after a pre-paradigm era of a variety of interpretations of the same phenomenon coalesce around a loosely united theory. Once a paradigm is in place, it can still give way to new paradigms after a crisis, which can take a variety of forms, but tends to be an unsolvable puzzle that requires a new paradigm. As a new paradigm tries to unseat a former one, they do not compete directly since they have no common ground. Instead, advocates of a paradigm try to show its superiority through internal consistency and its ability to answer some questions better (though it may overturn the verdict for some formerly solved problems).

Deduced from this paradigm is the nature of science itself. The nature of “normal science,” that is, science done within a paradigm, is problem-solving. A paradigm bequeaths upon a scientific community a set of problems and the acceptable instruments and techniques to solve these problems. Then, the scientist’s task is to slowly flesh out the paradigm by solving these problems.

Kuhn then leads us logically to a rather troubling spot. If the engine behind scientific

“progress” is paradigmatic shifts, then what guarantee can we have that science actually increases true knowledge of the nature of reality? Kuhn casts severe doubt on the ability of science to progress in the sense of getting closer to an objective understanding of reality. Instead, science progresses because the very definition of science is progress—it begs the question. Put another way, we label something a science when we believe it can make measurable progress.

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So art, in the past, was considered a science as the masters perfected techniques to make painting look increasingly realistic. Nowadays, we don’t believe art to be a science because art can take a variety of forms and all are equally valid. Similarly, what we today call philosophy used to be a science, but now we assume a variety of philosophical schools, of which none is necessarily more right than the other, and collectively they explore different aspects. Normal science inherently must show progress since most scientific experiments already know the results they’re looking for; and as more puzzles get solved, there is a measure of success. Unfortunately, normal science does not guarantee that we’re stepping closer to the Real.

This understanding of scientific discovery is very similar to presuppositionalism (or covenant apologetics) in Christian philosophy. Presuppositionalism argues that the Christian and non-Christian worldviews (read “paradigms”) are entirely removed from each other and common ground is lacking. Both exercise reason (read “normal science”), but this reason is merely the outworking of the presupposition, and so there is no appeal to reason as the final court of appeals. What is required to bridge the gulf is conversion/regeneration (read “scientific revolution”), in which the non-Christian acquires a new set of presuppositions.

Hence presuppositionalism is the flower of the Reformed seed, though some prominent Reformed thinkers reject presuppositionalism, such as R.C. Sproul and our very own Schaeffer’s Ghost contributor Justin Hawkins. Total depravity is total; it includes the life of the mind so that it is subject to futility. The Spirit must transform the mind for worldly thinking is foolish, as Christ has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise (1 Cor. 1:27).

Yet contrary to Kuhn’s skepticism toward science’s ability to discover the nature of reality, Cornelius Van Til (father of presuppositionalism) argued that worldviews could prove their veracity via coherence. Van Til argued that a coherence theory of truth was necessary to answer the question of worldview evaluation, since worldviews talk right past each other when left without common ground to anchor debates. And because God is the God of Truth, the Christian worldview alone was thoroughly coherent. All other worldviews end up with internal contradictions.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions may have been one of the most eye-opening books I’ve read this year. It is accessible to the layman with an amateur background in thinking abstractly. I recommend it to all who find enjoyment in reading philosophy, particularly in epistemology.

For further reading:

  • Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis by Greg Bahnsen
  • The Logic of Scientific Discovery by Karl Popper (refuted by Kuhn)

 

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