Saturday, August 14, 2010

Thomas Kuhn...redux

And so, Du Won Kang says of Kuhn..."personal interest, politics, power, and authority play a role in science".

"A Fresh Look at Thomas Kuhn’s Philosophy of Science"

Beyond and behind 'The Structure of Scientific Revolutions'


Du Won Kang

August 5th, 2010

Part 1

The most widely read work on the philosophy of science, was and still is very influential while being widely misunderstood.

In his famed book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Structure for short), Kuhn introduced some controversial aspects of science while confusing some of his points, which led to decades of misunderstanding and criticism. Furthermore, Kuhn’s descriptions of what scientists normally do as dogmatic and rigid were not well received by many who celebrated the achievements of science.

He spent much of his later life trying to clarify his views about science while continuing to refine his philosophy beyond Structure. Some of the most lucid clarifications of what he thought about science were revealed in candid discussions not long before his death from cancer in 1996.

Misunderstanding and Criticism

Three decades after the publication of Structure, John Horgan, former senior writer at Scientific American, met Kuhn at his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Kuhn explained that the word “paradigm” had become hopelessly overused and was out of control, and it infected the intellectual community, where it came to signify any dominant idea, according to Horgan in his book The End of Science.

In that discussion between Kuhn and Horgan, and elsewhere, Kuhn said that he was partly responsible for the confusion for not using the term clearly and consistently in his original book, Structure. After the publication of the book, Kuhn’s attempts to clarify what he essentially meant by “paradigm” were largely unsuccessful.

Kuhn explained on various occasions that he basically intended for “paradigm” to mean what he called an “exemplar,” a concrete set of examples of problem solving that serves as a model.

A “paradigm” is what you use in the absence of a theory, and it plays a critical role in the development of a scientific theory, according to Kuhn. “You don’t have a structure unless you include in it at least a few examples,” said Kuhn in a 1995 discussion in Athens, Greece, published in The Road Since Structure in 2000, several years after Kuhn’s death.

Many of the early responses to Structure came from social scientists, for which Kuhn was unprepared. Kuhn initially wrote Structure mainly for philosophers, many of whom proved to be highly critical of him, even unfairly in Kuhn’s view.

Charges of “irrationalism” and “relativism” about science were mounted against Kuhn by critics, most forcefully by philosophers. Kuhn’s attempts to deal with some of the charges by explaining at the end of the third edition of Structure that there is progress in science in terms of accumulation of puzzles, did not settle the issues.

According to The Road Since Structure, Kuhn said in the 1995 discussion in Athens: “People treated me as though I were a fool! I want to say, how … could anybody ever have thought that I would believe anything like that! ... I fairly early simply stopped reading the things about me, from philosophers in particular ... I got too angry ... It was too painful.”

The Road to Structure

In a paper, What Are Scientific Revolutions, published in 1987, Kuhn explains the beginnings of writing Structure.

When Kuhn first read Aristotle’s Physics as a graduate student of physics in 1947, he asked himself how much of classical mechanics had Aristotle known to pass on to Galileo and Newton, assuming that progress in science is cumulative, like many of Kuhn’s contemporaries believed. To his surprise, Aristotle seems to have known almost no mechanics at all.

At first, to Kuhn, Aristotle’s Physics appeared to be full of egregious errors in both logic and observation. But Kuhn had doubts about this judgment. After all, Aristotle laid the foundation of ancient logic and contributed to a central aspect of modern biology and much more.

“Might not the fault be mine rather than Aristotle’s, I asked myself. Perhaps his words had not always meant to him and his contemporaries quite what they meant to me and mine,” he said.

As Kuhn was puzzling over this question, a sudden transformation in his perspective on Aristotle’s Physics amazed him.

“My jaw dropped, for all at once Aristotle seemed a very good physicist indeed, but of a sort I’d never dreamed possible ... Statements that had previously seemed egregious mistakes now seemed at worst near misses within a powerful and generally successful tradition.”

From this enlightenment about Aristotle’s Physics, key aspects of Kuhn’s Structure emerged.

He experienced what he would later describe as a Gestalt switch from psychology, in which a holistic change in perspective happens all at once from the same visual data. Furthermore, in this switch, one perspective is replaced with a very different and incompatible one.

He would later explain that scientific revolutions occur in a similar way: Instead of a gradual accumulation of knowledge, science evolves through revolutions that were noncumulative, replacing earlier theories with incompatible ones.

Kuhn’s compassionate consideration of Aristotle’s Physics was also essential to his understanding of ancient physics. He would later relate this experience and his approach to analysis of the history of science with a method applied by sociologists, of letting go of ethnocentric tendencies and putting oneself in the other person’s shoes in order to come to a correct interpretation of the concepts from a different culture.

’Internalist Endeavor’

Kuhn was focused on the internal aspects of science. He was not very interested in just the cold and abstract packaging of scientific theories. Instead, he was far more interested in the inner minds of practicing scientists as real people who are socialized into a culture with attachments and values. For Kuhn, even the so-called objective scientific facts and data are never independent of a subjective framework of personal beliefs.

In the 1995 discussion in Athens, Kuhn recalled that while historian and philosopher of science Alexander Koyre was sick and dying, he wrote to Kuhn, saying, “You have brought the internal and external histories of science, which in the past have been very far apart, together.”

Kuhn said that he never intended to bring the two areas together because he always considered himself an “internalist,” and that his book Structure was as an internalist endeavor.

Part 2

With a focus on what scientists do rather than what they should do, Thomas Kuhn emphasized the powerful role that values and interests play in science as a social activity. At the same time, he acknowledged that there are some rational and effective aspects of what scientists do.

Charges of irrationalism in Kuhn’s philosophy were partially true, as Kuhn himself acknowledged, but some of the charges may have been too extreme.

In The Trouble with the Historical Philosophy of Science, published in 1992, Kuhn continued to explain that personal interest, politics, power, and authority play a role in science, as they do in other aspects of societal life.

Irrational and Rational Aspects of Science

However, Kuhn did not agree with the postmodernist movement, called the “strong program,” which claims that power and interests are all there are. While there is an irrational side to the practice of science, observations of nature do play a role in scientific development, according to Kuhn.

“Incommensurability,” which Kuhn discussed in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Structure for short), is key to understanding his argument for limitations in rationally deciding which of two rival theories are better toward making progress in science.

According to Kuhn, scientists in different disciplines are drastically limited in effectively communicating with each other. Even the same terms often mean different things between two disciplines, and the terms cannot be effectively translated. Neither can they be bridged with descriptions of brute data when the terms or concepts are dependent on a whole system of understanding within a culture or subculture of different communities.

When scientists from rival disciplines argue, their arguments tend to be circular as each makes claims to concepts that are in turn based on their own disciplines that they are trying to defend. According to Kuhn, even in science, the winners between competing scientific theories are often decided politically.

However, Kuhn did not intend to mean that the barrier posed by incommensurability is absolute and that a rational communication between two disciplines or cultures is impossible. According to Kuhn, such communications are possible but often very difficult to achieve.

In a paper, The Natural and the Human Sciences, submitted by Kuhn for a discussion at LaSalle University in 1989, he explained that with hermeneutic interpretation, anthropologists and historians are sometimes able to gain deep understanding of concepts from different cultures. Kuhn’s own experience of enlightening to Aristotle’s ancient physics is another example.

A Kantian Position With Relative Categories

Like Immanuel Kant, Kuhn believed that while there is an objective reality independent of the human mind, the human mind ultimately cannot know that reality, which is ineffable and beyond human language and culture.

However, unlike Kant, who believed that human beings are born with innate categories of understanding, Kuhn took a relativistic position. Kuhn believed that these categories are not innate; instead, they change with changes in culture and language.

Interpreting Kuhn’s position, John Horgan wrote in The End of Science: “But whatever is universal in human experience, whatever transcends culture and history, is also ‘ineffable,’ beyond the reach of language.”

During a conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1990 in honor of Kuhn, in the Afterward, Kuhn replied to some philosophers of science about key aspects of his philosophy:

“The point is not that laws true in one world may be false in another but that they may be ineffable, unavailable for conceptual or observational scrutiny.” He said, “It is effability, not truth, that my view relativizes to worlds and practices.”

An Attack on the Dominant View of Science

One of Kuhn’s primary goals was to show that the prevalent view of scientific progress, a vision of successive scientific beliefs becoming better and better approximations to the truth, is false.

For example, Einstein’s theory, which came after Newton, was closer in principle to the much older Aristotelian physics than to Newtonian physics, according to Kuhn. In a way, modern physics has taken a big leap back toward ancient times.

It would be a mistake to say that Kuhn was against science. Kuhn said that he is “pro-science,” according to Horgan in The End of Science. In a way, Kuhn praised science. The rigidity and discipline of science actually makes it very effective at problem solving while it produces “the greatest and most original bursts of creativity” of any human enterprise, according to Kuhn in his discussion with Horgan.

Kuhn’s starting point was to approach science from epistemology, a theory of knowledge, on which Kant had immense influence. Kuhn was less interested in evaluating scientific theories; he focused more on the minds of practicing scientists who are deeply affected and constrained by culture and language.

Kuhn was not attacking science itself, although he may have inadvertently inspired others to do so. The aim of his intellectual attack was against the tenets of logical positivism (also known as logical empiricism), which was the dominant philosophy of science around the time when Kuhn wrote Structure.

Not a ‘Kuhnian’

Kuhn had many critics. Among them were philosophers Paul Feyerabend, Imre Lakatos, Margaret Masterman, and Stephen Toulmin, just to name a few. One of the most notable critics was the older Karl Popper, who was himself one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, from whom Kuhn learned a great deal.

While Kuhn acknowledged that he had much in common with Popper’s philosophy of science, Kuhn was very critical of Popper on key points. For example, he attacked Popper’s “falsifiability” criterion for scientific theory on the grounds that Popper did not account for what scientists normally do.

According to Kuhn, even under known anomalies that could falsify a theory, scientists normally tend to strive dogmatically to solve problems as puzzles to be worked out in order to enlarge their current theories, not to advance new and better theories.

One of the sharpest critics of Kuhn was David Stove, an Australian philosopher and author of Scientific Irrationalism: Origins of a Postmodern Cult. Stove attacked both Popper and Kuhn for laying the foundation for scientific irrationalism and for strong dependence on David Hume’s skepticism of inductive reasoning, a cornerstone of the empirical method of modern science.

While Kuhn contributed much to the postmodernist movement, he was opposed to their extreme views. Kuhn believed that many of his critics and supporters misinterpreted important aspects of his philosophy with damaging results. Frustrated and angered, Kuhn remarked that he was not a “Kuhnian.”

Thomas Kuhn[Wikipedia]

Thomas Kuhn [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions [Wikipedia]

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions


Thomas Kuhn

ISBN-10: 0226458083
ISBN-13: 978-0226458083

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