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Archive for the day “January 28, 2013”

Paradigm Shifts and Higher Authority: A Brief Encounter

With scientific observation…the scientist can have no recourse above or beyond what he sees with his eyes and instruments. If there were some higher authority by recourse to which his vision might be shown to have to have shifted, then that authority would itself become the source of his data and the behavior of his vision would become a source of problems.
Thomas S Kuhn, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd edition”

Paradigm Shifts and Higher Authority: A Brief Encounter

Paradigm Shifts and Higher Authority: A Brief Encounter

Thomas Kuhn, in his brilliant work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, suggests that in general the world is governed by one’s paradigmatic understanding of the world itself. A paradigm is essentially what Richard Rorty described as normative discourse, a discourse in which the rules of the game are clearly established governing the very questions one is allowed to ask. To a lesser extent, normative discourse governs the answers one receives as well.

For Kuhn, the problem with paradigmatic thinking comes when the questions being asked provide answers that conflict with that which is thought to be normative, to be normal. When that happens, scientists begin to seek new questions that help to explain the anomalies found in their answers. Perhaps the greatest example is the shift from Newtonian physics to the ideas of Einstein and relativity and Boor and quantum physics. Physicists are now trying to develop the tools to respond to the problems posed by the polar differences between relativity and the breakdown of what appears to occur at the smallest of quantum levels of being. When scientists are puzzled by the world they observe they engage in work that seeks to respond to the puzzle. This is what Kuhn describes as a scientific revolution or what Rorty calls abnormal discourse. This neo-pragmatic view of knowledge both in terms of understanding of and developing new clarity is underpinned by the idea that solutions arise from problems and problems are best expressed as questions.

Not all questions are equal. Some questions lead nowhere. Some lead to dead ends. Some are pure speculation without a basis in the real world. Even some of the questions that appear to be on the right path to new understanding turn out not to be supported by evidence based on observation and instrumental data. In short, in order to engage in science, evidence trumps speculation and bombast.

The second sentence in the quotation from Kuhn, “If there were some higher authority by recourse to which his vision might be shown to have to have shifted, then that authority would itself become the source of his data and the behavior of his vision would become a source of problems,” is, it seems to me, to be a perfect definition of blind faith; a reliance on a higher authority outside of observable facts and appropriate data collection. The problem that arises is that the higher authority in general is a compilation of ideas and writings, stories and myths, designed to explain that which is unexplained or appears unexplainable. The higher authority is deemed to be generally speaking the final authority disabusing itself of questions that are not contained within the canon. Often the preservers of higher authority discount science as not being in accord with the canon that authority brings to the table. Believers are, then, stuck in whatever time the canon was developed without hope of a more reasoned understanding.

For me, the world is a wondrous place. It is filled with many things I fail to understand, not because my ability to understand is limited, rather, because I have not taken up the study that might lead to understanding. I am in awe of the universe and its grandeur but that doesn’t lead me to posit that the universe is anything more than a very large, violent, random number generator that, in all probability will simply run out of steam some day in the very far distant future. Our own solar system is a microcosmic representation of the absurdity of the universe itself in that sometime in the future it will cease to exist as the sun burns out of its source of fuel. Absurdity in extinction leads me to the conclusion that there is nothing other than probability guiding the very furnace of the universe itself. No need to explain creation unless one is also willing to explain the demise of everything. The eternal universe is simply not an acceptable answer if one explores even the barest surface of current scientific knowledge.

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