Are Scientific Revolutions Irrational Or Not Philosophy Essay

Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions is an output of his seminal book “”The structure of scientific revolutions”- which he later clarified in several papers, over a period of 30 years, primarily clarifying and responding to peer criticism. In Kuhn paper on “science, objectivity and values” he reflects on what he perceives as the authentic scientific practice, as well as the factual historical development and sequence of scientific theories. Kuhn’s description of scientific growth can be seen methodically as consisting of five key stages: paradigm, normal science, puzzle-solving, anomaly, crisis, revolution and new paradigm.

Kuhn’s describes a paradigm as “rarely like an object for replication, instead like an accepted judicial decision in the common law, it is an object for further articulation and specification under new or more stringent condition. (Structure of scientific revolution, 3,ED p23)

According to Kuhn, the paradigm provides the organised principles which Normal science exists in. A scientific revolution happens when science experiences significant upheaval within an existing idea or theory; which is then supplanted by radically different/ new theories… An example such as [1] Copernicus Revolution is used by Kuhn to illustrate. For a scientific revolution to take place, it is incumbent on key attributes of Kuhn’s theory of paradigms -which consist of a conceptual matrix, with two main components; Firstly theoretical assumptions that have been agreed by the science community, that has adopted the paradigm, and secondly [2] exemplars which are specific to the paradigm and have been solved by the theoretical assumptions within the paradigm.

According to Kuhn, the paradigm guides the scientists and the research into new observational fact. After the creation of the paradigm an extensive period of ‘normal science’ transpires, in which scientists use ‘puzzle solving’ to account for any mismatched theoretical predictions, and unknown phenomena which had previously not been accommodated. At this time the paradigm is not undergoing testing; as normal science is seen to further articulate the paradigm, until an anomaly/anomalies appears which cannot be reconciled within the scope and terms of reference applied to the paradigm. If the increase of anomalies challenges the original premise of the paradigm, Kuhn regarded this as the defining moment when the paradigm entered a period of crisis – whereby the supporters of the paradigm experience a [3] gestalt switch, which is a sudden psychological shift, which enables the old paradigm to be discarded and a new paradigm to be accepted. Kuhn used an example from Gestalt psychology to exemplify the circumstances ( [4] duck-rabbit case). Once the revolution has taken place and the new conceptual framework, is in the new paradigm world – the circle continues and a new period of normal science materializes…Kuhn objectifies normal science, and describes it as “an attempt to force nature into the preformed and relatively inflexible box that the paradigm supplies” (Structure of scientific revolution, 3 ED, P24)

The fundamental premise of Kuhn’s schema is the paradigm shift; and according to Kuhn it is incontestably by rules; and has no methodological relationship to any degree of confirmation or conclusive refutations – nor does it represent a measured transition or a modification of the old paradigm. More accurately, it’s a sudden shift in which the new paradigm is accepted and entirely replaces the old one. However the reasons for the new paradigm being accepted are not because of advanced scientific arguments that support it, but rather because of its advocate’s powers of expression and influence.

Kuhn says that the ‘most fundamental aspect of incommensurability’ is the fact that “the proponents of competing paradigms practice their trades in different worlds” (structure of scientific revolution, 3 ED, p150)). At no point does Kuhn view his paradigms as irrational, because he asserts that competing paradigms cannot be compared. In Kuhn’s world, paradigms are always incommensurable: which means that there is no logical manner in which we can systematically translate, as they have no common paradigm methodology which would enable two different paradigms to talk to each other, therefore no competing paradigms are inter -translatable. Kuhn views the paradigm as a whole, and it characterises the meaning of the terms used in it. Therefore it can be deduced that when a paradigm shift takes place, there is no reason to assume that the meaning of the terms of reference remains the same. Nor can we assume that shared terminology which may occur within two different paradigms refers to the same ‘things’ in their worlds. Kuhn used the example of the shift from the Ptolemaic to the Copernican paradigm, and the change in connotation and character reference of the term ‘planet’ – correspondingly Kuhn also cited the idiom ‘mass’ in the conversion from the Newtonian paradigm to the Einstein paradigm… this is reflective of the level of Relativism within Kuhn’s model.

In response to Kuhn’s scientific revolutions, Ernan McMullin wrote in his paper ” [5] Rationality and Paradigm Change in Science” that “Kuhn’s account of the paradigm changes that for him constituted scientific revolutions was taken by many to undermine the rationality of the scientific process.”

Firstly is there any logic in Kuhn’s assertion that no proven progress can be achieved in normal science? There is a sense in which normal science can progress, such as when it fruitfully solves problems and puzzles from within the context of the terms of reference set in the paradigm. If so we can say that normal science does increase our knowledge of the world – but then which world? Consider then the consequences of what happens when the paradigm is discarded. If the new paradigm defines a new conceptual world, then we can say that the superseded paradigm has evidently made no progress and has no purpose in regard to the new world. So if we can only ask in relation to specific progress within certain paradigms, then is there any way in which we can compare and contrast two paradigms to determine whether one is more progressive than the other?. Kuhn insists that “Normal science does not aim at novelties of fact or theory and, when successful, finds none.” (Structure of scientific revolution, 3,ED p.52) Kuhn moved to dispel the notion that the common occurrence of scientific discoveries disproved his thesis. Because if normal science objective is to discover, then that said, discoveries can be novel, and logically we can then say that normal science objectives include the discovery of novelties. Kuhn asserts that, “discoveries are always accompanied by changes in the prevailing paradigm” – yet if he’s correct then the continuation of scientific discovery does not conclude that normal science aims at novelty, only that novelty is indicative of the “end of normal science”. Kuhn therefore conveniently views such discoveries as being inconsequential and therefore only ‘small’ revolutions.

When Kuhn talks about scientific “progress”, he appears to imply that later theories hold more scientific merit than earlier ones. Additionally the assumption that the relevant scientific values of the theories is in some way shaped by, or supervened by specific non-evaluative or naturally occurring characteristics that differentiate by degree, within the context of the paradigms. However it is not obvious what the substance of the criteria is; a realist may put forward that truth or the perception of truth and reality is the descriptive authority within the main criteria of the scientific values, while an instrumentalist would place emphasise on the lack of empirical measures and the lack of problem-solving capacity.

Kuhn response was five key characteristics; which he described as “good scientific theory” (Science, Objectivity and values):

Accuracy: the theory should be in accord with the results of observations and experiments.

Consistency: the theory should be free from internal contradictions.

Broad Scope: the theory should explain dissimilar phenomena, especially phenomena that extends that it was initially designed to explain.

Simplicity: the theory should “bring direction to phenomena that in its absence would be isolated.

Fruitfulness: the theory should guide new research, in particular to disclose new phenomena or previously unknown interdependencies or relationships among those already known.

Kuhn held these to be the benchmark by which evaluation of the theories competence is measured – Kuhn described his five criteria as, “providing the shared basis for theory choice”. (science, objectivity and values) yet the reality is that these criteria have never been adopted by the science community, Kuhn’s theory and the reality of scientific research methodology remains at odds – would Kuhn consider this a crisis within his own paradigm?.

Ernan McMullin ask “So what happens to claims of progress if all paradigms are incommensurable?” Is there no other way to articulate how one paradigm can be said to be more progressive than another? Central to Kuhn’s world view is that the superseded set of anomalies and exemplars is replaced by new ones, which are specifically defined within the new paradigm. With no way to reference, articulate or translate between the paradigms, no comparisons can ever be made in respect to their progressiveness? To be able to reach a conclusion on progress, a reference point is required, yet Kuhn model does not offer one. Regardless of this if anomalies or exemplars remain unchanging under paradigm shift, then surely their solution would constitute a degree of progress? Kuhn asserted that a new paradigm must be able to resolve “some outstanding and generally recognised problem that can be met in no other way” and that is incumbent on the new paradigm to “promise to preserve a relatively large part of the problem-solving ability that has accrued to science through its predecessors” (Structure of scientific revolution, 3 ED, p168). Yet this places Kuhn paradigms in a diametrically opposed position, because it becomes obvious that this would require the old and new paradigms to be commensurable. Otherwise, there can be no other methodological way in identifying a problem as being the same in both paradigms, nor can the existing problem-solving ability be preserved. Kuhn did review his stance concerning incommensurability, moving the goals posts and redefining it as local rather than global, and occurring only when competing theories have locally different classifications of natural kinds, which Kuhn refers to as “different lexical structures”.

Kuhn has no homogeneous usage for the term paradigm, however the governing principals of a paradigm is described by Kuhn as follows: “the entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques, and so on shared by the members of a given community”; “the concrete puzzle-solutions which, employed as models or examples, can replace explicit rules as a basis for the solution of the remaining puzzles of normal science” (Structure of scientific revolution, 3 ED, p175). At a base level this represents a set of methodological rules, which are characterised by Kuhn’s disciplinary matrix. ‘Symbolic generalisations’: such as nature or fundamental theories of equations that are universally accepted within the science community. ‘Models’: that consists of heuristic devices and analogies made available within the theories, which allows for phenomena to be identified and described.

However when you consider Kuhn’s criteria it whiffs of a elitist perspective, you sense that Kuhn did not reach out to the science community and conduct a realistic process review, or an analysis of actual practise – rather he reached a introverted conclusion on the effectiveness, or usefulness of his general characteristics for scientific practise. Yet Kuhn did not see these as being the methodological bridge to allow translations between paradigm values. Nor did he view them as tools to coherently arbitrate between competing paradigms. As for the practical application of his criteria and language, no common resonance was achieved or adopted by the science community – therefore they were never universally accepted by the scientific community.

Ernan McMullin give an explanation of Kuhn’s theory, he said “as more puzzles are solved, scientists are not led to “a new level of understanding,” but to “an illusion of understanding.” [34] The “illusion of understanding” that Kuhn implied threatens traditional scientific rationality, for “illusion” is not at all what Newton and the logical empiricists believed to be the product of science. [35]

Kuhn stated that “Some critics claim that I am confusing description with prescription, violating the time-honoured philosophical theorem: ‘Is’ cannot imply ‘ought.’” By means of some kind of conjecture, he thinks his theory is defensible because scientists “behave as the theory says they should.” However this only works if we allow the suppressed premise that scientists behave rationally, as measured against an ‘unquantified’ argument of “as they ought to”, only then can Kuhn’s argument be accepted. Yet that is too simplistic approach – This can be turned around by using the same argument for religious fundamentalists. It would follow that the religious fundamentalists should read the bible if their aim is to know the truth about evolution, as their methods and measures have been designed and developed and selected for their success, in fact behaving as Kuhn’s theory dictates, while also being seen, as self fulfilling, contrived or subjective.

 Ernan McMullin perceived Kuhn’s scientific revolutions as prescriptive and normative, whilst others view him as descriptive and theoretical. What is lacking for me is the end to end definition of a paradigm. For example, the inference above is not that scientists have to aim at the accumulation of problem and solutions, simply that if that is their goal, then it’s probable that a selection of the structural features of their paradigm community will be causally influential in bringing about this end. There would be no demand or obligation on any person or the community to solve problems. The causal claim would be argued along the same lines as arguments of other causal claims: such as button A, controls a door opening because the door opens and shuts when I press button A. However the door does not open when I press button B. Similarly, problem and solutions are accomplished by communities of type A, but such accomplishments are not duplicated by community B. There is no inference of ‘ought’ from ‘is’; just a causal deduction being inferred from relevant evidence.  The main issue is that Kuhn’s causal inferences are unsupported. As in the button example, no clue is given of the causal mechanisms behind those problem-solving achievements. What are the quite special characteristics of the world that allow for such achievements? As Kuhn stated in the closing paragraph of his original essay, such questions like “what must the world be like in order for us to know it?” are left unanswered.

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