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Kuhn: Paradigms, Incommensurability, and "Progess" in Science and ....

Paul Grobstein's picture

Welcome to the public on-line forum area for Phil 310 = Bio 310 at Bryn Mawr College. This is not a required part of the course. It is, though, a way to keep course conversations going between meetings, and to do so in a way that makes our course conversations available to others who may in turn have interesting thoughts to contribute to them. I'll be posting my thoughts in progress here throughout the course, and would be delighted to have others join in.

Feel free to write about whatever has been on your mind this week. Among the themes of class discussion was the absence of falsification in Kuhn's story of science, the dependence of knowledge on "paradigms", and related issues of whether there is "progress" in science and whether science is or is not clearly distinct from art and other human activities.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Start with a little Popper, add a little Kuhn, mix with ... and?

Thinking about Kuhn's paradigms takes us to some interesting places, not only about science but about other things as well.
"There is, I think, no theory-independent way to reconstruct phrases like "really there"; the notion of a match between the ontology of a theory an its 'real' counterpart in nature now seems to me illusive in principle ... I do not doubt, for example, that Newton's mechanics improves on Aristotle's and that Einstein's improves on Newton's as instruments for puzzle-solving. But I can see in their succession no coherent direction of ontological development ... if the position be relativism, I cannot see that the relativist loses anything needed to account for the nature and development of the sciences." (p 206-7)
Its interesting for me (and perhaps others) to set Kuhn's words against some I wrote (and we'll be returning to later in the course)
""Progress" in science is not measured by increasing closeness to "truth" or to the "real"'. It can't be, because neither "truth" nor the "real" is a known location against which proximity can be measured. Progress in science has instead always been (and can't but be) measured in terms of distance from ignorance. Science proceeds not by proving "truth" or "reality" but rather by disproving falsity, not by painting the "right" picture but by painting a picture "less wrong" than prior pictures. And that, rather than either "objectivity" or some other privileged access to "reality" is in fact the basis of the demonstrable power of science."

Both characterizations argue against the need in science for a presumption that there is a "reality out there" that is being progressively uncovered and that serves as a motivation for exploration and a standard by which progress is to be judged. For this reason (among others) both might be characterized as "relativist" in contrast to "absolutist" positions. Certainly both accept that "ambiguous figures" (and associated "gestalt shifts") are the essence of human experience, rather than an occasional oddity; the "incommensurable" is normal. There are though some important differences in both the arguments made and in the overall conclusions reached that are worth teasing apart.

Kuhn's argument rests fundamentally on the idea that there is no paradigm-free way to adjudicate between paradigms (no achievable "view from nowhere", as Thomas Nagel characterized a "theory-independent" position). My own argument was different and, in one important respect, weaker; it didn't deny the possibility of at some point achieving a genuinely transcendent understanding but only said that such an understanding was of no practical use in science unless/until one actually got there (which we would know because there would cease to be any further incentive for inquiry).

A second difference is that Kuhn seemed to deny any "progress" in science, while I suggested one might in fact measure progress by "distance from ignorance". There is more than a little of Popper's "falsification" notion here, but with a slightly different twist, as we'll talk more about later in the course. Suffice it, for the moment, to say that I think Kuhn (or people reading him?) went further out on a limb than he needed to/actually intended to in trying to get people to understand both the paradigm dependence of science and its social character.

Paradigms can and do replace one another without "falsification" and there is indeed often no way to adjudicate among them based on empirical observations. Furthermore, there has never been and it seems unlikely there ever will be a paradigm-free perspective for adjudicating. But there are, nonethless, factors other than arbitrary social consensus that do/can/should contribute to adjudicating between paradigms. These include, as Kuhn suggests, "usefulness", both to humanity in general and to scientists (who need puzzles for employment). Closely related to this, I will argue, is "generativity", as well as "distance from ignorance" (numbers of observations accounted for/made use of and, in turn, numbers of new observations motivated). And this in turn can account for/provide both motivation and a progressive character to science more effectively than can "reality".

Relativism differs from absolutism in denying there is a fixed criterion by which things are to be judged. And in so doing it freely acknowledges that there may at any give time be multiple "equally good" ways of making sense of things. Relativists needn't, however, deny that there exist at any given time criteria (themselves subject to change) that play some significant role in adjudication, nor that, over time, things build on one another in some progressive pattern.

Relativism (here exemplified by Kuhn, perhaps plus) and absolutism (here exemplified by Popper) thus may both be compatible with adjudication and with progress, though conceiving of these differently. What a relativist cannot do, as per our discussion, is to assert definitively that there is no possibility of a paradigm-independent understanding. That would itself be a universal claim, and so would contradict the essence of the relativist position. This limitation is not actually so serious as it might at first appear. One need only acknowledge that understanding is always and necesssarily empirical, ie that it derives from prior observations. One can never say the understanding will not be altered in the future, but one can certainly claim it to be the best one can do in the present.

This in turn relates closely to MK's distinction between "ampliative" and "determinative" reasoning. For as absolutist, reasons are things that compel a particular conclusion or understanding, and are provided to listeners in an effort to demonstrate why that conclusion/understanding must be adopted by them. For a relativist, reasons "amplify" on the conclusion/understanding. They are provided not to persuade another of the necessity of a particular conclusion/understanding but rather to further clarify its origins and possible usefulness, as well as to seek possible common ground in places other than the conclusions from which new common questions and understandings might emerge. Exchange for a absolutist is debate, aimed at establishing which of two positions is victorious. Exchange for a relativist is conversation, intended to share things from which new directions for exploration (alone or together) might emerge. The product (or lack thereof) of such exchange might be taken as another way that a relativist might assess "usefulness" or "progress".

All this obviously brings one to a quite different picture of science than that provided by Popper alone. Arriving at an "evolutionary epistemology" may have been a great advance but was perhaps bought at the price on too great a reliance on logic (Rom Harré, "Creativity in Science," in Dutton and Krausz, eds., The Concept of Creativity in Science and Art, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1981)? Kuhn's recognition of the role of paradigms and incommensurability is perhaps a valuable movement of the pendulum back toward a creative, emergent (more on this later) activity but perhaps overemphasized social consensus? How is one to avoid the "band wagon effect"? (perhaps be asking for coherence not only socially but also internally, within an individual?)

And, along these lies, what about the "demarcation" problem we begun the course with? Is science in fact different from other human activities? Suzi Gablick's Progress in Art suggests that the Kuhnian approach can be extended to thinking about the history of art. And my own characterization of science along similar lines seemed similar to some approaches to history (Weller, 2006). Is the blurring of borders between science and other human activities a problem? or a virtue?

We'll be exploring this further later in the course when we talk explicitly about parallels between science and biological evolution. In the meanwhile though its worth noticing that thinking about parallels between science and other processes, human and otherwise (the above as well as psychoanalysis and child development), may help us with some questions from Popper, such as what is the motivation/standards of judgement in lieu of "reality"?, what accumulates over time? and where is "progress"?

Is art "cumulative"? How about child development? Personal development? Is there something comparable to normal science, to paradigm shifts in each? Could there be a similar drive and set of evaluating criteria for all of these, including science? To explore further ...

(for some further references for this conversation, see Additional Discussion Resources)