Thomas S. Kuhn graduated from Harvard University in 1943 with a degree in physics. In the years following, he would earn a Masters degree and his doctorate at the same institution and in the same field (1946, 1949). Under the supervision of John Van Vleck, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1977, Kuhn would go on to teach a course in the history of science at Harvard from 1948 to 1956. After leaving Harvard, he would switch coasts and teach philosophy and history at the University of California, Berkeley. It was here that he wrote and published his best known work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Kuhn would later teach history of science at Princeton and then philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before being diagnosed with lung cancer. Thus, as a physicist, historian, and philosopher, Kuhn was well suited to examine the history and philosophy of science. Such is The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Both Kuhn and a man by the name of Michael Polanyi believed that scientists’ subjective experiences relativized the discipline of science. From Kuhn’s obvious exposure to Polanyi’s teachings, many of the latter’s supporters charged Kuhn with plagiarism. Nonetheless, Kuhn is credited with introducing the term “paradigm shift” in a groundbreaking work that challenges the theory of linear scientific progression.
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) was originally printed as an article in the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, published by the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle. The central thesis of the book is that scientific fields of study undergo periodic “paradigm shifts” rather than solely progressing in a continuous, linear fashion. This paradigmatic style opens up avenues of research that were previously thought impossible or invalid. Therefore scientific truth, at any given moment, cannot be established exclusively by objective criteria. Instead it is defined by the consensus of a scientific community. Science must account for other perspectives and must be aware of how a paradigm originates. Kuhn argues that science undergoes periodic revolutions that develop in three stages: (1) prescience, (2) normal science, (3) and revolutionary science. His stark observation that “science has included bodies of belief quite incompatible with the ones we hold today” is an indication that we should not fully trust the scientific floor beneath us. (2) There is always an “element of arbitrariness” present. (4) As a result, Kuhn defines these scientific revolutions as “tradition-shattering complements to the tradition-bound activity of normal science.” (6) From time to time, theories are not so much assimilated as they are reconstructed. For this reason, Kuhn does not separate scientific fact and theory. And this is perhaps one of the most profound theses of the entire work.
Traditions spring from paradigms, not other traditions. This is the ground for Kuhn’s assertion that “successive transition from one paradigm to another via revolution is the usual developmental pattern of mature science.” (12) The author uses Aristotle’s analysis of motion, Ptolemy’s computations of planetary position, Lavoisier’s application of balance, and Maxwell’s mathematization of the electromagnetic field as examples of these earth-shattering paradigms. What proceeds is their further articulation – something Kuhn parallels to a judicial decision in common law. (23) This is the realm of normal science: the “mop-up work” of a particular paradigm. For Kuhn, there are three classes of problems: (1) determination of significant fact, (2) matching facts with theory, (3) and articulation of theory. (34) Since the existence of a paradigm does not imply any full set of concrete rules, all three prove important in the field of science. From the kind of apparatus used in an experiment to the theoretical expectations of a particular paradigm, a certain set of assumptions dictate the direction of scientific development. This results in what Kuhn calls “an immense restriction of the scientist’s vision.” (64) Therefore an “anomaly” can only be defined as such against the backdrop of a particular paradigm.
According to Kuhn, “the decision to reject one paradigm is always simultaneously the decision to reject another.” (77) To not do so would be to reject science itself. The point at which one must choose between paradigms often occurs during “crisis.” This aids in “loosening” the normal rules of puzzle-solving so that a new paradigm is permitted to emerge. Therefore the author defines scientific revolutions as “non-cumulative developmental episodes in which an older paradigm is replaced in whole or in part by an incompatible new one.” (92) It’s within this framework that Kuhn likens scientific revolutions to political revolutions – existing institutions ceasing to adequately address the problems of a community that they have helped to create. Hence a new theory does not have to conflict with any of its predecessors. But “unanticipated novelty, the new discovery, can emerge only to the extent that his anticipations about nature and his instruments prove wrong.” (96) Such was the case between Copernican and Ptolemaic astronomy and Einsteinian and Newtonian dynamics. Without commitment to some particular paradigm, there could be no normal science. After the revolution occurs, however, “scientists are responding to a different world.” (111) For this reason Kuhn finds it difficult to completely accept the traditional Western philosophical view that sensory experience is fixed and neutral. Consequently, the validity and stability of modern textbooks is not left unquestioned. The author feels justified in his assertion that “the depreciation of historical fact is deeply, and probably functionally, ingrained in the ideology of the scientific profession.” (138) Such a revision of scientific history no doubt has its shock waves throughout philosophy and science itself. Through the historical vision of Thomas Kuhn, the tendency in modern science to view scientific development linearly hinders research as well as the ability to discover new paradigms. In reality, this movement from paradigm to paradigm is a slow one. And in the lives of those who work to effect such change, the transition is often postmortem. In the end, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions provides a poignant exhortation to “relinquish the notion, explicit or implicit, that changes of paradigm carry scientists and those who learn from them closer and closer to the truth.” (170)
Perhaps Thomas Kuhn’s most striking contribution to the scholarly community of scientific history is his collapsing of the wall between theory and fact: “in the sciences fact and theory, discovery and invention, are not categorically and permanently distinct.” (66) While the scientific community has historically acknowledged that many theories are later confirmed as fact, this is not Kuhn’s meaning. The latter’s view of history is much more fluid and subjective. According to the author, what is “fact” today can just as easily be “theory” tomorrow. And he provides ample historical support for his argument. As a result of looking upon the vast paradigmatic history of science, Kuhn ponders of his discoveries, “perhaps they indicate that scientific progress is not quite what we had taken it to be.” (170) This was and is absolutely groundbreaking to a world and a community that welcomes postmodernism in its philosophy, art, and theology but not in its science.
Kuhn’s thesis flies in the face of modern empiricism. After all, if we can’t fully trust the scientific floor we stand on, what can we trust? Naturalism is suspect. Kuhn’s epistemology isn’t preeminently grounded in experience but in paradigms: “But is sensory experience fixed and neutral? Are theories simply man-made interpretations of given data? The epistemological viewpoint that has most often guided Western philosophy for three centuries dictates an immediate and unequivocal, Yes! In the absence of a developed alternative, I find it impossible to relinquish entirely that viewpoint. Yet it no longer functions effectively.” (126) Kuhn casts just enough doubt upon human experience to entice the reader with skepticism, yet not to the point of idealism. However, Kuhn’s theory of “paradigm shifts” isn’t just an assault on empiricism. It also targets rationalist science. According to the author, “Philosophers of science have repeatedly demonstrated that more than one theoretical construction can always be placed upon a given collection of data.” (76) Therefore human reason is also suspect. At times, however, Kuhn’s language belies his primary thesis. When discussing revolutions, the author asserts that “Copernicus’ theory was not more accurate than Ptolemy’s.” (154) According to Kuhn’s paradigmatic model, how do we know? The author’s language doesn’t seem to match his science. And this is the classic problem of postmodern literature: the epistemology betrays its purpose. If truth is relative and subjective, how can we make explicit, objective statements of fact? If The Structure of Scientific Revolutions does not qualify as postmodernism, then it certainly flirts with the modern Zeitgeist just enough to cast doubt on all of science…and his own book as well. In the end, however, the Christian can still benefit from the scientific philosophy of Thomas Kuhn. Whether his primary thesis is correct or not, the God of the universe is still immutable. Whether their universe was geocentric or heliocentric, ancient Christians still worshipped Christ as King of Kings. And we can do the same even in light of Kuhn’s scientific skepticism. In fact, it should drive us even further into the constant, unwavering arms of Christ.
Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3rd ed. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1996.