Friday, June 23, 2006

General relevance of Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions - outline

In his seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolution, Thomas Kuhn advances the notion that true advances in science do not come so much through the steady application of the scientific method, but rather through warring paradigms. While Kuhn has a very good understanding of the process of science, and the method of science, he is also able to step beyond that to see where science breaks its own rules.

The notion of a paradigm is perhaps a little tricky, but when we think of it in terms of a ‘worldview’ then perhaps its easier. In common parlance, our paradigm for life could be said to be the sum total of our views about life, religion, and the world around us. In Kuhn’s specific usage, a scientific paradigm represents the worldview that emerges from accepting the prevailing theories of the paradigm.

Newton’s mechanics, built upon the work of Galileo, Copernicus, and Leibniz formed the basis of a paradigm that science operated under for several centuries - the paradigm of the clockwork universe. In this paradigm, it was commonly held that it was possible to predict the state of the universe at any given time, based solely on some start condition, and a thorough understanding of the laws of nature. The theology of Deism rises from this notion of a mechanical universe, set in motion once by the hand of God, and left to run by law.

The Newtonian paradigm served the world very well for centuries. It allowed us to calculate the orbit of the planets with precision, and to redraw the universe around us. It allowed us to fire ballistic cannon shells with an accuracy not dreamed of prior to Newtonian physics. It finally allowed us to send men to the moon. But as useful as Newton’s mechanics are, we know today they are, simply put, wrong. While they work very well for the narrow range of experience grouped around the confines of human consciousness (ie, at human comprehensible speeds, and distances, and sizes), as we probed deeper and deeper into the universe, it became clear that Newton was only ‘right’ for a subset of the universe, and even ,the best you could say is he was ‘estimating’ true states.

With the the newly emerging theories of relativity and quantum mechanics in the early 20th century, we saw new paradigms emerge to replace the old Newtonian worldview. Einstein’s relativity laid the boots to any notion of a fixed and static universe, a universe that was common to all. Instead, the Einstinian worldview shows a world that is only fixed and static from a given perspective, and all other perspectives will see the world in different ways. In the Einstinian model, this goes well beyond the illusion of just ’seeing’ something different … as objects change their frame of reference, fundamental characteristics like mass change. That’s a clear and present danger to the Newtonian worldview, but the fact remains, when we talk abut super massive objects, or objects travelling close to the speed of light, Newton’s mechanics do us no good at all. If the moon landing had been conducted at .75C instead of well under than .001C, the Newtonian calculations that allowed the astronauts to safely arrive at the moon would have been out by a significant portion. Accelerate again up to .99C and those calculations are so far off you aren’t even in the same neighbourhood as the moon anymore. So while Newton’s paradigm worked fine for the moon landings, that’s only because they travelled VERY slowly, by universal terms.

You’d think that when Einstein was able to demonstrate the superiority of his answers for all conditions and frames of reference, The old Newtonian worldview would have collapsed. Instead, Einstein was largely ridiculed for suggesting the notion that characteristics like mass might not be constant. That idea was so anathema to the Newtonian worldview (to Newton, mass is a fundamentally unalterable characteristic … it IS a constant) that Einstein was ridiculed for for suggesting it might not be the case. It wasn’t until new, younger scientists began to take up Einstein’s mantel that the prevailing paradigm in science changed. But that change came largely through death and replacement, rather than the acceptance of a better idea. Many of Einstein’s seniors and contemporaries were unable to make the jump to the new paradigm of relativity.

And the irony is that as Einstein was himself the father of one revolution in paradigm, he was unable to see past his own prejudice in another. One of the most famous quotes about quantum mechanics is Einstein’s exclamation “God does not play dice!” in response to the notion of uncertainty in quantum values. Einstein, who was the author of a revolution in thinking in one area of science, was unable to abandon his paradigms in other areas to embrace the emerging ideas. In fact, God does play dice, and he often hides the results from us. The paradigm of quantum uncertainty is now an accepted part of science, even though it was fiercely opposed and ridiculed by the best minds of the day when it was first proposed.

I bring all this up by way of introduction because I tend to think Kuhn is right for more than just science. He has compelling examples of how science clings to its old paradigms until the last possible moment, and even beyond in some cases. He shows how we have always had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the era of a round world instead of a flat one, or an orderly, mechanical universe instead of a superstitious and mythical one. He shows how its not until our old scientific paradigms become simply untenable that we are truly willing examine and look at new ones.

And I see the same thing in the rest of life, without the clear divisions and answers of science. For centuries now, we’ve operated under the political paradigm of the nation-state. Looking at the world around us, it seems fairly clear the paradigm isn’t what its cracked up to be. Its hard to look at today’s world and say we have a healthy, viable political paradigm. With conflict around the globe, military expansionism pitting brother against brother, and the exploitation of the third world by the first, it seems clear to me at least that the paradigm of the nation-state is crumbling at the edges. Like all other paradigms, we continue to cling to our old beliefs, unable to see any other way of behaving. Like the dinosaurs who ridiculed Einstein, we are unable to see past our own prejudices to a different way.

For me, I’ve always things from a global perspective. The lines that represent borders on the map we saw in school don’t exist in the real world … pictures from Apollo prove that. Nation-states, and the arbitrary borders we draw around them are just that, arbitrary creations of power designed to horde resources and power for a small section of the population while depriving the rest of the world of the same resources. The attitude of helping your local community first is admirable to a point, but when you help your neighbours to the detriment of the neighbours farther away, in the end no one wins.

Its time we started thinking with a global paradigm, IMO. Its hard for people to see past the prejudice of our prevailing paradigm … we can’t even really conceive of a world that isn’t organized by nation-state. Even the language of change is laced with old assumptions … ‘we must cede national power to an international organization.’ Such complaints are based in the notion that national power was based on anything more than brutal enforcement of arbitrarily draw borders … if you start from the notion that such land and resource grabs, for the benefit of only one nation instead of humanity as a whole, are inherently, morally wrong, then complaints like that disappear. Rather that ‘ceding national power’ to someone else, we are actually returning ownership of the entire globe to all humanity.

Its time to stop thinking locally and start thinking globally. The African child facing civil war in Congo is as much my brother as the person living next door to me. Its time our paradigm and worldview reflected that reality, IMO.


This work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.


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