The great philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn was born on this day in 1922. He is best know, of course, for his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In it, he argued that science doesn’t so much evolve slowly but rather lurches from one paradigm to another. I think this is often misunderstood to mean that it is random, but that’s not it at all. Scientists create one paradigm like, “radiation is continuous like a river flowing rather than a rock slide.” And we learned much using this paradigm. But then we learned about the ultraviolet catastrophe, where increasing an objects temperature didn’t cause the frequency of light to just get higher and higher. And so, a scientific revolution took place and we moved to a new paradign, “radiation is not continuous; it is like a rock slide and not a flowing river.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean that everything we learned in the old paradigm was now wrong. It all became a special case of the new paradigm. In my example, the truth is that the “rocks” are so small that they usually look like a river flowing. Unfortunately, a lot of people have used Kuhn and people who have followed him to argue for relativism. We see this in the worst excesses of postmodernism. A lot of that comes from a misunderstanding of what science itself is. And sadly, I see this misunderstanding in notable scientists all time. Science isn’t reality or even what causes reality. It is simply an endeavor to create models of how reality works.
I’m very interested in the uncertainty principle, which states that we can only know an object’s velocity and position to a certain level. It is named after Werner Heisenberg, because it falls out rather simply from his formalism of quantum mechanics. Does that mean that there is an inherent uncertainty in the universe? No! (But as far as we humans living inside the universe it probably does.) What it means is in the very best model we have of mechanics, there are limits to how accurately we can measure objects.
So Kuhn was not arguing for relativism. In fact, he argued just the opposite and pushed back against that reading of his work. It is funny, though. In the world of normal people who don’t deal with the philosophy of science, it was initially the liberals who were most interested in relativism. In the conservative Paul Johnson’s book Modern Times: A History of the World from the 1920s to the 1980s, he spends much time attacking relativism among liberals. (Johnson is also a Catholic.) But if you look at modern America, you will see that it is the conservative movement that has fully embraced relativism. The conservative argument against global warming is the same as The Dude’s in The Big Lebowski, “That’s just like, your opinion, man.”
What is perhaps most interesting about Thomas Kuhn’s work is that it created a revolution in the history of science. So it was an example of what it was talking about. It has done an enormous amount to increase our knowledge of how we advance intellectually. It has also had a bad effect on the way some people look at the whole intellectual endeavor. But I certainly don’t think that Kuhn can be blamed for people misunderstanding his work.
Happy birthday Thomas Kuhn!