Thomas Kuhn and "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions"

When one thinks about the field of science, the usual picture is one of steady progress. Much like a car on its way to a particular destination, science is continually on its way to finding the truth. Obviously, there are bumps and a few potholes along the way, but science keeps going ever father until it finds the truth. Represented graphically, science is on a steady incline going up and up.

In “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, Thomas Kuhn challenges this notion. Science is not a pursuit of truth that will endlessly get closer and closer to its goal, but rather, science is always conducted out of the outcome of the prevailing ideas of the day. Kuhn calls these foundational ideas “paradigms”.

To Kuhn, science is not done in a vacuum. There are primary presuppositions that every scientist takes as being true. It is only after he affirms these truths can he start to “do science”. For example, an astrophysicist today does not question General Relativity. He does not tear down the work and research done by generations past and start from the ground up. Rather, he takes General Relativity to be true and proceeds in his endeavors in light of that truth.

Paradigms serve the upmost importance because they constitute how the scientist will conduct his experiments and research. If our hypothetical astrophysicist did not think that Einstein was correct and that General Relativity does not describe the universe, then he would have to find a replacement for that system! Without it, how could he conduct any research at all if he had no idea of how planetary bodies interacted with each other? If he has no fundamental ideas about the objects that he studies, he is blind in his scientific pursuits.

Kuhn states that once a paradigm is accepted, work begins in that paradigm. Specifically, applying the paradigm in different ways and using it to predict results. Kuhn calls this activity “Normal Science”. He calls the application of the current paradigm to the world “puzzles”.  This process of applying and utilizing paradigms is the majority of the history of science. Scientists work within a paradigm to understand and view the world through applying that paradigm to the world around them.

Occasionally, this process runs into a problem. There will arise an issue that the current paradigm cannot explain. It could be that the current paradigm predicts one result, while another result is consistently observed. It could be that the paradigm predicts that ‘X’ cannot occur, but we do observe ‘X’. Fundamentally, there is a rift between what is observed and what the paradigm predicts.

Kuhn points out that this is not necessarily fatal to the current paradigm. Paradigms can be adjusted. However, this adjustment can only be minor and the greatest, or else the adjustment is tantamount to a different paradigm altogether! Kuhn also points out that if these discrepancies are minor and not well understood, they can be ignored for the time being. If the rest of the theory fits, then it must be that we simply don’t understand the problem well enough.

If these problems begin to pile up without an explanation by the current paradigm, a crisis ensues. The foundation under potential centuries’ worth of work has now been undermined. At this point, new theories start to emerge on the scene to replace the previous paradigm. Eventually, one of these new theories wins out and becomes the new paradigm.

The process of transferring from one paradigm to another is often quite messy. There are often scientists, especially those who are older and have been working in a field for many years, who are unwilling to let go of the old paradigm and continue to cling to it. It may be that it takes a new generation of scientists, ones that have no previous devotion, for the new paradigm to truly take its place.

This process above has happened several times throughout the history of science. The Copernican Revolution, as well as the rejection of Newtonian Physics in favor of Einstein’s General Relativity, among others. In these revolutions, we see this pattern of rising problems that are unsolvable, a rejection of the current paradigm, and an acceptance of a new viewpoint.

What Kuhn emphasizes throughout “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” is the human element of science. Science is only done by scientists. In order to truly understand how science progresses, we must understand that scientists never work within a vacuum. Paradigms are necessary for science to work, and we must recognize their existence.

Kuhn’s ideas about how science progress through paradigms could be applied to many different fields, such as sociology and political science. This is because the concept that thought never happens in a vacuum is a principle of human behavior as a whole. Every human endeavor is marked by paradigms. Wherever there are people thinking, they are always thinking within a paradigm.

Knowing that paradigms exist all around us allows us to recognize and be aware of paradigms in our won lives, and in the lives of others. Recognizing these foundations of our thought gives us insight into how we, often subconsciously, think about issues. Importantly, it can also reveal to us blind spots in our own thinking because of our paradigms.

Paradigms are necessary. Without them, even fundamental research in any field of study would be halted. However, it is to our benefit to have awareness of these paradigms. When we do so, we improve social discourse and understand ourselves more. Improving these constitutes an important step in our never-ending search for the truth. Or at least, our search within our paradigms.

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