The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions Philosophy Essay
Kuhns account of science has been interpreted by some as radically perspectivist, foreclosing the possibility of science as a rational discipline. These interpretations appeal to Kuhns arguments about shifts in scientific thought as being akin to "religious conversions", or "gestalt shifts", in which scientists fundamentally alter their approach to scientific problems. These shifts constitute scientific revolutions, in which, analogously to political revolutions, old institutions are discarded, and replaced with new, fundamentally different, institutions. This is contrasted with the view of science as a cumulative, fact-building enterprise, a view that Kuhn finds wholly inadequate. For Kuhn, the cumulative view is largely a by-product of the pedagogical methods used to train future scientists, in which the history of science is largely ignored, with the small notice given to history misleadingly suggests previous scientific discoveries were made with contemporary understandings of science in mind. Rather, more often than not, scientific discoveries were made in wholly different paradigms with no recognition of the discovery’s significance in future understandings of science. Scientific knowledge almost never "occupies the same space", has the same explanatory function, or operates in the same way from paradigm to paradigm (if a piece of scientific knowledge does operate in the same way it is entirely by coincidence, though a very unlikely one, given that the context in which it operates will have necessarily changed in the paradigm shift). Similarly, the same set of observational data can be explained equally well by multiple paradigms, with decisions between paradigms motivated by what most would consider inadequately scientific standards. In this sense, scientific paradigms are incommensurable, operating in fundamentally different ways. In this sense, paradigms may offer different interpretations of phenomena, but no theory offers a truer, more objective, or more correct view than any other. Scientists are motivated to adopt theories for a number of irrational reasons, including nationality, the status of the discoverer, and any number of other factors. Importantly, new scientific paradigms do usually provide answers to previously unanswered questions, but only a the cost of foreclosing possible answers to other questions, or dismissing answers that had previously been wholly satisfactory.
Given this, it is clear why Kuhn is often portrayed as presenting science as anti-rational, as he provides a plethora of potential platforms with which an anti-rationalist could begin constructing criticisms of the rationalist. Nevertheless, there are a few fundamentals remaining that can be leveraged into a convincing argument for interpreting Kuhn as a rationalist.
Kuhn implicitly suggests “meta-rules”, built on largely rationalist principles, which underlie all forms of science. One meta-rule is the valid application of basic logical principles. For instance, if a scientist asserts the existence of a set of evidence P, the claim that "not P" or "P does not exist", does not qualify as an exercise within science, excepting a change in the approach or paradigm the scientist applies to P. So, while you may frequently see arguments among scientists about what constitutes the set of relevant evidence, once any set of evidence and the methods to approach to it are agreed upon, scientists recognize that certain logical rules must apply. If a scientist were to claim that set P were to exist and not exist simultaneously, without a single change in background assumptions or methodological approach, the claim would be unscientific, as the most basic tool for evaluating the theory has been discarded. Though Kuhn never explicitly demands logic underlie all science, it is difficult to imagine that he did not. All of his examples of scientific enquiry certainly abided by logical principles, and without logic it is unclear how one can even begin to discuss the consistency of beliefs within a paradigm, a concept that plays an important role throughout “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”.
Besides the application of fundamental logical rules, Kuhn implicitly suggests another meta-rule, that theories must contain evidence capable of being observed. Every instance of science mentioned in "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" abides by this standard, and Kuhn explicitly mentions that communities of scientists are concerned with explaining the natural world. Presumably, this requires reference to some objects or phenomena that can be observed by others. It should be made clear that this does not imply that all claims of theory must be observable, testable, or even a possible object of scientific enquiry; Kuhn points out that sciences often prohibit routes of enquiry and dismiss vast swaths of phenomena as unscientific or not possibly subject to explanation or observation. However, every theory must have a basis in some sort of observational phenomena. If this is not the case, and the theory neither attempts to describe, or make predictions about some object of observation, it is unclear how the “theory”, as a tool for explanation, would have any sort of bearing on us whatsoever. If Kuhn were to argue otherwise, claiming that science did no require reference to observation, building a rational account of his science might well be impossible.
Taken together, the application of logic and the requirement of observational data provide a foundation for science that could reasonably be called rational. They eliminate a huge number of potential paradigms, ranging from those that contain contradictions, to those, say of an abstract painting, which makes little sensible reference to observation and makes no unambiguous attempt to explain phenomena. Though paradigm changes may still be motivated for non-rational reasons, all activity under the purview of science must still abide by the two constraints above, giving it a fundamentally rationalist basis. Those who expect more than this from any rational discipline are likely to be sorely disappointed. The problem of induction, and, perhaps more importantly, the Duhem-Quine thesis, have illustrated that scientific inquiry in no way logically entails a specific result, theory, or paradigm, to the exclusion of all others, that must be objectively true and that must be progress towards. Rather, as Kuhn suggests, there are multiple tacks to take toward science, each with particular motivations, assumptions, problems to solve, and weaknesses. As long as science abides by some foundational underpinnings, like those above, what motivates changes in paradigms is of little importance when it comes to the fundamental rationality of science.
There are a variety of objections to the preceding argument, the most pointed of which I take to be the criticism that a variety of activists meet the criteria delineated above, but fail to qualify as rational. That is, abiding to standards above is, bys itself, insufficient to establish a rational discipline. In order to be considered rational, a discipline must have rational reasons for changing or transforming, a requirement science clearly fails to meet. Instead, science is at least a-rational, but more likely anti-rational, as changes in scientific thinking are motivated by standards not at all germane to any a rational, logical criterion.
I will offer two answers to this objection. The first accepts the premise of the objection, that changes in paradigms are wholly irrational, but fails to see how this condition of science makes it irrational. As argued previously, expecting a rational progress or direction from science is setting expectations too high; there are a variety of scientific theories which can account for a given set of data, and expecting rationality beyond foundational logical underpinnings is naïve and unviable.
The second answer rejects the premise of the objection. Rather, a sort of pragmatic rationality tends to be the primary motivator for shifts between paradigms. Admittedly, there are cases in which particular scientists are motivated by reasons superficial and wholly irrational, by any standards. But the changes in view of these scientists are not the norm. As Kuhn argues explicitly, most scientists are motivated to shift paradigms after evaluating the old problems that it solves and the new areas of study it opens. Though both theories may be coherent, scientists adopt a new one for the sake of practicality, of adopting a new perspective and seeing how fruitful that might be. This is not a teleological, cumulative rationality, but as mentioned previously, no such rationality exists, at least under the purview of science. Instead, we science uses a more reasonable sort of rationality of the type described above.