Issue 33 – 18 July 2017 – rattuos
Now to look at a very controversial concept in science, and quite a recent one, which is extremely important as far as we (those who seek enlightenment) are concerned. Let us start with the days when the earth was known to be flat, although there were no very clear ideas on what happened when you reached the edge of it. But one year changed that and a ship arrived from the east having headed out to the west having taken measurements of sun and stars all the way round . Suddenly the world was known to be a globe. Very soon we understood gravity which underpinned this new concept. There have been quite a number of vast changes in human understanding of nature, physics and science in general and it could be pointed out that in many cases this was as the result of one person work and dedication with much opposition from the scientific community etc.
These massive changes, sea changes we might call them continue. Part of the concept that I am mentioning is what this means. The man credited with this particular concept was both a scientist and someone who studied the history of science. He died in 1996. He is controversial not so much for pointing out the obvious – the massive changes in our understanding from time to time – but for the rules he saw in play each time this happened. So for example he suggested that science is not what it is cracked up to be. We never have a complete understanding and it can change radically at any time. What we have is a perception or consensus (my words) which are created by scientists, often from their work in areas that are quite bewildering to us – advanced mathematics, biology, chemistry, astrophysics etc. Science did not take kindly to this as you will see.
He also pointed out that the followers of one concept, one consensus had nothing in common with the followers and supporters of the new consensus, not that he put it like that but if you look at my list here you will soon realise that there are two extreme camps on many issues – one that sees it as an opportunity and one that sees it as a threat. That may help to see the problem and how the two camps have nothing in common on that issue, are in fact in denial over what is understood by the opposite camp. (“Competing paradigms are frequently incommensurable; that is, they are competing and irreconcilable accounts of reality” Wikipedia)
This is not to take sides just to look at sides before looking at paradigns:
Seen as opportunity threat
The author of the work on the concept of ‘paradigm shift’:
“Thomas Samuel Kuhn (/kuːn/; July 18, 1922 – June 17, 1996) was an American physicist, historian and philosopher of science whose controversial 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was influential in both academic and popular circles, introducing the term paradigm shift, which has since become an English-language idiom.” Wikipedia
I have not even brought up religion but a friend was at a funeral last week and commented on the priest mentioning the Virgin Mary. Another friend refused to go to the service because he called it all ‘mumbo jumbo’. He went to the crematorium instead. Consider the division in the human perception of religious concepts and how worried the business of religion must be over a paradigm shift here. I copied an extract from the Wikipedia article on Kuhn’s book because it reveals the tensions he created:
“The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was soon criticized by Kuhn’s colleagues in the history and philosophy of science. In 1965, a special symposium on the book was held at an International Colloquium on the Philosophy of Science that took place at Bedford College, London, and was chaired by Karl Popper. The symposium led to the publication of the symposium’s presentations plus other essays, most of them critical, which eventually appeared in an influential volume of essays that by 1999 had gone through 21 printings. Kuhn expressed the opinion that his critics’ readings of his book were so inconsistent with his own understanding of it that he was “…tempted to posit the existence of two Thomas Kuhns,” one the author of his book, the other the individual who had been criticized in the symposium by “Professors Popper, Feyerabend, Lakatos, Toulmin and Watkins.”
A number of the included essays question the existence of normal science. In his essay, Feyerabend suggests that Kuhn’s conception of normal science fits organized crime as well as it does science. Popper goes so far as to express distaste with the entire premise of Kuhn’s book, writing, “the idea of turning for enlightenment concerning the aims of science, and its possible progress, to sociology or to psychology (or. . .to the history of science) is surprising and disappointing.”
Concept of paradigm
In his 1972 work, Human Understanding, Stephen Toulmin argued that a more realistic picture of science than that presented in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions would admit the fact that revisions in science take place much more frequently, and are much less dramatic than can be explained by the model of revolution/normal science. In Toulmin’s view, such revisions occur quite often during periods of what Kuhn would call “normal science.” For Kuhn to explain such revisions in terms of the non-paradigmatic puzzle solutions of normal science, he would need to delineate what is perhaps an implausibly sharp distinction between paradigmatic and non-paradigmatic science.
Incommensurability of paradigms
In a series of texts published in the early 1970s, C.R. Kordig asserted a position somewhere between that of Kuhn and the older philosophy of science. His criticism of the Kuhnian position was that the incommensurability thesis was too radical, and that this made it impossible to explain the confrontation of scientific theories that actually occurs. According to Kordig, it is in fact possible to admit the existence of revolutions and paradigm shifts in science while still recognizing that theories belonging to different paradigms can be compared and confronted on the plane of observation. Those who accept the incommensurability thesis do not do so because they admit the discontinuity of paradigms, but because they attribute a radical change in meanings to such shifts.
Kordig maintains that there is a common observational plane. For example, when Kepler and Tycho Brahe are trying to explain the relative variation of the distance of the sun from the horizon at sunrise, both see the same thing (the same configuration is focused on the retina of each individual). This is just one example of the fact that “rival scientific theories share some observations, and therefore some meanings.” Kordig suggests that with this approach, he is not reintroducing the distinction between observations and theory in which the former is assigned a privileged and neutral status, but that it is possible to affirm more simply the fact that, even if no sharp distinction exists between theory and observations, this does not imply that there are no comprehensible differences at the two extremes of this polarity.
At a secondary level, for Kordig there is a common plane of inter-paradigmatic standards or shared norms that permit the effective confrontation of rival theories….” Wikipedia
I am certainly no expert on Kuhn or his work but as far as enlightenment is concerned here is the problem. As soon as the enlightened enter the debate they are immediately shot down by the consensus, by science itself because they feel so threatened. Old concepts are comfortable, but more important is the fact that people and indeed corporations have invested so heavily in them both financially and with their reputations and life that they will fight to their last breath against any change’s work they will fight to their . Some take it further and see the stability of the entire world order threatened. When for example I posit that the major religions, cultures and even the pyramids resulted from a UK festival in 1971, were that to be taken seriously it would undermine and annoy most of the world. Not to mention the scientific perception of time.
Kuhn also stated that paradigm shifts were always for the better. So for
example when science accepted the fact that the earth orbited the sun and not vice versa it improved science and the world. But I see shifts which are not at all beneficial. A classic one was when during WW2 they started using DDT as an insecticide against malaria and typhus (spread by lice). Soon it was uses all over the world in huge quantities killing agricultural pests. That was a paradigm shift as far as I am concerned. But in 1962 they first noticed the environmental impact, the cancer. In 1972 it was banned. Not because they had time to notice how we need insects as we now see our bee populations wiped out many think by pesticides. Nuclear energy was a paradigm shift but now we are beginning to count the real cost of nuclear power to make electricity (against solar, tidal and wind power). Not to mention the problem of nuclear weapons all over the place. But one can clearly see how the scientific and political communities are reacting to, and preventing in some cases, a reversal of the shifts. Global warming is the big one and if true is almost certainly the result of the last few paradigm shifts. Not always for the better are they? But if science would take a bit longer to identify the problems before deluging us with these new products and steps into the unknown we would have a better chance of survival.
Enlightenment is what paradigm shifts eventually take us to and in that sense they are always for the better. We start with ignorance and end up with knowledge. However the negative side of that is starting with innocence and ending up ‘should know better’. To say that science is unable or unwilling to facilitate a shift to clairvoyance and enlightenment is to minimise the real problem we have. We have a history of burning, ridiculing and these days withdrawing funding from any who look like taking us there. A fair, just and civilised world that cares for our habitat, nature and its many species.