Paradigms Evolve Through “Reimagination”

Posted By on November 19, 2012

 Guest post by  Tim McGettigan,  Professor of Sociology at Colorado State University — Pueblo

Newton, Galileo and Einstein. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Thomas Kuhn argued that scientific revolutions take place when dominant paradigms are dislodged by emergent paradigms. Kuhn’s perspective challenged the previously accepted view that the accumulation of scientific knowledge was a rational stepwise process, i.e., each landmark discovery being anticipated with logical precision and, once established, elevated consensually atop a vertical tower of knowledge.

Instead, Kuhn contended that paradigm shifts are much messier undertakings that are marked by infighting, political subterfuge, and a host of other unscientific antics. In other words, though scientists are generally loath to admit it, the accumulation of scientific knowledge is a social enterprise and is, thus, replete with human shortcomings.

Though Kuhn’s revelations stirred a great deal of discomfort in the scientific community, nevertheless, his analysis exposed crucial insights about the knowledge accumulation process.

Although many scientists insist that the scientific method is founded upon a process of induction–the disinterested amalgamation of isolated facts that gradually expose more general patterns of understanding–Kuhn asserts that “normal science” operates within deductive paradigms: Paradigms are broad, assumption-laden worldviews that supply a theoretical foundation into which scientists integrate facts and observations. For example, devotees of the geocentric paradigm eagerly pointed to the circular motion of heavenly bodies as compelling empirical support for their perspective.

Capable as paradigms may be of illuminating a range of empirical phenomena, they are also plagued by shortcomings. As illustrated by the preceding example, paradigms perform the invaluable service of rendering “the known universe” intelligible and, as a result, paradigms also provide a structure within which knowledge can be organized cohesively and truth-seekers can collaborate constructively.

Nevertheless, a paradigm’s Achilles heel lies in the truism that the parameters of the known universe are constantly in flux: curious humans incessantly generate novel observations about a constantly changing universe. Again, popular as geocentrism once may have been, an overload of anomalous heavenly phenomena (e.g., comets, retrograde motion, Jupiter’s moons, etc.) inevitably doomed the paradigm.

When paradigms are overwhelmed by a critical mass of anomalies they enter a phase that Kuhn described as a “crisis.” Paradigm crisis is roughly the scientific equivalent of a skipper’s signal to abandon ship. Having sprung more epistemological leaks than its adherents can hope to plug, a paradigm in crisis forces its supporters to make fateful decisions: either to jump ship or, having staked out a career upon the foundering vessel, to stay aboard until the bitter end.

Paradigm crisis is a precursor to full scale scientific revolution. According to Kuhn, a scientific revolution comprises a transition through which scientists replace an outmoded paradigm with a new one. Generally speaking, the new paradigm has the advantage of being, so to speak, a more seaworthy vessel, i.e., it resolves many of the anomalies that sank its precursor. Therefore, for a period of time, the new paradigm can confidently go about the process of enlisting recruits and navigating rough scientific seas; that is, until the process inexorably repeats itself and the updated paradigm is gradually beset by its own set of leaks.

Kuhn developed this non-linear view of scientific knowledge accumulation based upon his examination of the history of science. In particular, Kuhn noted that scientific paradigms often incorporate foundational assumptions that are antithetical to the leading assumptions of succeeding paradigms, e.g., one cannot maintain an honest intellectual commitment to creationism and evolutionary theory without suffering from multiple personality disorder. It requires the intervention of an historical revisionist to invent a smooth, linear transition from one scientific paradigm to the next.

As such, some critics have asserted that Kuhn’s thesis exposed science as a fundamentally relativistic endeavor. In other words, the fact that successive paradigms tend to be epistemologically contradictory suggests that there is no essential consistency (i.e., no inherent “truth”) in scientific progress. That is, if scientific “truth” is linked to the assumptions upon which scientific paradigms are founded and, in turn, if scientific paradigms are disposable, then even in the most rigorous scientific endeavors truth must be only a provisional, transitory standard. In a world of paradigm shifts, truth would appear to be a chimera.

In keeping with this attitude, copious aspersions have been cast on scientific truth–most abundantly from postmodernists. Nevertheless, far from indicating an absence of truth, in this paper I will argue that (r)evolutionary innovations in the structure of scientific knowledge are not an indication of the truth’s scarcity. Contrarily, I contend that the process of bringing about paradigm shifts represents the most definitive indication of the scientific commitment to Truth. Distinct as emergent scientific paradigms may appear in comparison to their predecessors, nevertheless, in every case there remain essential “evolutionary” linkages between historic, existing and succeeding paradigms. Indeed, the epistemological relationship between distinct scientific paradigms is “evolutionary” in a similar (metaphorical) sense to the biological speciation process.

Just as biological evolution propagates species that appear to have little or no connection to their predecessors (e.g., marine mammals v. their ancient terrestrial forbears), so too do scientific paradigms spawn new epistemologies that appear to lack a clear “genetic” linkage (e.g., geocentrism v. the Big Bang). Though one may have to search to find it, a logical (and, in the case of the philosophy of science, a social ) connection exists between evolutionarily-distinct constructs. Crucially, for the purposes of understanding the production of truth, it is essential to recognize the manner in which new paradigms, unique as they may be in many respects, generally “speciate” from within the context and tradition of established paradigms.

In spite of the apparent epistemological discontinuity between paradigms, I assert that the production of scientific truth takes place through a process of “redefining reality.” In other words, truth is not contained within any particular paradigm, but rather truth guides and enables the process of transitioning from outmoded to “new and improved” paradigms. Also, truth-making never has been and never will be a linear process. Instead, the production of truth is associated with a process whereby individual “agents,” upon encountering an over-abundance of environmentally disruptive phenomena (i.e., epistemological anomalies), often develop wildly creative, but nonetheless “adaptive” solutions to resolve the epistemological anomalies they encounter.

For example, Einstein’s  legendary modifications to Newton’s mechanical universe. As is the case with evolving organisms, emergent paradigms may appear to be constructs of an entirely new order. Nevertheless, outlandish as they may seem, emergent paradigms maintain demonstrable linkages with their ancestors (e.g., heliocentrism  is “a very different animal,” but still retains obvious affinities with geocentrism).

The difference is that emergent paradigms have been modified through a process of redefining reality to transcend the shortcomings of established paradigms and, thereby, achieve a better “fit” with prevailing environmental conditions. In other words, paradigms evolve through an extensive reimagination process that is intended to reduce anomalies and, thereby, generate a more comprehensive grasp of the ever changing “known universe.”

About the author

Roger Stritmatter is a native liberal humorist who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Contrary to rumor, he does not live on North Avenue. He does, however, work on North Avenue. A pacifist by inclination, one of his heroes is John Brown. But he thinks that Fredrick Douglass, another of his heroes, made the right decision. Stritmatter's primary areas of interest include the nature of paradigm shifts, the history of ideas, and renaissance literature, the latter a field in which he has published extensively


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