TimeSeeker wrote: ↑
Mon Oct 01, 2018 4:15 pm
There is no escaping verificationism. For science or for day-to-day life.
For verificationism, there's no escaping the problem of induction.
TimeSeeker wrote: ↑
Mon Oct 01, 2018 4:15 pm
Only reality gets to validate our guesses as 'right' or 'wrong'
Right, which is why you have to do the expensive experiments.
Anyway; for anyone who has lost track; this is a reminder of what this thread is actually about:
So anyway, the editors are considering a revised version of the OP, but mentioned that what they really need are short biographies for the feature Brief Lives. They asked whether I could do one on Thomas Kuhn, so I bashed one out (Oi! Stop sniggering!) and submitted it for consideration. Below is the version I sent, which even if it is accepted will need a bit of polishing, and it might be of interest for some who are thinking of writing to see how this publication lark plays out.
Thomas Kuhn Brief lives
In 1962 Thomas Kuhn published a book from which the prevailing philosophy of science has not recovered, and probably never will. Generally it was assumed that the only history that was relevant to science was recent. Science was believed to be a relentless march towards the truth, and that every innovation was an advance. Scientists may have been standing on the shoulders of giants, but every change was assumed to be taking us higher. Ironically, Kuhn did what many philosophers of science were recommending that scientists do and actually looked at the evidence. What he saw was that far from being the steady accumulation of objective truth about the way the world functions, the history of science is punctuated by moments when the prevailing consensus was completely shattered. His first book, The Copernican Revolution, detailed the events and causes of one of the most graphic examples. It was this general model that he expanded on in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
Thomas Kuhn was born on July 18 1922, in Cincinnati. His father, Samuel, a veteran of World War I was an industrial engineer and investment consultant, whose wife Minette, née Strook, was a graduate of Vasser College, a private Liberal Arts College, who wrote for and edited progressive publications. Both parents were active in left-wing politics and in keeping with their radical outlook, Thomas was educated at various progressive schools which developed independent thinking, rather than adhering to a traditional curriculum. Perhaps because of this, at the age of seven, Thomas was still barely able to read and write, so his father took it into his own hands to bring him up to speed. The frequent moves may have made it difficult for Thomas to establish long term relationships, particularly with women, for which his mother prescribed a course in psychoanalysis. Hating his counsellor, who frequently fell asleep during sessions, Kuhn cured himself by marrying Kathryn Muhs in 1948 who, like his mother, was a graduate of Vassar College. They had three children; Sarah, Elizabeth, and Nathaniel, before getting divorced in 1978. Three years later Kuhn married Jehane Barton Burns.
His less than prodigious literacy notwithstanding, Kuhn was an outstanding student with a particular interest in maths and physics, and was admitted to Harvard in 1940. America entered World War II in Kuhn’s second year as an undergraduate and after gaining a BSc in physics on 1943 with the highest honours, Kuhn joined the Radio Research Laboratory which had been set up to develop countermeasures to enemy radar systems. This took him initially to Britain and later into liberated France and Germany itself, to examine captured equipment first hand.
On his return to Harvard, Kuhn continued studying physics as the most convenient route to gaining a doctorate, which he achieved in 1949, though his commitment to physics was dwindling as his interest in philosophy was grew. While working on his PhD, he was invited to teach a course in the History of Science to undergraduates and it was while preparing for this that he had the insight that was to inspire his most influential work.
One of the key moments in the development of his ideas was his study of Aristotle. Since the view of science at the time was that it is accumulative; Kuhn went looking for the ancestral physics expecting to find the foundations on which Galileo, Newton et al had built. Instead, Kuhn was baffled to discover that Aristotle’s understanding of physics was, from a modern point of view, complete nonsense. Struggling to comprehend how someone so wrong could be so revered, Kuhn realised that in order to appreciate Aristotle, he had to understand the context in which Aristotle had been working. In doing so, he drew a picture of science that was completely different to most contemporary analyses.
The scientific method.
In the middle of the 20th century, philosophy of science was almost exclusively focussed on defining the scientific method. The assumption was that ‘science’ is an objective ideal that is independent of human foibles, and that if we could just describe its characteristics, then everyone would have a template for doing proper science. The debate was largely between the logical positivists and Karl Popper. Both took the view that science was a rational endeavour; that scientists would obediently follow where the evidence led them. The difference was that broadly speaking the logical positivists stuck to the traditional view that science was the accumulation of ‘facts’ and the refinement of mathematical models that accounted for those facts with ever increasing accuracy. Their distinctive feature was they insisted that science should stick strictly to observable facts. In a nutshell, the ‘verification principle’ the logical positivists advocated, demanded that anything that could not be supported by empirical evidence was metaphysics and had no place in science. One problem, which in fairness the logical positivists were well aware of, is that no amount of empirical evidence can prove a scientific claim. The classic example is that a million white swans do not prove that every swan is white. Popper’s innovation was to point out that it only takes one black swan to prove they’re not, and that therefore, as an endeavour seeking certainty, science should commit itself to proving theories wrong. So while the evidence could show you what was likely to be true, or definitely false, nearly everyone agreed that the defining feature of science was a commitment to looking at that evidence.
By looking at the historical evidence, Kuhn believed that he could see a pattern in the data, which in part is what physicists are trained to do. According to Kuhn, most of science is guided by a set of principles and core beliefs about which there is a general consensus. The word that Kuhn used for this intellectual framework was ‘paradigm’; for instance, prior to the Copernican revolution, Aristotle’s model of the universe, which put Earth at the centre, was accepted for two thousand years. Some of the data was puzzling, but scientists and mathematicians, notably Ptolemy, worked within the paradigm to solve those puzzles. During that time, astronomers were able to plot and predict the positions of the heavenly bodies with an accuracy that is remarkable, especially given that technological advances, not least the telescope, have made the model demonstrably false; but for the scientific purposes of the time, it worked. Working within the bounds of such a paradigm is what Kuhn called ‘normal science’ and in that way, the practise of medieval astronomers resembles the models of the scientific method that most philosophers of science were trying to describe.
It’s not just an historical problem though. One of Kuhn’s early essays was called The Essential Tension, in which he discusses the conflicting pulls of the desire to innovate and the conservatism needed to do normal science. For every Einstein, there are thousands of scientists who, as you read this, are doing the routine calculations that keep our modern world ticking along. There are scientists trying to solve puzzles like dark matter and dark energy; they don’t, contrary to Popper’s recommendation, abandon a theory because of one black swan, and all of this science is done within the paradigm that Einstein created. Then of course, there are also scientists trying to develop different paradigms, which aim to explain exactly the same empirical evidence in innovative ways and, the hope is, account for the puzzles satisfactorily. There are, for instance, many alternative theories which seek to incorporate gravity of which String Theory and Loop quantum gravity are just two examples.
Among the most controversial aspects of Kuhn’s model is that different paradigms are ‘incommensurable’, that is to say that in extreme cases there can be no meaningful dialogue between scientists who hold different perspectives. In an attempt to demonstrate this he referred to Gestalt psychology, according to which people create a complete picture of the world that is a context in which they can operate; in some ways analogous to a scientific paradigm. That the same evidence can inspire different world views is sometimes illustrated by the duck/rabbit illusion. The point Kuhn was making is that if you are talking about a duck, you are going to make no sense to someone looking at a rabbit. In a similar way, String Theorists are looking at the universe and seeing eleven dimensions, whereas according to Loop Quantum Gravity, there are only four.
This raises another issue that people criticised. How do you decide whether you are in fact looking at a duck, or a rabbit? Kuhn argued that just as your worldview is influenced by your experience, your scientific paradigm is determined in part by the education you have had. This led to accusations of relativism, which Kuhn tried to counter by saying that there are objective criteria that can be applied:
1. How accurately a theory agrees with the evidence.
2. That it is consistent within itself and other theories.
3. It should explain more than just the phenomenon that it was designed for.
4. The simplest explanation is the best; apply Occam’s Razor, in other words.
5. It should make predictions that come true.
However, he had to concede that there is no objective way to establish which of those criteria is the most important, and that scientists would make their own mind up for subjective reasons, so that “When scientists must choose between competing theories, two men fully committed to the same list of criteria for choice may nevertheless reach different conclusions.” Eventually though, according to Kuhn, a new, revolutionary model is found that looks promising and everyone settles down to developing it, solving puzzles, in the way of normal science.
Many philosophers and physical scientists were initially sceptical, hostile even, to the depiction of scientists as normal people who held opinions and made decisions for idiosyncratic reasons. Social scientists, on the other hand, were inspired by The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to develop their discipline. Prior to publication, the most influential sociologist of science was Robert Merton. His main focus had been on why scientific theories are rejected; after The Structure, sociologists turned to why theories are believed.
In a way, Kuhn’s masterpiece was a product of exactly the sort of process it was describing. While ‘normal’ philosophers of science, the logical positivists and Popper, were working within a paradigm of what science was about, there had been an accumulation of troubling anomalies. Scientists like the Ludwik Fleck and Michael Polyani were pointing out that in their experience, science didn’t actually work in the way that philosophers assumed. Kuhn acknowledged his debt to both men and he also quotes Max Planck: “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
For better or worse, Kuhn’s opus changed the way that science is viewed. It is no longer straightforwardly an ideal that people should aspire to, rather it is something that is shaped by ordinary, and a few extraordinary people. Kuhn spent much of his subsequent career elucidating and dealing with the fallout, it is a major part of his legacy that so does everyone else in the business. “When reading the works of an important thinker,” he said “look first for the apparent absurdities in the text and ask yourself how a sensible person could have written them.” This is now what sociologists and most philosophers of science are compelled to do.
Thomas Kuhn retired in 1991, age 69. In 1994 he was diagnosed with cancer of the throat and lungs. He died two years later, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, aged 73.