Science Beyond Materialism in Thomas Khun

by Denise

Gone are the days of Aristotelian physics, when “natural philosophers” believed that more could be read from natural phenomena than the fact of their occurrence.  If any metaphysical truths could be drawn, the physical world was the only place from which to draw them.  Granted, it is probably unfair to say that contemporary science is only concerned with the fact of phenomena.  It would be more accurate to say that they are interested in how these phenomena occur, but within a fairly limited scope.  In an essay on semiotics, author Walker Percy writes that “For most scientists, it seems fair to say, these same wonders, including the behavior of organisms, can be explained as an interaction of elements” (Percy 89).  As an explanation of how something happens, this dyadic approach is a valid as any.  But seeking an explanation for how something occurs is different than seeking to understand the nature of an object. 

One could explain an atomic bomb “objectively” as a chemical reaction, or “subjectively” as an instrument of destruction.  It is not generally thought to be within the purview of science to deal with the latter.  Objectivity has come to mean interpreting objects and events as the end of a series of other events.  And the subjective explanation of things is the responsibility of the humanities, or of philosophers.  In any case, that explanation most certainly would not come from the scientific data.  But to draw such a sharp distinction between what science can tell us and what philosophy can tell us glosses over the deeper claims made by science—those which say that science (“knowledge”) actually defines what we can and cannot truly know.  If science is the term that we use to describe our inquiry into the world, and “scientific truths” are those which express our conclusions about the world, then it makes sense that the limits of scientific inquiriy would also serve as the limits of our knowledge—or at least what we believe to be the limits of our knowledge..   

It is not good enough to say that philosophy can answer those other, “non-scientific” questions if the truths that fall outside of the purview of science will not be accepted as knowledge.  What will happen is that science will preclude anything outside of its borders from being knowable.  And so, science—or at least the philosophy backing it—is inseparable from epistemology.  Historically, one can see a common epistemological trend in both philosophy and science, as one makes way for the other, and that one redoubles the influence of the first.

         The question Kuhn’s Structure answered differently was largely epistemological.  The latent empiricism in the modern scientific community at the time was challenged in Kuhn’s thesis.  One of the criticisms of the empiricist John Locke’s tabula rasa comes from skepticism about our ability to make data intelligible to us without some prior framework in which to place the data, or with which to interpret the data.  What Locke (and Bacon) proposed was that we are able to construct our knowledge of reality solely by taking in raw data about the world around us.  Locke’s stark empiricism has not lasted in large part because, despite the epistemological variation, it is relatively clear that raw data have very little meaning simply in themselves.  This epistemological question is not quite the thesis Kuhn’s Structure attempts to address.  But it does present the problem that gives rise to Kuhn’s thesis.  Scientists deal with facts, but if those facts must constantly be interpreted and given a context, then how do we know that the interpretation or given context is correct? 

            On the tails of this question lies the observation of Kuhn’s Structure.  Kuhn’s thesis was grounded in his rejection of the perspective that historians of science had toward the knowledge gains made by science.  Kuhn saw that these historians viewed scientific discovery as a linear, logical and rational progression from era to era and from theory to theory, in a march toward an increasingly more accurate description of reality.  Old theories were replaced by new ones when scientists found the old theories to falsely describe reality, where a new theory could better acount for it.  From this perspective, the youngest generation is ever on the precipice of a truer account of the world, with the bounding hope that in time, scientists will finally “get reality right.” 

            Historians who approach science in this way can only evaluate the truth claims of previous generations through the lens of the current one.  In which case, not only may it be predetermined that previous generations were in error, but it will also be difficult to uncover the erroneous assumptions of the current one.  In response to the latter point, one might argue that the errors of currently prevailing scientific theories are uncovered when the data show nature to be other than what we thought that it was.  But that is precisely what Kuhn challenged.  He argued for a view of scientific discovery that admitted to the role of underived assumptions in the acceptance of new theories.  More specifically, Kuhn argued that scientific knowledge is attained within a distinct paradigm, or pattern for understanding the universe as a whole.  As scientists make discoveries, they interpret new data in light of their broader understanding of reality.  And this broader perspective on reality that determines whether scientists see particular pieces of evidence as compelling or not.  In his lectures, Steve Goldman speaks to the “collective character” of scientific enquiry.  He gives an example using the astronomer Halton Arp’s hypothesis that the redshift of light does not necessarily indicate motion.  Though Arp collected years of evidence from highly redshifted quasars to back his point, the scientific community labelled him an outsider.  His ideas appeared ridiculous in light of the expanding universe hypothesis; the prevailing paradigm depends on the redshift of light indicating motion.  Because scientists have accepted this paradigm and its latent assumptions, Arp’s evidence is automatically viewed as not compelling.

            According to Kuhn, when information cannot be assimilated into the paradigm, a crisis in the scientific community occurs.  In response to this crisis, scientists must look for new underlying assumptions and a different framework for interpreting data.  As they do this, a paradigm shift occurs which gives us a new “reality.”  For Kuhn, scientists do not simply discover something new about the reality of the current paradigm, but they must completely reconceive that paradigm in order for certain pieces of information to make sense.  And successive paradigms cannot be incorporated into one another in Kuhn’s view.  Being “incommensurable,” we are unable to assimilate knowledge gained in the previous paradigm in the current one. 

            Although some found this assertion to be too strong, the overall thesis of Kuhn’s work was more than supported by his predecessors.  In fact, Steve Goldman goes so far as to say that there was nothing original in Kuhn’s Structure, but that the intellectual climate at the time of its publication most likely provided the impetus for its success (Lecture 17, I.1,4).  For this reason, Kuhn’s Structure serves not only as philosophy of science, but as a sociological tool.  Under Kuhn’s thesis about the incommensurability of paradigms lay his rejection of the assertions of the scientific establishment regarding its knowledge claims.  The traditional method of conducting history of science, which placed the current generation on the cutting edge of “truth,” gave scientists the ability to claim to have the most accurate account of reality.  This could only hold if scientific knowledge were truly universal and unaffected by human perspectives, which Kuhn disbelieved. 

            Others disbelieved as well.  In particular, the immunologist Ludwik Fleck wrote that fundamentally, science can only be conducted and understood as a social activity.  Though an individual may do science in isolation, in order for his discoveries to become general knowledge they must be articulated in a way that can be understood and accepted by the broader scientific community.  Fleck believed that science was practiced by “thought collectives,” a community of scientists who stand in agreement about ideas and values (Lecture 16, III.C.1).  He wrote that unless a person has internalized the thought patterns of the broader scientific community, others will not recognize that person as thinking scientifically.  Again, Harold Arp serves as an example.  Moreover, Fleck attacked the empiricist assumptions underlying traditional beliefs about scientific knowledge.  He argued that, unlike empiricist claims, sensory data is not self-evidently one thing or another.  But, through our active interpretation of that data and through our associations between phenomena, we collectively come to an understanding of reality.  However, the stance that this conception of reality is “true” must be mitigated by the fact that the collective determines the assumptions and the associations, there being nothing in the data itself which demands any particular interpretation.  This means that, while the deductions which flow from certain scientific premises may flow necessarily, the truth of those deductions is contingent upon the truth of the premises, which always remains undetermined.  This contingency is quite similar to the contingency found in Kuhn’s shifiting paradigms.   In his shifting paradigms, data only have a particular meaning within a given paradigm.  If a crisis occurs and new assumptions must be found, then many pieces of the same data will be re-interpreted to mean something different. 

            Furthermore, before both Kuhn and Fleck, other scientists and philosophers had begun to chip away at the prevailing assumptions about the nature of scientific knowledge and progress.  In particular, Henri Poincare asserted that the furthest we can go in perceiving a truly objective reality is to perceive the “internal harmony” of the world through mathematics.  What makes reality objective to us is the common way that we conceptualize and experience it.  Similarly, Percy Bridgman thought that what we call scientific knowledge could not be matched with any independently-existing reality.  Rather, scientific concepts are “the set of operations specified for measuring it” (Lecture 13.III.B,2).  In this line of thought, scientific knowledge is not actually knowledge about nature itself, but is rather a means of intervening in nature.  Neither thinker would have argued that reality itself does not exist, or that scientific concepts are purely constructions of our own minds.  In all of these thinkers, from Poincare to Kuhn, scientists are dealing with “actual” phenomena.  However, the “knowledge” that the scientist has of these phenomena must be seen as dependent upon the community doing science at the time.

            At this point a person studying the history of philosophy would see a number of similarities in the theories mentioned, name in the transition away from epistemological certainty that was begun in Hume, and picked up in Kant. 

            No matter how much these thinkers qualified their departure from tradition, the mainstream intellectual community took it to its extremes, rejoicing at the apparent end of scientific hegemony in the realm of truth.  Where Kuhn still held that “normal science” (science conducted within a given paradigm) was still a valid enterprise, the academic community—particularly the social sciences—viewed Kuhn’s work as a delegitimation of scientific knowledge and the power that it weilded.  Moreover, as others note, Kuhn’s Structure could not be seen to be as radical as many would like since his theory of shifting paradigms does not actually advocate for science to be performed differently, nor did his view of science make the discipline relevant to the public.  In fact, Kuhnian science is isolated from the public because of the requirement that only those who “speak the language” can take part.  The outside is therefore unable to criticize, and insiders can only be hear insofar as they are going along with the prevailing paradigm.[1] 

            As written by scholar Gordon McQuat, Steve Fuller argues that the “Kuhnian analysis of science removed any critical teeth from a field most poised to offer just such a political engagement in the late modern world. It went Kuhnian and internalized.”  This internalization was a boon to “normal science” during a time when that science was being increasingly undermined by government interests.  Again, Fuller argues that “these Kuhnianisms are all classic Cold War insulators for science caught up in political crisis. Science, in a Kuhnian world, could and should chug along, hermetically and happily sealed from both origins and consequences.”[2] 

[1]               McQuat, Gordon. “The Mistaken Gestalt of Science Studies: Steve Fuller Takes on Kuhn.” Canadian Journal of History. Dec. 2001.

[2] Ibid.