Monday, February 13, 2012

Is Scientific Progress Cumulative or Revolutionary? Kuhn Part 2: Contemporary Science

Notes and Thoughts on Kuhn's The Nature and Necessity of Scientific Revolutions:  Part 2


Kuhn argues that scientific progress comes about when one paradigm is replaced by other.  This is in contrast to the view that scientific progress is cumulative, and new theories simply modify existing theoretical structures.

Application of The Revolutionary Model to Contemporary Science

So, the Kuhn model of scientific progress fits pretty well when we apply it to changes in early science from the 16th, 17th, 18th, and some of the 19th Centuries.  Clearly, some of those early scientific theories were completely wrong.  So much so that if they had been around, even the Insane Clown Posse would have looked, well...sane.  Back then, they didn't even know how magnets worked!  But what about now?  I mean, clearly we've got it right, now; we know how magnets work.  So, scientific progress from this point on will be cumulative...or will it?  Oh! Snap! 

Counter-Example to Kuhn (?)

Clearly, when the Copernican model of the solar system totally annihilated the Ptolemaic model, we are looking at an instance that supports Kuhn's thesis that scientific change is revolutionary.  It is not possible to simultaneously hold both theories.  One theory--in this case--Ptolemaic astronomy, was relegated to the dust bin of history (I invented that phrase) as per Kuhn's theory.   But what about contemporary physics?  

In the early 20th Century, Einsteinian physics showed that Newtonian physics was wrong.  So, if Kuhn is right, no scientists should be using Newtonian physics.  But wait!  I know I'm getting on in my years but I'm pretty sure that it was Newtonian physics I was taught in high school (shout out to Mr. Kelly) and I went to high school after the great Einsteinian revolution!  Did Mr. Kelly not get the memo?  Was he a staunch physics conservative?  Was I instead in a history of science class?  My head is spinning now!  So, many possibilities! 

What makes matters worse is that still today, working engineers and physicists use Newtonian physics.  Aaaand they even appeal to Einsteinian physics to prove that Newtonian physics works!  Appeal to Einstein's theory shows that in limited circumstances, Newtonian physics gives us the right answers.  It seems that we can derive Newton's theory from Einstein's.  What the crap is going on?

One might reply that, unlike Einstein's theory, Newton's physics only works within a certain domain-- when the relative velocities of bodies being considered are small compared to the speed of light.  

But the Newtonians can counter by saying that their theory isn't wrong, it's just that the early proponents applied it to cases for which it does not apply.  They over-extended the domain of the theory; they didn't have any evidence to support their claims that Newtonian physics applied to such high relative velocity bodies.  When you apply it to its correct domain, it is unproblematic.  So, there!  Newton rules!  Kuhn's wrong. 

Kuhn Kounter Attack (*laser sound effects)

Trivial Science

First of all, if we say that theories are immune from criticism provided we ignore all the things they can't explain, and only judge them within the confines of what we already know they explain, then almost every past theory can be protected.  This is just stark nonsense!  

Also, it makes the use of the theory very restrictive and further scientific development is almost ruled out by definition because, again, the theory can only be used in areas that are already well-known.  Research is always conducted within the framework of a theory, and if we already know the areas to which a theory can be applied or not, "progress" will be trivial.  

Can Newtonian Physics Really Be Derived from Einsteinian Physics?

K.  Shit's about to get a bit technical but don't be scurd.  We gong do dis t'getha.  

So, we have a set of statements from Einsteinian physics which are the axioms and definitions of the theory; that is the laws and terms.  Call them E1, E2, E3...Also we have the axioms of Newtonian physics: N1, N2, N2...  The suggestion from the science as evolution camp is that we can derive the N statements from the E statements.   In other words, the N statements can be shown to be a sub-set of the E statements; Newtonian physics is a part of the larger Einsteinian physics.

The E statements represent spacial position, time, mass, (and the laws and other definitions in E) and the N statements also include most of these notions.  So, it seems like we're talkin' 'bout the same things in both theories; so, maybe we can derive (or translate terms into) the Newtonian statements from the E statements and shew that Newton's laws (the N statements) are just a subsection of a greater whole (the E statements).  

But wait!  'member how I said way back in the prollem of cirkilairity that all scientific statements presuppose a background theory? (the technical term is that they are "theory-laden").  Why is this relevant?  Because if we look closely, the E terms don't correspond directly with the N terms.  E mass refers to something different than N mass--they have different properties.  N mass is always conserved but E mass is convertible to energy.  So, we can't do a direct translation of E terms to N terms because they refer to fundamentally different things.  

The only way to do it would be to import the E concepts into the corresponding N terms, but then the N terms wouldn't be N terms any more, they'd be E terms.  So, the N statements cannot be derived from the E statements, so, Newtonian physics cannot be derived as a subset of Einsteinian physics.  

The disanalogy of N-mass, N-spacial location, N-time, etc and E-mass, E-spacial location, E-time, etc, might not be as dramatic as other historical examples.  (Phlogiston to oxygen [how things burn], corpuscules to waves [how light travels].)  However, the fundamental point is that, despite the eeeeeery resemblance of the names of the terms, they do not refer to the same things.  


Finally, while it is true that an old theory can be considered a special case of the prevailing theory it must be retrofitted for the purpose with the full benefit of hindsight.  Understanding the specific parameters within which Newtonian physics works and why, requires the prior acceptance of Einsteinian physics as the correct model.   

Furthermore, while it may be possible to work within Newtonian physics, the prospects for actual scientific progress are very small because it can only be applied to areas where we know it works already--so, no new significant discoveries can be made.  In other words, Newtonian physics is good for applied sciences and engineering, but not so much for research that might lead to important advances in new understandings of our universe.

The last point (I promise) is that the prevailing scientific paradigm is the one that defines the research problems and projects.  So, by adopting a new paradigm, new research problems emerge and, perhaps, the old one's--now, explained away by the new paradigm--dissolve.  

As an example, we can point to the annihilation of the evolutionary model in biology by the intelligent design model of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  To take one example, previously, evolutionary biologists occupied their time trying to figure out how light sensitive patches on simple organisms evolved into the modern complex eye.  Now, under the new correct paradigm they realized this was a false problem and are instead focusing their research energy on trying to figure out how eyeballs evolved from meatballs.  

To learn about this new paradigm here's the link...


  1. Hey Thanks for posting!!! Pt 1 and Pt 2 pretty much became my study guide for a midterm I had on Kuhn. You are awesome :)

  2. Thank you for letting me know. My goal is to make philosophy as accessible as possible. If there are any things I could do stylistically that would improve my blog, let me know. Also, if you tell me what it is that made these posts easy to understand, I'll do more of it!