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Poor Kuhn…


I’d like to examine a specific case of a this specific tactic used by religious apologetics, which I have dubbed, “Kuhnian Shift”.

The Kuhnian Shift (hereafter: K.S.) is strategy that is utilized by more liberal religious apologists to resolve particularly hopeless conflicts with the Natural Sciences; it stands in direct relation to how some apologists have attempted to use Postmodernism as a means of defending their faith . As with some apologetic strategies, the K.S. is borne of desperation, and is almost never used in any sort of responsible manner.

K.S. has its origins in a 1962 publication entitled, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by historian of science Thomas Kuhn. While the actual impact upon the Philosophy of Science and Natural Sciences by Kuhn’s ‘Scientific Revolutions’ is almost negligible, the book was wildly popular in the broader humanities, where it became one of the most cited works in the 20th century, alongside Lenin and Frye’s “Anatomy of Criticism”.

Kuhn’s ‘Scientific Revolutions’ pushed a bold new thesis (at the time) that the advancement of the Natural Science wasn’t the slow and steady accumulation of knowledge that results in a better understanding of physical reality, but was rather a series of scientific revolutions that replaced the dominant paradigm with a new paradigm. To Kuhn, a paradigm is a web or matrix of assumptions and values that scientists presuppose. In a more broader sense, a paradigm can be understood as your worldview, though Kuhn meant the term in a much more narrow focus.

An important idea to Kuhn’s thesis is the concept of theory-dependence of observation, which asserts that when two scientists observe a phenomena, the observation they make isn’t neutral, but entirely based upon which theories the scientists hold. Coupled with the theory-dependence of observation was Kuhn’s own anti-realist position and skepticism of Truth. What this means is that Kuhn did not see science as an enterprise that could explain the unobservable, because the unobservable did not exist. It’s important to understand that Kuhn didn’t see this as a limit of science, but as a rejection of Metaphysics.

I’m sure it has become clear to many of you now why this work was such a hit in the early 60s, and how tempting it was for many in the Social Sciences to see Natural Science and its reputation for results and progress as subservient to fields such as Sociology and Anthropology. The Achilles heel to this part of Kuhn’s thesis is that he bases this idea of scientific revolutions as paradigm shifts on experiments conducted by gestalt psychology in the late 40s and early 50s at Harvard [1]. Kuhn seems merely to assume that all of one’s perceptual experience and reaction is influenced by whatever theories a person holds, based on research that was conducted in a much limited scope with just playing cards. He provides no solid argument for this assumption, which probably explains why he later rejects this idea (this becomes important later).

As an example of a religious apologist making use of the K.S. I’d like to pull from an essay by Mormon apologist Kevin Christensen  In the conclusion of his survey of Margaret Barker’s published works, Kevin Christensen’s rhetorical strategy is to attempt a coup de grace against empirical evidence contra Book of Mormon geography theories, and the broader academic indifference to Book of Mormon Archeology with a well crafted K.S.:

A few years ago I wrote a long article called “Paradigms Crossed” in which I showed how Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions illuminates the structure of the debates about the Book of Mormon.3 Critics and defenders of the book quite obviously have different methods, problem fields, and standards of solution. We work in different paradigms.

Kevin Christensen introduces Kuhn at the end here, because he doesn’t want to characterize the dispute over Book of Mormon Archeology in the grave terms that it actually exists, but wants his audience to understand it as merely friction when two different paradigms come together head to head over the same observations. In the next paragraph he goes on to complete the K.S. Christensen writes:

In paradigm debates, the key questions are not those which ask “is the paradigm true?” but “which paradigm is better? Which problems are more significant to have solved? Which paradigm should we adopt in approaching the problems that we have not yet solved?” There can be no asking which is better without a comparison. Simply observing that an opponent has made assumptions that conflict with yours is not enough.

The K.S. has been engaged and the apologist is trying to shift away from questions about “Is this true?” to questions about “Is this better?”. Here, the utility of a belief is more important than the truth of a belief. Attention has been shifted to more pragmatic concerns, which are made more appealing with emotional concerns. In this case, Kevin Christensen has used a K.S. as an opener for this:

Kuhn describes how scientists make comparisons and make a tentative faith decision based on values, rather than rules, which means that conclusions among individuals will differ. This is fine, since it distributes risks. The most significant values that Kuhn observes are accuracy of key predictions, comprehensiveness and coherence, simplicity and aesthetics, fruitfulness, and future promise. I have long been impressed that Alma 32 describes exactly that same process: we experiment on key issues, and find mind-expanding enlightenment. We discover just how delicious the gospel can be, we learn things that we never would have seen had we not tried the experiments, and we taste through personal testimony the brightest of all future promises.

I’d like my audience to make note that Kuhn never characterizes any scientific decision as a “tentative faith decision,” in terms that Christensen conveniently weasels into his summary of Kuhn. This K.S. allows Kevin Christensen to utilize Alma 32 and bring empirical science into the realm of faith and religion, where matters of utility and preference are given priority over truth.

An irony of the apologetic use of the K.S. is that it has failed to produce desired results in experimentation. In one comprehensive study, philosophers taking Kuhn’s approach lived with a group of Scientists studying malaria, the data was so disappointing that the book published about the study did nothing to advance the ideas that Kevin Christensen now assumes above [2].

Even more damaging to Kevin Christensen’s enterprise is the fact Kuhn later modified these ideas. As Kuhn matured as a philosopher, he relied more heavily upon a Philosophy of Language concept known as incommensurability (explained below). In the second edition a footnote from Kuhn that refers to a paper he published after the first edition that clearly shows his linguistic interests, and his eventual rejection of anti-realism and adoption of some Kantian views [3]. Kuhn even repudiated how sociologists of science were using his work [4].

Incommensurability is the enduring and key component to Kuhn’s ideas on paradigms, and the lack of any mention of it betrays a certain ignorance of Kuhn’s overall project. What incommensurability provides is the framework that Kuhn needs to show that different paradigms employ different “languages” [5] and that while it’s possible to translate from one paradigm to another paradigm, there will always be things lost in said translation. It is this linguistic turn that Kuhn develops and favors over his prior psychological evidence. When incommensurability becomes more developed, the pragmatic concerns for the paradigm fall to the wayside, since Kuhn’s anti-realism begins to fade.

As we see in Kevin Christensen, the apologetic interest in Kuhn’s work and its implications (does an apologist really want to be a skeptic about Truth?) are only important in that it enables them to perform a K.S. and draw attention away from disconfirming evidence. Philosophy of Language is “post-Kripke,” and Casual theories of Reference dominate the field, and a robust defense of Kuhn’s incommensurability would have to take a lot of material on, which would be beyond the capability of most religious apologists.

In closing, the K.S. is a red herring, deployed by the apologist as a smoke screen to get his audience to ignore disconfirming evidence. The employment of K.S. never accurately represents Kuhn’s project, nor does the apologist care about the changing subtleties that always occur in a scholar’s thought, much less the implications of adopting Kuhn’s views, which appear, prima facie, to stand in stark contrast to LDS Theology.

[1] See Bruner, J. and Postman, L., 1949, “On the Perception of incongruity: A paradigm”, Journal of Personality, 18: 206–23

[2] M. Charlesworth et al. Life Among the Scientists (Geelong 1989).

[3] T. S. Kuhn 1970, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” (2nd edition), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, page 192, footnote 12.

[4] T. S. Kuhn 1974, “Second Thoughts on Paradigms” in F. Suppe 1974 “The Structure of Scientific Theories,” Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 459-482

[5] I put “languages” in scare quotes, because I decided not to get into a long digression about the Philosophy of Language, and the topic of Sense and Reference and it’s importance in Philosophy of Science.

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This is post 7/24 by SSA@SCSU for the SSA blogathon in support of the Secular Student Alliance! Go donate to them!

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-Patrick Mefford

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