Science Under High Modernism

on Thomas Kuhn and metis



In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Thomas Kuhn attempts to describe how science progresses and changes; in the process, he finds that any single definition of “science” will be misleading. Following this, he crafts an argument (at least implicitly) against many of the common definitions being argued at the time (and many in our own).

Kuhn was writing to philosophers busying themselves with the definition of “science.” It turns out this is actually an incredibly difficult task. Kuhn makes it easier by turning to historical events in lieu of abstracts, which immediately makes it harder: there are distinct periods with different behaviors. Accordingly, he distinguishes between pre-scientific activity (pre-paradigmatic), normal science (under a paradigm), and extraordinary science (post-paradigmatic). Normal science is the heart of the book. One of Kuhn’s central claims is that we’ve been so blinded by the flashiness of extraordinary science that most philosophy of science creates theories solely applicable to that period, like a Philosophy of Football that theorizes everything in terms of fumbles. Very exciting – totally useless for 99% of the game.

At a certain point in any paradigm’s history, normal scientific work runs into anomalies – observations discordant with the paradigm’s broader theory. Some will be resolved, others will add to or rearrange parts of the paradigm, but a few are irreconcilable with the broader paradigm. Then you get a crisis. At least some work during this crisis will try to overhaul the entire structure (most work  will be frantically trying to save the old paradigm), and that work is extraordinary science. Finally someone provides a satisfying new theory, there’s a paradigm shift/revolution, and normal science continues.

Most of this essay is about normal science, which might look kind of weird if you only know Kuhn as the crisis-paradigm-shift-revolution guy. Questions I will ignore: what progress means, the definition of truth, whether Kuhn is normative or a descriptive, why Popper got so mad, how paradigm shifts, like, evolve quantum consciousness. He does directly address Popper and the Logical Positivists, but getting into that debate would distract. Kuhn and Popper are way closer than the sheer vitriol suggests, and Popper begrudgingly admitted that Kuhnian normal science was an accurate account of most scientific work. Since that’s my focus, I’m going to pretend that no discord exists.


Kuhn is particularly concerned with two semi-popular views of scientific work. The first is something I’ll call the “Baconian” model, though Pop-Bacon is more accurate. It’s not the focus of the book, but it leads into the central problems. In the Baconian model, the best science is done without prejudicial structures – data are taken at face value. There’s a gigantic table of relevant observations and their shared characteristics, and theories emerge from close comparison of it all. This model falls apart pretty much immediately.

It looks closest to what Kuhn calls pre-paradigmatic science. It also looks like post-paradigmatic science, but it can be hard to different pre- and post- (which Kuhn admits) for reasons that will become apparent. Either way: it’s not an accurate description of either, and it’s definitely inaccurate for normal science. Kuhn:

The Baconian “histories” of heat, color, wind, mining, and so on, are filled with information, some of it recondite. But they juxtapose facts that will later prove revealing (e.g., heating by mixture) with others (e.g., the warmth of dung heaps) that will for some time remain too complex to be integrated with theory at all. In addition, since any description must be partial, the typical natural history often omits from its immensely circumstantial accounts just those details that later scientists will find sources of important illumination. Almost none of the early “histories” of electricity, for example, mention that chaff, attracted to a rubbed
glass rod, bounces off again. That effect seemed mechanical, not electrical.

First: there are a lot of coherent explanations for [list of facts], so something else has to be going on. Almost as soon as there’s one theory there’s a bundle, and each of those considers different observations to be important. Kuhn calls this effluvium of activity a pre-paradigmatic period, where different schools vie to explain the strange bundle of facts in very different ways.

Second: Very primitive forms of science often do compile a big list of things, but many of those are rejected and discarded by mature versions of the field. The issue is that there’s no such thing as a “significant datum” outside of its significance to a framework. Different schools accept or reject the same data, not everything is understood as equally relevant. Anything with a theory is already interpreting data according to a certain prejudice, and “anything with a theory” is most of science. It’s not even desirable to lose that bias (whatever that even means) – if you do, you admit a bunch of useless bits that illuminate nothing. It may also be better to say “observation,” because “data” might not be the same paradigm to paradigm – the numbers assigned by one paradigm’s instrument are often incomprehensible to another.

Eventually, one of the many theories proves convincing enough to be adopted by some critical mass of practitioners, at which point it becomes the field’s paradigm. More carefully phrased: a series of experiments, models, and vague theorizing is adopted and emulated. From here on out, the pseudo-Baconian period is finished. A technical jargon develops for that field, it no longer draws quite as readily on other fields, etc. Scientists now learn the paradigm itself and restrict themselves to its problems. That is to say: they do not accept a random allotment of phenomena uncritically, nor do they need to concern themselves with ascertaining some theoretical connection from the ground up. They become specialists in a paradigm, and now they perform normal scientific research.

This is the vast majority of actual scientific activity. Much of it is getting precise measurements, reappraising old phenomena, etc. The most “important” (at least for us) is what Kuhn calls “articulating the paradigm” theoretically. This sounds like what it is: no paradigm is perfectly complete – it’s more like a guide – so scientists labor to expand upon it. They add new techniques, more theoretical backing, etc.

Kuhn’s preferred metaphor for normal science is puzzle-solving. This is extremely close to Popperian problem-solving, but there’s a major difference: problems don’t say anything about how one should solve them, nor do they delimit solutions. Puzzles do. There’s the correct order to the pieces, there’s a certain “image” that the completed puzzle should convey, and there’s the far-more-general sense that “completing a puzzle” is gone about in a certain way. The reason that practitioners of normal science restrict themselves to a given problem set is for much the same reason. Theories don’t just tell you how to interpret phenomena. They also tell you what questions to ask. Kuhn:

If it is to classify as a puzzle, a problem must be characterized by more than an
assured solution. There must also be rules that limit both the nature of acceptable solutions and the steps by which they are to be obtained. To solve a jigsaw puzzle is not, for example, merely “to make a picture.” Either a child or a contemporary artist could do that by scattering selected pieces, as abstract shapes, upon some neutral ground. The picture thus produced might be far better, and would certainly be more
original, than the one from which the puzzle had been made. Nevertheless, such a picture would not be a solution.

There are a lot of examples of this (most of the book is, properly, history), but I’m not sure it’s necessary to really go into any. It’s pretty apparent on the surface that, e.g. particle physics restricts a practitioner’s concerns, methods, and analysis to a particular range of problems, and that 1) these are not the same problems as, say, botany, 2) no particle physicist will spend their time recreating Newtonian proofs of corpuscular motion and, 3) the methodology is not random.

Critically, this is equally true for anomalies. Under [paradigm], the behavior of [object] should be X. The empirically observed behavior of [object] is instead Z. Note that the object’s behavior is not “anomalous” in itself any more than a puzzle piece can be mismatched on its own. If Bacon was gathering his list of data, it wouldn’t be bracketed off to the  side or underlined in red: “Exceptionally Important and Confusing.” The pre-paradigmatic scientist would treat it just like any other observation. How could they not? It’s not anomalous-in-itself. Only the broader paradigm/puzzle makes it so.

Similarly, assigning import to anomalies is basically post-hoc. Consider Mercury’s wobble. Newtonian physics predicted a particular orbit for Mercury – it came close but not quite, and no subsequent work could resolve the problem. It took the complete reevaluation of physics, i.e. Einstein, to provide any coherent explanation for what was going on. A) Newtonians needed relativity to resolve it, but Newtonian physics was equally necessary to register it as “a problem.” B) Kuhn points out that it didn’t really lead anyone to doubt Newtonian physics. Other issues came to the fore – only in light of the new paradigm did Mercury’s wobble become something very significant.

In other words, violated expectations are key, but that also tells you something about the necessity of normal scientific work. Articulating a paradigm sounds boring when compared to creating a new one, but it’s a critical stage for determining the failures of a given paradigm. If you already knew where a theory failed, you’d have moved on to a new theory. Anomalies are found organically and accidentally, normally by work-a-day observation rather than creative geniuses.


Kuhn is most famous for the anti-Baconian view of science, and paradigms often get conflated with something like “theory.” This is deeply unfortunate: the anti-Baconian model isn’t strictly Kuhnian, and “paradigms” are meant as a response to the list of rules.

The “list of rules” model  is easiest to understand as a reaction to the Baconian model. Science can’t only be unbiased observation, because [everything above]. It can’t just be empiricism, because everything above is empiricism + [many]. Still, something must separate scientific activity from non-scientific activity. There’s an assumption that “Science,” if properly understood, must be something defined by a narrow, carefully defined list of rules. More to the point, everyone more or less understand that there are big changes that require a reworking of everything before them. Perhaps because of that, it certainly feels like a set amount of rules should separate Newton from Einstein.

At first glance, this seems promising, and it’s extremely important to emphasize the following: Kuhn isn’t saying that there aren’t rules for science. It’s pretty clear that there are above, and the rules he discusses are basically what you’d expect: “explicit statements of scientific law and about scientific concepts and theories,” “a multitude of commitments to preferred types of instrumentation and to the ways in which accepted instruments may legitimately be employed,” “higher level, quasi-metaphysical commitments,” and at the very highest level “[the concern] to understand the world and to extend the precision and scope with which it has been ordered.” He’s simply saying that there’s no such thing as a “complete list” – you could subtract all of those from the paradigm and there’d still be a remainder, something else is going on underneath the explicit commitments.

More to the point: even those rationalizations, when attempted, may be extremely different. There are different fields, subfields, problems, etc., and most of the scientific work done there has trained the specialists to think a certain way:

An investigator who hoped to learn something about what scientists took the atomic theory to be asked a distinguished physicist and an eminent chemist whether a single atom of helium was or was not a molecule. Both answered without hesitation, but their answers were not the same. For the chemist the atom of helium was a molecule because it behaved like one with respect to the kinetic theory of gases. For the physicist, on the other hand, the helium atom was not a molecule because it displayed no molecular spectrum. Presumably both men were talking of the same particle, but they were viewing it through their own research training and practice. Their experience in problem-solving told them what a molecule must be. Undoubtedly their experiences had had much in common, but they did not, in this case, tell the two specialists the same thing. As we proceed we shall discover how consequential paradigm differences of this sort can occasionally be.


Kuhn likes to pull from Wittgenstein (Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein, not Tractatus Wittgenstein). How close the two are sounds like a monstrous tangent best avoided, but Kuhn clearly chose “rule” to play on Wittgenstein’s point about games: trying to define a game by its rules somehow fails to get at behavior within it, some other quality is needed – as in (from Wittgestein’s Philosophical Investigations):

For how is the concept of a game bounded? What still counts as a game, and what no longer does? Can you say where the boundaries are? No. You can draw some, for there aren’t any drawn yet. (But this never bothered you before when you used the
word “game”.)

“But then the use of the word is unregulated —– the ‘game’ we play with it is unregulated.” —– It is not everywhere bounded by rules; but no more are there any rules for how high one may throw the ball in tennis, or how hard, yet tennis is a game for all that, and has rules too.

And yet – we all recognize a game and not-a-game. Paradigms are much like that. One way to put it that telegraphs the twist ending: paradigms are illegible, and “lists-of-rules” are attempts to make them legible.

The Wittgenstein quote shows you one aspect – trying to define a single paradigm is impossible – but Kuhn is more focused on the abstract “Science” itself, arguing against the view that “science” is a concept that can be easily defined. After all, he’s debating a bunch of people who all though that they had defined it (their massively different definitions notwithstanding). You might wonder why this seems important, but note that we do this all the time. Debates over what is or is not science is pretty much a constant. Probably because of this, Kuhn is much more focused on behavior, and that behavior shows radical differences paradigm to paradigm.

It might be easier to think of paradigms as a way of centering “sciences” plural rather than “science” singular. These sciences don’t seem to concern themselves all that much with the abstract – they take rules as necessary from their paradigm, but the paradigm itself is mostly about legitimacy of problems for their field. If there a hard-and-fast rule for [scienceing], we should expect a practicing scientist to be able to provide it. Ask a Tyson: “What’s the Constitution of Science?” Not only do we not see this, we quite often see the opposite. Following Wittgenstein, Kuhn compares it to the difficulty of trying to carefully define what all games have in common.

This is more or less the first in a series of four points on why we should accept ambiguity (or paradigms) rather than rigid rules when trying to describe science. In order, the anti-list-of-rules argument is:

1) The hunt for explicit and articulable rules – that is, binding and explicit statements about what [field] is or what “Science” is – almost always fails. There’s no example of a perfect list of rules for any given paradigm – historical or present, compiled by scientist, historian, or philosopher of science.

2) Scientific education itself is almost never composed of “rules.” That is to say, it may employ various facts and many examples, but the “set of rules that makes this a science” is illusive. Indeed, the process of learning that Kuhn discusses spends much more time on concrete examples than it does the “grounding” of those:

Scientists, it should already be clear, never learn concepts, laws, and theories in the abstract and by themselves. Instead, these intellectual tools are from the start encountered in a historically and pedagogically prior unit that displays them with and through their applications. […]

That process of learning by finger exercise or by doing continues throughout the process of professional initiation. As the student proceeds from his freshman course to and through his doctoral dissertation, the problems assigned to him become more complex and less completely precedented. But they continue to be closely modeled on previous achievements as are the problems that normally occupy him during his subsequent independent scientific career. One is at liberty to suppose that somewhere along the way the scientist has intuitively abstracted rules of the game for himself, but there is little reason to believe it.

The “little reason to believe it” is clearly a reference to (1), i.e. if this were the case, we’d expect there to be at least one person capable of providing the rules of the game. Instead, the “copying a model” based learning looks a whole lot more like an apprentice to a craft. It also provides something to test against that isn’t just theory or a phenomenon.

3) If explicit rules are relatively unimportant for normal science, then most scientists should’t really concern themselves with the rules. Or, “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.” Indeed, this is mostly true, up until a crisis.

While paradigms remain secure, […] they can function without agreement over rationalization or without any attempted rationalization at all.

Of course, it’s obvious that scientists can work without an explicit sense of “rules” – one doesn’t need philosophers of science to tell them how to science. Then again, if we recognize that “science” takes place somewhere beyond rigid and meticulously observed rules, we should be wary of them as the full definition of science.

4) Changes in paradigms may be extremely localized, and rule changes even more so. That doesn’t seem compatible with a particularly rigid set of rules for the abstract Science. If that were the case, paradigm shifts should impact everything all the time, but they’re generally restricted to fields. Within a paradigm, if the rules were too rigid then it would constantly be in revolution – every rule change should change the paradigm. In practice, though, new rules are created (whether these are data points, methods, instruments, etc.) without much major revision of the field. You’ll say this is obvious – of course there aren’t scientific revolutions with each new discovery – but that’s kind of Kuhn’s point. There must be some “give” there, which makes hunting for the abstract list foolhardy. NB: he’s accusing most other philosophers of doing this.


If “paradigm” seems incredibly amorphous, that’s because it’s meant to be. Kuhn:

Scientists can agree that a Newton, Lavoisier, Maxwell, or Einstein has produced an apparently permanent solution to a group of outstanding problems and still disagree, sometimes without being aware of it, about the particular abstract characteristics that make those solutions permanent. They can, that is, agree in their identification of a paradigm without agreeing on, or even attempting to produce, a full interpretation or rationalization of it.

Since “rules” aren’t how science proceeds – at least not normally – you might wonder what, exactly, happens. That more or less comes from the name itself: Kuhn thinks that working-by-models is much closer to how science actually functions.

…the practice of astronomy, physics, chemistry, or biology normally fails to evoke the controversies over fundamentals that today often seem endemic among, say, psychologists or sociologists. Attempting to discover the source of that difference led me to recognize the role in scientific research of what I have since called “paradigms.” These I take to be universally recognized scientific achievements that for a time provide model problems and solutions to a community of practitioners.

Kuhn compares this to the common law system: one tests a case against certain over-arching principles, sure, but those aren’t the only thing of import. Previous rulings are equally important, even if their relationship to the Ideal Law is somewhat obscured. Accordingly,  whole lot of science is testing experiments against the paradigm, rather than nature itself. This is mostly obvious from the Bacon section, but should be stated again.

One result of this is that “science” is never a constant thing because its rules are never the same. Since scientists aren’t testing against The Form of Science, and they aren’t testing against straight-unbiased-phenomena, then the paradigm starts to become very central. Hence, science under Newtonian physics, or science as Lavoisier’s early chemistry is more accurate than just saying “Science.” There are family resemblances (Kuhn steals that from Wittgenstein, too) but no more. It’s almost closer to a “culture” than anything else, understood by its practitioners but not necessarily in a way that can be vocalized beyond the thing done:

Close historical investigation of a given specialty at a given time discloses a set
of recurrent and quasi-standard illustrations of various theories in their conceptual, observational, and instrumental applications. These are the community’s paradigms, revealed in its textbooks, lectures, and laboratory exercises.

In other words: concrete>abstract, specialist>scientist. And this, according to Kuhn, explains scientific progress.

Paradigms are adopted precisely because they’re loose – a stray fact may be helpful or interesting, but (by definition) there’s no more work to be done on it. A paradigm with holes, on the other hand, requires work. Its holes must be filled. Due to the nature of paradigms, though, filling these holes leads to revolutions. The puzzles that normal science enjoys are provided it by the paradigm itself, and most scientific work is just filling in the blanks – either theoretical, mechanical, or empirical. Kuhn:

Their achievement [paradigmatic works] was sufficiently unprecedented to attract an enduring group of adherents away from competing modes of scientific activity. Simultaneously, it was sufficiently open-ended to leave all sorts of problems for the redefined group of practitioners to resolve.

Achievements that share these two characteristics I shall henceforth refer to as ‘paradigms,’ a term that relates closely to ‘normal science.’ By choosing it, I mean to suggest that some accepted examples of actual scientific practice—examples which include law, theory, application, and instrumentation together— provide models from which spring particular coherent traditions of scientific research.

These same principles point out anomalies – something just doesn’t match when you try to compare it to the paradigm. They aren’t congruent or similar or [other geometry].


Not all anomalies lead to paradigm shifts, but all crisis periods are marked by this kind of frantic, rule-based theorizing. As a result,  It was always assumed that someone would come along and resolve the problem. He’s pretty vague on why exactly this happens, mostly because he thinks it looks different each time. Again, concrete> abstract. For some, it’s a function of time – long-standing problems have stood long enough that the specialists have exhausted all possible avenues. The Copernican revolution is one example of this. For others, instruments bring new data points (cathode rays), others are theory-induced (Leyden jars), etc. Some characteristics of crisis, however, are the same:

Those characteristics include: the previous awareness of anomaly, the gradual and simultaneous emergence of both observational and conceptual recognition, and the consequent change of paradigm categories and procedures often accompanied by resistance.

When a crisis happens, scientists work in a totally different way. They suddenly go back to careful and rigorous explication of their “rules”:

Normal science can proceed without rules only so long as the relevant scientific community accepts without question the particular problem-solutions already
achieved. Rules should therefore become important and the characteristic unconcern about them should vanish whenever paradigms or models are felt to be insecure. That is, moreover, exactly what does occur. The pre-paradigm period, in particular, is regularly marked by frequent and deep debates over legitimate methods, problems, and standards of solution, though these serve rather to define schools than to produce agreement.

It is as though something were compelling them to justify themselves. One tries to create rules when they did not exist before. Scientists suddenly go back to metaphysics, and a plethora of theories spring up, all possible but all disagreeing. Or, somewhat comically, practitioners resolve anomalies by changing certain small assumptions, in the process annihilating half of the most secure theories.

Furthermore, debates like these do not vanish once and for all with the appearance of a paradigm. Though almost non-existent during periods of normal science, they recur regularly just before and during scientific revolutions, the periods when paradigms are first under attack and then subject to change. The transition from Newtonian to quantum mechanics evoked many debates about both the nature and the standards of physics, some of which still continue.

There are people alive today who can remember the similar arguments engendered by Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory and by statistical mechanics. And earlier still, the assimilation of Galileo’s and Newton’s mechanics gave rise to a particularly famous series of debates with Aristotelians, Cartesians, and Leibnizians about the standards legitimate to science. When scientists disagree about whether the fundamental problems of their field have been solved, the search for rules gains a function that it does not ordinarily possess.

It’s telling that a perfect rule-system is never created. The theoretical commitments don’t persuade anyone. Before a paradigm is adopted, it has to demonstrate not a logical consistency, nor a compelling explanation of the phenomena, but a series of paradigmatic examples along with enough holes for other scientists to be productive. This makes perfect sense from a Kuhnian perspective: they need results and models to test against, not theory.

That does not mean that those theoretical commitments are unimportant. They perform a massive amount of work during the crisis period. They simply don’t determine the entire course of the argument. This also does not mean that crises are “bad.” They’re necessary and desirable. The only danger is if one gets caught in the crisis itself. Kuhn:

Though history is unlikely to record their names, some men have undoubtedly been driven to desert science because of their inability to tolerate crisis. Like artists, creative scientists must occasionally be able to live in a world out of joint—elsewhere I have described that necessity as “the essential tension” implicit in scientific research.


Consider everything below a hypothesis. Or, perhaps, better to say hypotheses, because some might be right and others wrong, and if they’re fully articulated parts might contradict.

“Paradigms,” ironically, seem ridiculously amorphous precisely because they’re so concrete. Rather than dealing with “science” as an abstract, Kuhn forces us to deal with something like this science or that science, and concrete actions are rarely easy to actually define. It’s much easier to apply an abstraction (“Games are rules”) than to really describe the behavior – “this is what it is to play [game].” Of course, those abstractions are only ever rough maps. Take them too literally, and you’ll run into issues. I have a strong suspicion that this is also the reason that Kuhn’s more nebulous view of paradigms has been replaced by the abstract “paradigm is theory,” despite that being the exact thing you’re not allowed to do. It is hard to discuss such things.

The characteristics of normal science are that it has relatively limited scope, a specific and technical vocabulary, is learned by modeling successful practices rather than really getting at the deeper “why” behind those, describes problems in its own language and finds solutions that aren’t really understood by outsiders, and is heavily focused on the concrete tasks before it. It’s very empirical, but in a particular way: it always makes sure to test itself against the tradition. The paradigm itself determines whether a question is legitimate, whether a method is, etc.

Outside the paradigm, scientists understand one another’s work less by hard-and-fast rules than by a kind of family resemblance between them. You can almost understand it as “farming” (abstract) vs. “farming in this particular region.” All of the behavior might be different, but a farmer still recognizes some kinship, while also recognizing concrete differences. Of course, that’s how I want you to understand is, because that’s how I understand, because Kuhn is describing metis.


Metis is best described here, you won’t understand the rest of this without that, a (really) rough description is that it’s “know how” over “know why.” It’s something between tradition and hyper-empiricism, learned and taught within small communities according to concrete objectives and specific environments, often shrouded in a kind of local language impenetrable to outsiders. Where “metis” relates to set communities, I think of it more broadly as a worldview from which know-how springs. To get it, you have to already be thinking in a certain way, and you take “rules” from that worldview and test against the worldview itself. This has results (i.e. you wanted to appease rain god, but doing so empirically makes the crops grow), but for all its empiricism there’s weird other step.

Kuhn is very set against the rigid list of rules, as the inherent looseness of a paradigm is what allows progress. I think this is analogous to why James Scott is incredibly hesitant to call metis tradition. Not only does that fail to capture it, “tradition” implies that metis is calcified, rigid, set-in-stone. In reality, the practices adapt, new ones are adopted, old ones dropped, when they no longer work – metis is dynamic. Yet there’s some kind of continuity – the “way we do things here” is always the same, even if specific practices change. There’s reason the introduction of a new crop doesn’t rupture the entire system.

If normal scientific work is analogous to metis, then that makes the “list of rules” model something closer to episteme. That makes a whole lot of sense, too. Episteme is scientific-ish, but it’s better understood as taxonomy, closer to rationalizing than rationalism, pattern-matching and abstracting instead of creative work. The analytic behavior associated with episteme makes a comparison to science inevitable, but Scott is very careful  to point out differences. Perhaps it’s better understood as a kind of science fan-fiction – has the same aesthetic and characters, but the heart just isn’t there. Pointing out where they differ has always been very hard, but Kuhn starts to help – one reason we associate “science” with episteme is precisely because we’re thinking of “science” as a rigid list of rules.

Similar to the metic villager, if one were to ask a given scientist why they’re doing [thing], they’d almost certainly be able to tell you why they were doing that particular action.  “[Experiment] should yield [result],” etc. Still, it’s not like the idea of metis precludes explanations – in basically every case, the villager could pretty easily tell you what the result of a thing was, “We’re setting these crops on fire because that makes food grow more readily.” The issue always comes from the deep-deep justification. It’s “because of the gods” is meaningless unless you’re part of the community that cares for those gods. And that seems much closer to what Kuhn is trying to get at, where the philosophical justifications are either absent or… well, useless, unknown, not understood by the practitioners, unnecessary. As much as I’ve always hated the “useful to birds” Feynmann quote, he’s right (if Kuhn is right – dead wrong if Popper is right). It would be like teaching a farmer molecular biology so that they can plant their orchard. The list of rules could easily stall out scientific progress in a whole lot of fields. It looks a lot like applying abstract, alien techniques to local regions. Doing “Science” rather than doing “biology.”

In a broader sense, the paradigm looks a whole lot like the worldview component of metis, especially where it blurs the line between end-goals and means of achieving those end-goals. Just like Scott, Kuhn tends to refer to issues between paradigms as “translation problems,” which makes perfect sense. The data points aren’t intelligible one to the other, the questions aren’t the same, their justifications are incompatible. Trying to move from one to the other is much closer to moving from one language to another than a minor dialectical difference in the Language of Science.

Because it’s formulated as a kind of communal structure, norms and values take the forefront, and these aren’t easily codified.  Kuhn goes into a bunch of historical cases where theories or experiments were proposed or accepted despite a certain “unsicentificness” (in our sense) to them. They couldn’t be easily falsified, or the measurements were off, or… If called to justify them, the community might have serious difficulties – rules were broken – but everyone kind of understood what the person was going for, and it looked just right enough to be ok. Spirit of the law, not letter of the law. That looks like the analogue to local knowledge, particularly when it comes into conflict with state forms of justice.


This is cool and whatever, but lots of things are cool and whatever. The real interest here is the following: I think Kuhn’s model begins to explain what exactly happened with High Modernism. Of course, no small part is power differentials. I’ve talked about that, it’s more important, moving on. Also: plenty of the issues with episteme had nothing to do with science, so this only applies to the ones that do. There’s still a lingering question about the scientists themselves. Didn’t they recognize that whatever they were doing was actually terrible science? Otherwise careful scientists seemingly brushed aside all forms of empiricism, which probably requires some explanation.

I think there are three things going on here, they kind of conflict, I’m unsure which claim goes where:

First, and most obvious: the pre-paradigmatic period is the one that Kuhn claims involves the heaviest debate over the rules of the field. Under the current theory, that would make it the most epistemic period – unsure of itself, unaccustomed to the metic behavior of normal science, much more prone to making harsh distinctions between “science” and “not science” through abstract categories. It would look less for behavior that approximated the paradigm, and more for rules followed.

A whole lot of the fields employed by High Modernism were incredibly young. Scott famously defines the problem of legibility by analyzing scientific forestry, but “scientific forestry” was like a decade old. A host of other problems related to High Modernism came from primitive social sciences, and most of those were also in their infancy. In a weird way, Scott might be narrating the birth of some of those paradigms: modern urban planning, say, definitely comes after Jane Jacobs in anything but the loosest sense. Related, and for another time: “social sciences” aren’t necessarily mature sciences (Kuhn himself is very on the fence), meaning they might remain in the epistemic, pre-paradigmatic stage today. Cf. all the issues of [everything].

If that’s the most epistemic period for [all these fields], that resolves a whole lot of questions.

Second, related: Paradigm-to-paradigm translation problems also crash into episteme. Discussing historical work in science, Kuhn says this:

When undertaking it, the historian must compare the community’s paradigms with each other and with its current research reports. In doing so, his object is to discover what isolable elements, explicit or implicit, the members of that community may have abstracted from their more global paradigms and deployed as rules in their research.

As anyone who’s learned a second language as an adult can attest, translation problems means you start zeroing in on abstract rules of the foreign language as well as your own. Since a lot of those rules are theoretical commitments, it makes some sense that [High Modern Scientist] would focus on those, find mythology, and discount the entire thing.

This seems particularly true given the fact that even if metis looked sciencey (i.e. fewer gods, more electrons), paradigms don’t justify themselves that way. They focus on puzzle-solving and empirical results, the questions of which and resolutions to which may not be coherent to an outsider. In this metaphor, a whole lot of those are social – maintaining tribal harmony and commitment, etc., but even the common ones (“grow a crop”) require some temporal commitment by the scientist. She’d have to know that these bizarre theoretical commitments actually succeed at that, which means hanging out for a while.

Third, which will undoubtedly insult someone: Episteme has more of a “sciencey aesthetic” than anything scientific. Scott brings this up a lot, I’ve talked about it, whatever. One of the issues that Kuhn brings up is that a certain mere sciencey aesthetic might be necessary for normal science. If it’s to admit of  “not-perfectly-Popperian-results,” then the community has to default to other forms of judgment. Some of those are interpersonal (“Science-Guy Todd has always done good work, so…”) but some are just appearance (“sure, it’s not experimental, but look at all those numbers and Greek letters!”). See: physics envy in economics (pdf).

More to the point, the scientist is testing against the paradigm, which means that incredibly divergent practices will be fitted to that. It’s not abstract science, but it’s certainly a kind of aesthetic that metic practices will not have. Note that, unlike the first two, this would not be episteme. It may look like it, but it would properly be the metis of a mature science trampling the metis of a different community.


Episteme isn’t bad, any more than the theoretical work done under crisis periods is bad. It’s a necessary reevaluation of an alien situation. I have a strong suspicion it may be more common now due to [many essays later], but losing it would lose many, many goods. Where it goes awry is when it begins to attack organic traditions, trying to make legible what is not legible.

One of the weirder results of Kuhn’s philosophy was an emphasis scientific relativism. A whole generation of philosophers brandished his book as a way to point out a certain groundlessness to the sciences, mistaking “paradigm” for something totally arbitrary, mistakenly demanding a kind of truth that comes from a different language. At the extremes, this tends to mean a total rejection of scientific fact as being “merely contextual fact.” Which is, you know, true, but equally true of everything else. This is particularly jarring because Kuhn provides something that should give you the opposite conclusion.

More than a few times, I’ve associated this a certain ideology around modern science. I still think that’s true (definitely of the ideology), but it’s worth taking the time to make a careful distinction between science, the ideology, and… whatever is under discussion here.

That particular view of science – arbitrary because paradigms – is, somewhat hilariously, the exact thing that High Modernism demands of metis: “Since you can’t reproduce first principles, it must be meaningless.” cf. “Since you think [practice] came from the gods, let’s replace it with pseudoscience.” Whatever role you think the physical sciences have in the modern world, this is not the way to go about that. After all, it isn’t even a description of science. Note the form of the argument: Science fails to reproduce theoretical commitments at all levels, and in doing so, it reveals that it is not Science, but merely an ideology. “Where’s your list of rules? Don’t have them? Must be meaningless.”

If Kuhn is right, we should assume the opposite: it’s precisely the ideology that assumes  the rules it wants to enforce.

top from Star Trek


Author: Lou Keep

20 thoughts on “Science Under High Modernism”

  1. See ontological commitments.

    Rules generally introduce more degrees of freedom than they restrict, thus the genie can’t be chained.

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  2. The game is: predict the future from the past. There are no goddamn rules, only guidelines, science is an intellectual pirate’s cove.

    Science–general ties observations to mathematical models—note this does not preclude taxonomic approaches because set (or category) theories are fundamental mathematical tools. If you (correctly) expand your understanding of “mathematical models” to include intuitive understandings of things, then you get a terrifying flash of epiphany that “the sweet science” is not a misnomer for boxing. “Fuck this guy, we’re back to square one,” you’re possibly musing; but that’s not quite true.

    Science–modern relies upon a reasonably unified mathematical language to break down barriers of communication. Not only does this precipitate the most critical aspect of sciencereplication—but it has the additional benefit of ascribing an unambiguous structure to the aforementioned mathematical model. This mathematical structure may be extended in (potentially infinitely) many ways, which amounts to embedding the model describing your empirical observations into a larger framework. In a sense, we create stories around the results, manufacturing a greater context. When we find a superstructure (story) of sufficient size that not only adequately hosts our substructure, but effectively predicts the results of experiments beyond the original scope, we get what I believe you’re calling a paradigm. Most of the time the paradigm itself can be extended yet again, but at some point in the process the potential for empirical confirmation may be limited (or even impossible).

    On the high seas of science, the scurvy dogs armed with the industrial powered mathematical models have blown away the competition from intuitionists and traditionalists, but more has been lost more than most realize. This science has a thick streak of universalism in its genes, which inevitably leads to purges of heretic sub-fields from the greater body. These purges are necessary, and can be healthy, but the process isn’t fool-proof: sometimes mistranslations and other misunderstandings get the natives slaughtered and their legitimate knowledge shunned.

    I would posit most working research scientists operate within a paradigm as you put it, and are philosophically little different from Bujumbo the witch-doctor monkeying around with the recipe for his grandpa’s see-shit sauce. This isn’t meant to denigrate these scientists (or Bujumbo for that matter: the stuff he cooks up will teach you truths you didn’t want to know). Even though these researchers are effectively contributing to the greater store of human scientific knowledge, they’re (very often) not necessarily competent (or even capable!) in general scientific philosophy. This isn’t the problem. The problem is they don’t know that.

    So you get this situation where Bujumbo has over 100 papers to his name, a floor of labs, and grad students ready and willing to fluff him for a piece of his grant action, but cannot provide an epistemic justification for his research methods. In fact, if you press him for one, you’re liable to get Bujumbo riled up and excitedly citing irrelevant ancestral wisdom because he’s always worked on a bedrock of human authority, but we’ve allowed him to believe it was a higher (physical or mathematical) authority. This isn’t as bad as it seems. The reverence of the “scientist” in our culture gives him a strong motivation to keep tweaking grandpa’s voodoo juice, and the deeper epistemological issues are largely irrelevant even if he were capable of understanding them (let alone leveraging them to expand the paradigm).

    The shit goes south real fast, however, when Bujumbo’s cited as an authority upon which to base institutional policy, since convincing Bujumbo he’s one plane shy of cargo cultism is very likely impossible. To repel Bujumbo’s zealotry, an authority higher either in the institutional hierarchy or Bujumbo’s scientific subfield must trump his misguided antics, which can get pretty hairy as the discussion may be niche beyond even the most competent managerial figure or committee. In a democratic environment this is not a problem, since the time has shown the wisdom of the crowd is most keenly suited to resolving abstract philosophical problems—especially given the towering intellects endemic to pop-sci journalism.

    Remember that universalism, and the purging phenomenon it necessitates? It’s bad enough when a cadre of Bujumbos pool together an armada and go on an intra-field pillaging expedition. In our science-obsessed yet scientifically incompetent contemporary culture, these wars can get downright nasty: planks get walked, and in the context of “high modernism” this metaphor can get more literal than anyone should be comfortable with. Especially when you get fleets of Bujumbos hailing from the newly “civilized” seas of the baby-shit soft social sciences.

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  3. One of the weirder results of Kuhn’s philosophy was an emphasis scientific relativism. A whole generation of philosophers brandished his book as a way to point out a certain groundlessness to the sciences, mistaking “paradigm” for something totally arbitrary, mistakenly demanding a kind of truth that comes from a different language.

    Are you saying this is a misreading of Kuhn? Although I haven’t read him, my understanding is that he emphasizes the notion of the “incommensurability” of different paradigms, suggesting that there can no basis for a progressive view in which a new paradigm like general relativity can be said to be a clear “improvement” on an older one like Newtonian gravity (which seems wrong to me, given that general relativity can replicate all the successful predictions about measurement results that Newtonian gravity makes, and add new successful predictions in areas where Newtonian gravity predicts incorrectly, as with Mercury’s orbit). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on incommensurability at says that “Kuhn initially used incommensurability predominately to challenge cumulative characterizations of scientific advance, according to which scientific progress is an improving approximation to the truth, and to challenge the idea that there are unchanging, neutral methodological standards for comparing theories throughout the development of the natural sciences. Like in evolution, the process does not change toward some fixed goal according to some fixed rules, methods or standards, but rather it changes away from the pressures exerted by anomalies on the reigning theory (Kuhn 1962, 170–173).”

    And although the article talks about how his notion of incommensurability was refined over the years, the summary in the last paragraph says “Finally, there is one central, substantive point of agreement between Kuhn and Feyerabend. Both see incommensurability as precluding the possibility of interpreting scientific development as an approximation to truth (or as an “increase of verisimilitude”) (Feyerabend, 1965c, 107; 1970, 220, 222, 227–228; 1975, 30, 284; 1978, 68; Kuhn 1970, 206; 2000 [1991], 95; 2000 [1993], 243ff.; cf. Oberheim 2006, 180ff.; Hoyningen-Huene 1993, 262-264). They reject such characterizations of scientific progress because they recognize and emphasize that scientific revolutions result in changes in ontology. Such changes are not just refinements of, or additions to, the older ontology, such that these developments could be seen as cumulative additions to already established theoretical views. Rather, the new ontology replaces its predecessor. Consequently, neither Kuhn nor Feyerabend can correctly be characterized as scientific realists who believe that science makes progress toward the truth.”


    1. I think there are two ways of understanding relativism here:

      1) Since science is determined by paradigm shifts and epistemic limitations, we have no reason to expect (and many reasons not to expect) that it converges on Absolute Truth.

      2) Since science is determined by paradigm shifts, and these are incommensurable, Paradigm A and Paradigm B are equally true and therefore equivalent. It’s an arbitrary distinction, there is no progress, pick and choose your favorite.

      (1) is accurate, but it does not imply (2), which Kuhn calls “mere” relativism. (1) isn’t even controversial – plenty of philosophers and scientists will admit that “science” provides predictive accuracy alone, say, or greater statistical plausibility. Not believing that science converges on the truth doesn’t make you a relativist.

      For Kuhn specifically: The evolution metaphor (which he shares with Popper, though for very different reasons) is pretty helpful: evolution doesn’t have a goal (at least, it doesn’t metaphysically need one), but that doesn’t make any given adaptation equal to another. Something selects for it. Similarly, science doesn’t have a Platonic-truth-goal, but paradigms aren’t equal – they’re selected for something else. He thinks they selection is (roughly) “puzzles that may be solved.”

      Earlier Kuhn says the following:

      Does it really help to imagine that there is some one full, objective, true account of nature and that the proper measure of scientific achievement is the extent to which it brings us closer to that ultimate goal? If we can learn to substitute evolution-from-what-we-do-know for evolution-toward-what-we-wish-to-know, a number of vexing problems may vanish in the process. Somewhere in this maze, for example, must lie the problem of induction.

      So, there are different axes of judgment (better/worse), and “truth” is not the absolute arbiter. Kuhn elaborates (in the Postscript to Structure, about 7 years later):

      My remarks about translation highlight the reasons for the charge [of relativism]… Applied to culture and its development that position is relativistic. But applied to science it may not be, and it is in any case far from mere relativism in a respect that its critics have failed to see. Taken as a group or in groups, practitioners of the developed sciences are, I have argued, fundamentally puzzle-solvers. […]
      Later scientific theories are better than earlier ones for solving puzzles in the often quite different environments to which they are applied. That is not a relativist’s position, and it displays the sense in which I am a convinced believer in scientific progress.

      I think it’s easiest to understand this way: the ontologies of those theories (e.g. “the world/reality is truly corpuscular particles” a la Newton vs. Aristotle’s “the world/reality is trulycontinuous substance predicated by formal cause meeting material and efficient ones for some final one”) aren’t puzzles to be solved or solutions to puzzles in a paradigm. They’re prior commitments that allow for the puzzle. Accordingly, it’s hard to say whether they themselves “improve” or “progress” towards anything – “puzzle-solving” improves because we can solve more puzzles now, but the paradigm’s metaphysical backing is radically different. We just can’t say either way, which itself implies that science is not converging on truth – “getting to truth” surely includes knowing when you’ve arrived (and probably that you know when you’re nearing).

      This is an imperfect analogy, but it’s somewhat like axioms and postulates. They allow for the propositions, and you certainly verify the truth of a proposition against them, but the axioms themselves… well, that’s a very old and difficult question.

      I’m writing more on Kuhn, so I’ll address this more fully there. Please ask follow-up questions if this is a little rushed and confused – the “truth” discussion probably needs more space than a comment section allows. I’ll try to incorporate them to the best of my ability.


      1. plenty of philosophers and scientists will admit that “science” provides predictive accuracy alone, say, or greater statistical plausibility. Not believing that science converges on the truth doesn’t make you a relativist.

        Are you treating the claim that successive paradigms provide increasing predictive accuracy (which would seem to be a view that allows for ‘scientific progress’, which the Stanford article says Kuhn denies) as entirely distinct from the notion that they “converge on truth”? If so, since you mention ontology, are you (or Kuhn) defining “truth” purely in ontological terms, as beliefs about what really “exists” and what is just a human model? I don’t think that would correspond to how most scientists would think about scientific truth. As an analogy, if you are an intelligent inhabitant of a cellular automaton like the Game of Life (described at ), then discovering the the fundamental rules for how the cells update their state with each time-increment would be the ultimate “truth” of the laws of nature in that universe, even though it is “merely” a predictive model and doesn’t give any ontological insight into what the cells “really are” (or whether individual cells are ‘more real’ than complex configurations of cells like the ‘gliders’ seen in the Game of Life).

        This is not to say one cannot believe there are right and wrong answers to such ontological questions (I personally lean towards an ontology consisting of mathematical relationships and nothing else, so that describing the mathematical relationships between physical events is describing the ontology of the physical world, a view once advocated by Quine, who as I’m sure you know was one of the most influential 20th century analytic philosophers in the field of ontology). But I think most scientists–and in particular most physicists–would see such questions as being outside the domain of science, so that even though their models may include particular basic elements like “curved spacetime manifolds”, treating this as an ontological claim about what “exists” is a misunderstanding of how they themselves conceive of the models (for example, in the book Black Holes and Time Warps, physicist Kip Thorne makes the point that there are equivalent ways of describing general relativity that just involve fields in flat spacetime that distort clocks and rulers, and that this model is understood as exactly the same theory of physics as the curved spacetime description).


        1. We’re in agreement on this, I think, and the Game of Life analogy is a good one. Kuhn is arguing that “better puzzle-solving” is a real kind of progress, and analogous to the automaton’s increasing discovery of cell updates. He’s denying that science converges on ontological (Platonic?) truth – the automaton discovering that it’s in a computer program (cave) written by Conway (the Form of the Good) and that [so on and so on].

          I used ontology because it was in the Stanford entry you cited above, and it is a helpful distinction. He certainly denies that kind of progress, but that’s not very controversial – as you point out, many scientists would argue that to assume otherwise is to misunderstand scientific truth.

          I’ve only spent substantial time with the Structure of Scientific Revolutions and one or two other essays, so I suppose it’s possible that he departed from the earlier work. With that caveat in mind, these are what I think Kuhn endorses:

          a) Science certainly advances, but it does so only in terms of something like “quantity of solvable puzzles,” which is categorically different from ontological truth. Accordingly, talking about science “converging on the truth” as in “converging on an object, full account of reality,” is not possible. He also denies that there’s anything smooth about scientific transitions – instead, there are something like “steps” from which puzzle-solving may be done better.

          b) Because there’s a break between “puzzles solved” and “truth,” he denies that increasing puzzle-solving should lend credence to the ontological commitments of the science. That is to say, if a paradigm makes claims about ontology (as Newton did about corpuscular matter, or the like), these can’t be determined one way or the other by its successes in scientific truth.

          c) Since progress advances in “steps” and the ontological commitments (where applicable) of a paradigm are qualitatively different from one another (rather than just modifications or clarifications), it’s nigh-impossible to say that there’s any “advancement” towards Truth. Moreover, multiple ontological commitments can exist within a paradigm. The Kip Thorne example is a good one. One might also note that it’s fine for a physicist to be either Platonist or Kantian re: mathematical objects – their minimum paradigmatical commitment it to mathematics as a tool, not anything deeper. (Of course, one should note that math as a tool for physical prediction certainly is a philosophical commitment, and one that Enlightenment thinkers had to defend).

          Whether that’s relativistic or not depends on your own definition of truth, I suppose. I don’t think it is, nor did Kuhn, but he was arguing against people who genuinely thought that scientific progress implied a motion towards Ontological Truth. Or, well, that it adumbrated it better and better. That’s certainly not the only form of scientific realism but it is a form (honestly, I see so many things called scientific realism that I hesitate to say exactly what it is. I’m unsure how common it is – I suppose we call that “naive scientism” or the like now – but it’s certainly popular in pop-sci circles. You might say that Kuhn is (a) retaining ontological truth as a real question while (b) removing it from the realm of scientific progress. I do not think he denies scientific progress – he himself defines what he means by it – but merely one view of progress.


        2. Responding to Lou,

          One might also note that it’s fine for a physicist to be either Platonist or Kantian re: mathematical objects – their minimum paradigmatical commitment it to mathematics as a tool, not anything deeper. (Of course, one should note that math as a tool for physical prediction certainly is a philosophical commitment, and one that Enlightenment thinkers had to defend).

          I assert mathematical reasoning is a minimal paradigmatical commitment required to practice philosophy. Acceptance of the existence of false statements and the (implicitly presumed) value of exposing these statements as such induces a boolean structure to your linguistic communication. The question, therefore, isn’t whether mathematics underpins philosophy, the question of philosophy is how to map mathematical structures to the phenomenological structures that constitute existence.

          Much as a baseball player’s brain will model differential equations to conquer a pop fly without he ever learning any formulas, a philosophizer will work along mathematical structures without being aware of the guard rails they instinctively grasp. In fact, statements must adhere to fundamental structural rules or they start swerving into ambiguity and thus meaninglessness.

          Furthermore, with regards to scientific investigations, any consistency in description confirmed by consistency in empirical observation indicates some degree of congruence between the underlying mathematical structure of the description (model) and the structure of the natural phenomena investigated. This is never exact, i.e. there is always empirical ambiguity, which is why your primary school science teachers gave you lessons on accuracy vs. precision, significant digits, and all that other fundamental stuff you forgot as soon as possible. This is where statistics rears its ugly head, offering structures under which one may compare and contrast other structures, i.e. a consistent approach to analyzing the aforementioned congruence or (dually) the lack thereof.

          I hope I’m not laboriously describing the obvious, if so I apologize.

          Liked by 1 person

        3. @El Funkarino

          Agreed. I have no strong sense for whether or not that’s controversial – I get the sense that it’s pretty banal in theory (historically, phil and math have been extremely close), but in practice there are huge splits among the students and profs I’ve known. Pretty limited experience, though. I know there are commentors in phil depts (you? for some reason I got that impression), so perhaps they can chime in.

          Where there is a break seems to roughly map to continental/analytic – not perfectly by any means, but enough to speak in broad strokes, breaking in the directions you’d expect. This annoys me way more as someone with sympathies for parts of Continental thought. I don’t think you can understand earlier continental work without understanding the Critique of Pure Reason, and I don’t know how you get a working sense of Kant’s import without a decent mathematical background. Agree or disagree with Kant, of course, it’s still a necessity for anything that comes later – phenomenology without serious concern for mathematics is no phenomenology at all.

          As a side note, am I right to sense some Kantian sympathies from your baseball and boxing examples? I might be reading too much into it and/or biased.


        4. Thanks Lou, that’s very helpful. Inspired by this discussion I did some googling on Kuhn and ontology vs. prediction and found a nice post by philosopher Massimo Pigliucci at that discusses this as well, and gives a very relevant quote from Kuhn (in the postscript he added to the 50th anniversary edition of Structure of Scientific Revolutions) where he talks about this distinction, and incidentally mentions that the notion of science progressing towards greater understanding of ontological truth is the concept “most prevalent among both philosophers of science and laymen”, so he isn’t necessarily saying that many scientists actually think about scientific progress in such ontological terms:

          “Imagine an evolutionary tree representing the development of the modern scientific specialties from their common origins in, say, primitive natural philosophy and the crafts. A line drawn up that tree, never doubling back, from the trunk to the tip of some branch would trace a succession of theories related by descent. Considering any two such theories, chosen from points not too near their origin, it should be easy to design a list of criteria that would enable an uncommitted observer to distinguish the earlier from the more recent theory time after time. Among the most useful would be: accuracy of prediction, particularly of quantitative prediction; the balance between esoteric and everyday subject matter; and the number of different problems solved. Less useful for this purpose, though also important determinants of scientific life, would be such values as simplicity, scope, and compatibility with other specialties. Those lists are not yet the ones required, but I have no doubt that they can be completed. If they can, then scientific development is, like biological, a unidirectional and irreversible process. Later scientific theories are better than earlier ones for solving puzzles in the often quite different environments to which they are applied. That is not a relativist’s position, and it displays the sense in which I am a convinced believer in scientific progress.”

          “Compared with the notion of progress most prevalent among both philosophers of science and laymen, however, this position lacks an essential element. A scientific theory is usually felt to be better than its predecessors not only in the sense that it is a better instrument for discovering and solving puzzles but also because it is somehow a better representation of what nature is really like. One often hears that successive theories grow ever closer to, or approximate more and more closely to, the truth. Apparently generalisations like that refer not to the puzzle-solutions and the concrete predictions derived from a theory but rather to its ontology, to the match, that is, between the entities with which the theory populates nature and what is ‘really there.’”

          “Perhaps there is some other way of salvaging the notion of ‘truth’ for application to whole theories, but this one will not do. There is, I think, no theory-independent way to reconstruct phrases like ‘really there’; the notion of a match between the ontology of a theory and its ‘real’ counterpart in nature now seems to me illusive in principle. Besides, as a historian, I am impressed with the implausibility of the view. I do not doubt, for example, that Newton’s mechanics improves on Aristotle’s and that Einstein’s improves on Newton’s as instruments for puzzle-solving. But I can see in their succession no coherent direction of ontological development. On the contrary, in some important respects, though by no means in all, Einstein’s general theory of relativity is closer to Aristotle’s than either of them is to Newton’s. Though the temptation to describe that position as relativistic is understandable, the description seems to me wrong. Conversely, if the position be relativism, I cannot see that the relativist loses anything needed to account for the nature and development of the sciences.”

          Liked by 1 person

        5. @ Jesse M.

          Thanks, that article was interesting, and the quote is definitely relevant (a small part was in my second comment, but I likely should have quoted more).

          I still am quite curious how common the movement-towards-ontology view is. In my experience, there’s a very weird flip when it gets pointed out. That is to say, many people will agree that, of course, scientific truth isn’t the same as ontological truth and [etc. etc.]. But then if you point out some of the implications of that, the very same people will occasionally completely flip to the ontological-truth camp: “It’s postmodern relativism to say that science isn’t getting more and more (ontologically) true.” Alternately: completely deny that truth has ever meant anything else and therefore its (scientific) absence should have no repercussions: “Augustine was really a proto-physicist who only cared about verisimilitude.” It’s… incredibly frustrating.

          More soon. I may steal your Game of Life example (with credit) if that’s ok – not sure, and these things always get rearranged and chopped up, but it’s definitely helpful for the next article I’m working on.


        6. Sure, feel free to use that Game of Life analogy. Looking forward to reading the continuation of this series.

          As to the question of how widespread the ontological view of scientific progress is, I think it would be most interesting to look at specific groups who are likely to be somewhat informed about philosophical debates surrounding ontology like the ideas discussed at –hopefully most philosophers of science would fall into this category. When it comes to people who haven’t done much reading on philosophy, notions about what it means to say something is or isn’t “real” are often rather fuzzy and intuitive, so without a lot of explanation they may not clearly distinguish predictive truth from ontological truth, and if they’re asked if they affirm statements about ontological truth it might just be that they don’t sufficiently understand the question.

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        7. @Lou

          I know there are commentors in phil depts (you? for some reason I got that impression)

          Nope. Not sure any philosophy department would accept a skip skap scallywag such as myself anyway.

          As a side note, am I right to sense some Kantian sympathies from your baseball and boxing examples?

          Maybe? The similarity may be coincidental.

          Our experiences are not uniform over time. Hence, phenomena can be readily differentiated. However, phenomena also present a significant quantity of significant relationships. Unfortunately, it is possible (and often empirically suggested) our understandings of these relationships between phenomena can be misleading, so we’re stuck in a soup of unreality. “I was saying boo-urns.”

          We are empirically demonstrated to by some means bootstrap ourselves with a partially structured conceptual layer constituting our understanding of reality. A partial structure is a very minimal thing: a pile of things undifferentiated is a trivial extreme, from which we may (through choice) inductively generate more complicated examples of partial orders by choosing labels. A partial order of finite (countable, actually) cardinality embeds naturally into the natural numbers under, well, the ordering property, i.e. the natural (or counting) numbers pop out immediately from even the simplest attempt to organize phenomenon whether that organization be explicitly described in language or embedded in some impenetrable black box. La preuve réside dans ta l’estomac de ta mère.

          Counting numbers thus serve as a representation for a fundamental, inescapable principle of a nonuniform phenomenological experience. This extends to other, more complicated structures, e.g. dynamics to estimate a baseball’s flight. The greater structure surrounding the baseball arranged its flight in a way approximated by differential equations (especially adaptively corrective representations thereof). It is entirely possible the complete version of the structures governing the baseball player’s and the ball’s behaviors bear only the superficial resemblance required to get the out—but that’s still a material resemblance in structures which may be described unambiguously incorrectly and dually ambiguously correctly. No matter how you reason about things there’s a mathematical structure (at bare minimum coincidentally) applicable to your reasoning.

          Does that square with your notion of “Kantian sympathies”? Am I just missing a whole boatload of context and loaded notions encapsulated in typical academic philosophic jargon? Am I missing some enormous flaw in my reasoning?

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        8. I apologize for the late response – wanted to take my time, got slammed with [whatever], you know the drill.

          I think “Kantian sympathies” is probably a good characterization, though unsure how far that goes. For Kant, numbers (really, mathematics in general) are a natural property of the human mind. Without going into too much detail, Kant thinks that space, time, causality, and [other properties] are the kind of filter through which we interact with reality – these are the “phenomena.” Whatever reality actually is (he calls this the “noumenon” or “noumena”) cannot be accessed, it’s already been translated into the human “grammar” of space/time/math/cause/other. Theoretically, we don’t even know if it’s there (no small controversy among post-Kantians).

          The upside is that it neatly resolves a few longstanding philosophical problems. For instance: “why math works in physics” was a serious issue in phil and still is. Before Kant, the major schools (empiricism, scholasticism, and Platonism) either rejected that math and physics could go together, couldn’t resolve the problem, or affirmed physics in such a way as to deny any validity to mathematics in itself (an unexpected result of empiricism, which was the strongest argument for the natural sciences until Kant). Kant provides a pretty satisfying (if very technical) proof. In essence, it works not because nature is mathematical, but because we apply a mathematical filter to reality. Kind of. Technically, you derive mathematics from other things, but you get the point – those other things are predetermined. Again, this isn’t a very technical version of it, and it’s somewhat hard to get into Kant’s real epistemology without a bit more groundwork. The downside is that certain issues go completely crazy if you accept almost any of Kant’s system, and most of the phenomenological tradition is trying to deal with the problems that result.

          All of that is to say: in Kant’s system, saying “a baseball pitcher is actually using differential equations,” or “a boxer is thinking and moving mathematically,” etc. isn’t a metaphor. It’s just how we see. Not because we “found” math, but because we put it there, if that makes sense. The pitcher’s “feel” for how to throw the ball is the same insight as a carefully crafted equation. Although a more careful Kant would probably be something like “we phenomenologically made the greater structure surrounding the baseball arrange its flight in this way,” returning the agency to human cognition rather than nature.

          So, yeah, I’ll stick with sympathies if you see some sense to the Kantian description. I have them, too. I’ll be doing a more rigorous description of Kant some time soon.

          I’m pretty careless with academic jargon myself. I don’t think there’s much sense to being extremely academic here. If anything, linguistic rigor would confuse issues, inasmuch as I doubt many readers would actually understand it better if I used the more precise “non-ontological ontic worlding” instead of “physical reality.” So, like, whatever.


        9. I apologize for the late response – wanted to take my time, got slammed with [whatever], you know the drill.

          It’s your blog, you’re under no obligation to respond in a timely fashion (or at all) in all but the most bizarre philosophies of conduct. Wait—are you sweet on me? Aw.

          For Kant, numbers (really, mathematics in general) are a natural property of the human mind. Without going into too much detail, Kant thinks that space, time, causality, and [other properties] are the kind of filter through which we interact with reality – these are the “phenomena.” Whatever reality actually is (he calls this the “noumenon” or “noumena”) cannot be accessed, it’s already been translated into the human “grammar” of space/time/math/cause/other. Theoretically, we don’t even know if it’s there (no small controversy among post-Kantians).

          Your characterization of Kant (necessarily and admittedly) lacks nuance, so my objection may be a response to communication failure. I assert that should an observation exist—whether it be space, time, causality, or the sensation of a brick to the gulliver—it inherently must exhibit some manner of structure, or the observer cannot make the observation and thus tautologically the observation does not exist. Note: just because this structure exists, doesn’t make it an accurate assessment of the noumenon (but that doesn’t mean it’s inaccurate either). Thus, no matter what the nature of “phenomena” (as the Kant flies), the study of such—whether casual, rigorous, conscious, unconscious—must have some manner of structured, i.e. mathematical, basis (even if the observer is unaware of the mathematical underpinnings of their musings).

          One must—unfortunately—pre-emptively address the misconception this constraint of observation asserts the existence of a mathematical formula describing all (Kantian) phenomena and/or noumena: Gödel jammed this notion right up Hilbert’s venerable, unexpecting ass without any way to prove his culpability. My understanding of incompleteness is very pedestrian, but by my reckoning even the most elementary mathematical system induces “behaviors” (or whatever) of the relevant objects that are absolutely consistent but unprovably so.

          For instance: “why math works in physics” was a serious issue in phil and still is.

          I can’t see why. With an accurately general definition of mathematics, physics without math is reduced to lore. And, hell, I like lore. Incompleteness provocatively suggests a continued utility for lore when navigating the rules of any system. Now why a specific subset of mathematics is effective in physics can be a mind-twister, but a great deal of fundamental mathematical principles prove inescapable in even the most utterly simplistic or Byzantine maths.

          Technically, you derive mathematics from other things, but you get the point – those other things are predetermined.

          I assert observation is required to “bootstrap” an expression of mathematics, but the underlying principles remain valid independent of this or any physical reality. “Predetermined” is a non-sequitur: mathematical principles are agnostic of time.

          The downside is that certain issues go completely crazy if you accept almost any of Kant’s system, and most of the phenomenological tradition is trying to deal with the problems that result.

          I’m going to take a stab in the dark here, and suggest “completely crazy” is essentially the inescapable “soup of unreality” conclusion I mentioned previously. Yea, it’s a huge shit sandwich and everyone gets to take a bite.

          The pitcher’s “feel” for how to throw the ball is the same insight as a carefully crafted equation.

          Oh, I disagree with this whole-heartedly. Nature is messy as all fuck, and there exists infinite extensions of any closed-form expression leaving the door open to uncountable effectively “correct” approximations with all manner of irrelevant bullshit pushed to the margins—yet still existant. Insight is unnecessary, coincidence can be enough to execute a wicked slider. This is before even bringing up the massive mindfuck that the integral of the exponential function has no closed-form solution, thus the cumulative distribution function of the Gaussian distribution can only be approximated, never expressed numerically. The natural world is chock full of situations in which knowing the value of this function is incredibly useful, but if a (finite) life-form wants a value in a specific situation, it’s gonna hafta rig up a system to find not the solution, but something close.

          Continuing what I mentioned earlier, one may articulate a measurable similarity between any batshit crazy system of representation in the brain of a competent outfielder and the differential equations which do much to govern the trajectory of a baseball’s flight. All the same, the greater system of the earth’s atmosphere is an utterly epic tarbaby, so much so even the most perfect approximation (or even an exact representation in situations where one can exist) of differential equations in man or machine is subject to failure due to “hidden” or “unforeseen” or Pazuzu-generated effects.

          Although a more careful Kant would probably be something like “we phenomenologically made the greater structure surrounding the baseball arrange its flight in this way,” returning the agency to human cognition rather than nature.

          This rankles me to no small degree. Honestly, I don’t think it’s wrong, but I suspect we have a translation problem. I consider “human cognition” that which processes the structural information “made” by the senses of the observer. Agency…I think you’re venturing into “free will” here, and that’s a bigger tarbaby than atmospheric modeling.

          I’m pretty careless with academic jargon myself. I don’t think there’s much sense to being extremely academic here. If anything, linguistic rigor would confuse issues, inasmuch as I doubt many readers would actually understand it better if I used the more precise “non-ontological ontic worlding” instead of “physical reality.” So, like, whatever.

          Academic accuracy is not synonymous with “linguistic rigor”. Academic terminology is fashion. Linguistic rigor is disciplined consistency in application of language in a “localized” sense. The two are often confused because a depressingly large share of academics abuse jargon as a gatekeeping mechanism, rather than a key by which to facilitate communication. In this post, I think the worst I’ve done is slip into mathematical jargon, e.g. “measurable similarity” and “representation” and “uncountable”, but I can define those if pressed. The “problem” is the definitions are deceptively simple, and (in classic mathematical fashion) belie nuance and complexities brilliant researchers spend lifetimes studying.

          I’m personally of the opinion there’s a gigantic vacuum for general purpose (yet well-defined) jargon available to the well-educated (or self-educated) fools who waste time posting shit on the internet. For instance, I consider The Last Psychiatrist’s definition of narcissism the best, but you ain’t gonna find that shit in a textbook anytime soon, maybe never. Presuming the terrified powers that be don’t continue to simply poison-pill destroy every serious internet community that arises, there’s a tantalizing possibility of genuinely intellectual international communities and their jargon growing organically—but I’m pontificating.


  4. So, saying that the “social sciences” are in their immature, empirical stage implies that there is a mature stage for them to reach. The obvious counter to that is to say that there is no such future, that they’re all just so much hokum, that they imagine patterns where there are none. Needless to say, that’s uninteresting. More intriguing: what would the form of a mature and productive social science be?

    The fundamental flaw all of the social sciences – psychology, economics, and so on – is that they are trying to determine human action. Physics, as the prime point of comparison, determines the operations of basic forces: systems of analysis are created such that one can both design action to achieve a desired result and use existing evidence to define the nebulous past. This is bi-directional determination, and is a key characteristic of a science. If a science cannot do both, then it is not particularly useful as a science (and utility of some sort is the prime metic virtue). Determination, however, requires one who determines: there is no such thing as use without someone to whom there is usefulness, and so free will inheres in the very possibility of a science. The social sciences, however, are treating humans as the objects of determination. As such, being both the determiners and the determined, all of those practices have an internal contradiction. In simpler terms, any fact about human nature that the social sciences uncover will immediately be used by humans to their own benefit, meaning that the act of studying human nature changes it from what it was when it was studied. This is something of a problem for a field of scientific inquiry.

    The reason that these fields of study have ended up in such a position is because they’ve copied their general theoretical commitments and general practices from sciences similar to physics instead of proceeding naturally from their own principles of use. The stated goal is to determine hard facts about human nature, but that isn’t a statement of purpose, it’s a statement of method. The purpose itself has to be the same as any scientific field: to learn more about the subject matter so that it can be understood and predicted, i.e. determinations can be made about it. In the case of physics and such fields, these can be hard determinations, but as we’ve seen for the social sciences, these cannot. Thus, the judgments and determinations made by the social sciences must be ones which provide useful information without stating how any human will actually act. This is the difficult part; how can you provide useful information without saying what will happen? The only way I can see, and the methodology I anticipate we’ll see in the first true social science, is to make conditional predictions: if someone does this, then that will result. The prediction has to be conditional on the actual decision, or otherwise the prediction would invalidate itself, so that leaves the only remaining room for judgment as being on the general and possible forms of human life. For instance: “if this person doesn’t forgive their abusive parent, then they will never be able to get away from that parent’s presence,” or “if that person doesn’t focus and settle for a single style of living, then they will never be able to treat anything in their life seriously.” Those predictions are meaningful, they can be analyzed, they can be (to some extent) proven or refuted, and most of all, they do not impinge on the human’s ability to make their own choices.

    I think that this first social science might not be as far away as it might sometimes seem. And yes, my examples were plagiarized.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m reminded of a common and frustrating conflation between definitions of “moral”: Moral1, which is “behaving in accordance with my own moral system.” Moral2, which is “behaving in accordance with a (or any) moral system.” One derives extremely different psychological principles, at the very least, depending on the care they take to differentiate the two. Then again, if your Moral1 happens to be popular, there’s a very good reason to keep that distinction murky.


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