coming from Science Under High Modernism. vaguely related to: Everything is Going According to Plan.
Kuhn is most interesting for examining the uneasy relationship between politics, science, and philosophy, but that’s going to come next time. First, I should address a question that I keep getting asked. I assume it’s the same for anyone who writes about Kuhn:
“Was Kuhn a relativist?”
There are two questions bound together here. The first is whether or not science progresses. The second is over relativism. Kuhn’s answer to the first is his answer to the second. You can deny that his answer to one is a satisfying response to the other, hence the separation.
Towards the end of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn points out that his interlocutors all claim that science advances towards Truth-capital-T, but there’s very little reason to assume such a thing happens. After all, we don’t exactly know what we mean by that, making it somewhat hard to tell if we’re on the right course:
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.
It’s certainly correct to say that science advances (though you’d have to emphasize it does so in stages) but it’s not necessarily advancing “towards” anything. After all, you don’t know that there are anomalies beforehand – if you already did know, you’d have entered a crisis period already. To say that science is advancing “towards” truth presupposes that we know there will be a stopping point, that it’s on the right track to get there, that there’s an interpretation of the end point we’ll agree on.
This is a pretty basic argument, and it’s not really his main one. His own is much better, but it’s a little harder to conceptualize.
Imagine that you’re playing a really boring computer game, the purpose of which is to fill all 100 squares of a 10×10 grid. Clicking on the screen fills the next square, but there’s a catch. Your cursor moves through a random assortment of colors, and you can only advance when you click with the correct one. Every time you click with the right color, it fills the next square, and it also changes the color of all-previously-filled-squares. So you watch the colors cycle, finally click blue, and the first box fills up with blue. Then you wait, try a few colors that don’t work, and finally land on red. This fills the second box, and both boxes turn red. Same thing with the third, which turns green, and so on and so forth. The correct color is probably randomized, you’re uncertain, there’s definitely no pattern you can determine. Sometimes they even jump back, so clicking forty-seven makes all forty-seven as red as click two.
If someone asks you, “Does the game progress towards 100?” then you’ll probably say yes. Even if you’re half-way through, still trying to get 52 filled, it’s a reasonable assumption. There’s a continuity there: 1-2-3-…-100.
What if they ask you, “Does the game progress to red?” If you’re at 52, then you have no idea – last box could be cyan, could be black, could be anything. Even if you’ve completed the program and on click 100 all the boxes do, in fact, turn red, it’s still an odd question. The numbers build on one another in a clear way, but the colors are just different. Moreover, box two has to follow box one, but the colors might be randomized. You got green for three, but there’s no reason to suppose that it was necessary to have gotten green. Maybe it was just the luck of the draw. Maybe the program was actually asking for the correctly timed click, but you assumed that it was based on color
For Kuhn, the numbers are puzzle-solving and “amount of puzzles that may be solved.” The colors are “truth,” here considered as Truth-Capital-T, the ontological reality of all realities, whatever the paradgim says is “what nature really is.” The color changes are paradigm shifts, they allow for movement and they change everything before them, but they aren’t continuous. There’s no clear pattern from one to the other. We might get tricked into thinking that there is (1 is blue, 2 is red), but if we want to be rigorous then…
The point of the metaphor is that puzzle-solving continues and progresses, but ontological underpinnings are not easily compared. In Kuhn’s famous phrasing, they’re incommensurable – from one paradigm the problems of the other look different, don’t quite match, don’t really work. Hence, discussing progress as anything more than “amount of puzzles” is almost certainly a bad idea. It’s much like saying, “Indeed, the game tends towards red.” But in what way? Certainly not in the same way as it tends towards 100.
In an afterward, long since accused of being Peasant King of PoMo Mountain, Kuhn clarifies his stance:
Compared with the notion of progress most prevalent among both philosophers of science and laymen, however, this position [“better as solving puzzles”] 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 generalizations 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.”
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 implausability 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.
Kuhn is saying two things here, and neither should be all that controversial. What he’s calling “ontology” = Truth-Capital-T, and I’ll use both accordingly. Chill, continentals, “ontology” is what you make of it or whatever:
First, paradigms are incommensurable in terms of “description of reality,” not in terms of number of puzzles.
One of the main issues with paradigms is that data and problems aren’t necessary coherent one to the other. The way one paradigm will interpret a phenomenon – and thus what it finds worthy of investigation – will require the entire paradigm behind it. Theoretically, this makes every paradigm a kind of black-box. In practice, there’s an easy movement between one aspect: one can handle more problems, even if it conceptualizes them differently.
Newtonian physics makes several ontological claims (the universe is corporeal particles), Ptolemaic astronomy the same (circles are fitting for the heavens due to their divinity), etc. Both of these are wrong. Newtonian physics, however, can solve many more puzzles. “Amount of puzzles solved” is commensurable – it carries from one scientific set to another, there’s a quantifiable, comparable idea of progress. The ontologies of the paradigms display no such progress. One might allow you to solve more problems, but whatever is in the background of those problems isn’t building on the former paradigm. It’s totally overhauled it – the first block is blue until you press the second block, at which point they’re both red, in the same way that a new paradigm re-characterizes the old one’s problems. Since there’s a stark division between the puzzle-solving and the ontology-claiming, one can show progress while the other does not. The grid-game tends towards 100, but it doesn’t tend towards red. Or, at least, it requires a very different argument to say that it tends towards red. Click 3 makes more boxes green, but green isn’t “more” than blue. “More what?” Exactly. “Waves are-” It’s a metaphor.
Because of this, the success of a paradigm may not be for the reasons it claims (i.e. accurate description of the world). This is good. Ptolemy believed that circles were required to save the appearances of the heavens, which is wrong, but his results are still accurate within minutes of modern measurement. While this is still “inaccurate” it’s not nearly as inaccurate as “epicyclic geocentric circles.” To be more careful: it’s “wrong” in a very different way. Still, it’s only because of the break between “puzzles solved” and “truth” that we can compare increasing puzzle-solving. If they had a 1:1 comparison, Ptolemy’s measurements should be wrong in the same way as his physical theories are wrong. A certain ontological commitment behind a paradigm doesn’t necessarily tell us much about how good it is at solving problems.
This gets intensified by the idea of paradigm shifts: Science progresses step-wise, not smoothly, in a series of crises and leaps. The only thing we know is that the ontological claims get completely reorganized in a way that little else does. To be able to conceptualize and deal with “more problems,” you need a completely revamped paradigm. Hence, it’s historically unlikely that any current view of reality will remain the same after the next paradigm shift. It’s certainly possible, it just hasn’t happened before, and it would be somewhat weird to expect it to. We can’t say either way. You’re at block 78, everything is red, what color will the next block be? Who knows – it’s unlikely to remain red, but that’s also just an assumption. The point of this is the following: it’s premature to say that science tends “towards the truth” until we’ve solved all the anomalies. Solving them might require [radical departure], or at least history suggest as much.
I’m overstating the case by comparing geocentrism and heliocentrism, but he really is trying to be as strict as possible. It’s provisional, can be falsified but not proven. One can at least imagine a new paradigm where the universe actually does move around the earth. It’s unlikely, but that doesn’t much matter. At stake is progress: neo-geocentrism would still continue the “more puzzles” view of progress, but it’s hard to say whether or not it’s building on the current model towards [future one]. It would certainly feel like a return to an older view of reality. At the very least, it would be different in a way “more astronomical charts” is not different.
This does not allow you to pick and choose whatever you want. Or, well, it does, but you were already free to do so.
Second, there’s no reason to assume that the final description will give us a “Full and Complete” view of reality.
Instead of territory, you get maps; instead of truths, you get predictions. An ambiguous construction of “what’s really going on” may be tacked to that, but it’s neither necessary nor certain. Again, not very controversial.
There are metaphysical commitments that predate the puzzle-solving, meaning that it can’t use its own predictions to test its own predictions. Horseshoe theory in action is discussing philosophy on the internet, so you can try this one yourself: argue with a scientifically minded young empiricist about the nature of mathematics, “How can you be sure that equations are ascertaining something rather than hiding it?” read: “Is science truly objective?” A thousand humanities students just groaned, because they know the exact conversation to which I’m referring. A thousand young STEM students also groaned, for they know the exact conversation to which I’m referring.
In the strictest sense, you can’t determine the “truth” of a paradigm from its success at puzzle-solving, because there’s always a host of pre-paradigmatic intentions. Phrased in a different way, trying to gauge the “true truth” of a theory by number of accurate predictions is affirming the consequent. An obvious and indifferent fact, absolutely shocking in its impact, as prosaic as it gets: Paradigm A -> result B /= result B -> Paradigm A. Do not do this.
This resolves many issues. For instance: multiple ontological commitments can exist within a paradigm, which shouldn’t really be possible if affirming the consequent is acceptable and/or helpful. Interpretations of quantum mechanics is the most famous contemporary example of this, but plenty exist. The equation is not the same as its interpretation, multiple physical models can account for the same predictions. We simply can’t say either way, and trying to requires something other than normal science.
The same is true of certain epistemological commitments. A modern physicist’s minimum paradigmatical commitment is to mathematics as a tool, not anything deeper. She could be a realist or anti-realist re: mathematical objects, provided the first commitment is intact. Interpreting mathematical objects as a Platonist, say, certainly changes how she ought to think about the universe, but it’s not something easily tested, nor should it impact the work she does. (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).
Of course, almost all of this is totally uncontroversial. Bayesians build priors via these processes, but those aren’t meant to be set. Popperians recognize that you can’t positively prove a theory. So on, so forth. Scientism is a by-word for too much faith in Empirical Unerring Truths, but basically no rigorous thinker believes that science heads towards absolute truth. Assuming that requires a serious misunderstanding of the scientific method and/or being drunk and mad at the comparative literature department.
“Is this relativism, though?”
The broad result of this is the following: progress-towards-Truth is wrong, but progress-towards-more-puzzles is correct. My personal feeling is that Kuhn overplays his hand a little bit – scientific achievements incorporate successful metaphysics, i.e. mathematics in physics, but it’s not an easy thing to call “progress” in the way we normally mean that. We also don’t know if there will be a Hegelian end of history (doubtful). I take Kuhn’s point, though: science has very little to say about the deeper sense of truth normally associated with philosophy. Since that’s normally considered to be part of a full true picture of reality, there are problems.
Truth is a binary, and science currently fails. Try plan B: science at least tends towards Absolute Truth. Kuhn’s argument gets rid of that. When Truth-Capital-T is your only value, Kuhn absolutely is a relativist, but you’re going to have a hell of a time arguing for [anything]. You can’t compare the truth values of two paradigms, we don’t even know what that would look like beyond the general assumption that such a thing is impossible. Two things are equally false, then the choice between one or the other must be arbitrary. Any value besides truth is meaningless. In other words: “better puzzle-solving” is arbitrary, it does not matter, pick and choose particles or continuity at a moment’s convenience. Any reasonable rigor vs. empirical science is going to bring you to something closer to Kuhn than not. Rejecting puzzle-solving will then take you to absolute nothingness, i.e. Straw Man Post-Modernism or whatever the kids are calling it.
Note that this isn’t an expression of indifference towards truth, but the opposite. It’s being extremely rigorous about science’s own claims re: truth, taking it at its word, but judging it by a particular value system. Hilariously, the opposite of what we take to be relativism.
Thankfully, truth isn’t the ultimate arbiter.
I’ll gloss relativism as “your call” where “your call” implies that the judgment is arbitrary for anything besides the individual. By this definition: no, Kuhn is not a relativist. Kuhn gets around charges of relativism in basically the same way:
Taken as a group or in groups, practitioners of the developed sciences are, I have argued, fundamentally puzzle-solvers. Though the values that they deploy at times of theory-choice derive from other aspects of their work as well, the demonstrated ability to set up and to solve puzzles presented by nature is, in case of value conflict, the dominant criterion for most members of a scientific group. Like any other value, puzzle-solving ability proves equivocal in application. Two men who share it may nevertheless differ in the judgments they draw from its use. But the behavior of a community which makes it preeminent will be very different from that of one which does not. In the sciences, I believe, the high value accorded to puzzle-solving ability has the following consequences [it is not relativistic].
It’s right to say that science isn’t getting closer to the “truth,” and it’s also probably right to say that one paradigm’s ontology can’t be compared to another’s in terms of Absolute Truth. At the very least, we don’t have tools to do so in a rigorous way. Still, Absolute Truth is not the only variable – in the sciences, puzzle-solving is the primary value, and we absolutely can compare the puzzle-solving powers of one paradigm with another. This is no small thing. Included under the “puzzle-solving” rubric are vaccines and space travel.
You’ll recognize this as “the exact same thing we all say,” and I agree. Given that fact, you might be wondering why I’m bothering to lay out Kuhn’s argument in (I hope) painful detail. It’s an attempt to ward off a confusion. For some reason, the people who ask me “Why do you care about Platonic Truth at all?” are the very same people who ask me, “Why are you so concerned with values?” with the general understanding that such things have been settled by decent society.
The answer is the same in all cases, “We’re already using something else,” which is why the questions should concern you. If truth is so obvious and also so unimportant and also comes from science and also justifies science and also has so little to do with science, then why wince when I say “We use lies to justify ourselves, science is inadequate, truth it too, this is good”? Provided you don’t take any of that seriously anyway, it’s just stating the obvious.
Or, if Kuhn is simply telling us what we already think, why does he have the reputation he has? Why can I search his name and find Errol Morris’s feverish ravings, ten billion hard-nosed “realists” shrieking about the post-modern threat?
What do you want to hear, besides what you already know?
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