Kuhn’s Paradigms

As promised, I am beginning a brief series on paradigms and how they shape our beliefs and will be ending the series explaining the Protestant paradigm. I touched on paradigms Monday. Today I will give a summary of the seminal work Thomas Kuhn did in explaining how science is conducted through paradigms and revolutions.

According to Kuhn, the human attempt to understand the natural world is built on a foundation of background assumptions and a coherence of thought around a scientific paradigm that shapes the normal conduct of science. Thomas Kuhn introduces a radical way to understand scientific research and progress through what he calls “paradigms.” Paradigms are sets of concepts and theories that guide the standards for “normal” scientific research and operations. He wrote of discoveries that were both destructive to established paradigms but also constructive to the progression of scientific knowledge. The discoveries shift the consensus of the scientific community from one paradigm to another, which is neither a simple nor a single act. An example Kuhn provides is the discovery of oxygen. Prior to the late 18th century, it was believed that a fire element called phlogiston was released from its containment into the air during combustion. Patterns of discovery showed this belief to be incorrect, yet the results of initial experiments yielded results of mixed gases. Not long after, French chemist Lavoisier isolated oxygen but “insisted that oxygen was an atomic ‘principle of acidity’.”

This example points to Kuhn’s insight regarding discoveries and the progress that follows after a discovery has been assimilated. That it took scientists over twenty years to reject the principle of acidity in oxygen shows the slow progress often made after such discoveries. For progress to have been made in the field of chemistry, a crisis had to be reached to indicate the theory of phlogiston was untenable. While scientists believed that the combustible element existed, there was no reason for them to look for another element that caused combustion. Kuhn argues that this is the standard model for all scientific advancements because without the crisis scientists reject radical ideas that contradict established beliefs.

Kuhn teaches that science naturally passes through phases for the purpose of understanding the natural world. These phases are the “pre-paradigmatic phase,” “normal science,” “crisis,” and “revolution.” In the pre-paradigmatic stage, there are no or few shared concepts, theories, and methods. Scientists will have differing background assumptions and will conduct research and look at data in different ways. While working within the phase of normal science, there are many things scientists take for granted—for example, our body is made up of cells and DNA contains our genetic information. Normal science is the day-to-day operations and research of scientists that are defined by paradigms. In this phase, scientists aren’t interested at looking critically at notions they take for granted. However, this is a good thing because scientists need to be able to trust the paradigm in order to further their work.

Anomalies are problems within a paradigm that scientists are unable to solve. According to Kuhn, anomalies are not things to worry about because it is assumed the scientists will work to solve them in time. While most anomalies are solved through normal science, if the anomalies keep growing and scientists are unable to solve them, scientists start to doubt whether they can ever solve the anomalies within the paradigm. This leads to a crisis, which is a doubting of the paradigm itself. Scientists start thinking outside the box. The longer a crisis lasts, the more critical scientists become, and the more they take seriously radical new ideas. This sets the stage for a scientific revolution in which a new set of theories, concepts, and methods arise, creating a new paradigm that solves many of the anomalies while giving them new puzzles to work through. We will return to these phases later as I examine religious development during the Protestant revolution. To give you a sneak peak, I want to specifically highlight that the Protestants possessed the same information that formed the Roman Catholic paradigm. The shift that occurred did not result from scrapping 1500 years of church history, but instead by critically examining it as crises arose.

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