Why Paradigms are not Relativistic

I started this blog with a series on paradigms. While I have moved on to discuss topics such as ontology, Aristotelianism, and Euthryphro’s Dilemma, I want to circle back to explain why paradigms are not relativistic.

Chalmers’ Criticism

A strong opposition to Kuhn is that some view his paradigms as relativistic, which, according to philosopher of science A. F. Chalmers, “depends on the values of the individual, group or culture that makes the judgement.” At the beginning of his book What is this Thing Called Science? Chalmers recognizes that the primary way in which scientists observe data and a range of facts is through sight; however, two individuals observing the same physical object will often have two different understandings of the same object. Chalmers illustrates this with a drawing of a staircase. Many will see the picture as though they are viewing it from the top of the staircase, while others will see it as though they are seeing the same image from below. Chalmers also points out that when the picture is shown to members of African tribes, they do not see a staircase at all. This shows that cultural experiences and preconceived understandings shape how we observe objects and thus interpret them.

Yet later in his book, after he laid out the foundation for explaining philosophy of science, Chalmers agrees that while the way the staircase is viewed in an earlier example is a sort of gestalt switch, it is actually an opposition to epistemological knowledge. When applying principles of logic and reason, a thing cannot invite its opposite. If someone is at the bottom of the stairs, they cannot at the same time be at the top of the stairs, nor can either viewpoint from the same relation at the same time be equally valid. I agree that it is important to not violate the law of non-contradiction. I agree that if something is true, the opposite cannot also be true at the same time and in the same relation. However, the goal of both scientists and theologians is not to make up their own truths or perceptions of truth. The goal of scientists is to discover what is actual and what is true of the natural world. The goal of theologians is to discover what is actual and what is true of God and humanity’s relation to Him. By recognizing that paradigms exist and shape our understanding, those who apply it are not seeking to reinvent truth or make what is under study relativistic. Instead, it is a recognition of how humans naturally receive and apply knowledge. As to the drawing of a staircase, we know that it is a drawing and that it is an optical illusion, which in this case, is used as an analogy to understand a concept, not an attempt to represent all  perceived truths as equally valid. (The staircase in the book is drawn while the picture at the top of the blog is not, but it still illustrates the point.)

Reformed Criticism

Chalmers is not the only one to criticize Kuhn’s method as being relativistic. In a position paper on justification, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) makes a passing reference to Kuhn’s philosophy as “perspectivalism,” and Christian philosopher Carl F.H. Henry writes, “Thomas Kuhn reflects the growing academic skepticism that contemporary science is progressively refining ‘the truth’ about the real world.” Henry goes on to criticize Kuhn for ripping away the empirical basis for truth about reality in contrast with the authoritative certainty of “the divine disclosure of a sure Word of God.” Given this, Henry and possibly the writers of the OPC position paper, would object to the use of the paradigmatic structure to explain various periods of Christian history as I did earlier in my series.

Response to Criticisms

Do paradigms lead to skepticism? On the contrary. Paradigms give grounding for people to recognize truth. The Protestant paradigm can be viewed like a building. Its foundation is the Bible; the walls that give it shape are the creeds established by the Roman Catholic Church, the Augsburg and Reformed confessions, and orthodox teachings going back two thousand years; the roof is the five Solae. This structure protects those inside from the outside elements like heresy and skepticism. Contrast this structure with Evangelical Biblicism, which does not have a paradigm and has only the Bible as its foundation. It is a solid foundation, yet when the rains of heresies and skepticism come, I hope the Biblicists have an umbrella. Michael Horton, who is a notable Protestant theologian in the Reformed tradition, also understands the importance of paradigms. “Our beliefs not only form broader paradigms but, at least in part, are formed by them. Paradigms are resilient to challenges, which is good—otherwise we would always be reinventing disciplines from scratch.”

Note: I realize I often use quotes without stating titles and page numbers and only give the author’s name. I do this to not interrupt the flow of the post and am happy to supply detailed information when asked.

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