The Philosopher of Science : Thomas Kuhn

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One of the most important contributors to the development of the philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn primary achievement was the creation of a new language to understand its development. As he postulated in his book ‘Structures of Scientific Revolutions’, the development of science is not a linear process but a circular one. It goes through the stages of the normal and  the crisis followed by scientific revolution which replaces the old with the new.

 

Thomas Kuhn started his career as a physicist and later took upon the study of history of science and philosophy of science. In 1946 he mastered in physics. His doctorate came about in 1949 related to the application of quantum mechanics to solid state physics.

During his eventful academic career which involved teaching at Harvard and a lot of research, he became interested in the history of science. His first book ‘The Copernican Revolution’ had history of astronomy as its subject matter.

In 1961 he became a full time professor at the prestigious University of California at Berkley. A year later he published his seminal work ‘Structures of Scientific Revolutions’.

The central idea of this book provoked a lot of interest and also much controversy within the academic circles. Science is generally considered a rational path towards the truth. Knowledge is accumulated which often leads to cancelling out of the previous data and in this way we reach out for the closest possible approximation of truth. Such an interpretation of the scientific process leaves the individual, the scientist out of the picture. Supreme emphasis is upon the method and the role of researchers is only considered to be secondary.

A great mind can accelerate the whole process of addition of new knowledge  however it is the scientific method which ensures that the progress continues. Kuhn’s idea introduces the context. He describes the normal science as periods wherein the scientific consensus is in favor of a particular ‘paradigm’ which provides the scientists the language and the codes for communication and also the problems, what he called ‘puzzles’, to solve. He used the analogy of a puzzle (like a jigsaw puzzle or game of chess) to capture the familiarity a puzzle solver has with the problem and how this familiarity adds to the probability of her success.

The same way a scientist working within the prevalent ‘paradigm’ experiences a sense of familiarity with the language and the tools in vogue. She is not entering an uncharted territory. Over time a saturation phase is reached when the existing ‘paradigm’ starts faltering. The puzzles are many and solution as sought for within the ‘in use’ framework are becoming harder to get. This is the ‘crisis’ phase. The plank of consensus among the puzzle solvers weakens and scientists search for  new ways of looking at things  thus precipitating the scientific revolution which Kuhn said results in ‘paradigm change’.

Among his most prominent examples of this whole process  is the switch from Geocentric model of  Ptolemy to the Heliocentric model of Copernicus. Kuhn said about the Ptolemy’s model, “By the early sixteenth century,an increasing number of Europe’s best astronomers were recognizing that the astronomical paradigm was failing in application to its own traditional problems — not to mention outside pressures related to calendar reform and growing medieval criticism of Aristotle”. Over time the geocentric view became weaker as  more and more phenomena was falling outside its reach of explanation. New data was consolidated and made comprehensible due to the efforts of Copernicus and Galileo who succeeded by introducing a new paradigm which had the sun at the center with the earth and other planets revolving around it.

The most controversial aspect of Kuhn’s work was the idea of incommensurability thesis’. According to him theories of one period can not be compared with theories of another. The new acquires greater acceptance as over time the number of its supporters become larger than the ones behind the old.As he wrote about the switch over to the Copernicus point of view,

“The men who called Copernicus mad because he proclaimed that the earth moved … were not either just wrong or quite wrong. Part of what they meant by ‘earth’ was fixed position. Their earth, at least, could not be moved. To say that the heliocentric model is true and that the geocentric model is false is to ignore the fact that the two models mean quite different things by the term “earth.” This position as held by Kuhn led many to categorize him as a ‘relativist’.

Noted philosopher Karl Popper criticized Kuhn’s understanding of the scientific process as it has excluded the critical feature of skepticism from the early phases of the formation a particular theory. Popper viewed a claim scientific only when it allowed itself to be falsified, that is, it made specific predictions which can be tested. And if the predictions are not found to be true the hypotheses does not develop into a theory. Kuhn on the other hand advised researchers to actively guard their nascent propositions against harsh criticism.

Kuhn’s ideas led to a lot of arguments and counter arguments which is eventually healthy for the  development of knowledge. Kuhn’s ideas brought the process of science closer to the theory of evolution as the movement of science is considered to be away from the last error rather than towards some ‘ultimate truth’.

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