Kuhn on research


in Daily updates, Science

Thomas Kuhn defines research as “a strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes supplied by professional education.” To me, it seems a fairly reasonable, if somewhat cynical, way of looking at it.

There are two implications within the statement that strike me as interesting. The first is the assertion of nature. The idea that it is something out there, to which research is applied, is more empiricist than I expected from a book that Tristan recommended to me (that said, I am only halfway done, and all manner of complexities could yet emerge). All that said, here are a number of different ways in which you could interpret ‘nature’ in the above sentence.

Most obviously, you could take it to mean the external world of atoms and galaxies and ocelots. Naturally, ‘atom,’ ‘galaxy,’ or ‘ocelot’ is just a description, but it is not unreasonable to assert that there is something out there that can be reasonably assigned a term. There is a problem akin to the naming of constellations – it is arbitrary which stars you include in which grouping – but any possible set of constellations is at least a valid description of the orientation of stars in the sky. You might group them by proximity and geometric patterns, or you might group them according to their spectral profiles or any of myriad characteristics, but it should be possible to go back from whatever model is created to either re-create or at least recognize the phenomenon being described.

Another possible meaning for ‘nature’ is just experience. When we look at the stars (or anything else), our brains are performing a massive amount of signal processing. What you see is not, in many important ways, an accurate reflection of what is actually there. Details that evolution has determined to be unimportant are given little or no attention, whereas ones that natural selection has marked out as important are highlighted. This is the inevitable product of how genes that do a good job of sorting important data out from trivial data will tend to find themselves copied more often than those that do the same task badly. Very bright things are dimmed beside darker ones, and vice versa. Learning to undo a lot of this trickery is an important step towards becoming a good photographer. If we take ‘nature’ in this way, the object of our research is our own experiences of a natural world, rather than that world itself.

The second is the implication that we could somehow deal with nature in a more meaningful or comprehensive way. This is an assertion that comes into conflict with limitations in human cognitive power, and the time that can be applied to problems. We can, for instance, only really think in three spatial dimensions. We can only remember so much, and only grasp connections of certain types and complexities between phenomena and ideas. As such, the choice is not between modelling through categorization and some some of ideal holistic understanding of the universe; it is between modelling through categorization and some alternative form of modelling that is still bounded by human cognitive limits.

To me, the evident success of category-based modelling (as manifest most obviously in technology) demonstrates that it is clearly the world comprehension system to beat. Believing that light is a quantum phenomenon as described by certain equations is demonstrably better than believing it is the result of some kind of active broadcasting from the eyes. The most obvious way to show that is that you can build fibre optic cables and fancy lenses and optical disc drives on the basis of the former conception, but not the latter. One day, we will probably have an even better understanding of light, as demonstrated by a greater ability to do things that we want to do using it. Research, as Kuhn defines it above, is an essential activity and a worthwhile application of time and effort. While there is every reason to question and refine our methods, they are not worthy of outright denigration, as I am sure he would agree.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan Laing December 30, 2006 at 8:59 am

I’m glad your getting this stuff. It is certainly your philosophical side (the side your advisor probably believes to be superfluous to the task at hand), which is concerned with the meaning of “nature” in scientific research. You are right to see a disconnection, or at least some tension, and certainly the lack of identity, between concepts and “nature”. You are also entirely right to say that it’s reasonable to have labels assigned to things which succeed in obtaining despite saying nothing essential about the thing (constellations is a wonderful example).

This tension finds its origin in the latin mistranslation of physis as “natura”. Nature becomes the mere stuff of the world, codified, identical to our correct determinations of it. This is part and parcel with the coming to force of “Aristotelian logic”, (which I tried to show you the other day is entirely un-aristotelian and arises from a thorough misreading in the scholastics and elsewhere). Physis, on the other hand, (is difficult to translate, which is why it’s so often used untranslated), means something like “emergence”. Physis, rather than standing over against us as an object, is the arising-forth of things from themselves. “Phenomenon” comes from the greek “phainoumenon” which means “to show itself from itself”. People will tell you (if you ask) that physis is opposed to techne and covers the region of beings which contain their own final causes (a daffodil, as opposed to an anvil. The anvil doesn’t cointain it’s final cause, it’s final cause lies outside of itself as the human who builds it). This is an entirely degenerate understanding of physis and is not relavent to understanding what Kuhn is on about. Physis is not one region of beings amoungst others, it is the manner in which beings manifest themselves to man. Physis manifests itself as phainoumenon. (“Phenomenon”, understood as appearence or false appearence is a derivative of phainoumenon – only on the basis of the possibility of somethign showing itself as itself (phainoumnon), could something show itself as other than itself (false appearence), or show itself by the means of something else (appearence, or symptom (think measles).

So, I guess what I mean to say is, nature is something indeterminate, which we determine catagorically. But, nature is involved in any determination of it because it’s only in its showing itself that we know it.

The most important lesson in Kuhn is that the people whose ‘science’ we dismiss as “crazy” was just as scientific to them as ours is to us. And that the fact our determinations are more “correct” has a lot to do with the fact that we think being “correct” is just the greatest thing. (Certainly western scientists since the coming to prevalence of “aristotelian” predicate logic have thought being correct was just the greatest thing too – and because of that they would have thought our very advanced science of “correctness” was just the beas knees.)

I’m looking forward to more posts about Kuhn.

Milan February 12, 2010 at 10:00 am

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