The Resolution of Revolutions

Chapter XII of Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions is a brilliant and highly convincing account of the historical nature of changed thinking in scientific communities, on matters fundamental enough to define paradigms. While he doesn’t use the analogy, it strikes me as being very similar to the processes of natural selection.

The first adopters of a new paradigm strike upon it for a complex combination of reasons. Included among them are vague aesthetic senses, personal prejudices, and the like. Because of the comprehensive nature of ‘normal’ scientific investigation within the existing paradigm, such meanderings are generally unlikely to be rewarded. That said, if they can win over a few people and develop to the point where they become evidently useful, they have the chance to win over the scientific community as a whole. Naturally, this is easiest to do in times of crisis: especially when the new paradigm seems to help resolve the questions that lie at the core. Kuhn rightly identifies how theories that do an especially good job of predicting effects unobserved until after predicted are unusually good at winning converts.

Consider the development of any novel biological phenomenon. The earliest creatures to undergo a significant mutation probably get eradicated as a result. Only once an alteration is at least benign and at best somewhat useful can we expect any number of beings to be found in the world with it. One can only imagine how many trillions of bacteria snuffed themselves out in the course of random variations that eventually led to things like more efficient cellular respiration, or the development of motion by flagella, or the existence of symbiotic modes of living.

Of course, I like the analogy because it serves my earlier arguments that it is practical usefulness that permits us to argue that one scientific perspective is better than another. Technology, in particular, lets us separate fruitless theory from the fruitful sort, as well as comprehend when seemingly incompatible views are just complex reflections of one another.

The current argumentation about whether string theory is ‘science’ or not strikes at this directly. String theory might be seen as the evolution of a new limb that hasn’t quite proved to be terribly useful yet. Driven by the kind of aesthetic sense that make Brian Greene call his book about it “The Elegant Universe” string theorists are engaged in the kind of development that might eventually lead to a resolution, as described by Kuhn.

PS. Part of the reason natural selection is so frequently useful for understanding what is going on in the world is because of how it is predicated upon an illuminating tautology: namely how arrangements that are stable in a particular environment will always perpetuate themselves, whereas those which are unstable will not. This applies to everything from virtual particle formation at the sub-atomic scale to the success and failure of businesses. That said, it should be noted that the ‘system’ in which businesses actually operate is distinctly different from the ideal form envisioned by the most vocal advocates of free markets. Crime, deceit, and exploitation may be important aspects of that system, in addition to innovation and individual acumen.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

15 thoughts on “The Resolution of Revolutions”

  1. I think you need to hone your idea of “useful” a little more, but that you are most of the way there. “Useful” for a physicist, means research grants. Of course research grants will be more plentiful if the science proves or promises to be of use, but it seems to be that its technological usefullness is a second order qualifier for a new paradigm to succeed. What scientists are most interested in is the potential research projects a new paradigm opens.

  2. I also don’t understand why you would want to use natural selection to understand scientific revolution. Kuhn had that metaphor open to him if he had wished.

    Natural selection is a biological process. Paradigm selection is a social process. They are only similar in that there are rules which seem to govern them. I mean, I don’t think we need to think natural selection just to remember what a process is.

    Novel biological phenomenon can catch on anytime they are an improvement. New paradigms can only catch on when there is a crisis in the current one – not merely because the new one is better. Only if there is a problem with the existing “truth of reality” will that truth be put into question as possibly false. Just because a new paradigm offers more research projects will not allow it to flourish if there isn’t an atmosphere of crisis with the current one – why toss something if it aint broken?

    In natural selection, I suppose you could argue that with things like finchs, new situations, new climates, beget evolutionary change ( at least micro change, probably macro change too although I’m not sure if we have as many good examples). But also – any change which improves a beasts chance of reproducing, spreading its genes, will be succesful. There is no inherent need for a state of crisis.

    Also, evolution is a smooth process, with gradual changes. It is neccesary for each new mutation to be able to breed with unmutated animals if it is to breed at all. Revolution is not a smooth change but a jumpy one – You stay in one paradigm for a long time, and then jump to a new one. Those who don’t make the leap can’t breed with those who do (can’t engage in research together). (Also, it would probably be hard on a marriage).

  3. They are only similar in that there are rules which seem to govern them.

    Isn’t that precisely what we’re after?

  4. Tristan,

    I suppose I find the biological metaphor appealing because it is an alternative to the cumulative view of science that still makes intuitive sense to me.

    “Also, evolution is a smooth process, with gradual changes.”

    This is certainly open to debate. There certainly seem to have been times in evolutionary history where radical changes occurred. The sudden buildup of massive amounts of oxygen in the atmosphere after the evolution of photosynthesis might be a good example.

  5. Neither of these points address the points I made in my comments. You fail to understand what I mean by ‘smooth’. This doesn’t mean gradual, but rather that the motivations for change produce change regardless of the environment (despite the fact that, of course, changes in environment might encourage or produce change.) This is different from Science because there exist environments in which paradigmatic change is simply impossible because the conditions don’t allow it (not enough anomolies).

    Anon, “there are rules which seem to govern them” is true for any process. My points regard the fact that the rules which govern them are assymetical, and thus the analogy produces more misunderstanding than understanding. If all the analogy does is show that it is a “process”, you would have a hard time proving that you need an analogy to show what a process is. The meaning of process is so empty that it hardly can be said to have a meaning at all. The content of the process determines it entirely, there is very little conceptual weight that “process” adds to the perticular process you are describing. The meaning that is added would be possible a mechanistic understanding in biology, which would not correspond to the structuralist understanding in philosophy of science – so even on those grounds it fails.

  6. I am trying to work out the 3×5″ index card version of Kuhn, which is about the most understanding I can aspire to in the long term.

    What I meant by the biological analogy:

    1) There are always mutations happening

    2) The reason most of them ‘catch on’ is due to a change in external conditions, such as a crisis.

    This isn’t entirely true of either biology or Kuhn’s theory, but it provides an alternative way of thinking to the cumulative view of science that Kuhn is attacking, as well as the alternative given by Popper.

  7. 1) There arn’t always mutations happening. Only in revolutionary science are there mutations, and that is relatively rare. “there are always mutations happening” is the kind of thing Popper would say precisely in refutation of Kuhn, and try to equivocate normal and revolutionary science together, to make them both parts of the practice of scientists.

    2) Any mutation can only catch on due to a state of crisis, which Kuhn defines precisely.

    Crisis is not anomolies : “Though they may begin to lose faith and then to consider alternatives, they do not renounce the paradigm that has led them into crisis. They do not, that is, treat anomalies as counter instances, through in the vocaluary of philosophy of science that is what they are….a scientific theory is declared invalid only if an alternate candidate is available to take its place” (77)

    that’s from page 1 of chapter 8 “Response to Crisis”.

    I would recommend re-reading chapter 8 and then chapter 7 (in that order).

  8. What do you mean by “mutation” anyway? It seems you could be referring to either things like the invention of new particles within a paradigm to preserve it, or to shifts in laws of physics – which are never minor. Minor paradigm changes, like the invention of xrays, are only minor to scientists outside the field in which they direclty applie – for astronomers it is perfectly feasible to accept x rays as an addition to human knowledge.

    Forget what I said in the last comment, the most important chapter to re read is 9. And 10. You need to grasp what a revolution is.

  9. There arn’t always mutations happening

    Sure there are. The people doing is are just usually crackpots.

    What makes them into scientists of repute is: a) their view happens to be defensible and b) a crisis lets people figure that out.

  10. Tristan,

    The passages seems to me quite compatible with the description of revolutions I have provided above. I hadn’t read these portions at the time I read the post above (I still haven’t finished SoSR):

    “Because the unit of scientific achievement is the solved problem and because the group knows well which problems have been solved, few scientists will easily be persuaded to adopt a viewpoint that opens to question many problems that had previously been solved. Nature itself must first undermine professional security by making prior achievements seem problematic. Furthermore, even when that has occurred and a new candidate for paradigm has been evoked, scientists will be reluctant to embrace it unless convinced that two all-important conditions are being met. First, the new candidate must seem to resolve some outstanding and generally recognized problem that can be met in no other way. Second, the new paradigm must promise to preserve a relatively large part of the concrete problem-solving ability that has accrued to science through its predecessors…

    The analogy that relates the evolution of organisms to the evolution of scientific ideas can easily be pushed too far. But with respect to the issues of this closing section [the nature of progress in science] it is very nearly perfect. The process described in Section XII as the resolution of revolutions is the selection by conflict of the fittest way to practice further science. The net result of a sequence of such revolutionary selections, separated by periods of normal research, is the wonderfully adapted set of instruments we call modern scientific knowledge. Successive stages in that development process are marked by an increase in articulation and specialization. And the entire process may have occurred, as we now suppose biological evolution did, without benefit of a set goal, a permanent fixed scientific truth, of which each stage in the development of scientific knowledge is a better exemplar.”

    (SoSR, Chapter 13, page 169 and 172 in the 3rd ed. paperback)

    Thus, being an early developer of a new paradigm is a dangerous place to be: like being the first organism in your species with a novel adaptation. If you and your small band do well, however, your adaptation can become ubiquitous.

    I am not saying the metaphor is perfect. I am saying that it is an alternative that captures sometime important about Kuhn’s view of the scientific progress. They think they are climbing a ladder, step by step, but what they are actually doing involves complexities of the sorts described above.

    I think a lot of our seeming differences of opinion on this are just the product of caring about different things.

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