Science and God: Challenging Arrogance (Part 3)
No. 3. Paradigm shifts: Challenging arrogance.
"There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now," Lord William Thompson Kelvin said in 1900. "All that remains is more and more precise measurement."
Thirteen years later, Niels Bohr constructed a theory of atomic structure based on quantum theory. That was seven years after Albert Einstein had published his paper on special relativity.
Both fundamentally changed the way science understood the laws of physics.
The hubris of that one pronouncement had been preceded by hundreds of years of certainty that, while the primitive scientists of the past had been scrambling around in the dark with inefficient tools, contemporary scientists had finally uncovered the truth about the universe. None of them could have anticipated Thomas Kuhn's work on paradigm shifts.
Uninterested in questioning
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published in 1962, popularized the term "paradigm shift" and revolutionized discourse about scientific progress, even among those who disputed its validity.
Kuhn basically argued that significant scientific progress is made through revolutions and "paradigm shifts," between which more incremental discoveries are made.
These shifts take place when an accepted paradigm (not so much a scientific theory as the scientific culture and assumptions that underlie theories) experiences a "crisis."
Crises arise when the dominant paradigm experiences too many anomalies – data that cannot be accurately explained by what is considered "normal" science.
This science is often depicted as constantly and rigorously questioning its own basic assumptions and thus progressing constantly.
Kuhn disputes this. For him, those working within a paradigm consider it so basic that not only would they be uninterested in questioning its basic tenets, but that anomalies would be treated as failures in measurement or mildly interesting glitches to be ironed out later.
When a revolution or paradigm shift happens, it has as much to do with the groups supporting or opposing the old and new paradigms as the validity or usefulness of the paradigms.
As Kuhn himself pointed out when referring to one of the most famous paradigm shifts in science, from a Ptolemaic view of the universe (often called the Copernican Revolution): "Copernicus' more elaborate proposal was neither simpler nor more accurate than Ptolemy's system. Available observational tests … provided no basis of a choice between them."
One paradigm replaced another based on something other than pure science.
Caution against arrogance
A paradigm shift doesn't return science to "square one," but changes the way data is interpreted, shifts emphases and priorities.
The effect is similar to that of looking at an optical illusion that could depict two very different pictures at the same time. The same lines are understood in totally incommensurate ways.
What had been held as unquestioned truth can be dismissed as superstition or ignorance.
As a consequence, scientists 200 years from now might look on some of our assumptions about, say, physics with condescending pity because we do not have the technology or theoretical concepts to understand the universe as fully as they will.
Such a postmodern perspective on science has unsurprisingly been criticized by many in the scientific community and should not lead to relativism regarding science's ability to accurately predict and map matter and its behavior.
Rather, it should serve as a caution against arrogance, an argument against taking too seriously anyone who declares our understanding of the meaning that lies behind the material world nonsense based on the assumption that "science has proven that is impossible."
In science, as in faith, considering any statement the "final word" on a subject is, perhaps, foolhardy.
We can't all be scientists or philosophers. But we can at least speak the same language, understand some of the objections and make our outreach relevant to the culture in which we live.
If ignoring Hollywood, popular music and contemporary culture weakens our witness, then it would be a fatal error to ignore science.
Jonathan Langley is editor of Catalyst. This column first appeared in BMS' Catalyst publication, which can be read in full here.