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Kuhn's Paradigms: The Problem of Metaphysical Commitments, Scientific Progress and Objectivity

Based on an account of Kuhn’s notion of paradigm—an interchangeable component that plays a crucial role in constituting a scientific revolution, introducing and carrying along a wide range of commitments, presuppositions, methods, etc.—is the subject that will be interpreted and exposed in this essay. As Kuhn states, “[t]he commitments that govern normal science specify not only what sorts of entities the universe does contain, but also, by implication, those that it does not.”1 If accounting certain “entities” while omitting others is what constitutes the commitments of a paradigm, then what implications do these commitments have on metaphysics, ontology and objectivity when certain forms of knowledge are posited, defined, included and excluded? Kuhn refers to the multiplicity of these inclusions and exclusions as a “network of commitments” which operate within a paradigm and ‘normal science’ that can consist of formally mentioned metaphysical categories, along with practices that constitute the ‘problem-solving framework’ within a paradigm itself, encompassing conceptual, theoretical, instrumental, and methodological methods2. Based on these established methods and paradigms, scientists come to an agreement on certain standards and criteria for accepting interpretations and hypothesis about observed phenomena in the natural world3. On the other hand, Kuhn explicitly implies that science as a practice that cannot persist without a paradigm in place because: “[to] reject a paradigm without simultaneously substituting another is to reject science itself.”4 The question then concerns how the standards, practices and commitments that these paradigms establish, include and exclude certain gestalts and perspectives about the world, as well as their overarching comitment towards establishing truth, fact and objectivity.

If a paradigm establishes a framework that articulates observed phenomena in the natural world in a way that had not been interpreted priorly, the question then arises regarding what constitutes scientific progress as such. The nature of paradigms and their falsifiability—which serves as the prerequisite for one paradigm to replace another, which in turn, causes scientific revolutions to re-occur—raises the question of paradigms that claim certainty and absolute knowledge, as well as the status of their claims towards certain metaphysical assumptions. If a scientific method is based on a certain paradigm that establishes a set of practices for interpreting natural phenomena; then what form of knowledge does a science based on a paradigm rely on, as well as the question regarding what claim does a scientific practice—under a framework of a paradigm—have on the notion of truth and fact? As Kuhn states, science is a constant progress towards truth, where a paradigm comes in place over another and carries “scientists and those who learn from them closer and closer to truth.”5 However, the question remains whether scientific progress as such can be defined outside a framework of a paradigm, as apposed to being entirely defined within a framework itself—which determines what counts as progress or not. Kuhn raises the question of whether progress is solely defined by and within a framework, or if progress is an objective, absolute process that occurs outside the scope of all paradigms:

We must learn to recognize as causes what have ordinarily been taken to be effects. If we can do that, the phrases ‘scientific progress’ and even ‘scientific objectivity’ may come to seem in part redundant. In fact, one aspect of the redundancy has just been illustrated. Does a field make progress because it is a science, or is it a science because it makes progress?6

In the question regarding what defines “scientific progress” therefore entails an idiomatic and epistemic paradox. Here, one might recall the same logic present in passage from Plato’s Euthyphro: “is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by gods?”7 One therefore can question whether progress is defined by science or vice versa; in the same way that one might question whether something is defined as pious either because it is loved by gods or it is loved by gods insofar as they approve an universal notion of piety, independent from gods themselves. If in this passage, Plato questioned whether there is such a thing as a universal notion of piety, our concern is regarding whether there is an equivalent notion of scientific progress. If the progress of sciences can only be assessed within scientific practice itself, and there can be no basis for an objective account of scientific progress according to a universal notion, then we are defining progress insofar as there is a practice called ‘science’ in the same way that one might define something pious insofar as there are gods who love it. Further, a question arises regarding towards what goal is science striving if each of its paradigms have their own criteria for defining goals and progress? Since obsolete scientific theories become declared “unscientific”8 or become a subject matter explored solely by history and philosophy departments9, what promise can paradigm that constitutes the normal science at any given moment provide, when its presuppositions could one day be denounced by a scientific consensus? If these goals are defined solely within the paradigms themselves, then what is at stake when a paradigm makes metaphysical claims and gestalts about the world? How may we avoid this paradoxical similarity between science and religion?

The acceptance of a paradigm and the establishment of what Kuhn refers to as normal science, in which the notion of progress itself occurs, pre-defines a space in which discoveries are counted as such or not. Progress then becomes characterized insofar as it is defined by a scientific enterprise and so long as such an enterprise survives10. This space within which progress is acknowledged, in a way, becomes self-contained and self-defined which constrains the type of phenomena that is accounted as a novelty or not, and also constructs what progress may be—mostly through what Kuhn refers to as the preservation “of the concrete problem-solving ability” of a paradigm11. As Kuhn explains, “Normal Science does not aim at novelties of fact or theory and, when successful, finds none.”12 Novelties are therefore either explained according to the notions and presuppositions of a paradigm, or become anomalies. Since anomalies are events that don’t fit within the problem-solving framework of a paradigm that assimilates a given phenomena to its previous observed instances, anomalies can potentially instigate a crisis within a paradigm. This crisis leads to either a shift in the problem-solving techniques of normal science or a destruction of the paradigm within which they operated altogether. This crisis most often than not, is resolved by an introduction of a paradigm that promises an explanation to a given anomaly that remained unexplained by its prior paradigm. This perpetual introduction and dissolution of paradigms can also be accounted as progress, precisely because paradigms introduce solutions and explanations to given anomalies under old paradigms, but which also introduce new questions, contradictions and problems while most frequently promising a solution to the problems they introduce13. On one hand, progress can be seen as a self-contained progression of the problem-solving framework within a given paradigm, and on the other, progress can also be seen as a perpetual emergence of anomalies, which cause a constant advent of crisis and emergence of new paradigms. Under these circumstances, a scientific revolution often coincides, although Kuhn’s definition of a ‘scientific revolution’ offers a more nuanced account of the prerequisites for such an occurrence that cannot be elaborated here. But overall, an objective account of scientific progress remains problematic due to the constant introduction and dissolution of paradigms; if there can be an account of a scientific history, it appears to be rather dialectical, not universal and absolute.

The problem-solving nature that characterizes almost any given paradigm, further complicates a paradigm’s relation to truth and objectivity; it opens a path to relativism. The very fact that the problem-solving framework is contained within the rules of a paradigm, demonstrates the difficulty of attributing objectivity to any given interpretation of data, measurement, and observation. If paradigms come and go, then so does the phenomena that is deemed as fact or truth under an obsolete paradigm, which becomes re-considered, replaced, or denounced under an emerging paradigm that replaces the old one. To further expound on this problem of objectivity and truth, Kuhn assimilates the problem-solving nature of paradigms to Wittgenstein’s notion of ‘language games’. Ultimately, the only way in which different paradigms can work and categorize a phenomena in common, is through a “network of overlapping and crisscrosses of resemblances” that multiple paradigms share, but there can be no purely objective, an a priori account of phenomena in itself14. In other words, although a discussion of attributes and phenomena through different language-games (or paradigms) teaches us how to use and investigate a term in particular ways, there is no set of characteristics that defines phenomena objectively—whether it is through forms, categories, mathematical notation, or concepts. Kuhn therefore assimilates Wittgenstein’s insight into the relativism of language with the relativism that paradigms pose in regards to accessing the noumenal or a priori realm of knowledge about phenomena in the natural world:

No language thus restricted to reporting a world fully known in advance can produce mere neutral and objective reports on “the given.” Philosophical investigation has not yet provided even a hint of what a language able to do that would be like.15

Similar to the way language operates, paradigms employ certain rules that determine the methods by which a scientific practice is pursued, and this determines the presuppositions and the gestalt through which this practice accumulates knowledge about the world. At the same time, Kuhn makes an explicit distinction between rules and paradigms, by claiming that there are no “shared rules” but only “shared paradigms”16. In linguistic terms, this implies that there are no concrete rules within two languages that fully assimilate to each other, but rather, only languages along with their complete grammar and vocabulary can attempt to find a shared avenue in-between. But a rule in one language is never fully coherent if employed within another language. If the same analogy is applied to paradigms, then a rule under one paradigm cannot be fully re-ascribed within another paradigm. This is why Kuhn concludes that there can be no “shared rules”, since each rule by definition, is ascribed to and within a framework; whereas paradigms can be shared because they already employ a set of devices that consists of a multiplicity of rules. However, even if a phenomena is described according to the interpretation of a couple competing paradigms, the question regarding objectivity still stands since an observation is nevertheless viewed according to the metaphysical presuppositions that each one of these paradigms employ. In other words, each paradigm will employ their gestalt onto the observed phenomena, while perpetuating relativism17.

In the example of a pendulum, Kuhn demonstrates how an interpretation of the same observed phenomena can perform a “gestalt switch” if one transitions from an Aristotelian to a Galilean interpretation of a pendulum: according to the former gestalt, a pendulum is in a constant innate fall, a ‘striving’ force that originates within the pendulum itself; according to the later gestalt, a pendulum is a structure that oscillates between free fall and a kinetic motion, both which are subjected to a universal force that exists outside the pendulum itself 18. The switch of gestalts therefore not only alters the way observational data is interpreted, it re-defines the very essence of this observational data. Very often, this change in the interpretation of phenomena is altered to a point where the rules employed under an old paradigm can no longer be commensurable with the rules employed by the new paradigm. The case is similar in regards to competing paradigms as well.

So far, it was demonstrated above how the character of scientific progress remains ambiguous since there is no absolute objective criteria that can characterize scientific progress: each paradigm has its own problem-solving framework under which progress is relativisticly evaluated, a progress under one paradigm can entail a crisis for its competing paradigm, etc. What remains at stake behind this character of paradigms is the problem of objectivity which arises out of the pre-assumptions that a certain paradigm framework makes—which frequently constitutes the gestalt of the paradigm itself. But are not these metaphysical prepositions part of the ‘language game’ nature of paradigms themselves? If so, then paradigms must also be critical of their own metaphysical pre-assumptions and attempt to theorize and account for their shaky foundations, as apposed to focusing solely on the problem-solving aspect within their paradigm. As Kuhn demonstrates, scientists frequently work on models that they pick up from education and literature, while not needing to first understand “what characteristics have given these models the status of community paradigms”19. Here again, paradigms take the form of a Wittgensteinian ‘language game’ where the problem-solving framework of a paradigm already makes metaphysical presumptions about the subject-matter it deals with. Based on these somewhat unquestioned understandings about the world, phenomena is ascribed and characterized by the problem-solving language game of a given paradigm. Metaphysical conceptions about the world—such as conceiving chemical reactions as “transmutations”20, or Leibnitz who conceived matter as substance that goes through continuous phases of “metamorphosis”(Discourse)—become almost completely ignored or blatantly presupposed and uninvestigated. When these metaphysical problems are put under question they are frequently rejected as ‘metaphysical’21 or deemed ‘unscientific’22 mostly for the sake of escaping questions that may potentially undermine a paradigm’s problem-solving framework.

The objectivity of an observation is also a question that may hang in the air, particularly in regards to how a particular phenomena is conceptualized under an overarching theory. If a scientist’s point of view is non-objectifiable, what does it entail when it is presupposed that science can provide an account of phenomena that is objective? On one hand, the assumption of objectivity of phenomena hinges one a wide range of metaphysical presuppositions, such as the one that postulates that scientific measurements and interpretations entail more objective validity than subjective, first-person observations. Kuhn does not exclude the fact that certain discoveries that scientists make, are also based on the phenomenological makeup of the scientist themselves: “[the] particular conclusions he does arrive at are probably determined by his prior experience in other fields, by the accidents of his investigation, and by his own individual makeup”23. Further, Kuhn gives an example of a duckrabbit, an image which demonstrates how “two men with same retinal impressions can see different things”24. Paradoxes such as these, further complicate any assertion and claim to objectivity: since one paradigm can attempt to formulate rules and criteria that attempt to prove that a duckrabbit is indeed a rabbit, while its adjacent paradigm will come up with rules and criteria that will attempt to prove that a duckrabbit is a duck; both paradigms will remain in place for as long they maintain a large enough consensus, so it would be only a matter of judgment and preference for accepting either one, and not a matter of objectivity and fact. A similar problem occurs among scientists who operate under different fields and paradigms such as the physicist and the chemist, who disagree on whether helium must be counted as an atom or a molecule:

For the chemist the atom of helium was a molecule because it behaved like one with respect to the kinetic theory of gases. For the physicist, on the other hand, the helium atom was not a molecule because it displayed no molecular spectrum25.

Although in this case the problem lies in the incommensurability of descriptions and rules that lie under two different conceptual frameworks (chemistry and physics), it demonstrates how an assumption about the possibility of an objective account can turn out to be problematic. On one hand, there is the problem with paradigms that employ their own ‘language games’ and problem solving frameworks under which phenomena is described, on the other, it is also a problem of relativism of the phenomenological perspective under which phenomena is observed. The problem of objectifying ones phenomenological impression and observation is referred to as a yet to be expected advent of an “observation-language” which would solve the three-hundred year old Cartesian problem that remains stagnated in the incommensurability of the theory of perception and the mind (Ibid.). Although this account is indeed taken into consideration by historians of science who seek to re-construct the subjectivity of a discoverer and attempt to interpret their discovery through the discover’s point of view, it also introduces a grander question in regards to what can an objective scientific observation may be. Kuhn believes that discoveries like oxygen require a new kind of vocabulary that describe such discoveries as a collection of experiences and observations that scientists have lived through, as apposed to a singular rupture that occurred somewhere on a timeline of empirical history26.

In bringing up three main points regarding the question of the definition of progress, language, and the objectifiability of the observational perspective; sought to pose the question the claims to objectivity, truth and fact, as well as the metaphysical presumptions that certain paradigms make. Since science according to Kuhn, is a constant strife towards truth and knowledge about the world, which occurs through paradigm shifts and scientific revolutions; it is tempting to presuppose that science is a linear process that accumulates ever more knowledge about the world, which improves the capacity of science to make predictions and calculations. However, Kuhn account of science provides a view that resembles an expanding balloon that does not necessarily have a defined direction; it resembles a dialectical nature, where paradigms are like Aristotelian ‘things-in-themselves’ that come in opposition with one another and together constitute a motion of history that is rather dialectical. Given the ‘language game’ nature of paradigms, the emergence of ever new paradigms along with the rules they contain, demonstrates that scientific progress rather resembles an expansion of methods, frameworks, theory, language and vocabulary for designating and ascribing phenomena. Within these various ways of describing phenomena, certain metaphysical presuppositions are included, but also excluded—within a natural world that ultimately may not be objectively reconstituted through paradigms their rules, concepts, and criteria.

Works Cited

Kuhn, Thomas S., and Ian Hacking. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The University of Chicago Press, 2012.

  1. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012), p.7 

  2. Kuhn, p. 7 

  3. Kuhn, p. 11 

  4. Kuhn, p. 79 

  5. Kuhn, p.169 

  6. Kuhn, p.161 (Emphasis my own) 

  7. Plato, Euthyphro, 10a 

  8. Kuhn, p.103 

  9. Kuhn, p.19 

  10. Kuhn, p.169 

  11. Kuhn, p.168 

  12. Kuhn, p.52 

  13. Kuhn, p.28 

  14. Kuhn, p.45 

  15. Kuhn, p.127 

  16. Kuhn, pp. 42-3 

  17. Kuhn, p. 112, 120 

  18. Kuhn, p. 121 

  19. Kuhn, p.46 

  20. Kuhn, p.41 

  21. Kuhn, p.37 

  22. Kuhn, p.103 

  23. Kuhn, p.4 

  24. Kuhn, p.126 

  25. Kuhn, p.51 

  26. Kuhn, p.55