Kuhn's "Paradigm" & "Normal Science"

(Note: This was originally written and intended for an exam in a graduate course in philosophy.)

Thomas Kuhn is remembered for his infamous introduction of "paradigms" to philosophy of science. Essential to every paradigm is the process of "normal science," but paradigms can also shift via a scientific "revolution." It is Kuhn’s premise that science does not build upon itself in a linear progression, but by leaps and bounds; and, such progressions are not dictated by empiricism alone, but by a mixture of elements contained within a paradigm. In this essay, I address the role of Kuhn’s paradigm in science, and specifically at how a paradigm allows normal science to do its job, and the importance that normal science has to the scientific discipline.

To understand Kuhn, one must understand a paradigm. Unfortunately, a paradigm is a very nebulous construct that entails almost everything, being dependent on all which makes it up, but not dependent on any one piece in particular. A paradigm is a conglomeration of all of the background that affects how science operates, what questions it can ask, and what answers it can provide.

If there were a "most important" piece of a given paradigm, it would be the guiding principles and ontological assumptions of the science functioning within the paradigm. Such principles define what problems exist, and how they are to be solved. Yet, such guidance is unwritten and unconscious. For example, we currently view atoms as having the bulk of their mass in a very dense region at their centers, and are surrounded by electrons which help to define the spatial nature of the atom. When an atomic or nuclear physicist does experiments or produces new theory, this structure is assumed and informs the procedures that can be undertaken. If an atom were structured with vacuums at each center and surrounded by an elastic goo, the procedures and explanations of atomic physics would be quite different. Yet, we never consider, "Damn, what if the atom really doesn’t look like this?" The scientist, unconsciously, uses his prior conception of the atom to provide a background for his work. If the scientist always had to question if his underlying assumptions were correct, he would never get anything done.

The underlying social/political/historical institutions of the scientist’s environment also shape the paradigm. This makes scientists uneasy, for it allows for science to be influenced from the "outside," making it less objective than scientists would like to admit. Yet, this is quite apparent if one simply looks at the publication process in science. When a scientist comes up with something he is particularly fond of and deems it worthy of public scrutiny, he typically sends it off for publication, where it is reviewed by anonymous peers. Such review processes are part of the political structure inherent to the scientific paradigms of our time. A grander society of scientists could see the eventual publication, where it would again be up for more scrutiny, this time before a grander audience. Some (albeit only a few) scientific discoveries could make it to the public arena, where the social norms of the greater society have the potential to not only critique the discovery, but also to shape future scientific research in the same area. For example, the greater society will take more interest in research being done on a cure for cancer than it might in the mating rituals of slugs. Such a choice is based on the values of the society which shapes the paradigm. Such values feed back into science, especially when one considers that funding for scientific inquiry largely comes from public dollars.

A paradigm is also shaped by the very traditions of the science itself. The history of the science and the training which new scientists undergo help to form the future of the science. In addition to the physical instruments and mathematical methods of a paradigm, science training shapes how science will proceed. Kuhn is careful to point out that the science of textbooks is discrepant from real science, for it gives a reconstructed view of science in order to present budding scientists of the best examples that could be used to teach the discipline. While a paradigm and the science contained in this paradigm are shaped by "textbook science," they almost certainly do not necessarily reflect it in practice.

Basically, a paradigm provides the scientist with all of the necessary tools to conduct normal science. This is important, since it is in normal science that science makes any progressive gains. Once a paradigm is established, a scientist can get to work, not having to worry about his ontological assumptions or how to establish a means of communication — all of these features are already characterized by the paradigm. In addition, the questions that remained to be answered are also laid out by the paradigm. Thus, scientists currently have a paradigm that supports the theory of general relativity, but many tests still remain to be made in general relativity. Yet, such tests can only be conducted within this paradigm, for it is the workshop containing all of the necessary tools for the particular science and questions asked by the science.

Strangely in this workshop, no work can be done before all of the tools have been collected and arranged, even though only a few tools will be used at a time. That is, a paradigm must be complete before science can work within it. In addition, one cannot work from more than one workshop at a time, for the two have completely different problems, sets of tools, training, etc. In Kuhn’s view, there is no shifting between paradigms, and certainly no place to exist "in between" paradigms. Similarly, the mechanics in the shop are products, as well of components, of the representative paradigm. They have been trained to use the tools in the shop, and to work on the cars currently driving on the road. Certainly, some cars have not yet broken down, but they have the tools and skills to address these cars once they come in. For the time being, they continue to work on car after car until all of the cars are fixed and tuned, via the use of the tools and skills representative of the paradigm.

It is in normal science that anything actually gets done. In normal science, the paradigm is already pre-formed, providing a foundation of theories, ontological assumptions, and procedures with which to work. If such foundational aspects had to be re-created in every instance that science was done, the process would be even less efficient than it currently is. In this sense, paradigms streamline the process of science, so long as normal science does not encounter major stumbling blocks that contradict its foundations.

Kuhn attempts to make the point that all of the work of science is done in the puzzle solving activities of normal science. Any set of theories is useless and non-progressive until it has been pushed to its extremes, searching for applicability to the grandest extent. Just as individuals spend most of their time figuring out the fine details of their lives, rather than pursuing grandiose, life changing issues, science also is spending most of its time looking for the intricate details and applicability that a given paradigm provides for. Thus, the consequences and details of quantum mechanics are still being tuned, despite decades of the paradigm’s existence. Likewise, the paradigm that promoted an Earth centered view of the Universe lasted thousands of years and was promoted by some of the greatest thinkers of Western culture (e.g.: Aristotle, Ptolemy, Tycho Brahe, etc.).

Certainly the traditional emphasis on Kuhn has been in regards to his idea of "revolutionary science," or "paradigm shifts." Others would argue that this is where scientific "progress" is made. However, a paradigm shift is anything but progressive. In Kuhn’s view, science does not have the ability to point itself in a progressive direction — to make an upward jump towards something "better" — when a paradigm is overturned. Rather, the science redefines itself, its tools, and its assumptions. A case in point is when the physics community shifted from Newtonian physics to relativistic physics. This jump was certainly not made in order to make the science more productive or more useful, for if this were the intent, a huge mistake was made. Newtonian physics is incredibly useful for designing cars and skyscrapers, while relativity would be tremendously cumbersome to apply to the same problems. Likewise, putting a satellite in orbit around the Earth is a problem easily solved utilizing Newton’s law of universal gravitation, but becomes much more tedious if one were to apply the complications of general relativity. We must point out that building cars and launching rockets is not science, though. The actual feat of building a skyscraper, while potentially based on particular concepts of science, is not in and of itself a scientific endeavor, for it does not search out new explanations or try to find more pieces of the puzzle to be fit into place. While engineers may continue to apply the works of paradigms past, science will work solely in the newfound and incompletely charted theoretical framework of the latest paradigm. Thus, engineers continue to design bridges, yet scientists search for "frame dragging" and other predictions made in the theory of general relativity and the paradigm inside of which it fits. The switch in paradigms means that science must address new issues that do not necessarily have apparent relevance to our everyday lives. When Newton proposed his laws of motion and gravitation, the application of these was likely just as non-apparent as the applications of general relativity are today.

As a scientist, Kuhn was acutely aware that revolutionary science was anything but enjoyable for anyone but the historians and philosophers. Revolutionary science is torturous and painful, for it shakes all of the confidence that science has in its present theories and underlying paradigms. Surely, Kuhn would be happy to allow the slow but efficient wheels of normal science to turn, producing fine discoveries and uncovering intimate details, at least until these pile into an avalanche of discrepancies and trigger the inevitable but unpredictable paradigm shift.

RETURN to Physics of the Mundane . . .