Athenaeum Meeting Minutes – April 13, 2002 – Dog & Duck Pub

Attending:  Joel Aud, Pete Hansen, Bob Hardister, Alan Hunt, Chris Mack, Steve Pickens, Eli Pickering, Matt Thomas

Welcome to new Athenaeum members Chris and Joel.

Book for Discussion:  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas S. Kuhn


Eli: Before the discussion commenced I noted how tedious the text was, and how slow I had to read it to catch most of the details. No one seemed to agree. With that in mind, read on knowing that your note taker is the slowest man at the table, and probably least qualified for the task.

Pete/Bob: Kuhn states on pg2, “The more carefully [scientists] study, say, Aristotelian dynamics, phlogistic chemistry, or caloric thermodynamics, the more certain they feel that those once current views of nature were, as a whole, neither less scientific nor more the product of human idiosyncrasy than those current today. If these out-of-date beliefs are to be called myths, then myths can be produced by the same sorts of methods and held for the same sorts of reasons that now lead to scientific knowledge.” Early in his thesis, then, Kuhn attacks the capability of science to uncover truth.

Matt: We are fools if we believe that our science today is that much closer to "truth" than it was hundreds of years ago – that is, if we think that we have “found the absolute, final answer” to any scientific question. Put another way, equations and theories that man creates can never fully describe the behavior of God’s universe and must always inherently contain error.

Bob: Science is limited to the relationship, or more correctly, the correspondence between fact and theory.

Matt/Pete: The importance of Kuhn’s work is in his proposal of the Histographical Revolution as a mode for scientific development. Traditional conception of science involves the steady accumulation of facts. Rather, scientific development occurs through revolution.

Bob: Despite its apparent narrow sightedness, scientific advancement under the shadow of established paradigms is remarkably efficient (particularly in the 20th century).

Eli: Although Kuhn clearly shows the tremendous limits placed on science as an instrument of truth, his thesis by no means suggests scientific advancement is wandering aimlessly from one falsehood to another. Each subsequent revolution in scientific thought seem to focus the image more and more, bringing us closer the true picture of nature. For example, no where does he suggest that science would ever be tempted to return to a geocentric model of the universe.

Chris: Many in the scientific community do not appreciate Kuhn because of the subversive under currents his thesis suggests of their profession.

Eli: Is Kuhn’s thesis bound by the same shortcomings that constitute its central tenants?

Pete: No, because a theory is considered correct if it can maintain internal coherence. Thus a paradigm must also be internally consistent to be valid.

Eli: But could there not come a time when science may not develop according to the revolutionary model Kuhn suggests, thus nullifying his theory?

Pete: The distinction is this; Kuhn is not involved in scientific pursuit, but rather is redefining scientific history. Thus, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is more history than science, and so not subject to limitations in the scientific method.

Matt: Introduction to Vector Mechanics, which is the fundamental text for Mechanical Engineering at Texas A&M, teaches Newtonian mechanics because it works, not because it is the best system. Even since Einstein’s introduction of relativity engineers still use Newton’s equations when solving problems.

Alan: Kuhn really stretches his point in attempting to show “relativity” as a scientific revolution of Newton’s work. In fact Einstein can be used to derive Newton, and even if Einstein’s work had preceded Newton, we would still simplify Einstein’s equations into Newton’s because they are simpler to work with.

Chris: In almost every engineering application, any correction from relativity is far too small to be measured with our best instruments.

Matt: But scientific paradigms would have prevented us from thinking to attempt such a transformation in the first place.

Steve: The fact that we use Newton’s equations, rather than Einstein’s (even though Einstein is more correct) demonstrates the pragmatic nature of science. Pragmatism does not drive to truth. Practicality has more utility.

Matt: Thinking in paradigms is much like learning a new language. Growing up within a system of thought, just like growing up speaking a language, provides avenues of subtle meaning and understanding that are more difficult to pick up when learning later in life.

Joel: We could one day experience a revolution of sorts with chaos theory. Chaos and the economy of fractals have provided simple equations to describe complex situations, and could one day supplant both Einstein and Newton under a single model.

Matt: Introduction to Vector Mechanics refers to the principal variables of Newtonian mechanics (mass, space, time), as “quantities that can not be explained, but should just be accepted.” This illustrates the paradigm that has held fast since the 18th century.

Pete: Amazing! The text creates a Procrustean bed in which its results must fit the model, rather than the results be explained outside established paradigms.

Chris: Popper’s Falsification theory is also in play. It states that theory can not be proved right, but only proved wrong.

Eli: In Plato’s Republic Socrates describes a cave in which all men dwell, shackled to the floor staring at a cave wall on which shadows of manufactured items are cast from behind them. The cave is a metaphor for man’s lack of knowledge, and false perception of the world around him. Not only do we not know the truth about the world, or the things that compose it, but what we do know is learned from shadows of false items. Kuhn’s scientific revolutions somewhat reflect this. What does science teach man about the world? It certainly does not reveal truth in nature, but instead the apparent reality or “shadow” of nature (but only as much as that shadow seems to fit our preconceived notions of its shape and shade).

Pete: Who can answer the fundamental doubts of Hume, who said if everything we know comes from empirical research, then we can not truly know anything about the future? No inductive foundation for reality can be applied to the future. And since science is built upon a foundation of induction through observation, what justification is there to do science at all? How can we believe it?

Chris: Hume’s error is assuming knowledge is not something to be induced. Scientific induction through observation simply works, and has shown time and time again its ability to predict the future outcome of particular events.

Alan: Neils Bohr said, “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.”

Matt: God works in a predicted order, and so we can expect induction by observation to be valid.

Joel: God does not always work through ordinary means. Who would have thought His Messiah would come as an infant born in a stable?

Eli: Not to mention God’s miracles.

Pete: How can you justify science if it fails to offer a pragmatic solution other than, “it works”?

Matt: Science doesn’t have to answer the question of why it works.

Pete: But scientists should have a justification for practicing science. Some world view must be in play.

Eli: God calls us to be masters over this world. He has placed us on Earth to take dominion, and science is one avenue by which we do this.

Pete: Fine, I’ll concede a Christian World view as adequate reason for scientific pursuits, but what about secular ones? For the secular scientist, why does science work?

Chris: The answer is simply that it does works. One can always ask “why” as the next question in response to any answer.

Peter: That is infinite regress, and so not a philosophically sufficient answer. In fact that is no answer at all. The string of “whys” must eventually end because there must be a beginning. And there must be beginning for you to even be here to ask the question in the first place.

Alan: When “why?” is the only response to each successive answer, eventually you just have to tell your kid to shut up.

Bob: It comes to foundational principals. Where does ultimate authority end? The Greeks created their Pantheon of Gods as the ultimate authority.

Chris: Pete is operating under a paradigm of believing there must be a beginning.

Pete: Mathematicians insist there is a beginning because infinity can’t be applied to material things. If infinity was real in the physical world there would be an infinite number of moments before now, and so now could never happen.

Steve: Christians, too, must end their string of “whys” at some point and entrust the last answer to God.

Chris: But “God made it that way” is the Christian counterpart to the secular answer, “That’s the way it is.”

Matt: These issues are like the earth beneath the foundations of Kuhn’s arguments, and although they have provided lively debate, they have taken us off topic. Kuhn’s writing is well done. Here is an example from Chapter 6, and Kuhn’s example of accidental discovery, “[the discovery of] X-rays, is a classic case of discovery by accident, a type that occurs more frequently than the impersonal standards of scientific reporting allow us easily to realize.”

Eli: The book is tedious, and Kuhn relies too heavily on 4 examples, those being Newton’s mechanics of motion, Einstein’s theory of relativity, Copernicus’ solar system, and Lavoisier’s/Priestly’s discovery of oxygen. All these are drawn from the physical sciences, when equally strong cases of paradigm could have been taken from biological and medical science.

Joel/Chris: Al Gore said this was his favorite book (or did he say he wrote it?).

Joel: Paradigms can make the scientist uncomfortable. Einstein was never able to come to grips with quantum mechanics because he was uncomfortable with introducing uncertainty to the physical universe. Einstein said, “God does not throw dice.” [To which Bohr responded, “Not only does God throw dice, but sometimes he throws them where they cannot be seen.” – ed. comment]

Pete: The sections differentiating political revolution from scientific revolution were interesting. From Chapter 9, “Political revolutions aim to change political institutions in ways that those institutions themselves prohibit. Their success therefore necessitates the relinquishment of one set of institutions in favor of another, and in the interim, society is not fully governed by institutions at all.” Later in the chapter, “Like the choice between competing political institutions, that between competing paradigms proves to be a choice between incompatible modes of community life.”

Matt: Kuhn also states that revolution can take place within a limited community. Sometimes fewer than 25 people are affected by a paradigm shift, and so the revolution is limited in scope.

Chris: Political revolutions become chaotic when two different world views collide. Not so with scientific revolutions, because with science how do we weigh the two schools of thought?

Matt: World view so impacts our way of thinking that it colors the very questions we will ask, and the answers we will accept.

Bob: The end of Kuhn’s essay touches briefly some deeper questions, but stops short of answering them. From the closing paragraph of the final chapter Kuhn writes, “What must nature, including man, be like in order that science be possible at all? Why should scientific communities be able to reach a firm consensus unattainable in other fields? Why should consensus endure across one paradigm change after another? And why should a paradigm change invariably produce an instrument more perfect in any sense than those known before?...It is not only the scientific community that must be special. The world of which that community is a part must also possess quite special characteristics, and we are no closer than at the start to knowing what these must be.”

Matt: He touches on the moral questions of understanding through science, but provides no answers in order to lend credence to his theories.

Eli: Around page 30, Kuhn refers to the everyday data collection, what he calls the cataloging of scientific fact in an existing paradigms, is relegated to “hack work” better left to engineers and technicians. It is at that point that Kuhn lost me as a fan.

Matt: The essay brings up some very interesting points in the chapter on science as problem solving. Scientific problems are often solved within certain parameters, or “rules to the puzzle” and this helps to reinforce the paradigm by narrowing the scope of the investigation.

Pete: The enduring signature of the book is that it tells us that systems of thought tend to be the same until they fail to deal with a given situation. Take the Roman Empire as an example, which thrived on a system of thought and a way of life for centuries, until that mode failed to deal with the threat posed by the Huns and Visigoths.

Matt: The lessons of the essay are far reaching beyond the scope of science.

Eli: Kuhn’s work is not that far reaching. To apply it to political or sociological theaters is a stretch.

Pete/Matt: Even theology is imperfect and subject to paradigms. The ultimate lesson here is humility. No matter what we think we know, we should always be aware that we can know nothing that is not influenced by preconception and previous experience.

Joel/Bob: Kuhn may not be the first to recognize the paradigm as a powerful ingredient of human thought, but he is the first to make the argument in such a coherent essay.

Voting for June:**

(Joel) Guns, Germs, and Steel
(Joel) At Home in the Universe
(Joel) Paved with Good Intentions
(Pete) History of the Peloponnesian War
(Pete) Brave New World /
Abolition of Man
Huxley / 
(Pete) Aeneid
(Steve) Travels with Charlie
(Chris) The Fountainhead
(Chris) Call it Sleep
(Chris) Snow Crash
(Matt) Julius Caesar / Much Ado About Nothing
  Brightest Heaven of Invention
Shakespeare / 
(Eli) Great Expectations

** Due to the large number of books on the table, 3 votes per man were allowed.

Next Meeting:

May 11th at the Dog and Duck Pub

May:   One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

June:   Julius Caesar & Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare, with analysis from Brightest Heaven of Invention, Peter Leithart

Athenaeum Meeting Minutes