DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Thomas Samuel Kuhn (1922-1996)
Once in a while someone has an insight about the nature of the world which revolutionises the way others think. One such was Thomas Kuhn, an American philosopher, linguist and science historian, who introduced the concept of the paradigm shift.

His original discipline was physics, for which he received a PhD from the University of California in 1956. He remained in academia for the rest of his life, first at Princeton University and then at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The most famous of his five books was outlined while he was still a graduate student at Harvard University. It was first published in the Encyclopedia of Unified Science and then in book form as The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962. More than a million copies later it remains a standard work for students and many others.

Until Kuhn wrote his book, popular ideas about truth had been divided between two camps - with not much common ground between them. On one hand were those who thought of truth as delivered by revelation from God through religion; on the other were those who thought that science had all the answers that mattered.

Kuhn's focus was on the latter type of knowledge. It wasn't that scientific knowledge was incorrect, he wrote, but rather that it was probably not as certain and final as some thought. The prevailing idea of science at the time was that it was a cumulative acquisition of truths. Each piece of knowledge rested upon what had gone before. None made sense without what had already been established.

In that sense, science could be seen as similar to religious knowledge. Christian doctrine, for example, is also built upon the past. The Bible and the insights of the Church together make up the body of what human beings know about God's work in the world. While we may today refine and redirect those truths, traditional theology asserts their ultimate validity.

Kuhn saw beyond the received wisdom about science and realised that far from being an accumulation of knowledge, it is better characterised as a series of revolutions which replace the received wisdom of normal science. These revolutions don't destroy past scientific findings. Rather, they place them in a totally new context in which the scientist's world view is changed for ever.

If we examine the structure of scientific knowledge carefully, said Kuhn, we'll see that it comprises what he termed "paradigms" or groupings of mutual beliefs and conclusions which structure and govern the way we perceive problems and attempt to find their solutions. He was later criticised for giving the word "paradigm" too wide a reference. 

Kuhn's problem was finding a word to use for a more complex idea than the dictionary definition as "example or pattern". He could either expand the meaning of an existing word, or invent a new one as other philosophers have so often, with indifferent results. He chose the former option. Perhaps the accusation is made by those with too shallow a perception of truth to comprehend the power of Kuhn's insight.

Scientific revolutions or paradigm shifts are "tradition-shattering complements to the tradition-bound activity of normal science", he thought. In other words, most normal scientific activity takes place within accepted paradigms. According to Kuhn

The man who is striving to solve a problem defined by existing knowledge and technique is not just looking around. He knows what he wants to achieve, and he designs his instruments and directs his thoughts accordingly. [1]

Kuhn pointed out that, much as many conventional scientists don't like it, there are always some puzzling aspects of the received knowledge of existing science. Certain anomalies appear from time-to-time regardless of how widely certain methods and solutions are accepted.

Such anomalies are often merely pushed aside as inconvenient or of little or no consequence to the broader paradigm. At a certain point, however, someone takes notice of the anomalies and attempts to explain them. From that struggle to find answers there occasionally emerges an insight which leads to a totally new approach to scientific problem-solving in which "... a scientist's world is qualitatively transformed ... by fundamental novelties of either fact or theory" (my italics).

Kuhn uses the well-known instance of Copernicus' hypothesis that the earth revolves around the sun - a suggestion which contradicted the received Ptolemaic theory that the sun, the planets and the stars revolve around the earth. In due course, Copernicus' suggestion became in turn the "normal science" of the day. This normal science was once again fundamentally shifted when Albert Einstein proposed that space and time are not separate aspects of the physical, but aspects of a single phenomenon - the space/time continuum.

Similar paradigm switches are going on constantly in all disciplines. In other words, Kuhn has stumbled upon a basic social process through which changes occur in the ways in which humans conceive of their environment.

For example, one such paradigm shift has recently come about largely unnoticed by most people. For three hundred years it has been a foundational assumption by astronomers that "empty" space lies between the billions of heavenly bodies which make up our universe. This "space" contains some gases, very few particles of dust and a few rogue rocks.

Quite recently calculations aided by computers have found that if this standard scientific paradigm is correct, at least 80% of the universe's mass is missing. The sums just don't add up. A resulting proposal is that unidentified substances called "dark matter" and "dark energy" must make up the difference. We don't know what they are but the new paradigm is already yielding data which suggests that both do in fact exist and can be indirectly detected. Our universe has suddenly and unpredictably become full rather than nearly empty.

Another example of a potential paradigm shift might be the discovery in 2011 of particles which seem to travel faster then the speed of light. If this finding is confirmed, physics must transform itself to continue to make sense of the universe.

What has not been remarked upon is that Kuhn's thesis is in effect a new paradigm about paradigms. It is what is sometimes called "meta-knowledge". It says something about the way we know the world through paradigms. Whereas Kuhn focused on scientific knowledge, it turns out that no knowledge is immune to paradigm shifts. They affect not only science but also every other discipline we can think of.

There is consequently an increasing effort in many disciplines to see past prevailing paradigms in the hope of opening up entirely new fields of knowledge. 

In commerce and industry, for example, it is rapidly becoming standard practice to examine even the most established ideas. A constant temptation is to apply standard paradigms to all intellectual challenges. But it is being recognised that survival in the world of business requires genuine acceptance that everything is in flux. The motto is rightly, "Adapt or die!" No organisation survives for long if it will not adapt to changes in its environment. 

A well-known business myth illustrates this. The story goes that a marketing consultant was asked to solve the problem of reduced sales of a popular brand of toothpaste. Having agreed a hefty fee, he listened carefully to the pros and cons of branding, tube design and taste - to name but a few of the many factors brought up. His answer was paradigm-breaking: "Make the hole bigger". With one stroke he had penetrated past all the received paradigms of the debate.

It is the suggestion that paradigm shifts are an integral part of the way we think which makes many Christians distinctly tetchy. For if Kuhn's insight stands up to examination in years to come - and there is every reason to think it will - the Church may find itself unable to adapt its doctrines to radically changed paradigmatic world. 

The only alternative to paradigm shifts might be a quasi-fundamentalist insistence that Christian teachings are effectively cast in concrete poured 1500 years ago, and thus unlike any other forms of human knowledge. Along that way lies fundamentalism, which asserts that Christians can tinker with the nuts and bolts. But the underlying doctrinal constructs can't be changed significantly because they depend for their validity on once-and-for-all revelations direct from God via the Bible or Church authorities.

And if shifts in Christian paradigms are ruled out, a great gulf appears to open up, slowly or quickly, between Christianity and all modern human thought. 

However, it is now broadly agreed that conceptual changes wrought by the Enlightenment over the past three centuries have fundamentally changed the way the world is perceived. At present this cultural paradigm shift embraces a minority, mainly in Western cultures. But it appears to be rapidly (in terms of the normal pace of cultural changes) spreading around the entire planet. Karen Armstrong sums it up. The culture of the West is

... an essentially twentieth-century movement ... which has since taken root in other parts of the world. The West has developed an entirely unprecedented and wholly different type of civilization ... [which] has changed the world. Nothing - including religion - can ever be the same again. All over the globe, people have ... been forced to reassess their religious traditions, which were designed for an entirely different type of society. [2]

Kuhn prefers the term "paradigm shift". But I think "paradigm switch" is more in tune with the radical and revolutionary change in conceptual orientation he was describing in relation to science. 

The change from one paradigm to another is not like a train shifting its position as it goes over a set of points onto another track. Rather, it is like a train somehow switching or jumping from one railway line onto another without going through a set of points. Some coaches may not make the switch. In that case they crash or coast on until they eventually stop - rather like people (and organisations and cultures) who refuse to engage with, and absorb, paradigm switches.

In later years, Kuhn was accused of relativism. The accusation makes sense only if one approaches Kuhn's work from a paradigm in which absolute or final truth is available to humanity in some form or other - perhaps such as "Murder is always wrong" or a similar moral absolute.

But if cultures or organisations are defined by their ruling paradigms, there is a sense in which, in relation to each other, they are merely different rather than "wrong" or "incorrect". For example, the ancient way of regarding God as a person to whom each one of us relates like a subject relates to a king isn't intrinsically wrong, however offensive it is to some. But it may be increasingly "unusable" in a rapidly-emerging global culture in which social authority often takes guises other than kingship.

Kuhn responded to charges of relativism in a 1969 Postscript to his book by suggesting that all scientists, regardless of the normal scientific paradigms they employ, are essentially puzzle-solvers. Science is therefore like biological development in that it is uni-directional and irreversible.

Later scientific theories are better than earlier ones  for solving puzzles ... That is not a relativist's position, and it displays the sense in which I am a convinced believer in scientific progress. [1]

There is a real sense, says Kuhn, in which new paradigms may be not only more useful, but also a genuinely better way of representing what nature is really like. Despite this, thinks Kuhn, there is

... no theory-independent way to reconstruct phrases like "really there"; the notion of a match between ... a theory and its "real" counterpart ... seems to me illusive in principle. [1]

This implies that, unlike science, our perceptions about "what is" ("ontology") are not uni-directional and irreversible like science, but in constant flux. This might mean, writes Kuhn, that

... in some important respects ... Einstein's general theory of relativity is closer to Aristotle's than either of them is to Newton's. [1]

In other words non-scientific or quasi-scientific disciplines modify their ruling paradigms in a more volatile, unpredictable and non-linear fashion than do those of science. 

But, more importantly, Kuhn's paradigm about paradigms leads inexorably to a conception of human knowledge as a vast system. Its patterns are constantly changing - rather like a kaleidoscope or a complex, multi-coloured, randomly-generated screen-saver on a computer monitor. Science according to this model is not an assembly of paradigms which rules all others, but only one amongst many. The universe of all paradigms is an inter-linked web, in which all paradigms constantly affect and modify each other.

Like all systems, the web of human paradigms is self-correcting. If a dysfunctional paradigm appears, it must eventually disintegrate - if only because those who use it can't survive for long in the larger system we loosely call "nature".

Kuhn acknowledges his debt to this all-embracing system of human knowledge. If he has done anything new, he says, it is to apply to science an insight already common in other disciplines. The idea of paradigms is

... borrowed from other fields ... [which have] long described their subjects in the same way. Periodization in terms of revolutionary breaks in style, taste, and institutional structure have been among their standard tools. If I have been original ... it has been by applying them to the sciences, fields which had been widely thought to develop in a different way. [1]

It seems to me that Kuhn's usefulness has been to bring into full consciousness a primary way in which we humans construe our environment via all our intellectual endeavours - including religion and including the so-called "eternal" verities of the Christian faith.
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[1] The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 1996
[2] The Battle For God, HarperCollins, 2001

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