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
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. 
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
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
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
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. 
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
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. 
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
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
... 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. 
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
our intellectual endeavours - including religion and including the
so-called "eternal" verities of the Christian faith.
 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,
University of Chicago Press, 1996
 The Battle For God, HarperCollins, 2001