“What is the paradigm?” “We need a new paradigm.” “The emerging paradigm.” Ever heard these phrases before? Paradigm is one of the most well worn words in politics, business management, education, and a host of other areas, not to mention science. I don’t know if the word originated with him, but the one who certainly gave life to the term was Thomas S. Kuhn in his, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, first published in 1962. I first encountered this work in a sociological theory class more than twenty years ago and I still count it one of the most important books I have ever read.
Kuhn demonstrates that a paradigm, in science, is a model for how some aspect of the physical world operates. The paradigm guides assumptions scientists make about the interrelatedness of various phenomena. Paradigms often start out as loosely defined models with many loose ends. Scientists test theories informed by the paradigm in order to verify accuracy and further refine the details.
Over time, anomalies begin to emerge. Scientists struggle to understand what these anomalies mean. Sometimes it simply means making adjustments to an existing paradigm. Other times, the anomalies just will not fit.
Eventually, some scientist, or group of scientists, will get a vision for a different paradigm. They begin to test hypotheses. As the new paradigm emerges and shows greater ability to predict results and account for past anomalies, more scientist come on board. However, old paradigms do not die easily and often there is an extended period of dueling paradigms before one prevails. Even when one does prevail, there is often an ever decreasing minority that holds to the old paradigm for an extended period.
One of the key points of Kuhn’s work is that science is a distinctly human enterprise. Yes, scientists do (and should) make every effort to be objective in their research. But true objectivity is never fully achievable. This is especially true in the human sciences but it is true in the physical sciences as well. For instance, the scientist that has invested decades of his or her life in one paradigm may find it hard to surrender to emergence of a new paradigm. It is possible for the leaders of a scientific community whose prestige has been based on the success of an old paradigm, will unite to oppose new paradigms. Personal or philosophical reasons may deter a scientist from embracing certain paradigms. Many scientific endeavors require significant outside funding and the contributors may have agendas that militate against the acceptance of new paradigms. In such cases, the researcher could stand to lose his or her livelihood, reputation, and, in some extreme cases, life.
Furthermore, the impression often given of scientific work is the picture of the diligent researcher, recording data, and methodically assembling theoretical models through deduction. Kuhn doesn’t discount the use of deductive reasoning but maintains that much more is going on. Deduction is reasoning from general observations to a specific event. Induction is reasoning from specific events to broader reality. Kuhn shows that a big part of science is what he calls abduction.
In psychology, there is the idea of a gestalt. One sees pieces of picture and suddenly a complete picture bursts on the mind that fills in the missing pieces. This is essentially abductive reasoning. Kuhn would argue that this is precisely the way many scientific discoveries are made. The scientist will go back and test the missing pieces for validity, of course, but it does not change that fact that most new understanding comes through the highly creative use of abduction.
All of this is to say that science is not a magical high priestly phenomenon that the Modernist era often portrayed and some scientists sought to foster. It is a fallible human enterprise. It has also been one the most transforming enterprises in the history of humanity over the few centuries and especially in the last hundred years.
So what does all this mean for Christianity?