A Kuhnian Re-Threading of the Needle

Photo by Filip Gielda on Unsplash

It is 3 a.m. Dutifully, my phone replays “Questions In a World of Blue” by Julee Cruise for what seems like the millionth time. My headphones have long since broken, so Cruise’s soothing, yet haunting, voice now just sounds tinny. 

I think that everyone has gone through a sort of mental funk this past year. It’s probably inevitable, what with the backdrop of a pandemic and the bleak reality of fascism. I’d like to think that I’ve handled it better, but then I would be shoving the record of my horrendous lack of self-care under my bed. 

I would not say that I’ve had the typical life experiences. You could probably put me in a room with a psychiatrist and they would be able to get a couple of pages of interesting notes – something to pore over on a dull night, at the very least (and haven’t we had a surplus of dull nights during the pandemic?). But the crux of the matter is that I feel like I’ve lost the thread. 

What do I mean? Well, certainly the aforementioned pandemic-fascism backdrop has not helped, but I think I have found myself floundering in terms of the meaning of life. Specifically, my life. In general, most people would say that they want their lives to have meaning. In order for lives to have meaning, they have to be somewhat cohesive. Imagine that our lives are like stories. We don’t understand stories, or at least, we have trouble understanding stories when they seem to have no clear plotline. 

So when I say that I feel as though I have lost the thread, I mean that I feel as if the story arc of my life has disappeared – although, maybe it was never there to begin with. Instead, I am left with a jarring sense of disembodied memories and of voices with no clear speaker. It is all very Proustian, but instead of biting into a madeline and thinking of my mother fondly, I look out the window at the snow and am filled with the sense that my life has fallen apart. 

Obviously, one might imagine that this is a rather untenable condition. Something must be done to alleviate it – something meaningful must be found. Still, it was not evidently clear what I should do. How does one find a story arc in a 19 year-long, confused story? And, why should there be such clear parallelism between my life and a story – why should there be unifying themes whatsoever? Maybe things really were meaningless. 

Such were my thoughts as I wandered from my campus and, as Edgar Allen Poe wrote, “Back into my chamber turning, all my soul within me burning.” I should know better though than to hopelessly despair as if I had no philosophy professors who end up counseling me, even if rather indirectly. 

I am currently taking Philosophy of Science with Dr. Sperry. One of the essential issues we are tackling in the class is how to demarcate science and non-science. In other words, how can we distinguish science from other non-scientific fields of inquiry? What is science? 

One of the most compelling ways to speak of science is through a framework proposed by the philosopher Thomas Kuhn. He described his “paradigmatic normal science” as the way of understanding science as a field of inquiry in “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” one of the required readings for the class.

I will not go into excruciating detail about the arguments presented in the book, but I will touch upon the major conclusions because they unexpectedly led me to a potential resolution to my own personal crisis.

Arguably, we have this view of science as a field which progresses linearly and cumulatively. That is to say, the work of previous scientists can be “stacked” on top of each other, and their collective work is a tower of progress reaching further and further until finally, someday, reaching objective truth. And such a view is flawed. Science is neither so cumulative nor so linear in its progression. Instead, Kuhn proposes that most scientists work under the constraints of “normal science,” which is characterized by the fact that a community of scientists are committed to a theoretical framework: to a paradigm. 

In other words, a group of scientists doing research to progress a shared theoretical commitment (a paradigm), and not to make discoveries themselves, per se, is what constitutes scientific inquiry. The scientists work to make the nature of reality conform to a set of theoretical commitments. Normal science under a Newtonian paradigm, for example, would entail a group of scientists working to apply Newtonian principles to the natural world so that the application of these principles could be expanded. 

During scientific revolutions, one paradigm is discarded for another after the other systematically fails to work in terms of applicability and explainability of natural phenomena. The Newtonian paradigm, for example, was discarded for the Einsteinian paradigm – after a period of crisis in the scientific community – because the Newtonian paradigm could no longer be fruitfully expanded upon, elaborated and exploited. And because the Einsteinian paradigm promised greater fruitfulness, among other things. 

To sum it up: there is no “stacking” of scientists’ work. After there is a revolution, there is a major change in theoretical commitments, such that progress from one revolution to another is not linear progress whatsoever. In fact, progress made in the old paradigm – since it was made for the purposes of expanding the theoretical commitments of that paradigm – is no longer useful in a new paradigm with new theoretical commitments. There may be linear and cumulative progress under a paradigm when that paradigm is being elaborated as part of normal science, but when another revolution comes, any semblance of linearity and cumulative-ness gets washed away. 

Perhaps you can see where I am going here. In the same way that there is a tendency to cling to an erroneous view of science as a linear field of inquiry, I am trying to cling to my life as a linear story. I did, after all, ask myself why there should be parallelism between my life and a story. 

Have I not lived through various major crises? Haven’t we all in this past year alone? Why should I try to hold onto a conceptual framework that no longer explains the nature of the phenomena I experience? Shouldn’t I embrace a kind of Kuhnian paradigm shift?

Maybe my life need not be linear nor cumulative, and what I need is a new conceptual framework to begin with – a new way of embedding the symbols which I use to communicate who I am, a new way of understanding the nature of reality. And this new set of theoretical, practical and methodological life commitments need not be building on my past experiences. The measure of a good scientific paradigm is not whether it builds on other paradigms. It is whether or not it is better than other paradigms at explaining natural phenomena and predicting future occurrences. Maybe, the measure of a meaningful framework of life for me is something similar. 

Agatha Echenique

Agatha Echenique is the Chief Editor for The Hilltop Monitor. He is a senior majoring in Oxbridge: History of Ideas and Philosophy. This is his third year on staff.

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