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Thomas Kuhn: Revolution Against Scientific Realism

Thomas Kuhn: Revolution Against Scientific Realism

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Published by Dr Abhas Mitra
Philosophy of Science
Philosophy of Science

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Published by: Dr Abhas Mitra on Oct 27, 2013
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Thomas Kuhn: Revolution Against ScientificRealism*
David J. Voelker
(21)Progress is a modern notion. Since the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century,Westerners have been firm believers in human progress. Only in the twentieth century has theWestern attitude of optimism been widely challenged. The major force behind the developmentof the notion of progress is modern natural science. Scientific progress has traditionally beenviewed as a cumulative process. From the origins of modern science in the work of Copernicus,Galileo, and Newton in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, until the logical empiricists of the twentieth century, scientific progress has been viewed as an evolutionary process of uncovering truth in the physical world. Underlying this acceptance of the evolutionary progressof science was scientific realism: "the thesis that the objects of scientific knowledge exist and actindependently of knowledge of them." [1] They believed that scientific concepts correspond toactual physical "entities and processes. " [2]However, in
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
, Thomas Kuhn relinquished the notion of science as truth-seeking. In place of scientific realism he substituted a non-continuous model of scientific progress that had as its goal efficient puzzle solving. In abandoning the notion thatscientists search for truth, Kuhn also abandoned scientific realism, thus challenging a definingcharacteristic of modern science since the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenthcenturies.
Modern Science: Realism, Truth, and Evolution
 Copernicus, with the 1543 publication of 
On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres
, laid thefoundation for modern science when he propounded that his sun-centered model of the universeexplained physical reality. The Aristotelian-Ptolemiac theory dominant at the time, on the other hand, was such a complex system that nobody believed that it corresponded to the physicalreality of the universe. Although the Ptolemaic system accounted for observations-"saved theappearances"-its epicycles and deferents were never intended be anything more than amathematical model to use in predicting the position of heavenly bodies. [3] As historian of science A. Rupert Hall explains, the medieval scientists, like the ancient Greeks from whom theyinherited the notion of saving appearances, (22)believed that "mathematical science could notexplain things by revealing the structure of reality and its inner logic, it could only give the possibility of predicting future results from stated antecedents." [4] Copernicus found this practice of saving appearances to be "a confession of ignorance and confusion," [5] and insteadadvocated scientific realism for his system. [6] He believed that the earth really moved. Probablyfrom fear of animosity towards his heliocentric conception of the universe, he did not publish histheory until he neared death; however, his idea of an earth in motion left a legacy of problems-"
about the nature of matter, the nature of the planets, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the natureand actions of force in relation to motion"-that would be taken up by later astronomers such asGalileo and Newton. [7]In 1610, the Italian mathematician Galileo published
The Starry Messenger 
, in which he wrote of his support for Copernican astronomy and the telescopic observations that had convinced him toaccept the heliocentric model. The reaction to Galileo reveals the strength of the opposition torealism. Many scientists opposed him because they believed that the telescope deceived their eyes, or they did not find the empirical evidence to be relevant. [8] In 1616, the Church addedCopernicus's
 De Revolutionibus
to the
 Index of Forbidden Books
, condemning the section wherehe stated that the motion of the Earth was a physical reality. [9] At that time, CardinalBellarmine, representing the Inquisition, informed Galileo that he was free to continue his work with Copernican theory if he agreed that the theory did not describe physical reality but wasmerely one of the many potential mathematical models. [10] Galileo continued to work, andwhile he "formally (23)claimed to prove nothing," [11] he passed his mathematical advances andhis observational data to Newton, who would not only invent a new mathematics but would solvethe remaining problems posed by Copernicus. [12] Newton, with his "Natural Philosophy," proposed a new scientific method. Newton's methodconsisted of "general induction from phenomena" and resulted in knowledge that was "accuratelyor very nearly true." [13] Like Copernicus and Galileo, he was a realist and "arguedstraightforwardly that universal gravity 'really exists."' [14] In his "Rules of Reasoning inPhilosophy," he showed his belief that science uncovered physical realities when he insisted thatscientists not hypothesize outside the bounds of empirical evidence: "induction may not beevaded by hypotheses." [15] Although he would "frame no hypotheses" [16] about the cause of gravity, because he could make no observations of the cause, he insisted that gravity was a real phenomena and that his laws accurately described the effects of gravity. Thus without pretendingthat his method could find the underlying causes of things such as gravity, Newton believed thathis method produced theory, based upon empirical evidence, that was a close approximation of  physical reality.The notion of scientific realism was perhaps crucial to the development of modern science.Medieval science was guided by "logical consistency." [17] In order to move beyond Aristotelianscience, the new goal of discovering physical reality was needed. Edward Grant, historian of medieval science, argues that the idea of a "quest for physical reality" was a necessity for a newscience to replace Aristotelianism. [18] As historian of eighteenth-century science A. Rupert Hallconcludes, the idea of "scientific truth" furnished the "metaphysical substrate"-the intellectualfoundation-that produced the scientific revolution. [19] Newtonian science, during the eighteenth-century Enlightenment it helped create, led to theevolutionary notion of progress that permeated the thought of the time and became standardthroughout the next century. The Enlightenment view of the universe as a precise machinegoverned by knowable, absolute laws supported an idea of progress that was continuous andcumulative, (24)with each new piece of knowledge adding to the last; the structures and processes of the physical world could be uncovered by means of observation and reason.Although scientific knowledge was not held to be certain, it was assumed that with each new
discovery science moved a step closer to representing accurately physical reality. Scientists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries inherited both scientific realism and the evolutionaryunderstanding of scientific progress.The logical empiricists of the twentieth century represent the final school of support for scientificrealism and the evolutionary development of science. As the name, "logical empiricist" implies,this movement combined induction, based on empiricism, and deduction in the form of logic.Carl Hempel, one of the later advocates of logical empiricism, in
 Philosophy of Natural Science
 (1966) argued against those who "deny the existence of 'theoretical entities' or regard theoreticalassumptions about them as ingeniously contrived fictions." [20] Although Hempel recognizedthat many theoretical entities and processes cannot be directly observed (e. g. gravity cannot beobserved; only the effects of gravity can be observed), as a scientific realist he believed that atheory well-confirmed by experiment translated to a high probability that the entities and processes of the theory really did exist.Because of his belief in scientific realism, Hempel also believed that science evolved in acontinuous manner. New theory did not contradict past theory: "theory does not simply refute theearlier empirical generalizations in its field; rather, it shows that within a certain limited rangedefined by qualifying conditions, the generalizations hold true in fairly close approximation."[21] New theory is more comprehensive; the old theory can be derived from the newer one and isone special manifestation" [22] of the more comprehensive new theory. The logical empiricistswould agree, for instance, that Newtonian physics is a special case of, and can be derived from,Einsteinian physics. The logical empiricist's conception of scientific progress was thus acontinuous one; more comprehensive theory replaced compatible, older theory. Each successivetheory's explanation was closer to the truth than the theory before. It was the truth, and the prediction and control that came with it, that was the goal of logical-empirical science.The notion of scientific realism held by Newton led to the evolutionary view of the progress of science. The entities and processes of theory were believed to exist in nature, and science shoulddiscover those entities and processes. The course of nineteenth- and twentieth-century scienceeventually threatened the idea of scientific realism. Particularly disturbing discoveries were madein the area of atomic physics. For instance, Heisenberg's indeterminacy (25)principle, accordingto historian of science Cecil Schneer, yielded the conclusion that "the world of nature isindeterminate. The behavior of the particle is uncertain and therefore the behavior of the atom isan uncertainty." [23] Thus at the atomic level, "even the fundamental principle of causalityfail[ed] ." [24] Despite these problems, it was not until the second half of the twentieth centurythat the preservers of the evolutionary idea of scientific progress, the logical empiricists, wereseriously challenged. Although Thomas Kuhn was not the first critic of traditional views of science, his work held the most important implications about the rationality of science. [25]
Thomas Kuhn: Revolution Against Scientific Realism
 In 1962 a new historiography-of-science emerged with Thomas Kuhn's
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
, first published as part of the "Foundations of the Unity of Science" series.In his book, Kuhn outlined a revolutionary model of scientific change and examined the role of the scientific community in preventing and then accepting change. Kuhn's conception of 

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