Hang on here. I purposefully meander a bit today, which is a fitting way of sharing a little epiphany I had while reading un-Christmassy stuff (Thomas S. Kuhn and Ian Hacking, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition) on Christmas Eve.
Do we, however, really need to describe what separates Galileo from Aristotle, or Lavoisier from Priestley, as a transformation of vision? Did these men really see different things when looking at the same sorts of objects? Is there any legitimate sense in which we can say that they pursued their research in different worlds? Those questions can no longer be postponed, for there is obviously another and far more usual way to describe all of the historical examples outlined above. Many readers will surely want to say that what changes with a paradigm is only the scientist’s interpretation of observations that themselves are fixed once and for all by the nature of the environment and of the perceptual apparatus. On this view, Priestley and Lavoisier both saw oxygen, but they interpreted their observations differently; Aristotle and Galileo both saw pendulums, but they differed in their interpretations of what they both had seen.
(Page 120, Kindle edition)
These sorts of questions could be extended to other areas, which was why Stanley Fish so insistently schooled Nico Perrino, on one So to Speak podcast:
[Stanley]: Do you believe in the distinction between faith on the one hand and reason or empirical investigation on the other?
Stanley: Yes, I thought you would.
Nico: Of course, I do. So, I’ve fallen into your trap.
Stanley: Because I don’t. I taught a course yesterday on Inherit the Wind. It’s a movie about the Scopes Trial in the early part of the 20th century.
Nico: Yeah, Scopes Trial.
Stanley: That’s a movie produced and directed by Stanley Kramer who is a stalwart First Amendment liberal. The entire dramatic rhetoric of the movie depends on the distinction between faith on the one hand and reason, especially reason associated with scientific experiments, on the other hand. That distinction doesn’t hold up for a second. That distinction doesn’t hold up. What’s you’re dealing with in science as opposed to let’s say orthodox Christianity or something else are two different faiths.
Two different kinds of faiths undergirded by radically opposed assumptions and presuppositions. But it’s presupposition and assumptions which are generating the evidence and facts on both sides. Again, you have – I can tell and say this with all the generosity – you are deeply mired in the basic assumptions and presuppositions of classical liberalism. Anything else that is brought to you, anything that is brought to you by some kind of retrograde sinner like me sounds outlandish and obviously perverse.
Nico: No, not necessarily. Because otherwise, I wouldn’t be having this conversation with you.
Stanley: Good point.
Nico: But, you know, we’re at the corner of what? 5th and 12th Avenue. Are you telling me it’s not a fact that we’re at the corner of 5th and 12th Avenue?
Stanley: Oh, come on. Come on. Look, have you ever read The Structure of Scientific Revolution?
Nico: I have not.
Stanley: Okay. Do you know what it is?
Stanley: Okay. It’s a book that is probably the most influential book in the social sciences and humanities for the past 75 years. That’s not an understatement. That is not an overstatement. Kuhn, his project, is the history of science as his title suggests. What he does is challenge the picture that I’ve already referred to where he says that science is not an activity in which one generation because of using its powers of observation and experiment adds to the details of the description of nature that was begun by previous generations.
What he’s saying is that scientific knowledge is not cumulative in the way that the usual picture of science suggests. Instead, scientific knowledge, that is the establishment of scientific fact, depends on what he calls paradigms. What’s a paradigm? A paradigm is the set of in place assumptions and authorized methodologies that govern and are in fact the content of scientific investigation at any moment. Paradigms rather than any direct confrontation between the observer and the world. Paradigms are what produces evidence and interpretations.
Finally, interpretations that are persuasive and successful for a while until that paradigm, for reasons that he details, is dislodged by another. When that happens, when the paradigm within which scientific observers work Kuhn says changes. One might say without exaggeration that without the world in which the scientific practitioner works has itself changed.
Nico: See, I don’t buy it though because there are things that scientist do maybe through this paradigm that produce a tangible result that only come as a result of. Changing the paradigm won’t change the result.
Stanley: Tangible result is itself along with other talismanic phrases like that – tangible result will be recognized as one depending on what pragmatic point of view you are situated. What Kuhn would say, he’s not the only one and I’m not the only one, is that any conclusion that you might reach and be confident in is not supported by some correspondents between your methodological, descriptive protocol and the world. Rather it’s produced by the paradigm within which you are ensconced and of which you are in some sense an extension.
I really urge to read this book because he considers – he’s not debunking science. He’s not debunking scientific achievement. He’s just giving a different picture of it which challenges what he thinks of as the over simplified picture, again, of a world out there waiting to be correctly described. We, as rational observers, having the task to describe it.
Having now read a bit more than half of Kuhn, I understand what Stanley was saying, and I’m less inclined to agree with with Nico.
Anyway, one extension of the “paradigm” (or “gestalt,” as Kuhn so often has it) is the continually vexed question of “whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God,” which I have visited several times in the past (here, here, and even here in passing).
My paradigm, which led me to say “of course they do“ is monotheism strictly and literally speaking: There is only one God, howsoever He may be misunderstood. Those who say they do not worship the same God strike me as tacitly embracing henotheism, usually with some vehement tribal pride thrown in about the superiority of our God.
But in fairness, the paradigm of the “different God” folks is perhaps doctrine, and “common parlance” rather than strict and literal monotheism. A sufficiently different understanding of God (as the Islamic understanding differs from the orthodox Christian) is, figuratively, “another God,” much as scientists after a gestalt shift are figuratively in “a different world,” according to Kuhn (and Fish?).
Further, my paradigm is apparently flexible. I sometimes ruminate on how the “loving God” I met in bedtime Bible stories as a child, and in childhood Sunday School, got displaced by an “angry God,” prickly, even furious, at how our screwups besmirch His dignity, as if He were a feudal lord. They do indeed feel like different Gods. (I found the loving God again, once and for all, in Orthodox Christianity, but that story is too tangential today.)
Likewise, a “progressive Christian” profession that Matthew 25 is the “heart of the Gospel” arises from a different hermeneutic than mine and, I suspect, is a convenient way of making Christ’s incarnate deity an optional doctrine and doing away with “the scandal of the Cross.” In their paradigm/gestalt, Matthew 25 being the heart of the Gospel is almost axiomatic, and the stupendous paradox we celebrated yesterday is at best tangential, likelier credulous or even incomprehensible. They and I are divided by our nominally common (“Christian”) faith. (It also makes Christian sexual morality, which rivals the Cross for scandal-giving these days, optional.)
And then there are the Jews. I and they, too, worship different Gods if you want to be very figurative about it, though their non-Trinitarian God is pre-Christian rather than anti-Christian. I wonder, though, how many of the “Muslims-worship-a-different-God” folks even think about the Jews when blasting the Muslims?
So what? So can we, on this second day of Christmas (indeed, on all days) be less hasty with expressions that needlessly divide us with intimations that The Other believes as he believes because he’s pure evil rather than out of a very different, good faith, perspective?
That doesn’t mean we all unequivocally worship the same God, for God’s sake, but might our divisions can produce yearning instead of angry denunciations?
* * * * *
Sailing on the sea of this present life, I think of the ocean of my many offenses; and not having a pilot for my thoughts, I call to Thee with the cry of Peter, save me, O Christ! Save me, O God! For Thou art the lover of mankind.
(From A Psalter for Prayer)