Book Review – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Are there parallels in the way science and faith evolve?
Although this isn’t one of the questions Thomas Kuhn pursues in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, he lays down some fertile soil for considering it. A couple questions he does pursue are the causes of scientific revolutions and how science, generally speaking, advances. But before approaching any of these questions we first have to deal a little bit with epistemology.
What Does It Mean to Know?
Surely this is no easy question, and Kuhn argues that we cannot ever say that we see things “as they really are” because this would require the ability to be perfectly neutral in our perceptions as well as be able to “see” the full spectrum of existence from A to Z – neither of which we humans are fortunate enough to be able to do. We are both partial in our perceptions and extremely limited in our range of vision. If we wanted to be a little bit nihilistic about it, we could say that everything we know is perpetually held hostage to everything we don’t know. It all could be turned over in an instant. “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble,” said Mark Twain, “it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
But this really isn’t a legitimate fear is it – that everything we know might get turned over in an instant? There is something of a distillation that takes place in our confidences about reality, like dozens upon dozens of centrifuges purifying and extracting what is essential, leaving the rest by the wayside. By experience we accumulate very rugged propositions that, even with time and refinement, display a peculiar intransigence, whether it be of the scientific variety, like the laws of gravitation, or of the spiritual variety, like the sterling quality of humility. Knowledge of the absolute sort still evades us even here, yet fruitfulness abounds in its absence: the laws of gravitation do a splendid job of explaining and predicting the motions of the heavenly bodies, and genuine humility proves to be a profound catalyst for spiritual transformation and enlightenment.
These realities notwithstanding, Kuhn points out how the path from raw perception to knowledge is mediated by an interpretive framework of one sort or another, and no one is exempt, making neutrality and objectivity fundamentally alien to the human experience. The moment we open our eyes, that is, we are looking through a lens. The question is not whether our view of the world is slanted, but rather in which direction it is slanted. We not only selectively sift the mountains of data flowing in through our senses – thus seeing what we are most inclined to see – but we employ a complex network of assumptions and presuppositions when analyzing the data that we do allow through our filter. We can refer to this interpretive framework, or this network of assumptions, as a paradigm, a term that Kuhn explores in great detail in the context of scientific progress, and which I am going to co-opt in order to explore the nature of faith alongside that of science.
So what do we really know? In part this depends on how we define knowledge, for if knowledge is simply what we have allowed through our filter, and then interpreted by whichever paradigm we employ, then yes, we all have knowledge and plenty of it. But we all understand that the route from perception to knowledge is bumpy, circuitous, and blanketed in fog. Or, we could say it’s like a bridge under constant repair. We know some things that “just ain’t so.” The selectivity I employ to comb the data of experience is, consciously or subconsciously, actively at work in every moment. It seems we are inescapably afflicted with tunnel vision, and the great challenge is to widen the aperture of our experience, let more light in, and see in multiple directions at the same time. But this takes courage, as well as humility. And it takes a firm place upon which to stand. Often one or more of these is in short supply.
The second weakness of this bridge is that once I allow certain data through, my interpretation of what this data means is going to be radically different than another person’s interpretation, and surely my analysis is always incomplete to one degree or another. On the basis of the foregoing, Kuhn rejects, as do I, a simple correspondence theory of truth – that knowledge consists of statements that “match” the “real world.” As Ian Hacking notes in the introduction to the book,
A majority of hard-headed analytic philosophers probably [agree], if only on the obvious grounds of circularity – there is no way to specify the fact to which an arbitrary statement corresponds except by stating the statement. (xxxv)
We cannot use the “real world” as a reference point because what is “real” is mediated by perception itself! The real world, I am persuaded, is like a famous painting: while we can all agree with high confidence about the basic colors on the canvas, any discussion of what the painting might mean immediately reveals how we all “see” the same thing differently. This way of understanding knowledge has particular ramifications in the context of religious belief. The religious context out of which I speak is the Latter-day Saint faith tradition, which, like all faith traditions, is possessed of many strands. There are the spiritual, the doctrinal, and the cultural strands, among others.
One comment about the cultural strand vis-à-vis this discussion of knowledge seems relevant at the moment. We Latter-day Saints place a high premium on knowledge, the sort that does not tolerate doubt very well and that permits little ambiguity. My generation has largely drawn an equivalence between knowledge and testimony – that is, the touchstone of a true testimony has become the ability to use language of certainty. Something less than unequivocal certainty is apparently something less than a testimony. This is not the uniform message coming from church leaders, however, and perhaps this “culture of knowing,” as I call it, is changing. In the most recent general conference, Elder Holland expressed powerfully the idea that belief, which allows for doubt, is tied to testimony every bit as much as certainty is.
The language of certainty that usually comes from the apostles themselves is emphatic and uncompromising, however, and I feel a definite willingness to believe that they are using the language of certainty deliberately. I think they understand the gravity of what they are saying. In the same talk by Elder Holland, we find that after he demonstrates his comprehension of the difference between certainty and belief, he goes on to say,
Now, with the advantage that nearly 60 years give me since I was a newly believing 14-year old, I declare some things I now know. I know that God is at all times and in all ways and in all circumstances our loving, forgiving Heavenly Father. I know Jesus was His only perfect child, whose life was given lovingly by the will of both the Father and the Son for the redemption of the all the rest of us who are not perfect.
Using even more direct language, Elder Eyring said the following in the same conference,
I am a witness of the Resurrection of the Lord as surely as if I had been there in the evening with the two disciples in the house on Emmaus road. I know that He lives as surely as did Joseph Smith when he saw the Father and the Son in the light of a brilliant morning in a grove of trees in Palmyra.
Language of certainty cannot extend much further than this. It’s quite a remarkable thing that we have leaders who speak in this way. Perhaps in our zeal to emulate them we adopt the same sort of language – but inappropriately. I am in no position to conclude what kind of spiritual experiences my fellow ward members have had, but I am confident in the assertion that the kind of certainty spoken of by the apostles is of a different order. Therefore, in our misplaced zeal we frequently sacrifice something precious – intellectual honesty – and we inadvertently create a culture where the waters are muddied between sincere belief and surefire certainty. We do ourselves a disservice, and we confuse those among us who are more analytical, not to mention the youth of the church who are trying to grasp what a testimony is. There seems to be a great lack of epistemic humility among us. In our rush to be spiritually mature we fail to plumb the depths of our own experience enough to see that there is much that we don’t know, much we haven’t grappled with, and many fires we have yet to pass through. We come to agree with Alma that faith “is not to have a perfect knowledge of things.” And if we confront this honest truth, we also come to find that it’s okay.
It’s okay to wrestle with doubt – indeed, it is essential to growth. It’s okay to recognize that there are challenges to faith – in fact, faith relies upon such challenges. It’s okay to be honest about where we are – we build from where we stand, not from where we wish to be standing. We come to find that faith is a choice, a choice made upon good evidence; but for virtually all of us it is not epistemic certainty, for this type of certainty would vaporize the meaningfulness of our freedom to choose; our process of assimilating light would take an unnatural turn; our growth would be stunted.
The leads to the last thought in regards to epistemology and truth to mention from Kuhn. Taking the next logical step from what has been already said, Kuhn asserts that our collective quest for truth in science is not a quest toward some known destination, but rather an endless, iterative series of movements away from less adequate understandings toward more adequate understandings. In saying so, Kuhn believes there is no deliberate direction in science, no overarching goal that scientists are moving toward. To move toward something implies that you have a conception of what that something is; if our intuition and logic about epistemology are correct thus far, we don’t know if each step is taking us closer to some metaphysical truth, but we nevertheless sense improvement and expansion of understanding. Could it be that this sense of improvement is a vital clue about what we’re moving toward, I wonder? Is man’s sense of satisfaction is a reliable barometer of truth?
Paradigms in Science and in Faith
So what is a ‘scientific paradigm’ that Kuhn is so famous for popularizing? The quick and moderately precise answer is that a paradigm is a set of shared assumptions in the scientific community that gives form and contour to subsequent scientific research. It is a selective set of guiding principles – selective because, going back to the discussion of epistemology, we humans have no absolutely true guideposts to tether us, and therefore we choose the most fruitful interpretative framework available at the time of decision. The paradigm is a living thing, as the assumptions underlying the framework are constantly evolving. Being thus decided upon collectively by a group of people and not emblazoned across the sky by an omniscient deity, a paradigm represents the best current framework for understanding some aspect of the natural world. Its assumptions define, among other things, the legitimate questions to pursue and the legitimate methods to use in pursuing them.
What is it that ushers in widespread acceptance of a particular paradigm in science? Kuhn argues that the key ingredient is “a universally recognized achievement” that “unites the profession.” (18) Examples are Newtonian dynamics that revolutionized physics and optics, Franklin’s work with electricity, or Lavoisier’s achievements in chemistry. Kuhn explains that such achievements display “two essential characteristics” that give them the power to effect a paradigm shift:
Their achievement was sufficiently unprecedented to attract an enduring group of adherents away from competing modes of scientific activity. Simultaneously, it was sufficiently open-ended to leave all sorts of problems for the redefined group of practitioners to resolve. (11)
Once a new paradigm gains sway in a scientific community, it becomes the prism through which new scientists are taught to understand the problems of their field. “Because that education is both rigorous and rigid,” says Kuhn, the paradigm begins to “exert a deep hold on the scientific mind.” (5) An inevitable side effect of any such framework is that it encourages scientists to look in certain places for answers and not in others; it necessarily limits the scope of their endeavors and curtails the kind of imaginative work that eventually upends the scientific community when the paradigm encounters anomalies it cannot explain. But in spite of the way a paradigm constrains and limits the research of a given field, necessarily creating blind spots, the compensatory benefit is that it allows a deep dive into specifics – specifics that are enormously fruitful, yielding technologies and understanding that bless humankind immensely.
The life of a faithful believer is likewise full of paradigms. Insofar as we define a paradigm as a shared body of assumptions illuminated by notable achievement that subsequently guides understanding and action, then Kuhn’s ideas are highly transportable to various other fields, faith being one of them. Paradigms exist on different orders of magnitude, or course, which is to say that some paradigms address huge, overarching aspects of existence such as ‘the purpose of human life’ while others operate on smaller scales, like how to understand race and ethnicity. This is just another way of saying that some assumptions carry implications that scatter widely, like the water flowing over a broad flood plain, while other assumptions carry implications in more limited aspects of life, like water cutting a narrow channel into the landscape.
My experience tells me that for a religious worldview to truly become a guiding force for life and not merely a set of speculations, it must be ignited by a significant achievement, just as scientific paradigms are. That is, commitment to a specific religious worldview ought to have, at its core, not just a conceptually plausible array of propositions, but some grounding force – achievement in the real world. Here I am not requiring that faith play by the same rules of empirical evidence as does science; what I am saying is that a compelling religious paradigm ought to bear fruit: it ought to be corroborated by significant achievement of the kind that is recognizable, beautiful, and/or satisfying.
What kind of fruit could this be? One answer would be the virtues of human character: love, integrity, intelligence, mercy, justice, wisdom, patience, and so on. Secondarily, the fruit could be communal virtues: unity, peace, cooperation, industry, efficiency, and so on. Is it enough to say that where we find these virtues being promoted in a religious paradigm we have found a valid paradigm on which to base a human life? Perhaps it is enough; however, in an absolute sense two mutually exclusive worldviews cannot both correspond to reality. Despite this apparent problem, however, we find that the cardinal virtues, as well as great spirituality, are fostered in many different faith traditions – and in some secular traditions also. What does this tell us? Perhaps it suggests that theology is not all that crucial to God. But surely God cares that we understand Him and His plan correctly?
Spiritual experience itself, especially when it is positively transformative, is a prime fruit that anchors the religious paradigm. In my case, the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ has been an inexhaustible source of transformative experience. It has been like a rich vein of gold followed deep into a mountain that shows no sign of losing its brilliance after years of mining. On the basis of this kind of spiritual experience, which resonates with both heart and mind, I take seriously the intellectual framework in which the Restored Gospel sits, including the miraculous, visionary history centered around Joseph Smith that forms its backbone. Does this mean that every proposition that seems to emanate from this framework is to be accepted uncritically? Hardly. There is plenty of sifting, sorting, weeding, digging, and heavy lifting to be done even after compelling spiritual experiences (achievements) have provided an anchor to the Restored Gospel paradigm.
The Evolution of Science and Faith
Kuhn observes a cyclical pattern within the history of science: a paradigm becomes established, like Newton’s theory of gravitation, which unites the profession through its elegance and achievement. Then, a process Kuhn refers to as “normal science” takes over, and generations of scientists are brought up under the ‘Newtonian model’ to work out its implications, dive deeper into how this model illuminates the world, and develop useful and wonderful technologies along the way. Sooner or later, however, anomalies are detected. As great as the model is, it just cannot explain certain phenomena. Some of these are considered of minor importance and they are put on a shelf, with confidence that the model is adequate to explain them, just not at the moment. But anomalies continue to accumulate until the tension within the scientific community precipitates a crisis.
Kuhn compares this scenario to someone playing chess. The rules and parameters of the chess game are analogous to the paradigm. Making moves with the different chess pieces is analogous to the puzzle-solving activity that characterizes normal science. Normal science, by nature, does not aim to challenge the paradigm, but instead to work out the implications of the paradigm. It seeks to discover and explore the world using the paradigm as a guide. Making practice moves with the chess pieces to see what will happen, says Kuhn, “are trials only of themselves, not of the rules of the game. They are possible only so long as the paradigm itself is taken for granted. Therefore, paradigm-testing occurs only after persistent failure to solve a noteworthy puzzle has given rise to crisis.” (144)
The transit of Mercury is a good example. Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation does an excellent job of explaining and predicting the orbits of the planets, the moons around the planets, as well as orbits of entire galaxies. But embarrassingly, the calculations that predicted when the planet Mercury would cross the visual plane of the Sun were consistently off. This, among other observations, eventually culminated in a crisis that gave rise to Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity, the latter being able to elegantly explain the transit of Mercury where Newton’s laws could not. “To make the transition to Einstein’s universe,” writes Kuhn, “the whole conceptual web whose strands are space, time, matter, force, and so on, had to be shifted and laid down again on nature whole.” (148)
One fascinating aspect of paradigm change – that time when a new theory enters the scene and competes effectively for attention – is that when a new paradigm edges out its predecessor, all of the sudden scientists “see” things they never saw before. “Can it conceivably be an accident,” Kuhn asks, “that Western astronomers first saw change in the previously immutable heavens during the half-century after Copernicus’ new paradigm was first proposed?” (116) The new paradigm does at least two things: it redirects attention to corners of nature that were previously ignored, and it also recasts familiar phenomena in a new light. Basic premises of the field are reevaluated in light of a new, subversive theory that has shown significant promise and achievement. Kuhn compares it to a Gestalt switch, an example being the famous image that can be seen as either a young woman or an old woman depending on “how” you look at it. The observational data hasn’t changed, but interpretation has.
Transitioning allegiance from one paradigm to another “is a conversion experience that cannot be forced.” (150) Resistance is to be expected, and the change does not happen without a struggle. “The source of resistance,” explains Kuhn,
is the assurance that the older paradigm will ultimately solve all its problems, that nature can be shoved into the box the paradigm provides. Inevitably, at a time of revolution, that assurance seems stubborn and pigheaded as indeed it sometimes becomes. But it is also something more. That same assurance is what makes normal or puzzle-solving science possible. (151)
Far from disparaging the work of normal science, Kuhn sees it as the necessary complement of revolutionary science. The revolution does not happen till the current paradigm is fleshed out sufficiently to show its inadequacies. And great progress in engineering, or medicine, or transportation happen along the way, enriching human life. And it is quite interesting to note, as Kuhn observes, that “almost always the men who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change.” (90) For those relatively few individuals who have managed to usher in a new paradigm by their accomplishments, how has the revolutionary insight come to them? Kuhn seems to think that it is not so much by careful reasoning leading incrementally and logically to the revolutionary conclusion. “Instead,” he says,
the new paradigm, or a sufficient hint to permit the later articulation, emerges all at once, sometimes in the middle of the night, in the mind of a man deeply immersed in crisis. What the nature of that final stage is – how an individual invents (or finds he has invented) a new way of giving order to data now all assembled – must here remain inscrutable and may be permanently so. (90)
Kuhn is suggesting that many of the major breakthroughs in science do not happen without something akin to a miraculous epiphany. The epiphany is inscrutable – it is a sudden illumination, a leap in comprehension across a deep ravine. Only after the leap can a bridge be built. Expanding on this idea Kuhn later says,
Normal science ultimately leads only to the recognition of anomalies and crises. And these are terminated, not by deliberation and interpretation, but by a relatively sudden and unstructured event like the Gestalt switch. Scientists then often speak of the “scales falling from the eyes” or the “lightning flash” that “inundates” a previously obscure puzzle, enabling its components to be seen in a new way that for the first time permits its solution. On other occasions the relevant illumination comes in sleep. No ordinary sense of the term ‘interpretation’ fits these flashes of intuition through which a new paradigm is born. (122-123)
Jacques Barzun, in his history of Western culture entitled From Dawn to Decadence supports this view of scientific breakthrough by writing that “discoveries, as shown by their individual histories, are made not step by step…but by spurts of illumination, as in art or philosophy – or everyday life; the Eureka (“I have found it”) of Archimedes in his bath is typical.” Barzun goes on to cite the example of the chemist Friedrich Kekule who “saw” the benzene ring in a dream, which was a notable advance because it established that the physical shape and structure of a molecule alter its chemical behavior.
Kuhn, therefore, paints a picture of scientific progress as being filled with fits and starts, punctuated by sudden illumination, and not a steady, fully logical process. Just as in the arts, there is a creative element – a mysterious coming together of disparate pieces of information that form a revolutionary insight, which is then subject to rigorous tests that determine its future. But it is crucial to note that such ruminations that produce novel insights do not happen randomly: a crisis precipitates them. This crisis is a period of “professional insecurity” Kuhn says, a time of “persistent failure of the puzzles of normal science to come out as they should.” (68) The new paradigm does not suddenly answer all the questions, and therefore its first brave (sometimes brash) adherents must exercise faith that what they have intuited or sensed to elicit their allegiance will pan out. When it does, then hordes of other scientists (but not all) suddenly see the basic fabric of their field differently.
Now we turn to consider the evolution of faith. I find that Kuhn’s analysis of the progress of science parallels that of faith in many key respects. The evolution of faith can be looked at on at least two levels: the evolution of an individual’s faith, or the evolution of an institution, such as the LDS Church, that serves as a catalyst for faith. Of course our individual life of faith is bound up by paradigms quite similar to the type Kuhn describes. The Gospel is, in some abstract sense, perfect, but the only Gospel we know is the kind mediated through human beings. Paul’s admonition to “prove all things, hold fast that which is good” applies not just to what we find outside our religion, but also to what we find within it. Just as we believe we are approximating the truth of nature more and more through the forward march of science, we are doing the same in our personal.
But just because some things evolve, this does not mean that everything is up for grabs. To think so would be to commit the ‘either-or’ fallacy and fail to recognize that certain assumptions have passed through many crucibles, becoming like steel in our hands. I have put the Book of Mormon through some crucibles, and still do, and it has proved to be steel of a high grade. I have put trust in Christ’s teachings about faith opening the door to illumination, and I have found them vindicated. I have tried to walk the path of a disciple, often falteringly, and found that transformative experiences color the landscape. And when I have fallen, I have been buoyed up by grace. Alma’s exhortation to “experiment” upon his words is strikingly poignant, and especially provocative to the analytical mind.
But what happens when some part of our religious paradigm is threatened? Often this threat comes via education: our eyes are opened to new realities that precipitate crises. We realize by reflection and experience that our paradigm, though clustered around a few strong anchors, now looks lopsided, shabby, inadequate. One example: many of us were taught growing up in the church that on any topic of religious significance, the Restored Gospel has not only the correct answer, but also the only comprehensive one – not to mention being the only environment in which truly genuine spiritual experience is found. Or another: we were brought up to believe in the near infallibility of our prophets, beginning with Joseph Smith. Or another: we grow up thinking that the Gospel and its commandments are about being perfect instead of about becoming perfect. And on and on.
We encounter what has been called ‘cognitive dissonance’ when such crises of faith arise. We intuitively sense that our understanding is deficient, but we don’t want to throw out ideas in which we have made investments. We naturally want to minimize the discomfort, so we make some choices: we either allow our paradigm to be challenged and changed, keeping all parts that survive the fire even if we can’t see how it all fits together yet; or, we refuse the new thought that challenges our well-ordered paradigm; or, we jettison the existing paradigm, anchors or not, and begin piecing together a new interpretative framework that will, ostensibly, be free of the problems that plagued the old one.
Taking the first route – letting our assumptions be challenged but hanging on tenaciously to whatever survives the fire – necessarily means that we will have to live with ambiguity. We will have to develop a taste for dissonance. But it seems that dissonance is not by nature a negative thing. If there is to be “opposition in all things,” which is the very basis of our ascent toward God, then we must enter the fray of opposites. A primary piece of our armor in this fight must be epistemic humility: the willingness to acknowledge the great ocean of truth that lay all undiscovered before us and our smallness in comparison to it. It is to be willing to pivot and change (repent) as good reason and spiritual sensitivity demand, to find ourselves malleable as clay when facing our God yet as unrelenting as granite stone when facing evil.
We could take the second route and decide to shut the doors and windows of our house, content and comfortable. To a degree I really empathize with this stance; humility implies vulnerability and it implies risk, and we are not all equally equipped to juggle dissonant thoughts while still maintaining balance on the few confident pegs that ground us. Or perhaps we don’t feel that the pegs are particularly strong in the first place and thus we don’t want to test them. A hermetic spirituality such as this, however, is in perpetual adolescence; as with a muscle, to grow it must be stress-tested, strained, and flexed. I don’t see a way around the fire if we truly plan to ascend toward God. Dissonant thoughts and diverse experience must be taken in doses, however, and measured at a healthy pace else we find ourselves out of balance and ripe for an overcorrection.
Or perhaps we could take the third route when confronted with cognitive dissonance. We could construe opposition to faith as somehow negating the validity of faith itself. In the absence of strong anchors of spiritual achievement spoken of above, it is understandable how someone would walk away entirely. Even when there are real anchors, however, some people still choose to throw out the paradigm completely instead of exploring how to integrate the good from every corner into one evolving paradigm of faith. This is also understandable in light of how human nature tends to overcorrect: we are often like pendulums swinging swiftly past the serene middle to opposite ends, out of balance until we discover how to find and hold on to that elusive quality of equanimity.
In a roundabout way Kuhn’s book has been a call to humility, at least of the epistemic variety. It has been a persuasive reminder that assumptions must not be allowed to ossify to the point of becoming intractable. All things must be subject to the fire; that which survives is precious but still not immutable. Only time and experience can, like the centrifuge, extract and purify those convictions, thoughts, and beliefs that are of the highest grade. A salient difference between science and faith in their most expansive paradigmatic conceptualizations is that science does not and cannot proclaim a destination toward which we are moving, while faith can and does. For a Latter-day Saint, that destination is the transformation of soul and body necessary to enable a human being to ascend to the class of existence of God the Father and God the Mother. It entails the extrapolation of every human virtue to its perfect and balanced end, together with faculties of creation and experiential knowledge that probably exceed our current imagination. Is the Restored Gospel paradigm, which gives birth to this vision, a valid one? In terms of fruitful achievement that it reliably fosters in the here and now, yes; in terms of philosophical consistency and rigor, in a different but equally compelling sense, yes. Does this paradigm possess the tensile strength to bear the weight that has so far been heaped upon it? To someone who has subjected it to every fire he can so far find, I answer yes. These answers do not imply perfection of the paradigm, but rather a certain ruggedness and endurance manifested by its core intellectual foundations and above all in its capacity to elicit spiritual achievement, transformation, and illumination.
 Holland, Jeffrey. “Lord, I Believe.” April 2013 General Conference.
 Eyring, Henry. “Come Unto Me.” April 2013 General Conference.
 Alma 32:21
 These intellectual foundations are put forward beautifully in Terryl & Fiona Givens’ new book, The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life.