Science and Religion (i)

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In 1962, Thomas Kuhn, a philosopher of science, published a book entitled, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. In it, he challenged the idea that science progresses in a linear fashion by steadily accumulating data arising from ongoing observations, experiments, discoveries and inventions and, in this way, gets ever closer to a knowledge and understanding of the ultimate truth of things. This is the goal that has come to be known as the “Theory of Everything”.

Contrary to that way of seeing things, Kuhn argued that science follows a rather more jagged path. There are “normal” periods of relatively untroubled research, characterised by widespread agreement about a currently accepted “paradigm”, or shared basic scientific framework. This will invariably be interrupted, however, by times of ‘crisis’, when emerging problems and troubling anomalies upset the stabilitystability of the scientific apple cart. Such times of crisis can be the trigger for a “scientific revolution” – a radical transformation of ideas into new ones that can satisfactorily explain the unwelcome anomalies and solve the vexatious problems.

He makes a key point (worth noting for future reference) that “paradigms”, as understood in this way, are never permanent and unalterable descriptions of reality. They remain in being only for as long as they are deemed to ‘work’, by being confirmed by ongoing experimental testing and resultant data. When this ceases to be the case, progress can come to a halt, unless radically new thinking, serendipitous findings, inspired hunches, or imaginative guesses, point the way towards a new “paradigm” that throws light on the anomalies, supplies answers for the problems, and discovers new ‘verities’ – for the moment, at least !

Historically, this process can be seen in the Ptolemaic, earth-centred view of the universe becoming so ‘clunky’, with planetary orbital circles-within-circles, that it had to give way to the efficiently less ‘clunky’ Copernican sun-centred view. Problems around gravitational attraction then triggered the explanatory arrival of Newtonian Mechanics. The subsequent discovery of anomalies, like the eccentric orbit of Mercury, led to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, which brought a completely different ‘slant’ on gravity, as well as a radically new concept of non-absolute ‘space-time’. 

The inability of Einstein’s Relativity to deal with the dynamics of the sub-atomic realm, resulted in the most radical and counter-intuitive way of understanding fundamental reality that there has yet been – Quantum Mechanics. This ‘works’ exceedingly well, as the current exponential growth in digital technology ably demonstrates, but there continues to be, as yet, an unsolved problem in joining up the ‘smoothness’ of Einstein’s gravity with the ‘bumpiness’ of Quantum Mechanics in the sub-atomic realm. The next “scientific revolution” is surely on the way. 

I’ve repeated the words “scientific revolution” because I want to point to a way in which it can be a misleading phrase. In the political world, “revolution” tends to imply the wholesale destruction of the old, prior to the introduction of the new. Revolutions attract anarchists, who can turn the thrill of an envisaged heaven, into the terror of a veritable hell. That’s not the kind of revolution Kuhn is talking about.

For example, Newtonian Mechanics, although superseded by Einstein’s Relativity, wasn’t dumped into history’s waste-bin. Much of it remains, and continues to provide the basis on which today’s rocket ships are enabled to land safely on distant planets. What is done away with is what no longer ‘works’. What does still work, finds a fresh place in a new “paradigm”.  

On the face of it, then, what Kuhn says about science, might possibly be applicable to religion?

Recommended Reading :

“Doubts and Loves : What is Left of Christianity”.  Richard Holloway.  Canongate Books.  2001.

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