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Kuhn’s Dogmatism

In kuhn on 23/06/2011 at 1:00 pm

Kuhn does not give a logic to scientific discovery. Rather, he opens the door to the sociology of science, of a collaborative/competitive game that emerges out of the interaction of fallible and petty people.

Therefore, we have to make a choice. We can either work on puzzles or we can work on problems; we can either close our ears to criticism or we can accept criticism; we can be uncritical of our ideas or we can be critical of our ideas.

In each of these cases, we must ask, Which choices should I make? Do I want to solve the serious problems that keep me up at night? Do I want to stick my neck out and conjecture something new (even if it is false) about the world? Do I want to reject the ideas I hold dear that cannot survive criticism?

I would consider these questions to be part of the logic of scientific discovery. If scientists provide affirmative answers, this would lead to an environment that mirrors a free and open society. If scientists provide negative answers, this would lead to an environment that Kuhn describes: a dogmatic, puzzle-solving, kibitzing society.

Kuhn’s claim of nonrational Gestalt switching is a theory about our psychological makeup: humans cannot understand the mistakes they make from outside a paradigm.

This assertion is undermined by historical examples of scientists that admit that they were convinced, not by some kind of conversion, but by powerful criticisms of their theories. For instance, Richard Dawkins gives the following anecdote:

I do remember one formative influence in my undergraduate life. There was an elderly professor in my department who had been passionately keen on a particular theory for, oh, a number of years and one day an American visiting researcher came and he completely and utterly disproved our old man’s hypothesis. The old man strode to the front, shook his hand and said “My dear fellow, I wish to thank you, I’ve been wrong these fifteen years”. And we all clapped our hands raw.

Not all scientists are as noble as this professor. For example, even after Einstein sent Mach a copy of one of his papers on Brownian motion along with a letter explaining “Under the microscope one directly sees, in a sense, a portion of the thermal energy in the form of mechanical energy of moving particles,” Ernest Mach refused to change his mind about the nonexistence of atoms.

This is evidently a psychological affliction of Mach’s, tied to his positivist belief in direct observation as the only epistemological arbiter. In a sense, Kuhn is right: some scientists are unwilling or unable to listen to criticism. Generally, it is difficult for most people to listen to criticism without feeling some sort of emotional attachment. Yet, difficulty does not make impossibility. If scientists are interested in listening to people who think differently than they do, they must work harder to treat theories as separate from our mental states.

I’m going to stay clear of the ontological status of Popper’s World 3 and focus on the pragmatic usefulness of treating statements as apart from subjective mental states. ‘Objectifying’ statements–treating them as if they belonged to a different world than our mental states–promotes inquiry that is a legitimate alternative to treating scientific theories as subjective states. I propose that it is better to divest emotional attachment to one’s pet theories, for it allows for rational Gestalt switching back and forth between theories. While it may be proper to defend a theory from improper criticism, it is not proper to hold on to a theory if one cannot properly criticize a proposed criticism of the theory.

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  1. Brilliant. Very thought-provoking. Though, naturally I find that I am sympathetic towards Kuhn’s views. Still, a great blog all-round. Let me know what you think of mine . . . http://apieceofcoffee.wordpress.com/
    Keep on posting!

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