Errol Morris on Thomas Kuhn, Paradigm Shift and Incommensurability

Morris wrote a 5 part series and here is part 1 (my 20-articles quota is up with the NYT, so…someone please link me to part 4 & 5).

Morris recalls his encounter with Kuhn, his ashtray and Kripke (or rather the meeting with the ashtray because of Kripke), and his digging into the root of Kuhn’s thoughts. As I have already said elsewhere (discussion in Chinese), there is no paradigm in “science", what is shifted is only our culture in reflection to the understanding of a certain fact. Facts exist independently of our conceptuations.

For some reason, Kripke’s goldfish reminds me of Gongsun Longzi’s (公孫龍子) White Horse Discourse, where he (in)famously declared that “a white horse is not a horse". Incidentally, Kripke’s lecture was named “Naming and Necessity", and Gongsun was a famous “namist", so there might have been some connections between the thoughts. Many dismiss that the white horse paradox is merely a play with words; this school of thought misses the significance and the implications of the paradox.

What Gongsun (and Kripke) seem to be saying is that when one attempts to describe a  thing, it automatically follows that the description will not match perfectly with the thing that is being described. We have to distinguish between descriptions and facts, where descriptions depend on perceptions while facts do not. Kripke’s goldfish takes this idea even further: if the color of the “goldfish" (or the perceptions of the colors) is constantly changing, then the description of “goldie" the goldfish would be invalid-as “goldie-the-goldfish" as a matter of fact does not exist (if one insists that “goldie" the goldfish exists, then she will have to accept that “goldie" is now indistinguishable from “greenie", and that the descriptions are now totally meaningless).

That is exactly the reason why science (as a process to study the facts) cannot be described in terms of “paradigms", as paradigms are merely conceptuations of our understandings of a certain “thing", and it does not say whether these conceptuations are following the facts (and how close are they to the facts). Scientists don’t think creationism is science not because they operate under a different paradigm than that of the creationists, but because creationism is not following the scientific method. If we accept Kuhn’s “paradigm", we will have to think that witch doctor and modern medicine are two equally scientific concepts but under two different paradigms (to follow Gongsun, “a witch doctor is not a doctor"). Paradigms being “incommensurable" means we cannot make rational comments on competing paradigms, so in Kuhn’s terms, witch doctor and modern medicine are non-overlapping magisteria.

Thus, I hereby declare paradigm is not science.

Note: The use of the term “paradigm shift" is different in social science, where it describes the shift of thinking in a cultural-political context.

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