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Kuhn - The Normal and The Revolution

While the positivists were in an ongoing stalemate regarding how science ought to be conducted, the most significant challenge to the positivists' 'Rational Reconstruction' of scientific reasoning came not from a philosopher, but from a historian. Kuhn upended the philosophers’ aspirations to make explicit the underlying reasons behind the methods, decisions, and practices of science. To Kuhn, the philosophers’ contention of the scientific method overlooks how actual science gets done. Thomas Kuhn, a physicist turned historian for philosophical purposes, authored what is arguably the most important book in the philosophy of science: "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions."

The method and its justification, to Kuhn, are already embodied in the success of science, not in some philosopher’s conception of method. The way to understand what’s special about science is not to investigate some underlying method or logic, but rather to look at the actual mechanisms through which scientific practices have been adopted or modified. Kuhn places his bets on the history of science rather than on the methodology of the philosophers: we have to look into how inquiries have been done in order to decide how inquiries should be done.

Given what science have been able to achieve, if philosophers say science should be done in a way different than how it is done, then that’s a problem for philosophers’ models. What science has actually accomplished should take precedence over what philosophers say it should be doing instead. 

The title of the book tricks us into believing Kuhn will be saying a lot about revolutions in science, but he writes about ‘normal science’, not revolutionary science, about two-thirds of the book. Heroic science does occur, according to Kuhn; but if one wants to understand how science as an enterprise works, one has to understand what most scientists do most of the time, which is normal science. However, Kuhn had some revolutionary things to say about normal science. The most significant assertion Kuhn draws here is that science is more dogmatic than we had previously thought, quite the opposite of the Popperian utopia where hypotheses are constantly in the face of falsification.

In order to move forward, we need to understand a term Kuhn uses quite liberally throughout his book without giving a precise definition- Paradigm. A paradigm can be considered a dominant set of scientific theories, methodologies, practices, and shared assumptions that define a particular scientific discipline at a given time. A paradigm is an object of consensus. Normal science is governed by a certain paradigm. 

A good scientific education teaches us how to solve new problems using theories we’ve already learned. The way it does so is by providing models that can be used to cover new cases. Scientists learn concrete textbook models, and they then extend those models to new cases. These models are implicit in the paradigms, and this implicit consensus-building process makes science so successful. To Kuhn, this consensus is what distinguishes science from other endeavours. At times, it may seem as if the scientific community bears resemblance to a cult. 

Puzzle solving is Kuhn’s analogue of the paradigm. The paradigm identifies the puzzles, governs expectations, assures scientists that each puzzle has a solution, provides standards for evaluating the individual solution to other solutions. For instance, Newton’s theories tell scientists what kind of forces there are, how those forces are to be used to explain motion. It tells them what sorts of questions to ask, and which problem is important to solve. 

Immature sciences, originating from a new paradigm, become sciences once one of the competing paradigms scores a decisive victory. Then the victor’s paradigm writes history according to its own standards. It is the ongoing competition between paradigms that leads to philosophy of science, not the other way around.

Now, here is the biggest distinction from Popper. For Kuhn, scientists are not trying to falsify the theories behind the paradigm at all. They are assuming the paradigm is correct. They are trying to fit nature into the paradigm. A scientist’s day to day work is small scale and detail oriented. It focuses on one small part of nature being assimilated into the paradigm. This pedestrian depiction of science has upset quite a few philosophers I will later discuss.

Normal science, then, is very much anti-Popperian. It is much more dogmatic than it is open minded. It involves theories being preserved in the face of falsifying evidence, not rejected. 

Normal science possesses a notable Popperian virtue: the capacity to undermine itself. When a scientific paradigm no longer maintains its hold on the scientific community, a scientific crisis ensues. According to Kuhn, crises arise due to anomalies, as scientists may confront the paradigm's resistance to fit. This state of crisis generates a heightened curiosity about the philosophy of science. In this way, Popper wasn’t wrong- he took ‘crisis science’ for ‘normal science’.

Ultimately, Kuhn's depiction of normal science isn't a critique but an ode. Kuhn contends that science requires periods of stability, as opposed to unending crises and debates, in order to achieve significant advancements. Normal science, with its inherent dogmatism, has the capacity to produce anomalies that can trigger revolutionary shifts, thus establishing an equilibrium between continuity and transformation. Normal science with its meticulous and frequent inquiry often exposes discrepancies between the established paradigm and reality. This level of focus would not be possible to attain in the Popperian framework, where scientists' primary aim is to falsify the paradigm.

Kuhn Challenges Philosophy of Science

Is Kuhn leading science towards mob psychology? Despite his deflationary treatment of science, it is not his treatment of normal science that got people upset, it is his treatment of revolutionary science that produced so much controversy. Many thinkers found it deflating of science’s aspirations and pretensions (depending on which side you lean on). To Kuhn, when an old paradigm can no longer restore order or produce a successful solution to a problem after a prolonged crisis, a new paradigm emerges to govern the field. A single paradigm must take hold and generate consensus for normal science to get done. A new paradigm distinguishes itself by showing a strikingly new problem-solving power. It hardly sounds undermining scientific rationality. Think again: do the notions of rationality and truth play little role in Kuhn’s explanation of the rise of a new paradigm?

A new paradigm will have achieved some impressive successes, but in general, it will be relatively undeveloped, and it will not be able to solve all the puzzles that the old paradigm could solve.

“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”- Max Plank 

But Kuhn rejected the triumphalist picture of old fuddy-duddies with their superstitions being superseded by clear-thinking young minds who now see the plain truth. Generational differences and other non-evidential factors come to the fore during a scientific revolution precisely because the evidence is inadequate to settle the matter. There is no possible standard by which the promise of the new paradigm can be compared with the achievement of the old. Young scientists are willing to jump to the new paradigm not because they are less biased, but because it is easier for them to do so, because they are not invested enough in the old paradigm. In normal science, there is little room for the personal and the idiosyncratic. In the freer conditions of crisis science, however, many personal factors can affect paradigm choice: a theory may look elegant and simple, but that is an aesthetic judgement; or on the basis of metaphysical beliefs- Einstein objected to Quantum mechanics. 

Much of Kuhn's position can be summed up by his insistence that rival paradigms cannot be judged on a common scale. In Kuhn’s term, they are ‘incommensurable’. This means they cannot be compared via a neutral or objectively correct measure. Now, this is an immensely controversial thesis. How does Kuhn defend it?

Defense 1: Standards of evaluation vary too much across paradigms to be of decisive use.

Certain values are permanent parts of science: predictive accuracy, consistency, broad scope, simplicity, and fruitfulness etc. If we leave these values vaguely described, everybody will agree that scientists do and should take them into account. However, if you insist on strictly defining these values, rational disagreement- such as what constitutes simplicity, is in play. And any precise definition of simplicity is going to be controversial, though the value of simplicity will not be controversial. More deeply, the comparative weight assigned to each value can vary without anybody having departed from the standards of doing science. But these values can be interpreted, weighed, and applied in different ways. They often conflict with one another. Thus, work in each paradigm is governed by scientific values, but each paradigm will hold work to the standards provided by that paradigm. Even within a paradigm, these values do not function as explicit principles but, rather, as shared habits and ways of seeing things. This is crucial for the proper functioning of science, but it limits the role of explicit, reasoned comparison of paradigms.

Defense 2: Effective communication across paradigms is very difficult.

Like W. V. Quine, Kuhn adopts a holistic conception of meaning. Both are influenced by the positivists' idea that terms and statements get their meaning from their role in deriving observational consequences. For example, mass. In a holistic view of meaning, mass is not a fixed definition; rather, it is connected to how it functions within the entire scientific framework or theory. It is never about understanding the word mass in isolation; it’s about understanding how it fits into the broader theory in physics, how it interacts with other concepts like gravity and motion, and how it helps us make predictions or explanations about the behavior of objects in the universe. 

The word ‘mass’ gets its meaning from its role in deriving observational consequences. Its meaning is a matter of every connection with other statements in the scientific theory the term bears. Now, since the meaning of a term or statement derives from this role it plays in the web of belief, changes elsewhere in the web can bring about significant changes in the meaning of a scientific term or statement. An example-

Carless thinking would lead us to think that Einstein’s conception of mass is an extension over Newton’s conception of mass. Newton’s objects do not move at a significant fraction of the speed of light, while Einstein covers all the Newtonian cases, and then extends the theory to objects moving at an approximation of the speed of light relative to our reference frame. This fits the standard view of science, that one paradigm improves on the other, and science progresses forward. After all, all of the observations that favored Newton also favor Einstein. Einstein corrects a few of the mistakes and limitations of his predecessor, and science gets better. Wrong. 

In Kuhn’s view, the word mass means something different in the two theories. It is not as straightforwardly comparable, or commensurable as the standard view has it. Why? Because Einstein’s mass is convertible into energy, Newton’s is not. A Newtonian wouldn’t see this change of the meaning of ‘mass’ as an improvement or an extension; rather, a Newtonian would see this as a theory of different stuff with the same name. For this reason, Kuhn denies that a term such as mass means the same thing in Einstein's theory that it does in Newton's. Einstein offers a theory about different stuff, rather than an improved theory of the same stuff. Kuhn, therefore, contends that wholesale changes in the network of concepts occur when we switch paradigms, making the cumulation through clear communication across paradigms difficult.

For reasons such as these, proponents of different paradigms tend to talk past each other. Paradigm-neutral observations cannot be used to adjudicate between paradigms. 

Now we come to the crux. Perhaps observation can settle the difference and its evaluation within paradigms. During a crisis, there may not be enough data available. Let the data accumulate, and we will be able to see which paradigm provides the right way to go. Kuhn’s denial to this claim, perhaps more than any other, drives the critics crazy.

Paradigm neutral observations, Kuhn says, cannot be used to settle scientific disputes. Why? Because observation is theory-laden. What people see depends, in pertinent part, on what they already believe or expect. Perception is much less passive, less receptive than many had thought. Kuhn thus denies that we have access to a realm of observational evidence that is largely independent of theory and could, then, count as a source of meaning and evidence. Kuhn defends it by providing some empirical results: he draws on Gestalt psychology and tries to undermine the distinction between seeing and seeing as. He is now denying a claim which is sacred to the logical empiricists- that we can have access to observational evidence that is sufficiently independent of theory that it can be used as a source of meaning and evidence for a theory. 

Kuhn, then, commits himself to rather extreme-sounding versions of this point. He says that, in an important sense, followers of different paradigms inhabit different worlds. 

Science, then, cannot be seen as straightforwardly cumulative, progressive, or truth-tracking. Despite this denial of this objective sense accumulation, Kuhn does often write that science manifests a genuine, not just an apparent, kind of progress: the progress in problem solving. Science, then, is an incredibly successful activity. Kuhn runs his ‘it’s not a bug, it’s a feature’ argument. If science were more rule governed, less dependent on non-rational factors (social and political), agreement across crisis science would be reached too quickly. Everybody would be following the same notion of evidence. 

Science, then, has stumbled onto a mechanism by which crisis science as well as normal science has a distinctive job to do, analogous to the invisible hand. Normal science is quite dogmatic, and revolutionary science allows idiosyncrasies, neither of which is intellectually virtuous. But they function together in a complicated social arrangement that produces desirable outcomes. Thus Kuhn establishes his confidence in science as a social institution. 

But Kuhn’s argument, ironically, doesn’t solve the crux of the problem, that new paradigms do not solve more or better problems, only new problems. We could take steps to resolve this issue, but there is no guideline to read Kuhn for this settlement. Combines:

Any scientific revolution contains losses as well as gains. 

Science gradually increases problem solving power. 

We would be comfortable knowing science gains more than it loses after a crisis, but Kuhn makes no such claims. 

Kuhn does not accept any stories in which science progresses so as to get closer to the truth. For Kuhn, truth makes sense within a paradigm, but it’s an unclear and dangerous notion when applied across paradigms. 

Kuhn does not offer a theory of scientific method or rationale, no conception of inductive logic; rather, it’s a theory of scientific change. It is more descriptive than it is normative. This descriptive project deflates certain normative claims about logic and methodology. To what extent can it endure with its deflating and valorizing aspects?

More than Just Capitalism: Discovering the True Adam Smith

“Adam Smith was opposed to government”.

“Adam Smith is the ‘father’ of capitalism”.

“Adam Smith was a great defender of capitalists”.

Adam Smith often finds himself the subject of misconceptions. Many believe they possess a grasp of his ideas, but the reality is often a bit askew. Perhaps they've caught wind of Adam Smith in short YouTube videos that extoll the virtues of self-interest or witnessed a professor wearing the 'Adam Smith tie', captivating the audience about the wonders of the free market. Maybe they've encountered the concept of the 'invisible hand' and its alleged miracles. There exists a wealth of Adam Smith notions that remain concealed from the consensus. In this series, I hope to rectify that. 

I will mainly discuss the origin and development of and key ideas and arguments from The Wealth of Nations. Numerous online sources often recommend this book to business professionals, it's important to note that Adam Smith intended it to be a guide for statesmen and legislators. Practical people of commerce and trade will not find this influential text very helpful, considering they would even understand the text. The political philosopher as the teacher of lawmakers was one of the oldest traditions of the man of learning, reaching back to Aristotle. 

Scotland during Smith’s time was the incubator of British intellectual innovation in the middle of the eighteenth century. He was raised in a milieu in which property, patronage, education, and government service were closely linked- this coordination would continue to chart Adam Smith’s social course. In Oxford, Smith would begin to make his name in the intellectual world through a series of lectures in Edinburgh. At the age of twenty-eight, he was appointed to the chair of logic and rhetoric, and then to the chair of moral philosophy. Smith’s lecture on ethics formed the basis of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Even before completing that book, he had begun to lecture on ‘jurisprudence’, a topic that included not only the principles of law but those of government and political economy as well. Unfortunately, these lectures did not accumulate into another book, leaving many misunderstandings of Smith’s ideas to endure.

Adam Smith’s Britain

Most people in the Great Britian of Smith’s day lived in what we would regard as poverty. Hundreds of thousands were willing to risk the possibility of death in transit just for the hope of a somewhat better life in the New World. Yet the population of Britain was probably better off economically than that of any major nation on the globe. The reason behind this relatively lower poverty was the commercial revolution. The Wealth of Nations grew out of Smith’s reflections upon the real successes of eighteenth-century Britain in producing economic growth. The gradual but unmistakable rise in the standard of living not only of the rich but of the working poor was real enough. But it was hampered, in Smith’s eyes, by some of the protectionist restrictions to which his countrymen attributed their growing riches, and it could be speeded up by expanding the greater market freedom already visible in parts of the economy. The old system of economic regulation of domestic trade — in which the price of goods was set by guilds, and the rate of wages set by justices of the peace—was being increasingly abandoned by the middle of the eighteenth century. Much of Smith’ book was an argument for expanding the freer market regime already dominant in internal trade to the realm of international trade.

Trade with other European powers was generally viewed by policy makers as a form of undeclared warfare, with the object of maximizing benefits to England while minimizing those to rival nations. The prime weapon in this war was the duty on imported goods. Sure, these customs duties provided the government with tax revenue, but by Smith’s day they were increasingly seen as a means of protecting British producers by raising the prices that consumers had to pay for imported goods. In its efforts to protect British industries from foreign competition, parliament went so far as to prohibit some foreign imports entirely. Yet despite these barriers and prohibitions, the most important economic fact of Smith’s day was that the nation was becoming wealthier- not only its elite, but its laboring masses as well. For perhaps the first time in history, a basic minimum of food, shelter, and clothing was a nearly universal expectation. Contemporary observers were struck by the relative ease with which an ordinary laborer could provide the means of subsistence for himself and for his family. Wage rates increased gradually for most of the century, growing most rapidly in the 1760s and 1770s, when Smith was working on The Wealth of Nations. New manufacturing technologies made it possible to employ women and even children—whose labor had usually been confined in the past to the farm or the home—in remunerative jobs. As a result, total family wages rose to the point where a substantial portion of the laboring classes could reasonably hope to purchase goods once beyond their aspirations. As wages moved upward and as the costs of production fell in agriculture and in the manufacture of basic necessities such as textiles for clothing, the standard of living rose. What had once been regarded as “luxuries” came to be seen as mere “decencies,” what had been “decencies” became “necessities,” and the very definition of “necessities” changed. Tea, a luxury beverage of the upper classes when the century began, was a daily drink of road workers by midcentury, as the per capita consumption increased fifteenfold in the course of the century. 

Trade with other European powers was generally viewed by policy makers as a form of undeclared warfare, with the object of maximizing benefits to England while minimizing those to rival nations. The primary weapon in this economic battle was the imposition of duties on imported goods. These customs duties did indeed contribute to government revenue, but by Adam Smith's time, they were increasingly seen as a means of safeguarding British producers by driving up prices for imported goods. In their efforts to shield British industries from foreign competition, Parliament even went to the extent of prohibiting the import of certain foreign goods. Despite these trade barriers and prohibitions, the most noteworthy economic development of Smith's era was the nation's growing prosperity. This extended not only to the elite but also to the working class. For the first time in history, there was a widespread expectation of securing basic necessities like food, shelter, and clothing. Observers of the time were surprised by how an ordinary laborer could easily provide for himself and his family. Wage rates saw gradual increases throughout most of the century, with the most significant growth occurring in the 1760s and 1770s, while Smith was working on The Wealth of Nations. The advent of new manufacturing technologies made it possible to employ women and even children, whose labor had traditionally been confined to the farm or home, in well-paying jobs. Consequently, total family incomes rose to a point where a substantial portion of the working class could reasonably aspire to purchase goods that had once been considered out of reach. As wages continued to rise and production costs fell, particularly in agriculture and the manufacture of essential items like textiles for clothing, the standard of living improved. What were once viewed as "luxuries" became "decencies," "decencies" transitioned into "necessities," and the very definition of "necessities" transformed. For instance, tea, once a luxury reserved for the upper classes at the century's outset, became a daily beverage for road workers by mid-century, with per capita consumption increasing fifteenfold over the course of the century.

The British consumer revolution of the time played a dual role: it both propelled and benefited from an industrial revolution still in its infancy. Items that were once considered lifetime purchases could now be acquired multiple times, not because they had become less durable, but because they had become significantly more affordable. Products that had once been painstakingly crafted at home, such as clothing, beer, candles, cutlery, and furniture, were now readily available for purchase. Another facet of this consumer revolution was the transformation of marketing. Goods that had previously only been accessible at weekly markets, occasional fairs, or through traveling peddlers could increasingly be bought on any day of the week, except for Sundays. It was during the eighteenth century that England earned the moniker (or derision)  "a nation of shopkeepers" - a shift driven by the convenience it offered to customers. Advertisements for new and fashionable products made their debut and soon dominated newspapers. Driving and guiding this newfound ability to make purchases was the concept of social emulation. People aspired to mirror those slightly higher on the social ladder, with the middle classes seeking to adopt the manners, morals, and merchandise of the gentry, and maids emulating their mistresses. What set this era apart wasn't the desire to consume; it was the unprecedented ability to do so, a feat made possible by the nation's increasing wealth and the declining cost of goods. 

Elite writers of the time often responded with dismay to the noticeable improvement in the living standards of the working classes. In addition to the traditional moralistic criticism of "luxury" as a driver of sin and a underminer of civic virtue, new economic arguments were introduced into the discourse. Some argued that rising wages would diminish the motivation to work, as workers would only be inclined to labor enough to meet their basic needs, after which they might prefer more leisure over higher income. While there is some, albeit not very reliable, evidence of this trend in England during the first half of the eighteenth century, by the latter half of the century, wage earners appeared increasingly willing to work longer and harder to earn more. This shift might have been influenced by the growing availability of new goods at prices they could afford. Economists and writers on economic matters also issued warnings that the high wages in Britain would drive up the prices of its manufactured goods, rendering them uncompetitive in the global market.

Adam Smith took precisely the opposite position. Although he was not the first to challenge the theory that poverty had utility, his work definitively settled the argument against it. He depicted Britain as a nation where real wages had consistently increased throughout the century due to declining food prices and the enhancement in the quality and variety of essential subsistence goods. To Smith, high and steadily rising real wages, which he referred to as "the liberal reward of labor," were something to be celebrated. He expressed that "to complain of it is to lament the necessary effect and cause of the greatest public prosperity." Smith shared Voltaire's perspective that being wealthy was preferable to being poor, but his focus was on enabling a decent life for all members of society.

Adam Smith's approach to legislation was influenced by the civic republican tradition's focus on the common good. However, he felt that this tradition fell short in its narrow emphasis on the involvement of a privileged elite in politics, neglecting the broader impact of politics on all members of the community. Smith's concern was to ensure that the political process contributed to the well-being of the entire nation, going beyond the political elite. He defined this well-being primarily in terms of enhancing people's quality of life in their everyday family, work, and consumption activities. Smith's emphasis reflected a growing recognition of the importance of "ordinary life" and a shift from the Christian virtue of charity to the Enlightenment virtue of practical benevolence. In essence, while Smith shared the civic republican concern for the common good, his interpretation placed greater importance on the moral and material welfare of individuals in their daily lives.

When you size up the modest digs of a hardworking, penny-pinching peasant against the extravagant luxuries of the high and mighty, it might make you wonder, "Is the peasant onto something?" In fact, one could argue that the peasant's pad surpasses the accommodations of quite a few African kings, who have an iron grip on the fates of thousands of naked tribespeople. 

The material advantages of the lowly laborer over the powerful chief was the riddle which The Wealth of Nations set out to explain.