Wednesday, November 25, 2009

wondering about the implications of paradigm shifts

I’ve just been looking up some material on the philosophy of science to teach my second years – especially the work of Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper.

Kuhn said that science exists in a cultural context. This tells scientists what is acceptable to study and what research methods are reasonable to use and what constitutes legitimate data and acceptable evidence. He called this context a paradigm.

He said that rather than seeing science as building one idea upon another actually it involves revolutionary change where one set of assumptions is abandoned in favour of a new set. Scientific disciplines advance through stable periods of one paradigm to moments of crisis or paradigm shift like this to times when a new paradigm is established.

In physics we see a crisis moment when Newton’s theory of gravity was shown inadequate by Eddington’s astronomical observations. Einstein’s ideas were then accepted as the new paradigm. Events such as these have become known as a paradigm shifts.

According to Popper for a theory to be scientific you need to be able to show that it is false. One example that contradicts this is enough. For example the discovery of the platypus shows that not all mammals give birth to their young alive – at least one mammal lays eggs. But actually one example is rarely enough as often there may be other explanations offered. But as these examples build up we slowly loose faith in the way that we thought and start looking for a new way to explain things.

On this basis psychoanalysis can be rejected as unscientific as it cannot be falsified - interestingly according to Popper we can reject Darwin’s theory of evolution on the same criteria. But in psychology we can still see paradigms such as behavioural, cognitive and biological all competing to be today's paradigm.

But across disciplines there is a growing view that an important paradigm shift is occurring. This is a move from 'modern' thinking (that wants everything to fit into the logical propositions of the enlightenment) to 'post-modern' thinking (which based on narrative and is more tolerant of ambiguity). Perhaps that means the new paradigm is tolerant of competing paradigms like those in psychology?

Of course none of this is new. These ideas have been around for decades and I'm probably way behind in thinking about these. But I’m still happily wondering about some of the implications of all this.

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