Kuhn's Rationale on the Irrationality of Scientific Revolutions
"Communities in this sense exist, of course, at numerous levels. The most global is the community of all natural scientists."
~Thomas S. Kuhn, from The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
To understand Thomas Kuhn's ideas regarding scientific revolutions, one must have a grasp on Kuhn's ideas relating to the history of science in general. Kuhn's perspective on the history of science is that scientific knowledge is not accumulative. He did not perceive the accumulation of knowledge as linear. Thus, before Kuhn explains the irrationality of scientific revolutions, he explains the irrationality of the historical picture of science in general. The paper will contend that scientific revolutions are irrational because science is irrational. As will be demonstrated by Kuhn and other authors, there is no specific logic as to why some theories and paradigms become popular and other do not. To paraphrase Kuhn, often whoever presented the better argument rather than whoever had the superior argument was the one that became popular and supported.[footnoteRef:0] In addition, Kuhn sums up the nature of scientific theories, popular or not, in that all scientific theories are empirically successful, but ultimately proven false. Thus, the nature of scientific theory is irrational and the rise of popular theories is irrational. How would scientific revolutions not be irrational also? The paper supports and proposes that Kuhn's views are that scientific revolutions are partially irrational in nature; they are necessary to scientific developments; and scientific revolutions like all revolutions, have political, economic, and cultural implications. Change and revolution are radical and often spring from emotional, psychological or ethical conflicts of interest; when it comes to human emotions, psychology, and ethics, rationality often takes a backseat to irrationality. The paper supplies Kuhn's reasons to think that shifts in scientific revolutions are not wholly rational and that Kuhn's reasoning effectively demonstrates that shifts in scientific thought violate codes of rationality. [0: T.S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Second Edition, The University of Chicago Press, London, 1970,-Page 158.]
Kuhn compares the nature of scientific revolution to that of the nature of political revolution. He comments on the power of crisis to jumpstart change in either realm:
Political revolutions are inaugurated by a growing sense, often restricted to a segment of the political community, that existing institutions have ceased adequately to meet the problems posed by an environment that they have in part created. In much the same way, scientific revolutions are inaugurated by a growing sense, again often restricted to a narrow subdivision of the scientific community, that an existing paradigm has ceased to function adequately in the exploration of an aspect of nature to which that paradigm itself had previously led the way. In both political and scientific development the sense of malfunction that can lead to crisis is prerequisite to revolution.[footnoteRef:1] [1: Ibid, Page 92.]
Scientific revolutions are comparable to political revolutions. Scientific revolutions are kinds of political revolutions. Scientific revolutions fight against the established order or paradigm that no longer serves the scientific community for one or more reasons. There is a similar sense of uprising and build up of tension in political and scientific revolutions. Inefficacies of scientific theories lead to malfunctioning; malfunction leads to crisis. Crises cause stress, anxiety, tension, irrationality, and may lead to revolution.
Revolutions, regardless of the variety (social, economic, political, cultural, scientific, etc.), may have both sources and effects that are not wholly rational. Kuhn continues his comparison of political revolutions with scientific revolutions, further cementing the supposition that scientific revolutions are political as he writes:
Political revolutions aim to change political institutions in ways that those institutions themselves prohibit. Their success therefore necessitates the partial relinquishment of one set of institutions in favor of another, and in the interim, society is not fully governed by institutions at all. Initially it is crisis alone that attenuates the role of political institutions as we have already seen it attenuate the role of paradigms. In increasing numbers individuals become increasingly estranged from political life and behave more and more eccentrically within it. Then, as the crisis deepens, many of these individuals commit themselves to some concrete proposal for the reconstruction of society in a new institutional framework. At that point the society is divided into competing camps or parties, one seeking to defend the old institutional constellation, the others seeking to institute some new one. And, once that polarization has occurred, political recourse fails.[footnoteRef:2] [2: Ibid, Page 93.]
The role of paradigms and the role of crisis are critical to Kuhn's ideas regarding scientific revolution, political revolution, and perhaps, the general nature of revolution. An interesting aspect of his ideas is how irrationality is present at the time of inception of revolution as well as during and after the revolution has commenced. In the above quotation, Kuhn makes the point that when revolution occurs, there is a moment or period of anarchy, essentially. He comments that as crises continue and/or deepen, those within the scope of the crisis polarize around the issue -- some people become estranged or detached from political (or scientific) life and as the crisis persists, divisions within communities occur, preparing for another stage in the revolution of perspective or thought or method. Anarchy is not wholly rational; anarchists do not wholly behave rationally. When a scientific crisis arises as a result of malfunctioning of a paradigm or theory, anarchy and irrationality ensue. Thus, this aspect demonstrates in one way how scientific revolutions are not wholly rational as they include eccentricity, polarization, and anarchy.
Kuhn furthermore contends the value of crisis in scientific revolution as well as the lack of rationality inherent in crisis and therefore in scientific revolution, too:
…prior crisis proves so important. Scientists who have not experienced it will seldom renounce the hard evidence of problem-solving to follow what may easily prove and will be widely regarded as a will-o'-the-wisp. But crisis alone is not enough. There must also be a basis, though it need be neither rational nor ultimately correct, for faith in the particular candidate chosen. Something must make at least a few scientists feel that the new proposal is on the right track, and sometimes it is only personal and inarticulate aesthetic considerations that can do that. Men have been converted by them at times when most of the articulable technical arguments pointed the other way.[footnoteRef:3] [3: Ibid, Page 158.]
For Kuhn, change and revolution do not exist exclusively without crisis. While crisis is important for revolution, it is not the only ingredient in the recipe for revolution. It is in the same way that sometimes anger over an issue leads to activist change. The anger may stimulate the change, but the anger is not what is singularly necessary for the change to occur. Interestingly, later in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn argues opposite his position that crisis is necessary to revolution and modifies his argument to state that while crisis is not an ingredient in every revolution, he is unaware of a case where it is not:
Nothing important to my argument depends, however, on crises' being an absolute prerequisite to revolutions; they need only be the usual prelude, supplying, that is, a self-correcting mechanism which ensures that the rigidity of normal science will not forever go unchallenged. Revolutions may also be induced in other ways, though I think they seldom are. In addition, I would now point out what the absence of an adequate discussion of community structure has obscured above: crises need not be generated by the work of the community that experiences them and that sometimes undergoes revolution as a result.[footnoteRef:4] [4: Ibid, Page 181.]
Kuhn brings up the necessity for faith. Many readers may question why or how a scientist or philosopher such as Thomas Kuhn, in a work dedicated to a scientific phenomenon, would bring up the concept of faith. Faith is irrational. The paper does not argue or propose a value judgment for faith; the paper simply states that faith is not a rational feeling or choice. Faith, for Kuhn, is additionally a necessary component for scientific change and revolution. The mention of faith in a person's character relates to intuition. Faith in a person could simply be a feeling or a sense that a person has regarding another person, situation, or idea that does not originate from information provided by the five physical senses. Intuition and faith come from a non-scientific or not purely rational source. Nonetheless, Kuhn supports that faith is a part of scientific revolution. Sometimes the idea is not what is convincing, but rather, the person who presents the idea is what persuades the community and incites shifts in thought and perspective. Rouse expands upon Kuhn's idea of irrationality and persuasion in scientific shifts of thought as he writes:
Without common standards or procedures, the reasons offered for each choice can at best be persuasive, and not rationally conclusive. Kuhn sometimes even likened the acceptance of a new paradigm to a religious conversion or…