Scientific Revolution


The philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn changed the way the progress of science is viewed. As he describes, scientific revolutions arise when the current worldview is incompatible with a new discovery. And he documented the tremendous difficulty of the transition to a new scientific worldview.

The Great Revolutions

500 years ago it was Nicolaus Copernicus who set in motion the first great scientific revolution. He established that the Sun is the centre of the solar system, and thus the Earth was never the centre of the universe. The charming idea that we humans are of central importance was shown to be quite false.

300 years ago Isaac Newton brought about another radical shift in people’s understanding of the world. With just three fundamental equations he showed that the universe operates in a completely predictable and rational manner, like a giant clockwork. Scientific infancy was over.

200 years ago Charles Darwin demonstrated the evolution of species. He showed us we are very ordinary creatures with extraordinary minds. Not privileged, just lucky. The random result of 4.3 billion years of evolution.

100 years ago the ‘new physics’ ushered in a further new challenge to our understanding. But to date, although the science is superb, no one knows what quantum theory really means. The compromise assumption is the ‘quasi-classical’ world. This means as if Newtonian, ordinary, but actually made of something quite different, which we have never really understood. Relativity also contains a deep anomaly. The latest scientific revolution is incomplete.

Kuhn termed them scientific revolutions because these changes are usually hugely resisted. Copernicus faced tremendous opposition to his ideas, as did Darwin. More recently, major discoveries in the new physics such as Max Planck’s discovery of the quantum, and Hugh Everett’s explanation of the quantum dynamics are vivid examples. Superb breakthroughs are too confronting and are not only disavowed but reviled. Eventually a new worldview is achieved, and a new epoch begins.

The Paradigm

Kuhn defines a paradigm as the generally accepted worldview among the members of the scientific community. This includes the set of theories and standards common to scientists in the field. Such a paradigm is not given up lightly. Change is heavily resisted, which is why it becomes a revolution.

The resistance can get extreme. As stated by the pioneering physicist Max Planck:

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. (1949)

This is now known as Planck’s principle. He discovered the quantum and outlined quantum theory, and he became deeply frustrated and increasingly infuriated by the endless non-acceptance of his results.

The current situation seems very similar. Everett’s famous many-worlds theory resolved the measurement problem half a century ago, but the meaning is still not accepted. It means personal worlds, ‘relative worlds’ in technical terms as described in The Personal World.

Automatic Rejection

Mostly, we are all naturally resistant to changing our worldview, but Kuhn realised that there was more than this at work.

As Kuhn explains, once a worldview has become a paradigm, a deeply-held and well-structured concept of the world, a new concept that is incompatible with it is automatically rejected. It seems clear it is just obviously wrong. Thus if new research indicates there is a fault in this worldview, this is not seen as refuting the current paradigm but just a mistake by the researcher, however prestigious.

This shows that the rejection of new ideas is not a deliberate or even a conscious process. But as he describes, this leads to a classic Catch-22:

Once it has achieved the status of a paradigm, a scientific theory is declared invalid only if an alternate candidate is available to take its place. (1962, 77)

The physicist Hermann Weyl noted this exact response to the new physics, saying that physicists and philosophers both continued to:

. . . stick stubbornly to the principles of a mechanistic interpretation of the world after physics had, in its actual structure, already outgrown the latter. They have the same excuse as the land person who for the first time travels on the open sea: he will desperately try to stay in sight of the vanishing coast line, as long as there is no other coast in sight, towards which he steers. (Scholz, 2004, 3)

There has been no new coast in sight. Nothing recognisable could be found in the paradoxes of the new physics. Results of experiments seem to be dependent on experience, which is an oxymoron in the physicalism of the current worldview. So, since the requirement of a viable alternative has not been met, the current worldview has remained stuck while the new physics carries on without a proper explanation. So the meaning of the new physics has lain by the wayside, a pearl in an oyster unopened.

The relative world, has been presented as a solution in many different forms, but this is not seen as a viable alternative worldview. These interpretations simply accept that observation, information, is of primary and even ontological significance. But it is for this very reason that they are not taken seriously in mainstream physics. As described in The Personal World, the resolution is that there are two different types of world. And this means that while the current paradigm is essentially correct, the paradoxical phenomena are operating in the relative world.

Normal Science

Kuhn’s unexpected discovery was that major shifts in the current paradigm never happen as part of the progressive development of scientific research, which he terms ‘normal science’. This he defines as working within the community to refine the structure of the existing paradigm, in the existing theories. This is the landscape of knowledge within which the scientists of the day operate, more or less exclusively. As he states:

No part of the aim of normal science is to call forth new sorts of phenomenon; indeed those that will not fit the box are often not seen at all. (1962, 24)

Thus as Kuhn describes, major shifts in the current paradigm never happen as part of the progressive development of scientific research, the normal science.

So although anomalies are inevitably discovered, these are swept under the carpet as acceptable levels of error. Or, if they are too potentially intrusive, simply ignored. Thus scientific revolutions are always breakdowns of the ordinary business of normal science. Kuhn describes these huge changes as ‘paradigm shifts’, sea changes deep and wide in our comprehension of the world.

The New Paradigm

The automatic rejection of ideas that do not fit is why enormous paradigm shifts take tremendous impetus. The pressure for change has to build up and up. This has been largely lacking in the scientific milieu of recent times. We have been too busy making amazing strides into new technologies to worry much about the deep meaning. As von Baeyer states:

Flawlessly accounting for the behavior of matter on scales from the subatomic to the astronomical, quantum mechanics is the most successful theory in all the physical sciences. It is also the weirdest. … Physicists have grappled with the quantum world’s apparent paradoxes for nine decades, with little to show for their struggles. The deep confusion about the meaning of quantum theory will continue to add fuel to the perception that the deep things it is so urgently trying to tell us about our world are irrelevant to everyday life and too weird to matter. (2013, 47)

But it matters enormously. As shown here, we live in personal parallel realities. This is surely a major paradigm shift but this time there is even more to contend with. We are constantly directing the path of the events of our personal worlds, as described in The New Empowerment. The roots of the physics are described in The Avant Garde and The Movie of Life.