[From Seth Crownover, Friend of the Podcast]
If we got anything from the last episode it’s that Thomas Kuhn is sort of a big deal and for good reason. His picture of scientific progress as a human rather than divine endeavor is, it seems to me, plainly true in a general sense if not in all the specifics (the world itself changes when there’s a paradigm shift? Really?) That is why it is so unfortunate that when one thinks of a “Kuhnian” one pictures not a serious historian of science but rather a flat cap-sporting ‘cultural theorist’ with stretched earrings and a goatee who doesn’t want to put the effort into learning French and so opts for a hermeneutics of “Kuhnian criticism” over deconstruction. Okay, by “one” I mean “I” and I’m not even sure there is such a thing as “Kuhnian hermeneutics.”
This is not to imply that I haven’t met many a brilliant philosopher of science who happen to be Kuhnian in outlook; there are loads of them and I even lean that way myself. It’s just an historical fact that there have been some theoretically irresponsible people who got a bit too carried away with Kuhn’s Structure and decided to apply it to all sorts of fields (regardless of whether or not the model retained its explanatory power) thus obscuring its original content. But the reason that I even bring this perverse caricature of the “hipster Kuhnian” up is because it is miles away—comically so—from the sort of person for whom it’s really, really important that Kuhn’s picture of science—or a variation thereof—be the correct one. I’m talking about someone who probably thinks stretched earrings are ‘of the devil,’ and who isn’t ‘ironic’ when they say things that are patently untrue (which is often). I’m talking about the intelligent design creationist.
People might be surprised to find that creationists of the “Intelligent Design” (ID) variety love Kuhn. Speaking for myself I can say that upon learning of ID proponents’ Kuhn fetish back when I was in grad school I snapped—mostly because I considered myself a Kuhnian and yet the connection made sense when I thought about it. I went from Kuhn sympathizer to dogmatic scientific realist almost overnight and though I’ve largely come back around to being a “Kuhnian” since then (with qualifications), I could not and would not have done so without first making sure that the picture of science that I accept cannot assign as much legitimacy to something like ID as it does to evolutionary theory. I hope that by the end of the post you’ll have at least a seed of an idea as to how and why the ID folks are misusing and abusing Kuhn. I also hope you’ll be able to see how the Kuhnian framework (or at least a vulgar variation thereof) might seem to lend legitimacy to ID and movements like it.
ID advocates’ admiration of Kuhn is a curious phenomenon and one that for some reason doesn’t seem to be mentioned in the literature nearly as often as it should be (Robert T. Pennock makes the most noise about this aspect of ID: especially Pennock 1999, 206-210 and 2010). They explicitly co-opt Kuhnian terminology to justify their dismissal of evolution: for instance, evolution is a “theory in crisis” according to the very title of Michael Denton’s pro-ID book. William Dembski writes of “replacing an outdated scientific paradigm (Darwinism) and…giving a new scientific paradigm (intelligent design) room to breathe, develop and prosper” (2004, 13) noting that, “[a]s with all dying paradigms, Darwinism’s old guard will not…go gently into that good night” (2004, 20).
Then there is this revealing statement made by law professor and founder of the ID ‘think tank’ The Discovery Institute, Phillip E. Johnson: “If Kuhn had chosen evolutionary biology as a case study, he would have risked being denounced as a creationist” (2010, ch. 9). The co-option that tells us the most about how they think of themselves comes from Stephen Meyer when he dismisses as irrelevant the fact that arguments for ID have come in book form and almost never through scientific journals: this is because the latter are a “conservative genre,” being “part of what…Thomas Kuhn calls ‘normal science'” in whose pages “[n]ew and revolutionary ideas in science are unlikely to appear.” What we should actually expect, says Meyer, is to see “most of the initial work in any fundamentally new scientific perspective to appear first in books” (2009, 551n63). How convenient is that?
But should we expect anything else? A fact readily acknowledged by ID proponents is that in today’s normal science, invocations of supernatural dei ex machina are disallowed. Why? For one, such pseudo-explanations only pile more problems onto the question they are supposed to solve. For instance, any complete design argument is going to have to account for the very supernatural ‘designer’ (i.e., God) that they use to explain the ‘design,’ leaving us with several questions where we previously had only one. Scientists would have to start looking for answers to the question, “why would the designer design?” (see, e.g., Manson 2008, §3) which is one that science simply isn’t equipped to answer.
It makes perfect sense for them to appeal to Kuhn for a weird sort of justification. ID ‘theory’ simply has nothing to offer us in this modern age of naturalistic scientific inquiry; we shook off “Goddidit” explanations some centuries ago along with phlogiston and Aristotelian physics. How then are they to compete with a method as efficient and parsimonious as naturalism or a theory as predictively successful as evolution? By asserting that it’s not they who have the problem—it’s us. We just haven’t realized that evolution is a “theory in crisis” because we’re the “old guard” uselessly and unknowingly laboring away inside a “dying paradigm” while these brave new revolutionaries at the Discovery Institute are addressing problems we’ve never even thought of inside a new and improved supernaturalistic paradigm! And the problem posed by Kuhn’s conception of science is that we would never know how utterly screwed our paradigm is because we’re inside of it.
It seems fairly obvious that the notion of the “paradigm shift” doesn’t allow us to make the sort of value judgment that would justify our saying that paradigm x (ID) is “better than”—much less “has improved upon”—paradigm y (Evolution). x and y are, after all, incommensurable and “incommensurable” means nothing less than the absence of a common metric shared by paradigms x and y such that x can be said to be better or worse than y. How then is the Kuhnian naturalist to attack the ID proponent?
We can start by pointing out that ID ‘theorists’ say “paradigm” when they really mean something more like “worldview”—or if not ‘worldview’ then surely something the connotations of which are a lot broader than those of “paradigm.” Methodological naturalism—the ID folks’ equivalent of the ‘Big Bad’—is a way of doing science generally across more or less all scientific disciplines and their proposed replacement (supernaturalism) is likewise meant to apply not just to the life sciences but ‘across-the-board’ to cosmology and other disciplines. So one possible response to the ID proponent is that they’re equivocating when they appeal to Kuhn because they are talking about something far more general and vague than the disciplinary shifts for which he accounted. But this rebuttal may still feel somewhat unsatisfactory if only because it just seems like we should be able to say more about how inferior ID is while still accepting a broadly “Kuhnian” account of science. Perhaps we can.
Assume for a moment that “ID” refers specifically to a way of thinking about biology and not science in toto. In this case it would appear that we wouldn’t be able to speak of ID’s inferiority relative to the evolutionary paradigm (“EP”) as such. That’s because built into the Kuhnian framework is an a priori prohibition against value judgments about paradigms made external to the paradigm being judged. The strongest thing a naturalist can say while remaining a Kuhnian seems to be something like this: evolutionary theory as a scientific paradigm can satisfactorily account for all the problems in biology that it is meant to explain. Or put in slightly weaker terms, we can say that there are no problems that pose an existential threat to evolutionary theory qua paradigm. Were we to ‘shift’ to a paradigm of biological supernaturalism we would, among other things, find ourselves faced with a number of new problems that were not present under the EP.
It is certainly conceivable, if improbable, that the EP might one day give way to a totally alien paradigm. If and when that day comes, I imagine it it will be led by a “new guard” of cautiously optimistic scientists who have no idea where their idea will eventually lead them and everyone else—not a willfully deceitful subculture of propagandists who already know where their idea will lead and would inexplicably rather disseminate it among schoolchildren than scientists and peers.
Dembski, William. The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions about Intelligent Design (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004).
Johnson, Phillip E. Darwin on Trial (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 1991; 2010).
Manson, Neil. “The ‘Why Design?’ Question,” in New Waves in Philosophy of Religion, ed. Yujin Nagasawa and Erik Weilenberg (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008) 68-90.
Meyer, Stephen C. Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (New York: HarperOne, 2009).
Pennock, Robert T. “The Postmodern Sin of Intelligent Design Creationism.” Science & Education, 19, nos. 6-8 (June 2010): 757-778. You can read it here.
Pennock, Robert T. Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1999).