By Adam Robert
to find other writings by Adam go to his blog… Knowledge Ecology
“Examining the record of past research from the vantage of contemporary historiography, the historian of science may be tempted to exclaim that when paradigms change, the world itself changes with them. Led by a new paradigm, scientists adopt new instruments and look in new places. Even more important, during revolutions scientists see new and different things when looking with familiar instruments in places they have looked before…In so far as their only recourse to that world is through what they see and do, we may want to say that after a revolution scientists are responding to a different world” (Kuhn 1996, 111).
That scientific research requires the use of paradigms is perhaps not so surprising. A common set of principles that delineate the structure of objects to be studied, a universal language with which to describe such objects and an established protocol for interpreting the incoming data recorded about those objects seems rudimentary and uncontroversial. Had historian of science Thomas Kuhn stopped at this point, his work would have been interesting, but not ground breaking in the way it has been. For Kuhn, paradigms, though always connected to specific modes of scientific practice, are also related to a more general understanding of nature itself. Kuhn writes:
“I have so far argued only that paradigms are constitutive of science. Now I wish to display a sense in which they are constitutive of nature as well” (1996, 110).
What is one to make of such a statement as this? To explore the relationship between the ecology of nature and the conceptual ecology of the researcher worker, it is necessary to treat this question with detail and care. The following chapter explores this central issue: in what way are paradigms implicated not just in scientific research, but how do paradigms connect to the larger ecology of experience present in the research worker? What is the relationship of this ecology of knowledge to the ecology of nature? I draw here on Kuhn’s work on paradigms, supported by his predecessor Michael Polanyi, and the associated pragmatist philosophies that lend credibility to the perspectives of both historians of science.
To begin, I quote here at some length various informative passages from Kuhn’s work to illustrate the point at hand. Kuhn notes that:
“Looking at a contour map, the student sees lines on paper, the cartographer a picture of terrain. Looking at a bubble-chamber photograph, the student sees confused and broken lines, the physicist a record of familiar subnuclear events. Only after a number of such transformations of vision does the student become an inhabitant of the scientists world…” (1996, 111).
How is it that a student must undergo a process of transformation in order to inhabit the scientist’s world? Such a statement implies that science, which on the surface seems to be a tool that the researcher can handle at will, or an object that can be picked up and applied to some external event, reveals itself rather to be an encompassing space; an environment which one must acclimate to and inhabit. Rather than the researcher possessing a tool for use in scientific study, it appears that a paradigm is more like an environment within which the researcher works. Kuhn continues:
“The world that the student then enters is not, however, fixed once and for all by the nature of the environment, on the one hand, and of science, on the other. Rather it is determined jointly by the environment and the particular normal-scientific tradition that the student has been trained to pursue” (1996, 111-112).
This point is critical; it demonstrates that for Kuhn, it is not the case that because paradigms reorganize one’s perception of the natural world that somehow each paradigm is an equal fit. Researchers are not free to construct any paradigm that suits their imaginative whims. Rather, the research paradigm and the environment being studied are in a tight relationship. To borrow biologist Francisco Varela and and cognitive scientist Evan Thompson’s terminology, paradigms and their fields of study can be described as “structurally coupled,” two complex ecologies merging to produce the meaning described by a given scientific paradigm.
Likewise, Michael Polanyi suggests a “structural kinship” between the subjects and objects of study. Structural kinships are very sensitive to the performance of perception itself. For Polanyi, subjects and objects are mutually constellating and are prone to subtle, collective shifts through the act of perception. Through time, structural kinships constellate in different ways such that “This capacity of a thing to reveal itself in unexpected ways in the future I [Michael Polanyi] attribute to the fact that the thing observed is an aspect of reality possessing a significance that is not exhausted by our conception of any single aspect of it” (2009, 32). In the effort to produce an intelligent, adequate description of the perceptual process of interpretation, Polanyi, like Kuhn, understands the subtle shaping of experience that accompanies any pursuit of knowledge.
In shaping experience through knowledge, a variety of integrative modes are possible, each one corresponding to a variety of world-views (e.g. the world is best described as x and results primarily from the interactions of y) or disciplinary specializations (as in physics, chemistry, biology or anthropology). I suggest that the relationships of these multiple modes, both to one another, and to the worlds they study, are best described by the term “ecology of knowledge.”
For Polanyi, the structure of perception throws light on the entire cosmology for which that mode of perception is possible: “Thus do we form, intellectually and practically, an interpreted universe populated by entities, the particulars of which we have interiorized for the sake of comprehending their meaning in the shape of coherent entities” (2009, 29). In this way, articles of knowledge are not merely descriptions of objects that we can claim to understand as fixed totalities with definite characteristics, but rather it is, to use Polyani’s language, by a process of “indwelling” that we, the observers of phenomena, can interiorize, and in this way, relate to the multitudinous flux of perceptual phenomena to which we have access. This process of indwelling is the manner in which the subject’s awareness of particulars is jointly constituted into a variety of cohesive entities that can be studied or understood. For Kuhn, these “jointly constituted particulars,” as described by Polanyi, may be thought as the shifting elements that are brought together within newly emerging paradigms. Each new paradigm incorporates elements from its historical antecedents, but also draws forth from reality unique forms of organization that structure scientific research for the subsequent generation of scientists.
In the context of ecological science, then, it is not the case that a fixed environment exists waiting to be studied, nor that there exists a simple discriminating principle that delineates one program of research as more accurate than another. Rather, as one can see in both the history of biology and in the current debates circulating amongst ecologists (outlined in chapter three), there are multiple paradigmatic constructions possible within the context of an ecosystem that is itself multiple and complex.
This preliminary statement: that paradigms are a form of structural kinship between environments and scientists needs further justification. Kuhn, drawing on psychological research on the effect of context and suggestion on perception offers that:
“Surveying the rich experimental literature from which these examples are drawn makes one suspect that something like a paradigm is prerequisite to perception itself. What a man sees depends both upon what he looks at and also upon what his previous visual-conceptual experience has taught him to see. In the absence of such training there can only be, in William James’ phrase, a “bloomin’ buzzin’ confusion” (1996, 113).
At this point, Kuhn has broken beyond the tight definition of a paradigm as a protocol for the conduction of normal-scientific research and has entered into larger epistemological arenas concerning the relationship between paradigms, perception and the organization of experience itself.
The link here between perception and experience troubles the scientist who wishes to rest science upon the solid bedrock of objective fact. Kuhn will give no such reprieve, but acknowledges the difficulty in thought his intuition inspires: “Many readers will surely want to say that what changes with a paradigm is only the scientist’s interpretation of observations that themselves are fixed once and for all by the nature of the environment and of the perceptual apparatus” (1996, 120). This statement indicates a bias in the scientific mode of thought, which posits that a fixed environment exists ‘out there’ and is accessible to the scientist, provided that she is well prepared in the scientific tradition of the moment. Kuhn’s invocation of William James in the above quotation is surely no accident. The epistemological shift Kuhn implied by the lack of fixity in the environment has a long history in the Jamesian tradition of pragmatism. This point is worth dwelling on for a moment, as it adds a substantial philosophical validation of Kuhn’s ideas in this area.
One can draw here on others in the pragmatist tradition such as Charles Sanders Pierce, William James and John Dewey. Their contributions to philosophy are not tangential to Kuhn’s arguments on the relationship between paradigms and the environment of study. Pierce, James and Dewey all argue for continuity in evolutionary processes so that no clear split between language and reality, or paradigm and environment can be made.
Brian Henning argues that Pierce, James and Dewey set out to create a new system of metaphysics that, rather than promoting a bifurcation of reality as an ontological starting point, Pierce, for example “…began with the presupposition that reality is fundamentally continuous, referring to his theory as synechism. In contrast to prevailing metaphysics, which either reduced reality- that is, materialism and idealism- or bifurcated reality into mutually exclusive parts- that is, dualism- Pierce’s synechism points towards an evolutionary cosmology” (2005, 22). William James, Henning argues, likewise resists the bifurcating tendency available to philosophy: “According to James, most philosophers conceive of entities as self-enclosed, wholly complete by themselves…James believes that this view of reality is misguided because it takes our linguistic constructions as designating ontological relations…” and continues by writing “Existence for James cannot be compartmentalized into conceptual blocks, each of which excludes every other” (2005, 23).
Finally, Henning adds Dewey’s conception of time to the discussion when he writes: “Thus, just as modern and classical notions of absolute time led to an absolute dualism between humans and nature, the notion of time as existence implies a conception of reality that calls into question the view of reality as bifurcated…” The perspectives of Pierce, James and Dewey closely echo ontologically, what Polanyi and Kuhn suggest epistemologically. That is to say that our knowledge of the world, as it changes our perceptual capacities for experience, travels and evolves alongside of the world it studies. No clear delineation between the world, and our knowledge or experience of it is possible, rather the two form a complex interdependent system, this interdependence, I believe, is ecological in nature. Henning, writing on Dewey, goes on to say: “Such a view affects a fundamental shift in our conception of humanity’s place in the universe. According to such a view, humanity is different in degree, rather than in kind, from nature” (2005, 25).
The work of Pierce, James and Dewey represent criticisms of three fundamental positions common in western philosophy: idealism: ideas are primary, material is epiphenomenal,materialism: matter is primary, ideas are epiphenomenal and dualism: matter and ideas are both active, but are essentially separate and distinct substances. Kuhn’s commentary on the relationship between paradigm and environment are difficult and troublesome not so much because of any cognitive failure to apprehend his point, but rather, one could argue, because his argument fails to fit into traditional philosophical categories. As opposed to compartmentalizing these aspects, Kuhn’s linking of paradigms to their system of study suggests a complex coupling of perception, experience and reality, each participating in an ecological matrix of embedded experience. Uniting the paradigm and environment within a philosophical context such as pragmatism allows for a strong conceptual base. Biological science absent of such philosophical experimentation may continue to struggle with these issues.
When critiquing the adaptationist paradigm for example, geneticist Richard Lewontin points to the role organisms play in constructing or transforming their environments (1991). The environment, in Lewontin’s sense, is not a fixed object to be adapted to. The environment, for Lewontin, is an artifact in part produced by the activities of organisms, where the organism is also in part an artifact of that environment. In what sense then is this adaptationist framework repeated in an epistemological arena? Rather than organismsadapting to fixed environments, one is faced with paradigms adapting to fixed environments. There is a tendency to think of the environment as being fixed in a permanent way. That paradigms change based on the demands of new research is again not surprising. However, what Kuhn is suggesting is more nuanced and critical.
Kuhn writes: “What occurs during a scientific revolution is not fully reducible to reinterpretation of individual and stable data. In the first place, the data are not unequivocally stable…Rather than being an interpreter, the scientist who embraces a new paradigm is like the man wearing inverting lenses. Confronting the same constellation of objects as before and knowing that he does so, he nevertheless finds them transformed through and through in many of their details” (1996, 122). In one of his many examples, Kuhn cites the Copernican revolution as an instance of scientists looking at the same objects (the stars in the night sky) using the same instruments, and then began recording innumerable new celestial events as a result of a paradigm shift to the Copernican cosmological world view.
Kuhn argues that the pervious classical and medieval paradigms interpreted the night sky as an immutable heaven; a changeless realm distinct in nature from that of the earth, such that once this interpretation had been overcome: “The very ease and rapidity with which astronomers saw new things when looking at old objects with old instruments may make us wish to say that, after Copernicus, astronomers lived in a different world. In any case, their research responded as though that were the case” (1996, 117). In moments such as this, the gestalt shift of a paradigm necessarily reorients the researcher to redefine some crucial aspects of the cosmos in which they work. In other words, the facts of any scientific discipline though real from a certain perspective, are always at risk of being re-organized into the sweep of an alternative conceptual ecology more adequate to the nature of what is being studied. This awareness is of particular relevance to ecological communities, where the associated paradigms of study do not organize just inanimate objects like particles and atoms, but are involved in the re-organization of complex systems composed of living beings.
Acknowledging the influence of paradigms opens several epistemological issues that call into question labels like ‘raw data’ and ‘immediate experience.’ Delving into these problems, Kuhn writes:
It is, of course, by no means clear that we need be so concerned with “immediate experience”- that is, with the perceptual features that a paradigm so highlights that they surrender their regularities almost upon inspection. Those features must obviously change with the scientist’s commitments to paradigms, but they are far from what we ordinarily have in mind when we speak of raw data or the brute experience from which scientific research is reputed to proceed (1996, 125).
This problem is not new to philosophy. Descartes formulated the initial set up to this problem by arguing for two substances: res cogitas and res extensa. That the mental substance was split from the material substance allowed the stage to be set for three centuries of epistemological debate that ran from Berkeley to Hume and reached a peak with Immanual Kant. Again, what Kuhn is suggesting does not follow this frame. The problem of representing the direct experience of a concrete environment in neutral language is itself the setup of a particularly sedimented practice of epistemology.
The idea of descriptive symbols falling along one side of a wall permeated only by inadequate representation, with concrete phenomena arrayed on the other is a historical artifact. Kuhn and the pragmatists suggest otherwise, first critiquing the value of a neutrally descriptive language, and second by critiquing the stability of a given world that is present to description. Because the only worlds possible to describe are those that are already prepared for description by specific paradigmatic values, a descriptive language can be said to be continuous with, but never fully adequate to the phenomena in question: “No language thus restricted to reporting a world fully known in advance can produce mere neutral and objective reports on ‘the given.’ Philosophical investigation has not yet provided even a hint of what a language able to do that would be like” (1996, 127).
The failure of the complete success of language in describing phenomena is not cause for a despairing solipsism that contradicts the objective nature of science; the failure of representation does not imply the loss of concrete worlds either in knowledge or in experience. It merely re-inscribes the notion that the philosophical projects of materialism, idealism and dualism are themselves paradigms that can no longer confront in an adequate way the knowledge provided by a historical account of scientific revolutions. However, we must push past even this sophisticated post-modern insight and insist on something further: that of the relation of paradigms to each other, and to the worlds they enact.
The ecology of the natural world is full and complex beyond what science is able to describe, not because science does not have access to a real world, but because the nature of paradigms is such that they must emphasize certain phenomena and not others (Kuhn 1996). Nevertheless, thermodynamics refers to the concrete world of ecosystems ecology and evolutionary theory accounts for the real events of organic life forms in their ongoing transformation and evolution. But, as is shown in chapters three and four, the ecosystem is an ecology that can be understood in multiple ways, using different descriptive languages that are active in the bringing forth of specific aspects of an ecosystem. Our original point is in this way affirmed: natural ecologies are linked to conceptual ecologies. Paradigms, and the history of scientific revolutions represent an avenue into studying the relationship between such ecologies; both of which are complexly material (the lived experience of organic bodies) and ideological (the universal mathematical laws which govern all energy flow in an ecosystem).
As is expressed by NCT, dialectical biology and enactivism, organisms are actively engaged in the transformation of their environment, as those environments then feedback and transform the organism. This biological interpretation of evolution that offers the continuity between disparate aspects of a system, but maintains the integrity of individuals (their structurally determined autopoietic nature) offers a model by which one can understand the relationship between paradigms and the environments that they study. Again, the notion of coimplicative or mutually enfolded agencies becomes critical; the idea is inside the event as the event is inside the idea. It is in this way one can describe an ecology of paradigms. The ecological turn suggests that paradigms are not representational structures of fixed environments that suffer or succeed in greater levels of adaptive fit. Rather, through ecologizing the paradigmatic structure it becomes possible to understand paradigms as creative and productive of new worlds of understanding. The creative potential of the paradigm thus has a concrete impact on how living systems are organized and in what manner humans relate to them.
Henning, Brian G. 2005. The ethics of creativity: Beauty, morality and nature in a processive cosmos. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
Kuhn, Thomas S. 1996. The structure of scientific revolutions. Third ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lewontin, Richard. 1991. Biology as ideology: The doctrine of DNA. New York: HarperPerennial.
Polanyi, Michael. 2009. The tacit dimension. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.