Thursday, September 29, 2005

Kuhn’s Road Since Structure

In Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas S. Kuhn introduced the single most striking concept of "paradigm" into the discourse of Philosophy of Science, which people of a set or community shared. Thirty years after, in a paper titled "The Road since Structure", Kuhn seems to make an attempt to go beyond this model by revisiting and exploring the structures behind paradigms themselves. Of course, his central concerns in general are again: rationality, relativism, realism and truth, but most crucially he formulates the idea of incommensurability as fundamental to the viewing and understanding of scientific knowledge.
Kuhn traces the evolution of incommensurability from the period when there were attempts to understand apparently nonsensical passages in old scientific texts, ordinarily taken to be confused or mistaken beliefs, and therefore taken to be incommensurable. However, it was later realized that this apparent nonsense could be wholly removed by recovering the old meanings that were indeed remarkably different. Metaphorically, Kuhn explained this earlier, as a ‘process’ by which later meanings evolve from earlier ones with changes in language. But to be more specific, Kuhn adds that, in talking about scientific knowledge he is not really dealing with all general features of language as such but with meanings of a certain restricted class of terms. These are "taxonomic terms" or "kind terms" which include count nouns, mass nouns or classes- that take the indefinite article; in other words, the many classificatory systems that underlie scientific knowledge.
The two properties that taxonomic terms or kind terms have are that they (i) take the indefinite article. It would thus be essential to know what the term applies to or its denotation, and (ii) work with the no- overlap principle, a certain ‘boundary definition’; which is to the effect that no two terms with a kind label, unless related as species to genus, can overlap. For example, things as dogs/cats/silver, etc. are all different from each other in kind because there is no overlap in their boundary definition. Kuhn points out that a "… lexical taxonomy of some sort must be in place before description of the world can begin..."(p.233, para 2). It is the shared lexical taxonomy that allows statements to be meaningful in a given discourse. What follows is that there is: (a) a presupposed lexical taxonomy, (b) which is shared (c) for unproblematic and meaningful communication. Community discourse is thus always context specific.
Statements and theories are always situated within a specific taxonomy and they are both developed and validated/or rejected in that scheme. Two examples that Kuhn offers to illustrate his idea are: one, the untranslatability of the English phrase "the cat sat on the mat" into French owing to taxonomical difficulties, (that there really is no French counterpart to the term "mat" in English); and two, the Copernican statement "planets travel around the sun" cannot be expressed in a lexical structure which works with the taxonomy of the Ptolemaic statement "planets travel around the earth" (p.234). Kuhn asserts that lexical taxonomy roughly means a conceptual scheme that is not tied to a ‘set of belief’ but is of a ‘mental module’ , which is the very pre-requisite to having certain beliefs and even being able to conceive them.
Here, Kuhn appears to be accounting for what makes it possible to conceive things in a certain way, perhaps even the pre-linguistic structures and the visual and cognitive configurations that determine the way we see, know and understand. He further claims that violation of the no-overlap principle, etc. leads to incommensurability or untranslatability, "localized to one or another area in which two lexical taxonomies differ". This would mean that experience of world and its communication would necessarily take place within the structure of lexicon of a community. And it is virtually impossible to communicate all experience in its completeness across a lexical divide. When two different sets of taxonomies confront each other, the result is mutual incommensurability or untranslatability.
Kuhn then locates incommensurability within a developmental framework (within which it appears) and subsequently charts the course of an evolutionary epistemology. He admits that in thinking that history functioned as source of empirical evidence, the empirical aspect had been exaggerated. Beliefs are already there, there is a process in progress. The pursuit of science is situated within this process and there was no need of empirical observation of actual practices to conclude this. This clearly undermines the foundationalist description of things. Another serious consequence that follows from the rejection of foundationalism is the dismissal of the correspondence theory of truth. Developmental view traces and evaluates scientific knowledge claims not from an ‘Archimedean platform’ but from a moving historically situated platform. It would be incorrect to evaluate a theory in isolation since theories are dependent and connected. The implication is that any new theory or proposition requires necessarily an adjustment with other beliefs.
Comparative judgments are, then, to do with the question of "which one of two bodies of knowledge is better" for a given work. This would amount really to a pragmatic decision. Such judgments have, as given, shared beliefs as part of the historical situation. Their evaluation would not depend on their being in fact true/false. However, this also implies that the question of truth/falsity of the changes made/ or the rejection of the judgment on those accounts simply does not arise. Justification of a belief does not aim at a goal external to the historical situation, thus, questioning the very basis of correspondence theory. The aim rather is to improve the tools available for the work engaged in.
The distinction between normal development and revolutionary development is what Kuhn draws upon, next. Outlining the parallels of biological evolution with scientific development, in so far as knowledge mutates and analogous speciation (creation of new disciplines, etc.) takes place, Kuhn stresses that in Structure, normal development was the development that added to existing knowledge while revolutionary development was a radical one that required giving up part of what had been believed before. In his fresh formulation, Kuhn seems to argue that revolutionary development is one that requires taxonomic changes, while normal development would be one that didn’t need any. He also asserts that more cognitive specialties or separate fields of knowledge arise, essentially at zones of lexical overlaps, each field being distinct in having developed a separate lexicon.
Instead of a correspondence theory, Kuhn primarily argues for a redundancy theory of truth. In other words, now the essential function of truth involves choosing between acceptance and rejection of the statement/ theory in question in the face of ‘evidence shared by all’. There is increasing belief for Kuhn that his central points would be better formulated without speaking of statements as themselves being true/false. Instead, he offers an alternative two-fold evaluation to determine the status of any statement:
(i) This would involve asking: ‘Is the statement a possible candidate for truth/falsity?
(ii) If yes, ‘Is the statement rationally assertable?’
The answer to (ii) would be obviously answered by the normal ‘rules of evidence’ given a specific lexicon. Rules of evidence are laid down by the community sharing a lexical taxonomy.
To give an instance, Kuhn points out that the basic principle of non-contradiction is valued in discourses in one language game while there are exceptions to it in certain other language games. The violation of the principle of non-contradiction is well expressed, for instance, in "poetry and metaphysical discourse" and its exploitation is common and justified in use of "metaphors". Rules of truth/falsity game are universal and essentially human, although, the result of applying those rules would differ.
What is stressed is that breakdowns in communication, termed "crises" (Structure), are in fact crucial symptoms of growth of knowledge and the emergence of new disciplines. Where there is stark untranslatability or incommensurability, there is a new lexical taxonomy in place. This new taxonomy results in a new discipline altogether. Kuhn maintains that the process of specialization imposes limitations on communication and community, making one field of knowledge inaccessible to another community which is unacquainted with that taxonomy. However, this limitation is inevitable owing to the necessary lexical divergence in the evolution of distinct fields. He is further led to argue that though lexical diversity amounts to: (a) a principled limit on communication and (b) a limited range of possible partners for a discourse, this is an essential precondition for any progress in knowledge.
Kuhn is careful to ward off any attempt to conclude the world as being either mind dependent or an invention/construction. There are two reasons that he offers in his defence: one, the world is not invented or constructed because we find the world already there before us, it is ‘given’ to us and two, it is experientially both given directly and indirectly to us. It often goes against our wishes. There are many times, “decisive evidence against invented hypotheses". This is however not to deny that there is always scope for interaction, leading to alteration of both the member and the world it constitutes. The question whether it is the creatures who adapt to the world or the world adapts to creatures" (p.242, para 2) is one that is raised in this context. Kuhn observes, that the ‘world is our representation of our niche’, of a given interacting community. Clearly though, this is meant to counter any subjectivist interpretation.
Even in talking of non overlapping lexical structures Kuhn is concerned with wanting to preserve something permanent, fixed, stable underlying difference and change. However, reiterating, as he puts it at the end, ‘Ways of being-in-the-world which lexicon provides are not candidates for truth or falsity'.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Passion for the Possible

Edward Scissorhands: A robot-human who has the delicacy of a cherubic infant, the tender sensitivity of an angel and a sharp, huge pair of steel scissors for hands!
The classic film titled ‘Edward Scissorhands’ tells the poignantly delightful story of such a robot-human, who is the miraculous creation of an aging scientist’s novel and striking ingenuity. Endowed already with penetrating human instincts, innocent curiosity and a child-like wonder, and intelligence, Edward is to be finally given a pair of well crafted hands in place of his scissors-hands. And in a dramatic stroke of misfortune, the old scientist falls dead of a heart attack at the moment of fitting those living hands. The muscle hands are ruined completely even as Edward struggles to hold them with his sharp edged blades, bruising himself as well. The rest of the story traces his life in an ordinary and normal colony of people who go on with their lives in the most uninteresting and uninspired manner, lacking in creative spirit and high on false pride. In contrast, Edward with his strange body is seen to have mastered the art of pruning, shaping, cutting, sculpting everything that falls in the way of his scissor-hands. The film simply stirs one in exploring the fantasy of possibilities.
“But the fairy tale only invents what is not the case: it does not talk nonsense'”.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
Often, while we dismissively put away works of art, literature, cinema or any aspect of human enterprise by branding them ‘fantastical’, ‘fictional’, ‘nonsensical’ or ‘unrealistic’, we could pause for a moment and wonder why. Rather the question to ask oneself would be, ‘Why not!’
The great part of mythologies and allegories available in most civilizations precisely develop fantasy to convey profound thought and wisdom. Fantasy belongs to the realm of creativity, imagination and intuition. Even in dreams we seem to meander into virgin terrains of possibilities where we get a surreal sense of what it is like to be otherwise, of what is not now, but may be possible. For the state of possibilities is a brewing pot. It offers a glimpse of the uncanny thrill of the unpredictable, the hope of the future, the aspiration to freedom and the will to evolve.
For most of our everyday lives we indeed are occupied with the knowledge of ‘what is’. May be even to just rewind at times it may turn out to be invigorating to engage in ‘what is possible’. In his book The Imaginary, Jean-Paul Sartre is convinced that the act of imagination is really a distinct form of consciousness and claims that the remarkable ability of human beings to imagine- or think of things as they are not – is the manifestation of their ultimate freedom. It is interesting to link this striking knack of ours to break free of the conventionally imposed given ideas, to the very basis upon which something like Thomas More’s Utopia and even all science fictions essentially impinge. That is, the capacity of ours to imagine, the best (though unreal, but in principle, possible) and the weird. Adam Roberts in Science Fiction argues that science fiction is a “symbolist genre where symbols are deployed within a rationalized discourse… The point of the symbolic medium is to connect exploration of the encounter with difference to our experience of ‘being-in-the-world’. It is a revolutionary mode of writing, and encourages to take nothing for granted, to challenge all assumptions, and yet think through how things might be different”. It is remarkable to see how people like Jules Verne and Leonardo da Vinci imagined things in their time, which seemed so out of the ordinary, even bizarre, that people didn’t take them seriously. These very creations led to the actual inventions and discoveries in science many years later, in almost exact likeness.
The interplay of ‘is’ and ‘is possible’ brings to mind the popular thought experiment of Schrödinger's cat. This cat defies the traditional notions of logic and reason, since the experiment concludes that it is possible for the cat to be both dead and alive at the same time, when nobody is looking. Once, science was the ultimate torchbearer of certainty, definiteness and states of fact, with unambiguous and demarcated classifications of truth, reason, logic and fact. However, the discoveries in quantum physics have reinforced the idea of ceaseless possibilities in the dynamism of the microcosmic world of subatomic particles, where the electrons dance in ambivalence, escaping attempts at categorization, strangely showing up both as waves and particles.
Even the ‘irrational’ can be quite fertile, for it is not necessarily schizophrenic or mindless (as we seem to think usually). Poets, artists, scientists, thinkers and writers are often called ‘mad’ by societies. Perhaps the reason is only our failure to grasp their sophistication of thought, their ability to transcend conventional logic and rationality, to go beyond the trodden path and leaping into a horizon of astounding imagination. Notions of madness and irrationality are laid by societies through some cultural standards in line with their progress in thought. We describe things as such only as far as we can imagine them to be so. Moments that go beyond traditional reasoning are often moments of creative imagination, stunning instants of scientific inventions and discoveries (like the reverie of the benzene ring structures), prolific flashes of literary and poetic achievement, and even spiritual and mystical experiences (like Rama Krishna Paramahansa’s vision of Kali incarnate).
Aren't we free then, in postulating a ‘logic of the infinite’- conceiving of Kierkegaard’s ‘passion for the possible’. To look on the future we must dare to confront the dream, the imagined, the intuited, the strange, the extraordinary, the unreal, the illogical, even the irrational. For, life after all is a translation of thoughts.

A Reverie

"All lovely tales that we have heard or read:
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink."

-From Endymion
John Keats

The feet were in a clear, gushing stream. He could feel the rounded marble-like surface of the pebbles beneath his feet. The glint of the rock dazzled his eyes, as the sun continued to pour in gold light. The leaves had a moist texture to them. The grass exuded a warm smell. The sky was a deep blue and yet spots of ivory cloud dotted the horizon. There was a rustle of grass a few feet away. He noticed a large black ant crawling on a rock. It was digging small holes in the ground and etching out tiny heaps of soft soil. The white roses radiated their snowy brilliance, sweetly scented. The pristine verdant continued to encompass…

He opened his eyes upon awaking. Silently, he proceeded to his writing desk. In the warm glow of the lamp he wrote down the following lines from Emerson:

‘Let us be silent so that we may hear the whispers of God’.