Kuhn’s Insight – John Polkinghorne and The Value of Value

In my last post, I declared victory for Scientific Realism over Positivism on the grounds that even if Positivism is right, it’s first “prediction” must always be that we ignore it as “truth” – at least to some degree – and be committed to our theories a “the truth” or else we can’t make scientific progress.

I therefore declared that on the point that Kuhn and Popper disagree, that Popper wins by default.

However, Kuhn had many insights that Popper missed or downplayed that help fill in the explanation gaps in Popper’s own theories. One of these is the fact that “refutation” really only happens between two (or more) competing theories. While Popper does not deny this, he really didn’t make it as clear as Kuhn either. We will eventually see that this insight is a key point in understanding the value of Theology.

Another explanation gap that Kuhn fills for Popper is explained in this quote:

Fortunately, there is also another sort of consideration that can lead scientists to reject an old paradigm in favor of a new. These are the arguments, rarely made entirely explicit, that appeal to the individual’s sense of the appropriate or the aesthetic – the new theory is staid to be “neater,” “more suitable,” or “simpler” than the old. (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, p. 155)

Popper (at least in what of him I’ve read so far, which isn’t that much) doesn’t seem to have really noticed this very important point. Part of how we determine that a new theory (paradigm) is “better” than the old one is through our sense of beauty and aesthetics.

Roger Penrose agrees.

…aesthetic criteria are enormously valuable in forming our judgments. … A beautiful idea has a much greater chance of being a correct idea than an ugly one. (The Emperor’s New Mind, p. 421)

However, Kuhn does point out that our sense of beauty and aesthetics can’t, alone, explain scientific progress. For one thing, new theories start out life underdeveloped. Copernicus’ theories originally failed to produce simpler (or even more accurate) results than Ptolemy’s. Besides, aesthetics is so subjective, isn’t it? Isn’t beauty merely in the eye of the beholder?

Yet there is no denying that aesthetics plays a substantial role in scientific progress. A new theory, if it is to survive long enough to become a paradigm, must have a certain something to it. For one thing, it must purport to solve problems that the old theory, coupled with “normal science,” failed to address and that were widely known to be problems.

But aesthetics goes further than this. A good theory will “seem” like it might be on the right track, at least enough to pick up a few radical followers. These radical followers will then develop the theory enough (if they are both lucky and correct) that the new theory will then become widely seen as “neater,” “more suitable,” or “simpler” than the old.

Indeed, I believe this insight of Kuhn’s explains, at least in part, why scientific progress is teleological. Evolution and Epistemology are the “same stuff” according to both Popper and Kuhn. But Popper saw the main difference between Evolution and Epistemology as being that the first is not purposeful and the second is. Kuhn saw both as being non-teleological, so he ended up with an inferior Positivist worldview.

But doesn’t this mean there is, at least to some degree, an explanation gap within Popper’s epistemology?

Physicist and Theologian John Polkinghorne thinks so.

…it has proved impossible to distil the essence of the scientific method. Proposals such as making refutable conjectures (Popper), pursuing progressive research programmes (Lakatos), attaining empirical adequacy (va Fraassen) or pragmatic success (Rorty), capture aspects of the complex practice of science but each falls far short of an adequate account. It has not proved possible to draw up a universal protocol for scientific research and I accept the verdict of Michael Polanyi (himself a successful scientist before he became a philosopher) that this is because science is an activity of persons, drawing on tacit skills learned through apprenticeship in a community whose purpose is the universal intent to seek truth about the physical world [i.e. Scientific Realism], while also acknowledging the current conclusions must remain open to possibility of correction.

Having made this assessment, Polkinghorne goes on to say:

As part of this skilful practice, there is an essential role for evaluation of non-empirical criteria such as economy, elegance, and naturalness, whose satisfaction is vital to the acceptance of a scientific theory. The justification for the use of these criteria lies in their having proved historically to be the means of identifying theories which turn out to have long-term fruitfulness, evidenced by their being capable of yielding understanding of phenomena not encountered or envisaged at the time of the theory’s conception. The enforcement of these criteria proves, again as a matter of historical experience, to be the way in which the scientific community is able to solve the notorious problem of the underdetermination of theory by experiment [i.e. experiment is often not enough to determine which theory is correct, as previously discussed here.] Rather than being faced with a plethora of possibilities, scientists find it a struggle to discover the one theory that proves acceptable on both empirical and non-empirical grounds. (Belief in God in an Age of Science, p. 106)

One thing that you should have picked up on was that this quote says that scientists beliefs in aesthetics is based on Inductivism: it has historically proved useful, so we expect it to in the future.

But didn’t we already establish back in this post that Inductivism can’t justify anything? So is Polkinghorne just a misguided Inductivist?

Actually, he’s not. Polkinghorne suggests that the reason we can rely on aesthetics in science is because aesthetics is an essential part of reality because reality was created by God.

Whatever they may write in the formal prose of their published papers, you will find that physicists appeal all the time to value, according belief to an elegant insight long before its experimental verification is completed, and saying of an ugly and contrived idea, “That can’t be right.” I do not say that such judgments are invariably correct, but they prove to be so to a degree which makes clear, contrary to popular presentation, that science is a value-laden activity. (Belief in God in an Age of Science, p. 17)

This is no Inductivist argument after all. It is, if you will, a faith-based approach to science. No, Polkinghorne’s claim goes further than that. It is saying that science – all science – is faith-based. It is based on faith that reality is in fact elegant. Scientists therefore have two choices: they must accept that this is true based on Inductivism, or they must propose an explanation. As we have seen Inductivism is the most common response of scientists, but it is a false one.

So what of an explanation then? Polkinghorne addresses this question indirectly through the age old question of “why is the universe so finely tuned that it allows for life.” For besides the laws of physics just happening to allow for aesthetics as a fair guide, it also just happens that we live in a finely tuned universe that allows life to exist.

Quoting John Leslie on the fine tuning of the universe for life, Polkinghorne considers two possible explanations for consideration: (Belief in God in an Age of Science, p. 7)

First, our universe might be special because there is a God and universe is designed.

Second, our universe might be special because there are many and varied universes.

Polkinghorne takes exception to a mere conjecture of multiple universes merely to explain away the fine tuning (or aesthetic nature) of the universe. If such a conjecture is to be made, it must be done so via a scientific explanation. He then considers three popular forms of the multiple universes theory:

  1. Many Worlds Quantum Theory – This is the idea that each quantum event splits the universe into all physically possible options.
  2. Symmetry Breaking – This is the idea that precise constants of the universe result from spontaneously generated amplifications of tiny random fluctuations at the beginning of time. Therefore at random all possible constants (including “finely tuned” ones) are randomly tried and found.
  3. Quantum Cosmology (Inflation) – This is the idea that “universes of various kinds are continually appearing as physical processes called inflation blow up microworlds, which have bubbled up as quantum fluctuations in some universal substrate.”

Polkinghorne points out that the first option assumes the special laws of physics already exist that just happen to allow for life, therefore this option does not really solve the problem.

The other two options go a bit further towards attempting to explain why our universe is so special it allows for life, but fails to explain why it’s so special it can create such multiple worlds in the first place. Therefore, we are just pushing back the problem.

Nevertheless, Polkinghorne concludes:

…the theistic conclusion is not logically coercive, but it can claim serious consideration as an intellectually satisfying understanding of what would otherwise be unintelligible good fortune. (Belief in God in an Age of Science, p. 10)

Now if you are an atheist, this probably sounds suspiciously like any other “finely tuned universe” argument. Isn’t Polkinghorne merely arguing that since the universe is both finely tuned and deeply aesthetic that therefore the universe must be designed and therefore there is a God? Can’t you now just invoke the standard atheist defense of “who made God?” (Which by the way, is actually a very good logical question worth pursuing.) So can’t atheist just claim that if God exists as a logical starting point why not just take the special laws of the universe to exist as a starting point instead?

But Polkinghorne’s point can’t be defeated so easily. For, unlike others like him, he is not attempting to prove the existence of God. He is not claiming that this argument proves the existence of God. Indeed, he is not even attempting to prove the existence of God.

[This good fortune] has certainly struck a number of authors in this way, including some who are innocent of any influence from a conventional religious agenda. such a reading of the physical world as containing rumours of divine purpose, constitutes a new form of natural theology, to which the insight of intelligibility [i.e. comprehensibility of the universe through rational beauty] can also be added.

This new natural theology differs from the old-style natural theology of Anselm and Aquinas by refraining from talking about “proofs” of God’s existence and by being content with the more modest role of offering theistic beliefs as an insightful account of what is going on. …

This shift of focus has two important consequences. The first is that the new style natural theology in no way seeks to be a rival to scientific explanation but rather it aims to complement that explanation by setting it within a wider and more profound context of understanding. (Belief in God in an Age of Science, p. 10)

In other words, Polkinghorne is pointing out that he is invoking God as an explanation, not a proof. Therefore, he is within Popper’s epistemology. God, to Polkinghorne, is a scientific conjecture.

Science rejoices in the rational accessibility of the physical world and uses the laws of nature to explain particular occurrences in cosmic and terrestrial history, but it is unable of itself to offer any reason why these laws take the particular (anthropically fruitful) form that they do, or why we can discover them through mathematical insight. (Belief in God in an Age of Science, p. 10-11)

Indeed, it seems to me that Polkinghorne’s argument is much more than a proper Popperian conjecture via a Kuhn-like paradigm. It is an explanation of why Popperian epistemology works in the first place. It neatly closes the explanation gap seemingly inherent in Popper.

Questions for Discussion:

Well, simply put, what do you think of the idea of using God as an explanation for our value-laden reality? If you don’t like it, try to come up with an alternative that works as well.

4 thoughts on “Kuhn’s Insight – John Polkinghorne and The Value of Value

  1. A very interesting series. Your paraphrase of Polkinghorne as offering “explanation rather than proof” reminds me of Alma 32 contrasting once and for all “knowing” versus open-ended, imperfect knowledge that nevertheless supports “cause to believe.”

    I’ve long been fascinated by values that Kuhn lists as supportive of paradigm choice. Puzzle generation and solution, accuracy of key predictions, fruitfulness, comprehensiveness of explanation and coherence with everything else, simplicity and aesthetics, and future promise.

  2. There is also the fact that the a priori probability of a simple natural law is orders of magnitude higher than that of a complex one. It is like the difference between discovering matter is governed by Newton’s Law and discovering it is governed by Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

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