Some Experts May Not Be Able to Change Their Minds—Observations of Thomas Kuhn (1st of 2)

Copernicus Discovers the Solar System. He had his critics. Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structures of Scientific Revolution, tells the story of Nicolaus Copernicus, his discovery of the heliocentric nature of solar system, and the argument between learned men of his day over its validity.

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) was a mathematician and a careful observer of the planets and stars. He was bothered by problems that Ptolemy’s astronomical theory could not resolve—the planets and moon kept going “off course.” Copernicus proposed a new paradigm; he theorized that Earth and the other planets moved around the sun! Copernicus printed a small book for his interested friends and kept working on his idea. After some years, and just before he died, Copernicus published On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres, and included a letter to Pope Clement VII. The Pope, after consulting his science advisors, accepted Copernicus’ radical change in the way we think about the sky. However, Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon dismissed the theory even before they read Copernicus’ book. Calvin’s opinion is still debated (Luther and Calvin’s opinions about the Copernican theory are discussed here).

Paradigm Shift. Some critics may not change their minds. That is the discovery made by Thomas Kuhn. [1] Kuhn was very interested in the problem of resistance to a new paradigm; that is, smart people may resist a new idea for unscientific reasons! Scientists are not always logical, he said. Many hold on to theories they learned in their school years. When presented with more reasonable ideas, even teachers may hold stubbornly to what they are familiar with. Scientists in 16th century had to choose between Copernicus’ theory and Ptolemy’s.

Resistance to Paradigm Shift. Upon hearing of a new paradigm, the community of experts is roused to argue the merits of the new and old paradigms, and to be persuaded that one explains nature better than the other. A scientist’s discovery is, however, rarely persuasive by itself, even if it resolves the anomalies unexplained by the older paradigm. According to Kuhn, some scientists resist a better paradigm (that is, resist a “paradigm shift”) for psychological reasons. Some scientists are “intolerant of theories invented by others.”[2] Kuhn theorizes that scientists make “quasi-metaphysical commitments”[3] to their own familiar but anomaly-ridden paradigm. Sometimes, writes Kuhn, scientists “do not treat anomalies as counter-instances, though in the vocabulary of philosophy of science that is what they are.”[4] Normal science “often suppresses fundamental novelties because they are necessarily subversive of its basic commitments.”[5] In other words, some scientists hold to the familiar ideas of their younger years, despite contrary evidence. This “unscientific” resistance to paradigm shift is of great interest to Kuhn. “Professionalization leads to . . . a considerable resistance to paradigm change.”[6] Kuhn says that older adherents tend to resist more than younger people. “Almost always,” he writes,

Thomas Kuhn

The men who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change. These are the men who, being little committed by prior practice to the traditional rules of normal science, are particularly likely to see that those rules no longer define a playable game and to conceive another set that can replace them.[7] . . . There are always some men who cling to one or another of the older views, and they are simply read out of the profession, which thereafter ignores their work.[8]

Kuhn quotes scientists who hoped that a later generation would accept their theories. Max Planck remarked that “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.”[9] Kuhn concludes, “The transfer of allegiance from paradigm to paradigm is a conversion experience that cannot be forced.”[10] Kuhn even uses religious language, writes David Bosch, “to describe what happens to the scientist who relinquishes one paradigm for another. It is a case of ‘scales falling from the eyes,’ of responding to ‘flashes of intuition,’ indeed of ‘conversion.’”[11] Though a new paradigm seems “intuitively obvious” to unbiased hearers, biased scientists may retain faith in an older paradigm because their minds are not acting on logic but on psychological factors; “such scientists are not yet and may never be ‘converted.’”[12]

Blincoe. Copernicus offered a better explanation of what is “really there” in the cosmos. Martin Luther could not make the paradigm shift. Thomas Kuhn writes that such resistance is typical, if illogical. Kuhn Experts sometimes hold fast to their beliefs though another, more truthful point of view has been presented. They may “never be converted.” How does the reader feel about this?

We are presenting the “Two Structures” theory because it explains what is “really there” in the New Testament and in Christian history. It was obvious to the Jews that there are two separate administrative structures in the New Testament, one where the church is, and the other where there is no church, as we have researched here. It is obvious to the Catholics that there are two structures in church history, as indicated here. But it was not obvious to Luther. He and Calvin held a “One Structure” theory of the New Testament. The Reformers dissolved the mission agencies of their day. They even suppressed the ambitions of Christians like Justinian Welz from sending missionaries. Tragically, a mission ice age descended on the Protestant church. Resistance to a new paradigm may help us explain why some adherents of Luther and Calvin’s “one structure” theory continue to hold to it after a more biblical paradigm has been presented. Thomas Kuhn’s theory of “resistance” may explain the inclination of some church leaders to oppose William Carey’s “Two Structures” paradigm, though it set in motion the Protestant mission era.

Next: Perhaps Some Critics Cannot Change Their Minds—Kuhn’s Theory May Explain Resistance to the “Two Structures” Theory (2nd of 3)

Previous: Critics of the Two Structures Theory: How One Denomination Expelled a Pastor for Joining a Mission Society

[1] Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, 1962). 85

[2] Ibid. 24

[3] Ibid. 41

[4] Ibid. 77

[5] Ibid. 5

[6] Ibid. 64

[7] Ibid. 90

[8] Ibid. 19

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid. 122, 23, 51. Quoted also in Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. 184.

[12] Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 150