Does rejecting a paradigm mean rejecting knowledge?

An unusually perceptive, and rather charitable, piece by Justin Topp on BioLogos just now, on the subject of why people “stubbornly” persist in their particular ways of approaching origins issues. He bases his thesis on the “research program” concept of philosopher of science Imre Lakatos, and exemplifies what he means by his own journey which (rather refreshingly for BioLogos!) didn’t begin with his being indoctrinated in Young Earth Creationism as a kid. Instead he came to it by rational choice, though he abandoned it for Evolutionary Creation as a student.

He’s indeed a man of broad sympathies, expressing acceptance of evolutionary psychology in the post, and sympathy with Sam Harris’s views on morality on his blog. He generalises his own experience to others perhaps too much, given how many natural science students seem pretty clueless outside their own narrow scientific field, but his conclusion is interesting and valid:

Has explaining the data helped them to see the scientific errors of their ways and moved them towards an acceptance of evolutionary creation (EC)? Sure! But only in the context of the rest of their education, which has provided them with the other important and related tools, namely, philosophy, hermeneutics, theology, and intellectual humility. You would be surprised how many biology majors I have taught who have said that the data supporting evolution had little impact on their decision to leave YEC.

That claim is a fitting riposte to certain posters on BioLogos who can’t see beyond “the data” and call anything else cowardice. More importantly, it confirms that (as so many philosophers of science have been saying for decades) scientific positions are theory-laden, and those theories don’t come directly from science but, as Topp recounts, from things like theology and philosophy.

The implications of that are important too, as he fully acknowledges by saying that theistic evolution itself is going to take many different forms depending less on the “evidence” than on the general “research program” (for which one might read “belief system” or even “worldview”) of the people holding it. He is certainly not out on a limb in such a position. Thomas Kuhn says the same about his famous “paradigm shifts” in science:

But paradigm debates are not really about relative problem-solving ability, though for good reasons they are usually couched in those terms. Instead, the issue is which paradigm should in the future guide research on problems many of which neither competitor can yet claim to resolve completely. A decision between alternate ways of practicing science is called for, and in the circumstances that decision must be based less on
past achievement than on future promise. The man who embraces a new paradigm at an early stage must often do so in defiance of the evidence provided by problem-solving. He must, that is, have faith that the new paradigm will succeed with the many large problems that confront it, knowing only that the older paradigm has failed with a few. A decision of that kind can only be made on faith.

Paradigms are chosen on the basis of faith, then. The question is, faith is what? Once one removes the persuasiveness of hard data as the arbiter of adherence to a particular “research program”, be it creationist, evolutionist or any point in between, the whole question becomes far more personal (cf Michael Polanyi) and far from objective. Faith is acknowledged upfront – it becomes a matter of human judgement, not of logical certainty, whether that faith is well-founded.

In Justin Topp’s case, it becomes relevant to ask just what philosophy, hermeneutics, theology (and perhaps even what concept of intellectual humility) he was exposed to when he went to college. Latakos and Enns are not the same as Aquinas and Piper. University teaches us to think – but also usually tells us what to think about. Like the writer of Ecclesiastes, any wise man will say that knowledge is far better than ignorance: but if you or I have thought and studied deeply and come to different conclusions, we’ll maybe have the tools to argue better, not necessarily to agree. It will hardly do, at that point, for me to say, “Well my education was at Cambridge, so there.” And yet, if a different combination of resources existed in my time at Cambridge (Wittgenstein and Stott) from your time at college, that’s going to influence our views, even if it doesn’t, one hopes, determine them.

This all ties in neatly with that other recent BioLogos thread on “anti-science” feelings in Intelligent Design circles. Since it’s near-impossible to define science adequately, it’s just as hard to define anti-science unless someone says (as an ignorant work colleague of my mother did about “space”) “I don’t hold with it.” Is it anti-science to reject a paradigm that is prevalent, or even currently all-embracing? Historically, that has appeared to be the case. Kuhn again:

And again, during periods of revolution when the fundamental tenets of a field are once more at issue, doubts are repeatedly expressed about the very possibility of continued progress if one or another of the opposed paradigms is adopted. Those who rejected Newtonianism proclaimed that its reliance upon innate forces would return science to the Dark Ages.

In that case, the anti-scientists became the scientists, and the scientists became … well, the dark ages. Existing science, then, whilst it can judge the value of work within a paradigm, is not an adequate means by which to judge the merits of an opposing paradigm. The judgement can and must be made, but on grounds external to current science.

Perhaps a more dispassionate view (to science-types rather than theology-types) can be taken of this by taking a non-scientific paradigm as an example, prompted like my last post by the the book of egyptologist and orientalist Kenneth Kitchen On the Reliability of the Old Testament. It is very clear throughout the book that, as an archaeologist, he holds much of the last two centuries of biblical studies not so much in question as in utter contempt. And he gives rational grounds for doing so, as he reviews the widely disparate and unverifiable claims made, mainly on subjective internal grounds, about the history and composition of the Old Testament. These go back, ultimately, to nineteeth century theories on the evolution of religions, and although with regard to the text itself the conclusions cannot be proven, these claims are nevertheless then used to reconstruct the entire history of Israel in novel ways, more or less independently of external historical evidence.

Those with some knowledge may be aware, for example, how much has hinged in the last 150 years on the unproven assumption that the “book of the covenant” found during the reign of King Josiah of Judah was a fraudulent and newly-minted work which we now know as Deuteronomy. Pretty well the whole of the rest of the OT was made to derive from this, by chronological necessity. And so even a recent, widely accepted, theory invents an entire “just so” story of a torah produced by priests in exile, under orders from the Persians to reconcile the competing theologies of Judah and the northern tribes. Not a single element in that story has external validation – and Kitchen’s stock-in-trade is the hard evidence of archaeology. Hence his disdain.

(Aside: nobody seems to have questioned the truth of the passage in 2 Kings that says the book of the covenant was found in Josiah’s reign. 2 Kings was written much later, they claim, so why should that small episode be true when bigger historical issues like the very existence of King David are questioned?)

Now, of course, the truth is that, being trained and exercised in archaeology, Kitchen never imbibed the paradigm of the Old Testament Studies guild. That paradigm, still prevalent because it was the foundational basis of the field, and therefore regarding itself as “mainstream”, may or may not have been defined, but certainly involves (a) a naturalistic view of Bible origins, (b) a belief that study of the texts in isolation can produce true knowledge of their origins and (c) a general attitude of skepticism towards any truth-claims the texts make.

Kitchen may, as he believes, see more clearly because he has not absorbed that mindset from his student days. The alternative view would be that he’s just ignorant of the great insights only known aftyer initiation into the guild, so that when he reads its work he just doesn’t quite get it. But in either case the point is that equally highly-educated archaeologists and biblical scholars see things utterly differently, to the extent than one comes to reject even the legitimacy of the other. Conversely Kitchen, well-known as a “maximalist” regarding the Bible’s reliability, is scorned by some scholars, on those very grounds, as “having an agenda”. But you can hardly accuse him of being “anti-biblical”, even though he is so thoroughly “anti-biblicist”. On the contrary, his opposition is because he considers that the biblical studies discipline itself does the Bible injustice.

Somewhere in the middle of this contention, relatively conservative biblical scholars may cautiously accept the biblical studies paradigm whilst trying to avoid its excesses. Gordon Wenham, for example, in his commentary on Genesis, gives an obligatory but half-hearted nod to the classical, entirely hypothetical, source documents JEDP. But in this case, are such scholars steering a via media or just failing to make a necessary paradigm shift? Is it not possible sometimes that a completely clean slate is required?

But ditching 200 years of work isn’t so easy. It’s easier to change the US constitution. For an individual scholar to reject the paradigm is less the adoption of an alternative theory, than self-exclusion from the guild – and there can, in academia, only be one Old Testament Studies guild. That very word “guild” is a constant reminder about exclusiveness and self-protection.

Nevertheless it seems that coming from outside a discipline may add to, rather than detracting from, ones perceptiveness. Long before Kitchen, in his 1959 paper Fernseeds and Elephants, C S Lewis raised the same kind of issues about the overblown confidence of critical scholars in their own powers. Most potent (to me) in that essay is his recounting of the miscontruing of his own literary motives by critics of his work. If, he said, from within ones own cultural milieu ones peers can get things so utterly wrong, how on earth can one pretend to second-guess the inner motives of writers from another culture, continent and age? To his audience at Westcott House, a Cambridge theological college, he adopted an appropriate tone of intellectual humility, along the lines “Of course, I speak as a mere ignorant layman.” But it’s clear he firmly believed what he said, and had done the background reading to justify it. He was judging the paradigm from without which, as we have seen from Thomas Kuhn, is the only possible way to judge a paradigm.

Paradigm shifts are not, then, limited to science. Should one ever occur in biblical studies, perhaps as a new generation began to ask why they should even pay lip service to nineteenth century speculations, and instead prefer to put their trust in the text itself, then one would essentially not be talking about new theories, but a new discipline, perhaps even with a new name. The old would have effectively made itself a liability. The old would, no doubt, continue to linger on and accuse the new of returning to a conservative dark age, as they did in Newton’s case. Perhaps that’s even happening already somewhere or other.

It’s maybe harder to identify what any paradigm shift in biological science would entail. What is at the heart of dissatisfaction with Neodarwinism? Certainly biblical literalism for Young Earth Creationism (and never forget there are some qualified scientists holding that view (Todd Wood and Arthur Jones spring immediately to mind). But for OECs, secular critics within biology and IDists (albeit that Justin Topp doesn’t recognise ID’s adequacy as a research program) I suggest the one-word answer is teleology. Neodarwinism is the only paradigm to insist that evolution happens without any inbuilt tendency that hasn’t itself arisen by chance.

Mutually contradictory theories can happily coexist in a venture like The Third Way because its supporters share a paradigm that includes teleology, and for all that it is thoroughly secular, many theists espousing creation doctrine find its ideas compatible to their own worldview. Let us suppose that, in years to come, such a paradigm became a serious contender against current wisdom. Which one would then be anti-science – and which would Christians sympathetic to science be better advised to embrace?

And what ought to be the basis for that decision, if the core commitment is to Christ and his teaching?CLIV

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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4 Responses to Does rejecting a paradigm mean rejecting knowledge?

  1. Cath Olic says:

    In all honesty, I haven’t read a single word of your article yet. But as far as the question “Does rejecting a paradigm mean rejecting knowledge?”, I would answer as follows:

    Of course not. Because a paradigm is not knowledge.
    A paradigm is merely a model made by men based on their INTERPRETATION of current knowledge. The paradigm is only a tool which its users THINK WILL help them discover new knowledge or make sense of current and future knowledge.

    An extreme and pitiable example of a paradigm might be palm-reading, fortune-telling.
    I hope to get to your article later today.

  2. Cath Olic says:

    I read the article.
    One of the things that struck me was this:
    “Let us suppose that, in years to come, such a paradigm became a serious contender against current wisdom. Which one would then be anti-science – and which would Christians sympathetic to science be better advised to embrace?”

    These sentences give the impression that the big prize sought after is “Science”.
    Like, ‘Who will be the next Champion of Science, the next holder of the Science Crown?’

    And yet, you admitted prior to this that “it’s near-impossible to define science adequately”.

    My view is that “Science” is only A way (perhaps not even exactly definable) of learning SOME TRUTHS about the universe. [Other ways are “History”, “Economics”, “Philosophy”, “Culinary Arts”, etc.]

    And so what? Science is fine, but it’s not the be all and end all.
    “Science” shouldn’t be the goal, the Holy Grail. TRUTH should be.

    Your next and final sentence perhaps hints at this:
    “And what ought to be the basis for that decision, if the core commitment is to Christ and his teaching?”

  3. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    Well-stated, Cath Olic! And I think your point goes along well with the theme Jon is putting forward here. To state it yet another way… In answer to those who insist that mainstream science always = “best pursuit” or “closest pursuit” of truth, that thesis already fails on historical grounds alone even prior to the philosophical and religious difficulties that are also fatal to it.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Yeah – about right, both. The subtext though is what kind of science Christians will be carrying one.

      At the detailed level (as I said in another recent post) it doesn’t matter too much: you’re trying to find a better way to make plastic (having an existing science of chemistry) and it’s just lab work; or you’re doing useful stuff on the ecology of New Jersey, and it’s just field observations on the basis of the existing science of ecology. You’re just joining the dots within an unconscious paradigm.

      But the “paradigms” or “research projects” hit at the big level of “how the world works”, and that decides the shape of the science you’re following. In biology it’s quite near the surface because (’tis said, though wrongly) “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution: and “evolution” is close to being a metaphysical viewpoint on its own rather than a scientific theory. That’s why it’s evoked in everything from cosmology down, and why it’s called the “universal acid.” And that’s why the issue isn’t faith v science.

      The Christian thinking about origins – whether his/her starting point is biblical literalism leading to creation science, or acceptance of Darwin leading to theistic evolution (or all other viewpoints in between: my own is something else), is necessarily bypassing all the superficial elements where paradigms don’t matter, and taking a view on “how the world is.”

      So whilst a lab scientist may never have to refer back to the philosophy of science lectures that Justin Topp implies were part of the course, that’s not any where near good enough for a thinking Christian. If he or she is going to relate science to creation – or even just be a worker in the science field – then it has to be done Christianly. And that means examining the assumptions of your “research program” Christianly.

      I hope there may be another post in the offing taking that point further, for which the Arthur Jones link above may be a useful starter.

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