On Revolutions and Epistemological Thresholds

I’m in a course planning and preparation phase lately, so I am doing some reading. I read a chapter of Jacques Ellul in preparation for a meeting about a course on culture, media, and theological formation that I am co-teaching. Just now I was skimming through Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn was a physicist who pursued a career in the history of science. His book on scientific revolutions proposed that scientific development, rather than being a linear and progressive increase in understanding of the natural world, has rather been characterized more by irregular leaps and advances in knowledge.

More to the point, he proposed that new ideas in science, far from being welcomed, have often been rejected, suppressed, or ridiculed (or all three!) by proponents of what Kuhn called “normal science” — the conventional scientific wisdom that provided the narrative by which to explain how the data fit together in the relevant area of science. Kuhn suggested that the suppression of new ideas continued until a critical mass of evidence for which normal science could not adequately account had accumulated. This prompted a reappraisal of the new idea proposed, leading to what Kuhn called a “paradigm shift.” Kuhn didn’t invent the term, but he did largely popularize it. And his work has gained wide acceptance as the preferred way to think about the development of scientific knowledge.

As I thought about it, it really made sense to me. I know this is not news to many, but it was a moment of insight for me. After all, I recall from way back in the dark ages when I was an undergrad university student in chemistry that chemical reactions often do not proceed linearly. Either a threshold level of energy is required to be overcome to allow the reaction to proceed, or (in the case of exothermic reactions) a sudden, sometimes violent reaction releases a burst of energy. Okay, that’s most of what I remember from chemistry class, but hope you get the point.

What also occurred to me is that science is not the only realm in which human understanding advances in a jerky, non-linear fashion. In politics, revolutions initiate changes in governance. In religion, reformations initiate theological changes. Human beings do not process new ideas with a consistent enough degree of rationality to allow a lot of significant changes to occur smoothly. Human subjectivity and self-interest complicate processes. These dynamics occur whether the changes occurring have positive or negative effects on human flourishing.

Perhaps I am making a theological leap, but I think this is a sign of human depravity. I think it is evidence that humans have an incorrigible inclination to rationalize the narrative they support. But it is also a sign of the divinely-given human need for a narrative — a sense of order and purpose that gives meaning to human existence, thought, and inquiry. Human existence is always going to be a mixed bag, but I believe there is reason for humans to remain hopeful. In Christ we have a view of the end we can experience, even if we are not always sure of the path to get there.

That’s enough for now. Don’t lose hope.

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