In seeking for a definition of science, we can hardly do better than that given by Dr. George P. Williams, former Professor of Physics at Wake Forest University: Science consists of organizing and classifying observed data. For explanations, it chooses the simplest possible one that fits all the known facts. Science involves both deductive and inductive reasoning. The former was the method employed by the ancient Greeks. They began from a proposition and deduced logical results of that proposition. Those who have taken high-school geometry will recognize the process. Inductive reasoning is the experimental method championed by Roger Bacon, and later Francis Bacon, in which principles are formed to correlate with observed phenomena.
The textbook process identified as the Scientific Method combines both forms of reasoning. It begins with observation. Then a hypothesis is proposed to explain the observed phenomena. Experiments are designed to test the logical results that can be deduced from the hypothesis. Based upon the experimental results, the hypothesis is refined – perhaps many times – until its predictions match the experimental results. Note that this process depends upon a concept called strong objectivity, the idea that reality is independent of the observer(us). Note that the concept of strong objectivity is metaphysical, not physical.It sounds quite clean and – well – scientific. However, in actual practice there is a fly in the ointment, since scientists share the foibles characteristic of our race. In fact, the forming of hypotheses, design of experiments, interpretation of experimental results, and refinement of hypotheses all depend upon the previously-built structure of science. Thomas_Kuhn named this previously-built structure a paradigm, which he defined as “a series of ‘universally recognized scientific achievements [in a given field] that for a time provide models of problems and solutions to a community of practitioners.’” [Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, quoted in Stephen A. Schwartz, The Secret Vaults of Time.] It can be argued that the influence of paradigms immediately invalidates any possibility of strong objectivity, since different observers operating from different paradigms will form different interpretations of observed fact; hence, the theories and laws that result from the scientific method constitute models, not ultimate truth. The existence of paradigms, however, is necessary to science: without them, each new hypothesis would have to begin at ground zero and progress would be essentially impossible. The valuable functions that paradigms perform include selecting permissible research problems, circumscribing the range of permissible solutions, and developing a “shorthand” language or jargon for each field of study. Paradigms lead to increasing specialization, which means that for any field, there are insiders and outsiders. Paradigms are promulgated through education.
Paradigms are formed in a predictable cycle:
a. Forming schools of thought
b. Fact gathering
c. Triumph of the most successful school of thought
d. “Normal science” during which the scientific method is exercised within the paradigm.
e. Anomalies are identified. When these become sufficiently numerous or consequential that they can no longer be ignored . . .
f. Crisis [See Schwartz, pp. 249-250]
Out of the crisis, a new paradigm is formed, following the same cycle.
The only danger of paradigms is that when their presence is not recognized, the current paradigm is assumed to be ultimate truth, and science stagnates. A well-known example is Ptolemaic astronomy, which assumed that the earth is the center around which other planets, as well as the sun and moon, revolve in perfect circles. In order to make valid predictions using this paradigm, the planetary orbits had to be approximated by complex combinations of circular orbits, called epicycles. The Copernican description in which the planets, including the earth, revolve around the sun in elliptical orbits seemed to be nearer the truth (as verified by modern space science). However, it was adopted only after its adherents were persecuted, and some were executed, for their beliefs. Kuhn’s study of the history of science showed that in practice, individual scientists seldom change paradigms. Instead, as quantum physicist Max Planck said, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Thus science progresses funeral by funeral.
Stephen Schwartz has identified a group of metaphysical assumptions that, like strong objectivity, underlie almost all paradigms accepted within science in the late 1900's. He called this group the Grand Material Metaparadigm:
a. The mind is the result of physical processes governed by bioelectrical postulates
b. Each consciousness is a discrete entity
c. Organic evolution moves toward no specific goal but simply flows according to Darwinian survivalism
d. There is only one space-time continuum and it provides for only one reality
[See Schwartz, pp. 260-261]
As we will discuss later, challenges to this metaparadigm have lately been mounted from within Physics, indicating that this foundational science is in or near a state of paradigm crisis.
Next we will examine the history of cosmology since Newton, as an example of the operation of science and its paradigms.