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Yaron Tokayer

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Will humankind ever achieve an end to science history?

My bioelectricity class is half science and half history. When we bring up a new topic, we often first pause to set its historical backdrop from a political and experimental perspective. This is particularly interesting, given that in bioelectricity, experiments date back several hundred years, but are also unfolding every day (quite literally, if we consider that ion channels are proteins whose foling structures are a topic of this field -- see http://fold.it/portal/ for a link to the fold it protein folding game taking the world by storm). But when I try to consider new research, I find myself feeling viscerally skeptical of our own time's limited perspective on our own accomplishments to date.

Phillip von Jolly, Planck's professor at Munich, is pretty much solely known for falsely predicting of physics that, "in this field, almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few unimportant holes." Similarly, Lord Kelvin is said to have proclaimed that "there is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement." Both of these quotes were said at the dawn of the quantum era. I think we humans tend to assume that we are at the end of history, that all scientific and social progress has culminated to the present.

The question I would like to pose is whether or not science is at least honing in on an absolute reality--what philosophers call "scientific realism." Are we getting closer--converging--to the end of scientific discovery with each paradigm shift, or do we just recast how we understand the world in a different vocabulary? From one perspective, the miasma theory of disease, which preceded today's germ theory, was thought to be approximately accurate experimentally, just like today's germ theory is "approximately accurate" as far as it's clinical effectiveness. Is there a truth of nature behind a curtain for us to discover? If there is, are humans capable of acieving it?

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    Feb 16 2013: I'm somewhat nervous about the idea of paradigm shifts, at least as they tend to be construed. I think a lot of people get Kuhn wrong--he ends up getting recruited to support all kinds of epistemic relativism (see, e.g., the work of Feyerabend on "epistemic anarchy"), when I think that was the last thing he had in mind. It seems to me that the most plausible position is not this kind of anything goes approach to knowledge, where we jump from incommensurable paradigm to incommensurable paradigm, but rather an _accretive_ process by which different sets of patterns are cataloged and mapped.

    That is, it seems to me that the endpoint of the insight that Kuhn had--that big breakthroughs in science often result in entirely new ways of looking at things--isn't relativism, but a kind of integrated pluralism. We can recognize that there are many different ways to look at the world around us, and that each of those ways might contribute to a more holistic understanding of the natural world _even if_ they can't be expressed in a common language. The project of cross-referencing patterns in the time-evolution of the natural world is an important one, and Kuhn's real legacy is, I think, first suggesting that this _is_ a project worth pursuing. The story of science is a story of progress through collaboration.
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      Feb 17 2013: Thanks for all of your insightful responses.

      From the little that I've read and learned formally (from you), I believe it is true that Kuhn is commonly misunderstood in that way. I tried to use the term in a parve (neutral) way, but thanks for the clarification.

      So if I'm understanding correctly, this "cross-referencing" that Kuhn calls for is acknowledging that accurate results from old theories are maintained in later ones, as they should be. And sometimes we'll even utilize an older language to describe things because it is most useful if a particular case. For example, we may use Newton's formula for gravity in a simply 2 body problem, because it is a good way to look at the problem, even if it may not be the entire picture, according to general relativity. Is this correct?

      It also sounds like Kuhn does believe then in a sort of convergence of theories. Scientific progress, according to him, seems like an iterative revision proccess, which to me implies finer and finer tunings and an eventual finished product.

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