Sunday, 17 December 2006

aggregation or agravation?

As an undergraduate, I first articulated the question that still drives much of my research: how does the way we think affect what we know? The transition from mytho-poeic to proto-scientific explanation in Thales still floats at the back of my mind as the paradigmatic example underlying the significance of such a change. But my interest is not historical; it's personal. How can I change my mind? If I succeed, how do I understand the difference? Can I switch back and forth? How do I communicate a novel idea to someone else? Will they understand it in the same way I do? How do new ideas catch on? I was just then becoming enthralled with chaos theory and fuzzy logic, and I was convinced that these ideas stood outside of our usual ways of thinking. Would it be possible to internalize these ideas? How would it change the way we saw the world? What problems would loom larger, and which ones would disappear into the background?

Philosophy of science has similar aims. Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions is paradigmatic (hah!) of the philosophy of science. It's about a collective venture called science, and as a result begins to sound hollow and false the more I know about any given episode in the history of science. Structure is about aggregate behavior; it describes the causes and mechanisms of scientific change. In the opening pages, Kuhn says:
[A paradigm is] sufficiently unprecedented to attract an enduring group of adherents away from competing modes of scientific activity. Simultaneously, [a paradigm is] sufficiently open-ended to leave all sorts of problems for the redefined group of practitioners to resolve.
When I was writing my undergraduate thesis, I used the word "schema" to refer to a similar notion, but I distinguished conceptual from descriptive schemas. Conceptual schemas are mental objects we use in the manner of shorthand to organize our thoughts about the world. Descriptive schemas are conceptual schemas with an additional social component. We treat descriptive schemas in much the way we treat language--they stand in for ideas about the world, and we usually assume that translation is perfect. I made the distinction out of an unarticulated discomfort at the social-mental interaction. I was trying to walk the tightrope between coming up with a notion that is true (but too complicated to state) and a notion that is simple (but false enough to collapse under scrutiny).

I wanted to be able to talk about the two roles of a schema (mental and social) separately, to distinguish how individuals can change schemas and show how science as a collective venture can do the same thing. This was the piece that was missing from my first (second-hand) introduction to Kuhn--a clear understanding of what a paradigm is for an individual scientist. It's been close to a decade since that first introduction, and my views have surely grown more sophisticated generally, yet this same tension continues to frustrate me. I'm still trying to reconcile the psychology of theory change with the sociology of theory change. I'm still trying to reconcile the specific trickles of history with a workable general idea of science.

It strikes me that this problem is exactly the problem with Bob Batterman's two different explications of breaking behavior. One is detailed, contingent, and right, the other is idealized, universal, and explanatory. How can one description be right and not be explanatory? And how can the other be explanatory without also being right?

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