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Popper vs Kuhn I


Science can be defined as knowledge and theory on the nature and operation the universe and all things in it, in which facts are organized into a systematic and meaningful pattern developed as a result of experiments, observations, tests and many other methods it uses. The relationship between philosophy and science is that science is the way that how the humans organize their knowledge. At that point these two intersects. Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn are two philosophers that are discussed in this essay. The main question of that discussion is whether there is scientific progress or not. Karl Popper’s answer is yes, while Thomas Kuhn’s is no (for overall). This two opposing sides will be examined in detail in the essay. Scientific realists versus anti-realists, theory of Karl Popper, theory of Thomas Kuhn and a counter claim that comes against Thomas Kuhn is discussed respectively in the paper.

In order to explain, judge about the given quotation better, and understand Karl Popper’s and Thomas Kuhn’s views and comparing those two; the definitions of ‘scientific realism’ and ‘anti-realism’ should be clarified. Scientific realism is a view that reflects the truth and helps humans living on the earth to explain or understand what is going on around them in the world. Realism gives a better understanding of the world, because it makes the people become aware of things more clearly. Take the E = m * c2 equation as an example. It tells the speed of light and its relations with m and c. It provides knowledge about the real world, and people use that theory. Such scientific equations and theories give something real about the world, and tell the real facts, and what the world really is. Furthermore, according to realism, science displays a process of discovery which means scientists deal with the things that already exist and one can discover those existing things that have not been realized before. Therefore, science is objective; as the scientists only discover the theories not inventing them. That’s why, the realists believe that the scientific improvements guide to a neutral, real truth common for everyone.Karl Popper who is a realist tells that there is progress in science. Popper says that this scientific process is cumulative, and by that process the people can reach the neutral truth. Realists, as well as Popper believe that progress in science is toward a more accurate representation of the workings of nature. Popper uses the method of falsification. By method of falsifying the theories are improved, and the scientific progresses occur. Falsification is not a way to reject or get rid of the original; instead it is for developing and improving the theory itself, it is the evaluation of the theory. An example can be used as Newton’s theory versus Einstein’s theory. According to Popper, as the Newton’s theory is better and more universal, and contains more information. Einstein in a way shows in his theory the lacking and deficient parts of Newton’s, which is the usage of the theory under extremely high velocities such as light’s. So Einstein’s is used.

Karl Popper’s method is deductive. Deduction gives him the opportunity to start from the universal and go through the specific and the singular event or result. The observation and experiment done about the hypothesis and theory that is set. Until something against is found which means until it is falsified, it is accepted as true. “All swans are white” is a suitable example for that. Are all swans are white? The answer is yes till otherwise is observed, then it is improved. This is just like democracy. In democratic countries the suspected person is accepted as innocent until his/her guilt is proved. Predictions and experiments are done. These two terms are the falsification criteria. The theory is used, and if it is falsified, then the new theory is build. If that latter theory is also falsified then a third one comes. The process continues like that as a chain which leads the scientific progress. So the realists and Karl Popper conclude that the scientific progress is a continuous process. In addition, this progress concludes a neutral language that means the same thing for everyone, same understanding for what is happening.

One shortcoming for the Popper’s view is that when the previous theory that is falsified is replaced by the latter and the better one, the first one is abolished according to Popper. But in fact it is not. The old one can also still used in some areas just it is seen in the example of Newton’s and Einstein’s theories’ case.

On the other hand, there are anti-realists. On contrary to the realists, this group believes that science does not supply information about the real world, one cannot understand world through science. Science is just a set of statements, it is a tool. They also claim that this is because there is no single truth. Science is a tool for humans to see the world, that’s why it cannot be objective and lead us to an ultimate goal as Popper told in his theory. Each person creates and uses his/her own tools to understand the world and manage the life, so he/she has own worldview that is private, personal, different, at least variable. By that logic, science depends on the individual, it is subjective; so it changes from person to person, no certainty for a single, neutral one. This is the reason why anti-realists treat science as invention instead of discovery. In anti-realists’ point of view, the language of the theories that belong to Newton and Einstein are different from each other, they do not represent the same things. So these two theories are incompatible.

Thomas Kuhn is mostly an anti-realist but partly realist, and has opposing views towards Karl Popper. First of all, Kuhn rejects progress in science and the method of falsification. To Kuhn, science is made up of paradigms (instead of smooth developments), and scientific communities gathers around those paradigms. Paradigm, according to Kuhn can be defined as a set of ideas and worldviews. He denies the progress and claims that science has breaks, which opposes the continuity idea of realists and Popper. As anti-realists also claim, Kuhn defends that there is not a single ultimate goal, instead there are different worldviews, having radical changes, and those are not cumulative. In Kuhn’s point of view, a paradigm can only be changed by revolution. Two paradigms are incompatible and incommensurable which means two are not measurable by the same standards, values, and have no common basis for comparison according to Kuhn. If an unexpected result occurs, this causes an anomaly. This can block the theory anymore, and uncertainty starts. When conflicts start, it is a crisis, and radical changes occur. So if the anomaly cannot be solved and explained, the paradigm is sunk, and the system is replaced.

On the other side, his explanation for ‘normal science’ seems as a realistic view, even though he seems to be anti-realist when his overall views are taken as a whole. Kuhn tells that during the normal science periods, there is progress, which means he accepted progress within the paradigm. Normal science covers the period that a new paradigm is set, and experiments and observations done within the paradigm to expand. For example a time of crisis is not included in normal science periods.

Here comes the quotation: “But is sensory experience fixed and neutral? Are theories simply man-made interpretations of given data? The epistemological viewpoint that has the most often guided Western philosophy for three centuries dictates an immediate and unequivocal Yes! . . . Yet this viewpoint no longer functions effectively, and the attempts to make it do so through the introduction of a neural language of observations now seem to me hopeless.” 

It can be said that this is an anti-realistic view. Experiences, practices and understandings are personal, special. They change from person to person. So it is not possible to say that they are neutral and fixed. Because they are not objective, this statement seems as defending the anti-realists’ view. Obviously, there is not a neutral language that is common. As the people, especially the scientists would create different paradigms which are subjectively expressed and have its own language and worldview. Karl Popper will deny this quotation according his point of view and theories.

The counter claim for Kuhn: “The history of technological progress that the science made possible refutes Kuhn’s view that science does not progress toward a more accurate representation of the workings of nature.” In fact, this statement does not fit Thomas Kuhn’s theory very well. It is known that technological progress is defined by scientific progress. Kuhn has partly realistic point of view that enables the progress within the paradigm in the period of normal science. Then it can be said that he does not reject this statement at all. In the case of technologies that are rooted from the same paradigm makes this claim fit to Kuhn. As he accepted the progress within the paradigm, and as the technologies come from the same paradigm, Kuhn can accept such a progress in technology that occurs in the paradigm. Moreover, the claim “scientific progress produces technological progress” tells there is a parallel relationship between science and technology. Thomas Kuhn’s theory does not accept such a parallel relationship between these two.

In conclusion, Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn are two important philosophers that have opposing views. On one side there is Popper who is a realist, and claims that science tells the real and make the people to understand the world and outside. He believes that there is an ultimate goal, and the progress in science serves for that, and this progress is cumulative. He uses falsification method in order of improvement. On the other hand there is Kuhn. He seems as an anti-realist but has some realist views too. He opposes Popper in the case of scientific progress and ultimate goal. His realistic side is that; he accepts only the progress within the paradigm during normal science period. His important points are paradigm, normal science, crisis, anomaly and scientific revolution. He comes against Popper’s continuity, and claims that there are breaks. Another difference between those two philosophers is that; while Popper defends the neutral language that is common, Kuhn defends there are different worldviews that makes that neutral language impossible and subjective. Besides those, Kuhn is also against Popper’s throwing the old theory away.