Anomaly Overload: An Evolutionary Theory of Truth by Timothy McGettigan, PhD
Thomas Kuhn (1970) argued that scientific revolutions take place when dominant paradigms are dislodged by emergent paradigms. Science undergoes such transitions when established paradigms fail to account for an increasing number of empirical anomalies. Anomalies may be understood as enigmas for which existing knowledge systems lack convincing explanations. Kuhn’s perspective challenged the previously accepted view that the accumulation of scientific knowledge was a rational stepwise process, i.e., each landmark discovery being anticipated with logical precision and, once established, elevated consensually atop a vertical tower of knowledge. Instead, Kuhn contended that paradigm shifts are much messier undertakings that are marked by infighting, political subterfuge, and a host of other unscientific antics. In other words, though scientists are generally loath to admit it, the accumulation of scientific knowledge is a social enterprise and is, thus, replete with human shortcomings.
Truth is such a messy word. Well meaning inter-faith organizations more or less acknowledge that each religion is entitled to its own truth. An instance where unjustified beliefs should be substituted for the word truth. Though doing so would quickly undermine the mission of such groups. In the case above we’re talking about truth in terms of facts for the most part. Truths that can be supported at the time or there is at minimum enough evidence to suggest the current conventional wisdom is no longer viable as in, at one time, the geocentric model of the universe. The first heliocentric model, which posited the sun as the center was an advancement towards an ultimate truth. Let’s say truthier than the old model, but not yet a rational empirical fact. Even if it is only the spare memory of Galileo’s being threatened with torture we all have an early childhood engagement with the phenomenon of the evolution of truth. Why and how does the truth matter?
As illustrated by the preceding example, paradigms perform the invaluable service of rendering “the known universe” intelligible and, as a result, paradigms also provide a structure within which knowledge can be organized cohesively and through which truth-seekers can collaborate constructively. Nevertheless, a paradigm’s Achilles heel lies in the truism that the parameters of the known universe are constantly in flux: curious humans incessantly generate novel observations about a constantly changing universe. Again, popular as geocentrism once may have been, an overload of anomalous heavenly phenomena (e.g., comets, retrograde motion, Jupiter’s moons, etc.) inevitably doomed the paradigm. When paradigms are overwhelmed by a critical mass of anomalies they enter a phase that Kuhn described as a “crisis.” Paradigm crisis is roughly the scientific equivalent of a skipper’s signal to abandon ship. Having sprung more epistemological leaks than its adherents can hope to plug, a paradigm in crisis forces its supporters to make fateful decisions: either to jump ship or, having staked out a career upon the foundering vessel, to stay aboard until the bitter end.
Paradigm crisis is a precursor to full scale scientific revolution. According to Kuhn, a scientific revolution comprises a transition through which scientists replace an outmoded paradigm with a new one. Generally speaking, the new paradigm has the advantage of being, so to speak, a more seaworthy vessel, i.e., it resolves many of the anomalies that sank its precursor. Therefore, for a period of time, the new paradigm can confidently go about the process of enlisting recruits and navigating rough scientific seas; that is, until the process inexorably repeats itself and the updated paradigm is gradually beset by its own set of leaks.
In some fashion or other we are always asking ourselves, what is next. What should we try to achieve and how can we achieve it. While that way lies many of the roots of our discontent it is also the way in which we achieve something we like to call progress.
So it might be important to understand why the Theory of Gravity is rarely questioned even among those who are barely scientifically literate and yet so many people reject the equally valid Theory of Evolution. Evolution might be struggling in comparison because gravity is so easy to observe. No one ever drops a baseball and it floats into the sky. No one ever falls upward. Steel workers are not required to wear safety belts because it keeps them from floating off into the sky. Since we acknowledge gravity as a standard truth we’ve been able to “collaborate constructively”. Evolution is not so easily observable, even though there are modern examples. That is not to say that evolution is waiting for anyone to catch up. It may not seem like, but the thousands of creation myths are in crisis. Science marches on. For collaborative progress to be made in understanding geology, the behavior of viruses, the mechanics of dragonfly flight in studies by the military, the seemingly sudden appearance of new antibiotic resistant diseases – evolution is a keystone on which all these studies and more are based. Culture has yet to keep up even as biological evolution deniers receive medical treatments based on the fundamental concepts of evolution. So in modern times Kuhn’s crisis idea is still operative, but it seems to have been compartmentalized. Science has tacitly said fine, do not accept the fact of evolution, we’ll proceed as though it is what it is, the truth. Science has been forced to do so because there are well established standards of proof in science, that culture is inconsistent about applying especially if they are in conflict with a system of unjustified beliefs.