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LostInParadise's avatar

Do successive scientific revolutions converge on the truth?

Asked by LostInParadise (26118points) April 29th, 2019

I have been attending meetings of a philosophy meetup, led by a working philosopher. The last few meetings were discussions of the very influental The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn.

Greatly oversimplifying, Kuhn says that with new theories science experiences major changes in how the world is viewed (think of quantum mechanics and relativity). The new theories are more accurate and have wider applicability, but in Kuhn’s view, they are not in any sense necessarily closer to actual scientific truth. A future revolution in physics may completely replace the views first developed in the 20th century.

I prefer to believe that at each stage science moves a little closer to a final truth. For example, at speeds much lower than the speed of light, Newton’s equations are good approximations to relativistic ones. I like to think of successive science theories as being refinements of previous ones. There are others who think this way. The Nobel laureate physicist wrote a book titled Dreams of a Final Theory, that expresses this viewpoint.

As part of the educated public, I would be interested in how you feel about this.

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4 Answers

Zaku's avatar

I’m curious what the metaphor about distance from “the truth” is about. Different understandings afford different perspectives, and for some definitions of what you mean about truth and distance, it may seem correct that later theories often seem like improvements over earlier ones, particularly because they are usually framed inside the perspectives of the previous theories they surplant.

And there’s a related but subtly different metaphor, which is about time and paths, and more or less defines the history of ideas as progress along a path.

But I wonder what the distance is that is converging, and whether there’s an expectation that there is something that would be considered the truth, and some sense of dissatisfaction with all theories that are not that the truth?

Also, sometimes an actual scientific revolution means a shift in perspective that’s so different from previous perspectives that the course isn’t really just a line in one direction.

LostInParadise's avatar

I can’t express exactly what I mean by distance from the truth. In some sense the new theory has to include the old theory as a special case or an approximation of the new theory. The new theory is more expansive than the old one, but the old theory still in some sense lies within the new one.

kritiper's avatar

The truth may not be closer to being revealed, but other possibilities may always exist, and these possibilities may be revealed through philosophy. Exploring them may not bring one to the truth, but may open other doors for further exploration, and revealing more possibilities as to where actual truth may lie.
In my opinion, simplicity may be the only key required to find what truth there may be.

Caravanfan's avatar

I think Kuhn’s analysis is flawed. Sure, there are a few big ticket items like then ones you’ve said. But at least in medicine, things generally happen quite incrementally.

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