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Thomas S. Kuhn's Paradigm Thesis and its Epistemological Applications in Theology

by Bob DeWaay


Kuhn's Thesis Described

In 1962 Thomas S. Kuhn wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a book that has started a revolution of its own. Kuhn's epistemological revolution has reached beyond his original thesis concerning science and into that of philosophy and theology. At issue is the nature of one's understanding of knowledge, “truth,” and the possibility of “coming to the knowledge of the truth” (1Timothy 3:7). Having shaken up the scientific community's understanding of scientific knowledge and progress, Kuhn's thesis is now shaking the theological community's understanding of its relationship to the truth. I hope to demonstrate that Thomas Kuhn's thesis embraces relativism in ways that will prove seriously damaging to Christian theology if adopted as its epistemological basis.

The concept of paradigms is key to Kuhn's understanding of the history of science. He defines the term in his introduction as, “universally recognized scientific achievements that for a time provide model problems and solutions to a community of practitioners.”1 He seeks to show that scientists work within a community that has shared ideas of scientific fact that serve as the basis for “puzzle solving,” which he considers the primary activity of “normal science.” He defines “normal science” as, “research firmly based upon one or more past scientific achievements, achievements that some particular scientific community acknowledges for a time as supplying the foundation for its further practice.”2 People in one of these communities are pedagogically trained in the basic tenets held by those in that field, not expecting or expected to question the “facts” and formulae that serve as the basis for doing science in that arena. This is their “paradigm” that serves as the necessary context for the scientific process. Puzzle solving involves exploring and defining those areas of nature that have not yet been clearly defined or explained by the reigning paradigm, but are within its scope and apparently solvable by the paradigm's own criteria.3 Problems that the paradigm identifies and for which it assumes the existence of a possible solution are the ones that the community will tackle.

Kuhn's thesis was revolutionary in that it was a radical departure from the understanding of “traditional science.” Traditionally, “Scientific development becomes the piecemeal process by which these items [facts, theories, and methods] have been added, singly and in combination, to the ever growing stockpile that constitutes scientific technique and knowledge.”4 This idea of continued “incremental process and development-by-accumulation”5 does not fit with the historical account of what happened in the history of science. It is this understanding that led Kuhn to develop his thesis as an alternative. He sees science as a series of “revolutions” in which a reigning paradigm enters a crisis and is overthrown by another, rather than a gradual, incremental process of progress and discovery. For example, in this way of understanding science Einstein's theory of relativity did not merely add to Newton's view of physics, it overthrew it.

The cause of this process of revolution is the development of unexpected crises that undermine the viability of the present paradigm. “Anomalies” surface that are “contrary instances” that cannot be explained by the processes and theories of the present paradigm. The human tendency not to recognize the unexpected or that which does not fit the categories of one's paradigm causes these anomalies often to be resisted or ignored. Kuhn cites an interesting experiment with anomalous playing cards to prove this tendency.6 There is doubtless some truth to this because we by nature do not expect the unexpected, or it would not be unexpected. It is also clearly true that more profound, repeated evidence will be necessary to convince one of something that goes against all previous experience and fits no previously learned category. This will have applications in theological matters that will be discussed later in this thesis.

In spite of the resistance to change and evidence that does not fit the prevalent paradigm, paradigms can and are overthrown. This often happens, according to Kuhn, when someone young or new to the field happens upon a novel viewpoint that can become a paradigm that more adequately describes all the known facts. The person in question is more likely to do this because of a lack of history within the paradigm, causing a lesser degree of prejudice against contrary theories. This prejudice is a key part of Kuhn's thesis. It is the reason that “facts” themselves are not determinative in accepting or rejecting a paradigm. In a key section of his book, Kuhn states, “. . .once it has achieved the status of paradigm, a scientific theory is declared invalid only if an alternate candidate is available to take its place. No process yet disclosed by the historical study of scientific development at all resembles the methodological stereotype of falsification by direct comparison with nature.”7

This introduction of the subjective element is a key issue. Do we learn facts, verify or falsify them by controlled experiment, and add them to the accumulated facts previously determined by the scientific method; or do we live in paradigms that are taken for granted, resist change, and are not overturned by facts themselves? It must be granted that at least some prejudice and subjective element clouds our thinking, such being the nature of fallen humanity. However, just how skeptical need we become about the possibility of knowing the veracity of a matter? This question was not so much Kuhn's primary concern, but it is the implication most often taken up by those who apply Kuhn's paradigm thesis to philosophy and religion. Kuhn states about “counterinstances to a prevalent epistemological theory,” - “By themselves they cannot and will not falsify that philosophical theory, for its defenders will do what we have already seen scientists doing when confronted by anomaly. They will devise numerous articulations and ad hoc modifications of their theory in order to eliminate any apparent conflict.”8

It should be noted that Kuhn is not so much criticizing paradigms and the history of science as he is analyzing them. He believes that paradigms are necessary and helpful in the development of science and its progress in that they provide a stable, working environment for the doing of “normal science.” He states, “Once a first paradigm through which to view nature has been found, there is no such thing as research in the absence of any paradigm. To reject one paradigm without simultaneously substituting another is to reject science itself.”9 Puzzles are solved and progress is made within a given paradigm. The problem concerns the relationships between conflicting paradigms and the relationship between any given paradigm and reality, or “ultimate truth.” This is where we get to applications in the epistemological basis of Christian theology. Depending on how much we see Biblical Christianity's truth claims to be demonstrable by evidence that is commensurate with scientific endeavor, Kuhn's thesis about science inevitably raises questions about the verification or falsification of Biblical truth claims. This is the particular concern of this paper.

The Problem of Incommensurability

Before we leave the description of Kuhn's thesis and move on to theological applications of it, it is necessary to discuss three things about Kuhn's theory: (1) the incommensurability of conflicting paradigms; (2) his skepticism of verification, falsification, and the possibility of knowing “truth;” (3) the seemingly pragmatic manner in which one chooses a paradigm.

It is important to understand that there is not one paradigm that covers science, whether viewed contemporarily or historically. There are many paradigms, each of them encompassing a group of practitioners in a given field. Those in such a paradigm have or see little need to analyze their paradigm (which is something rarely done since paradigms are not normally conscious in the mind of the scientist, they are a “given”) in relationship to one of another field. Science is done and paradigms shared within a specialized community.10 Also, early in scientific endeavor, schools formed with shared world views that were “incommensurable” (a key work in Kuhn) and not necessarily so because of a failure of method or scientific observation. Kuhn states, “What differentiated these various schools was not one or another failure of method - they were all `scientific' - but what we shall come to call their incommensurable ways of seeing the world and of practicing science in it.”11 Incommensurability means that scientists cannot objectively analyze other paradigms and make factual judgments about their relative merits. Paul Hiebert uses the analogy of two people seeking to play chess and checkers on the same board to describe people with different epistemological views seeking to discuss a theological issue.12 The same could be said of discussions between paradigms. Hiebert, however, does disagree with Kuhn on the issue of the incommensurability of epistemological paradigms.13

Arthur J. Moen claims that Kuhn's notion of incommensurability makes his theory relativistic. He quotes Kuhn, “differences between successive paradigms are both necessary and irreconcilable. (p. 103)” and concludes “For this reason Kuhn contends that debates about the relative merits of competing paradigms are always at cross-purposes to each other and that there is an inevitable `incompleteness of logical contact' (p. 110). This notion of logical incommensurability must be explored in greater detail, for it undergirds Kuhn's epistemological relativism” (bracketed page references are Moen's).14

Several quotations from Kuhn underscore his belief in incommensurability, and the logical necessity of it:

The proponents of competing paradigms are always at least slightly at cross-purposes. Neither side will grant all the non-empirical assumptions that the other needs in order to make its case. . . they are bound partly to talk through each other. Though each may hope to convert the other to his way of seeing his science and its problems, neither may hope to prove his case. The competition between paradigms is not the sort of battle that can be resolved by proofs.15

He continues in the same vein, “These examples point to the third and most fundamental aspect of the incommensurability of competing paradigms. In a sense that I am unable to explicate further, the proponents of competing paradigms practice their trades in different worlds.”16

How then does one shift from one paradigm to another? Using almost religious terminology, Thomas Kuhn describes the shift from one paradigm to another that is incommensurable:

Practicing in different worlds, the two groups of scientists see different things when they look from the same point in the same direction. . . it is why, before they can hope to communicate fully, one group or the other must experience the conversion that we have been calling a paradigm shift. Just because it is a transition between incommensurables, the transition between competing paradigms cannot be made a step at a time, forced by logic and neutral experience. Like the gestalt switch, it must occur all at once (though not necessarily in an instant) or not at all.17

The charge of relativism does not seem unfounded. This idea is reiterated throughout the book, including in the postscript that responds to criticism about relativism. On the next page he states, “I would argue, rather, that in these matters neither proof nor error is at issue. The transfer of allegiance from paradigm to paradigm is a conversion experience that cannot be forced.”18

Paul Hiebert rightly sees the implication of this, “There are, however, greater dangers in looking at various epistemological positions in isolation, or of assuming that they are incommensurable. If comparison between epistemological alternatives is impossible, rationality is undermined, and with it science and philosophy.”19 It is puzzling to me how Hiebert could cite Kuhn and others and his notion of paradigms in a positive manner just paragraphs earlier in his article, and then reject the incommensurability of paradigms that is central to Kuhn's thesis. For example he stated in a paragraph mentioning Kuhn, Polanyi, and Laudin, “Clearly we can no longer equate scientific knowledge about reality with reality itself. The old assumption that scientific theories have a one-to-one correspondence with reality has been shattered.”20 How can Kuhn's theory that is seemingly accepted as a breakthrough in epistemology be divorced from the results of its own stated premises? If Kuhn is wrong about incommensurability, his whole paradigm thesis is seriously flawed and hardly deserving the status of having settled an epistemological issue.

The question that remains about Kuhn is how one decides to make a paradigm shift within the context of incommensurability. It is here where not only relativism, but epistemological despair enters the picture. He states,

We may, to be more precise, have to relinquish the notion, explicit or implicit, that changes of paradigm carry scientists and those who learn from them closer and closer to the truth. . . The developmental process described in this essay has been a process of evolution from primitive beginnings - a process whose successive stages are characterized by an increasingly detailed and refined understanding of nature. But nothing that has been or will be said makes it a process of evolution toward anything.21

This process cannot lead to the knowledge of the truth, only a more detailed understanding of nature. It is this point that becomes the burr under the saddle blanket of Christians seeking to integrate science and religion. The knowledge of the truth is something clearly set forth in the Bible (John 8:32) as possible and necessary; but is increasingly being set aside as a reasonable goal of science or philosophy. This will be discussed later in this paper.

Kuhn uses Darwin to elaborate his point: “The Origin of Species recognized no goal set either by God or nature. . . Even such marvelously adapted organs as the eye and hand of man - organs whose design had previously provided powerful arguments for the existence of a supreme artificer and an advance plan - were products of a process that moved steadily from primitive beginnings but toward no goal.”22 With no goal, no “fixed scientific truth,”23 and no way to judge objectively between competing paradigms, what is one to do? Kuhn's answer is to plunge ahead anyway, hoping to “solve problems.”24

In his 1970 postscript he responds to charges of relativism by changing some terminology (such as “exemplars” for some aspects of paradigms) but not substantially changing his theory. The means of choosing paradigms is described as a group process, involving “shared values.”25 He says that what he is proposing in choosing “premises” has always been an accepted necessity in philosophical and scientific endeavors.26 His response to the charges of relativism is interesting. He writes,

There is, I think, no theory-independent way to reconstruct phrases like `really there'; the notion of match between the ontology of a theory and its “real” counterpart in nature now seems to me illusive in principle. . . I do not doubt, for example, that Newton's mechanics improves on Aristotle's and that Einstein's mechanics improves on Newton's as instruments for puzzle-solving. But I see in their secession no coherent direction of ontological development. On the contrary, in some important respects, though by no means all, Einstein's general theory of relativity is closer to Aristotle's than either of them is to Newton's. . . if the position be relativism, I cannot see that the relativist loses anything needed to account for the nature and development of the sciences.27

“We cannot know for sure what reality is, and what nature is like, or what is the truth, and if that be relativism, so be it” is how I understand Kuhn's position.

He does, nevertheless, hold to the validity of scientific endeavor for pragmatic reasons: puzzle solving within a limited scope. He gives some criteria for choosing between different theories: “accuracy of prediction, particularly of quantitative prediction; the balance between esoteric and everyday subject matter; and the number of different problems solved.”28 He adds the following as “less useful” criteria: “simplicity, scope, and compatibility with other specialties.”29 These criteria used to select theories for puzzle solving in different environments lead him to state, “That is not a relativist's position, and it displays the sense in which I am a convinced believer in scientific progress.”30

However, this puzzle solving has no ultimate goal nor assurance of arriving at the truth. What knowledge we “have” is “tacit” knowledge. Pragmatism is the main criteria for chosing paradigms. Paradigms are chosen by “faith” that they will solve problems: “The man who embraces a new paradigm at an early stage must often do so in defiance of the evidence provided by problem-solving. He must, that is, have faith that the new paradigm will succeed. . . A decision of that kind can only be made on faith.”31 There we have it, science based on faith, and faith that I hope to show is less than the type of faith the Bible encourages, which is closely linked to knowledge of the truth! Faith in a view of reality in “defiance” of the evidence available to the observer is very much like the “leap of faith” so popular in neo-orthodoxy and secular existentialism.

Theological Applications of Kuhn's Thesis

Many theologians have interacted with Kuhn's paradigm thesis. Some have seen it as having positive applications, some as a serious threat, and some more ambivalently. Ian Barbour wrote extensively on Kuhn's paradigms and their relationship to theological epistemology in his book Myths, Models, and Paradigms.32 He sees much value in Kuhn's work but like Hiebert (who cites Barbour and seems to rely on him for key ideas) holds that paradigms are not incommensurable. Yet he states his case with many qualifiers and disclaimers. He states, “All data are theory-laden, but rival theories are not incommensurable. There is no pure observation language; the distinction between theory and observation is relative, pragmatic and context-dependent.”33 He calls a shift between paradigms, “something rather like a `gestalt switch.'”34 His view is more like Kuhn's than it is unlike it. He does articulate some “criteria of assessment” to be used in evaluating paradigms (much like Kuhn's listed above). These criteria are not very rigid in that they cannot verify or falsify. “Theories and programmes, then, are not verified or falsified, but assessed by a variety of criteria. . . the assessment is an act of personal judgment.”35

In applying Kuhnian reasoning to Christianity, Barbour comes to some troubling conclusions. He describes Biblical history in terms of “myths” which find their value in the consciousness of the religious community which uses them to order their experience. A myth is a “story which is taken to manifest some aspect of the cosmic order.”36 Since many Biblical accounts are considered mythological, the meaning of these “myths” is found more in the religious community than in any objective, revelation of truth by the supernatural intervention of God.

If a myth is defined as a story in which some aspect of the cosmic order is manifest, then the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam must be said to include myths. For in them one finds stories of God's creation, judgment, deliverance, incarnation, and so forth; and these stories offer ways of ordering experience and patterns for human action and ritual re-enactment.37

This fits with Kuhn's lessened view of one's ability objectively to know the truth and objectively share truth in a concrete and changeless way with other persons. Truth involves “stories” that impress themselves on the consciousness of a religious community. Barbour states, “Divine action is in itself no more directly observable in history than in primordial time or in nature.[nt. 21]”38 The end note referenced in this quotation is to Joseph Campbell's Myth's, Dreams and Religion, 1970. Joseph Campbell has since become quite popular in ways not compatible with evangelical Christianity.

Barbour uses the term “critical realism” to describe his epistemology. Since our perception of reality does not have a one to one correspondence to reality, there is a problem. The resolution of the problem is critical realism in which one “. . . tries to acknowledge both the creativity of man's mind and the existence of patterns in events not created by man's mind. Descriptions of nature are human constructions but nature is such as to bear description in some ways and not others.”39 The use of models is necessary to describe the world symbolically, but “No direct comparison of model and world is possible.”40 When relating models (mental constructs of reality) to religion, Barbour relies on liberal theologian John Hick and his phrase “experiencing as,” though changing it slightly. “Although I agree with Hick's general position, it seems to me preferable to use the expression `interpreting as' rather than `experiencing as.'”41 The idea that all experience is “interpreted” is central to his thesis. Many subjective and some objective factors enter the process of interpretation. Yet he asserts, “. . . we are given not revealed propositions, but a human record of historical events understood to have involved both man and God. The locus of God's action is not the dictation of an inerrant book, but the lives of individuals and communities.”42

The discussion of paradigms and Christianity must ultimately deal with the issue of Biblical authority. If one's understanding of observable phenomena in nature is so colored by the process of perception (subjective factors) that truth that can be mutually understood and communicated (even across time and culture barriers) is unaccessible, then the claims of the Biblical writers (and Jesus) must be false. Why would one “earnestly contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints,” (Jude 3) if the faith were only a paradigm, a mental construct of reality that is relative to the perception and interpretation of the observer? Whatever else can be said about this, clearly the Biblical writers did not understand things to be as Kuhn, Barbour, and Hiebert view them. They really believed that they unequivocally knew the truth.

Apparently Ian Barbour sees himself as moving in a middle ground between subjectivism and a naivety that wrongly supposes that one's views are extensions of reality. He seeks to be more optimistic than Kuhn in the ability to judge between rival paradigms. Concerning religion, we need models to understand and express religious experience, models contain myths, and models lead to beliefs. Religious beliefs can be tested, but are more resistant to verification or falsification than scientific theories. There are “criteria” for making decisions about religious matters. “But in the choice between paradigms, the application of these criteria is even more indirect, ambiguous, and debatable in religion than in science.”43 The repeated assertion that all experience is interpreted leads to the following statements that have huge ramifications if accepted:

If there is no uninterpreted experience, there can be no immediate religious knowledge, no `self-authenticating' awareness of God, no incorrigible intuition for which finality can be claimed. For when interpretation is present there is always the possibility of misinterpretation, especially through wishful thinking which reads into experience more than is warranted. Nor can there be any certain inference from experience to a being who is its independent cause.44

What does this do to the inspiration of Scripture, the miracles of Jesus, the virgin birth, or the bodily resurrection of Christ from the dead? One must wonder why so many have been willing to be martyred rather than give up their mental perceptions that cannot be demonstrated to be based on the truth. According to this view only elusive “criteria” for evaluation can adjudicate rival religious claims, yet Scripture's self-understanding is that it communicates truth, valid history and timeless propositions (Hebrews 1:1,2 and many others).

Where this leads Ian Barbour himself is troubling - to what he calls “The Christian Paradigm.”45 There are competing models of God and the nature of Christ that can make up the Christian paradigm, depending on which we choose. The significance of Christ's death is subject to various models (penal substitute, sacrificial victim, liberator, moral example).46 These “might be considered complementary” but this is uncertain. Models of God are monarchial, deistic, dialogic and agent.47 Barbour prefers a fifth model, that proposed by Alfred North Whitehead, that God is, “a society of which one member is pre-eminent but not absolute.”48 Process theology is the “Christian paradigm”! “But I will propose instead that, if the process model is given priority, then nature, man and God can all be coherently represented; the other models would then serve secondary roles in thinking about particular interactions with the more inclusive process model.”49 The world view espoused herein is panentheism. The world is part of God but not the whole of God.

Either Ian Barbour has correctly understood Kuhn's paradigm thesis and correctly applied it to the epistemological issues of religion or he has not. If he has there are some real problems for Christian theism. How can we believe a Christ who claimed to be “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) if He is an “exemplar,” a model of various views of God present in the consciousness of the religious community? Evangelicals have real problems if the concept of paradigms leads to panentheism. If Barbour has wrongly understood or applied Kuhn, those who also rely on Kuhn (such as Paul Hiebert) need to show what is wrong with Barbour's method that leads him to process theology and panentheism. This is especially true since Barbour sees himself as modifying Kuhn's position in ways that will make paradigms commensurable and more testable against reality. The other option is that Kuhn and Barbour are both wrong and it is possible for a person to come to the knowledge of the truth apart from myths, models of mental construct, or paradigms.

Hans Küng used Kuhn's paradigm idea to analyze church history and propose ways to understand current situations in Christian religion and hopefully envision a new paradigm that would bring things into unity. He presented his views at a symposium at Tübingen in 1983. The purpose of the symposium was to, “find a new paradigm that could gather the best insights of the biblical studies of the modern period along with the understanding of the world, history, and human existence available to us through all of the academic disciplines.”50 Church history was analyzed from the perspective of paradigms being established through eruptions in the church. According to Richard Rhem, Küng sees five paradigms presently functioning: Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholic traditionalism, Protestant orthodoxy, Liberalism, and Dialectical Theology.51 Rhem lists several attributes that Hans Küng sees as crucial to the new paradigm. “Such a paradigm, Küng contends, must be truthful, not conformist or opportunist; free, not authoritarian; critical, not fundamentalist or traditionalist; ecumenical, not denominationalist or confessionalist.”52 Other attributes are added such as “both catholic and evangelical, both traditional and contemporary, both Christocentric and universalist, both theoretical-scholarly and practical-pastoral.53 In other words, it would be all things to all Christians.

Whether such a paradigm can be adequately described, much less placed in operation, it does not fit Kuhn's description of paradigms. Kuhn's paradigms comprise the theories, beliefs and basic operating principles that are shared as givens by a particular practicing community. By nature the type of paradigm described by Thomas Kuhn is not ecumenical. Such a broad paradigm would not serve the purpose of giving accepted answers to basic theoretical questions, serving as a base for further research and the “puzzle solving” of normal science. Christians who believe in Biblical authority would not share a paradigm, if the term is to be used in Kuhnian fashion, with those who do not. Their epistemology is different and their world view is different in key ways.

Another Christian who sees positive value in Thomas Kuhn's paradigm thesis is Gordon Charles Nagayama Hall. Hall takes Jean Piaget's theory of child development and self-awareness and links it to epistemological concerns of science and theology.54 He esoterically suggests, “A mature epistemology in a Piagetian schema would be analogous to formal operations in which divergent paradigms could be integrated in a decentrated gestalt.55 He cites both Barbour and Kuhn. He (as Hiebert) is fond of Barbour's idea of “critical realism.”56 His key contention is that our concept of reality is not an exact description of reality. This seems to me to be merely a tautology, but to these authors it is a huge problem for a Christian's epistemology. Christian theism acknowledges that only God in His omniscience sees and knows everything as it really is. This does not preclude us from knowing “truth” or being recipients of God's general and special revelation. There are better ways of describing this issue than incommensurable paradigms or relativistic views of knowledge. I will write more on that latter.

One problem with Hall's thesis is that he seems to miss Kuhn's main point about paradigms. He states, “Each new theory in a paradigm shift moves away from the assertion of its own absoluteness. . . For a new theory to become accepted, it must not remain a private enterprise, but is offered to the scrutiny of the scientific community.”57 However, Kuhn insisted that paradigms were held by a various smaller groups within the larger scientific community, that they are incommensurable, thus not open for objective scrutiny of the scientific community, and that the practitioners within a community operating in a paradigm took its major theories to be valid scientific achievements. In that sense an accepted theory that is part of a paradigm always asserts it absoluteness. If this were not so , it could not serve its purpose of being the basis for doing “normal science.”

The theories within a paradigm are pedagogically taught (according to Kuhn) to those being trained in a particular school of thought. The idea of holding one's theory (or world view, paradigm, model of reality) loosely and being critically realistic about it does not fit Kuhn's description of normal science. For example, those who operated within Newtonian physics did not do so with the idea that Newton's laws were probably wrong, lacking, or inadequately describing they way things really are. Just the opposite was true. They may have been wrong but surely they did not think they were wrong! It was their very confidence that they were right that fueled the research and “puzzle solving” that characterizes normal science. It seems to me that Hall totally misses Kuhn's point.

He also noticed Kuhn's use of the term “faith.” “Kuhn further suggests that theories are adopted on the faith that they will succeed under experimental conditions. This method of science does not appear incompatible with the theological element of faith, and may suggest at least an analogous common ground for both disciplines.”58 I believe this statement trivializes Biblical faith by making it analogous to an intuitive guess. Biblical faith has an object (God) who has spoken objectively and propositionally to us. Biblical faith did not come about because of a human experiment with religion, but because God acted conclusively in history! Those modern evangelicals who see hope in that science is becoming more subjectively understood and less epistemologically optimistic evidently assume that Biblical truth had always lacked objective evidence and certainty of knowledge. They rejoice because science is now coming “down” to our level. Science has indeed been the latest human endeavor to drop below Francis Schaeffer's “line of despair.”59 However, in doing so it has not thereby joined Biblical Christianity.

As Schaeffer suggests, the knowledge of the truth as revealed by God in time and space is the only hope for a unified field of knowledge. He asserts, “Therefore in the biblical position there is the possibility of verifiable facts involved: a personal God communicating in verbalized form propositionally to man - not only concerning those things man would call in our generation `religious truths,' but also down into the areas of history and science.”60 Schaeffer identifies “autonomy” as the ultimate reason for epistemological despair. Humankind sought to divorce nature from grace and explore and understand nature within a closed system. It seems to me that the concept of autonomy should get more attention from contemporary evangelicals who are exploring these matters.

Gordon C. Nagayama Hall concludes his article, “Like the new young scientists responsible for paradigm shifts as described by Kuhn (1970), epistemology must proceed by seeking novelty without considering any system as final. In Piaget's (1976) framework, paradigms should assimilatively develop their own knowledge while accommodating in dialogue to the discoveries of the larger community of inquirers, combining and harmonically integrating diverse perspectives.”61 Whatever else this is, it is not how Kuhn described the working of either normal science or paradigm shifts. If one could objectively stand above and beyond one's paradigm and examine all other paradigms, taking from each the truths therein and leaving behind the errors, such a one would thereby put an end to science as Kuhn described it because the new paradigm would be the best and all others obsolete. Kuhn assumes we do not have the capabilities to doing this. If, however, the new paradigm was held very tentatively and suspiciously as suggested, then it would not do its job of providing a stable set of answered questions from which to work. Critical realism as outlined here does not follow Thomas Kuhn's work in a manner consistent with its supposed dependence on it.

Another contemporary evangelical, Lesslie Newbigin, references Thomas Kuhn and paradigms in a discussion of epistemology.62 Newbigin seems less positive about the value and pertinence of Kuhn to this discussion, but still sees an analogy. He states, “Whatever valid criticism may be made of Kuhn, however, he does demonstrate that shifts such as that from the physics of Newton to that of Einstein do not arise from any step-by-step reasoning from within the presuppositions of the earlier view but from a new vision that calls for a kind of conversion.”63 He then makes the point that the new paradigm can rationally understand the old, which seems to me to be valid.

He interacts with the analogy of the “hermeneutical circle” (which I consider a sound analogy), seeing problems with it. The problem he sees is in the means by which one leaves his or her old view of reality as an unbeliever and becomes a part of the family of faith. “On the one side, Jesus is the one who subverts true religion and contradicts ordinary rationality; on the other, he is the center and the source of all truth. . . And those on this side of the boundary are not those who have been able to make a sort of gigantic hermeneutical leap but those who have been chosen and called - not of their own will - to be the witnesses of Jesus to the world.”64 He states, “The Bible comes into our hands as the book of a community, and neither the book nor the community are properly understood except in their reciprocal relationship with each other.”65 The description of this relationship is: “Every Christian reader comes to the Bible with the spectacles provided by the tradition that is alive in the community to which he or she belongs, and that tradition is being constantly modified as each new generation of believers endeavors to be faithful in understanding and living out Scripture. This is the hermeneutical circle operating within the believing community.”66

Here John Calvin's famous spectacle analogy67 that he used to describe the focused vision that occurs when one views general revelation after receiving the Holy Spirit as compared to the fuzzy vision of the unbeliever observing the same created universe is used to compare views of theology within the community of faith. Newbigin's “spectacles,” unlike Calvin's, shade one's view of the truth rather than focusing it more clearly. The community interprets (like Barbour's “interpreting as”) truth from its own framework. Though retaining more objectivity than Barbour, Newbigin nevertheless echoes common themes of liberalism and neo-orthodoxy. The religious community experiencing revelation and interpreting “religious narrative,” and such phrases are found continually in their writings. Conservative evangelicals are more likely to quote Scripture and state “God said,” and draw conclusions based on propositional statements of truth found in Scripture.

Newbigin cites Hans Frei and his notion of “realistic narrative” favorably68 and makes some conclusions. “The way in which we must read Scripture today is controlled by the fact that we are, from moment to moment in the complex events of our time, dealing with and being dealt with by the same living God who meets us in Scripture, seeking his will, offering our obedience, accepting the share he allots to us of suffering, and looking for the final victory of his cause.” This does not sound bad (especially if one is neo-orthodox); but some startling conclusions follow:

We can never claim that either our understanding or our action is absolutely right. We have no way of proving that we are right. That kind of proof belongs only to the end. As part of the community that shares in the struggle, we open ourselves continually to Scripture, always in company with our fellow disciples of this and former ages and in the context of the struggle for obedience; and we constantly find in it fresh insights into the character and purpose of the one who is “rendered” for us in its pages.69

This seems to me quite relativistic and not entirely incompatible with Kuhn's understanding of paradigms within the community of practitioners. The problem for the Christian who adopts this epistemology is: how does one determine who composes this “community”? Are all nominal Christians a part of it? What about Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Moonies, all who claim to be “Christian.” This approach creates a hopeless circle. We need the Scripture to define the community; but if we are in a community (suppose the Jehovah Witnesses for example) that decides the correct interpretation of Scripture in its self-definition, we cannot discover that we are not really in the true community of faith. Thus those in cults would be hopelessly locked into their system because Scripture could not function as an objective guide from beyond the community to correct its false understandings of Christianity. This is why Christian theology must be a hermeneutical endeavor that is based upon universal norms of language and utterance that are sharable and translatable even across language and cultural barriers.

Without an objective understanding based on a valid, propositional, changeless, normative, timeless, and clearly defined revelation from God, it is hopeless even to determine with what “community” we are supposed to experience this “struggle.” Newbigin's position seems to suffer from the same relativism as that of others who see validity in Kuhn's paradigms. Newbigin asserts (in a discussion of the resurrection as understandable to modern views of reality), “To suppose that some kind of rationally conclusive `proof' of one position or the other might be available now is to misunderstand the human situation.”70

Paul discussed this issue with some philosophers in Athens. His concluding remarks were: “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead. Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, `We shall hear you again concerning this.'” (Acts 17:30-31). However, some were convinced, “But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.” (Acts 17:34). The resurrection of Jesus Christ did not quite fit the paradigm of these philosophers (as shown by their rude response) but this did not stop Paul from declaring it to be “proof.” This proof extends to all “men,” (i.e. humans) despite their paradigm! It is so understandable and conclusive that it binds all people everywhere to its claims and leaves them facing certain judgment if it is rejected or ignored. At least, Paul's view is far less relativistic than those outlined thus far in this paper.

Opposing Views

I shall now leave the description of modern theological views that see merit in Kuhn's paradigm thesis and at least partially incorporate it into their epistemology. Several articles have appeared in theological journals that have disagreed with Kuhn and the application of his paradigm thesis to theology. I will not take the time or space to describe these articles in detail as I have those who agree with Kuhn. For one thing, they spend much time summarizing and describing Kuhn's theory, which I have already done. Arthur J. Moen's article is well done and I have already referred to it. He makes several conclusions about relativism that are well taken. One is, “Finally, relativism is capable of embracing contradiction without embarrassment, for propositional `truth' in a relativist scheme does not and cannot imply propositional falsehood.”71 His final two sentences are poignant! - “The ultimate paradox is that if religion is really just a matter of adopting one set of perpetual blinders rather than another on relativist `grounds,' then dialogue is at an end and we are all insane to imagine that it can go on. But the relativist, poor soul, is the most insane of us all, for he wishes to argue for his insanity.”72

Cordell Strug discusses the possible gains and losses for the philosophy of religion in adopting Kuhn's view. One possible “gain” would be the transcending of the “verification-falsification issue.”73 Of course, this is only a gain if theistic truth claims are not considered subject to verification. Strug does issue some pertinent warnings about Kuhn and his theory. One is that it is often misunderstood and misused by some who apply it to religion.74 Another is that the Christianity has a sense of “permanence of belief” that has no place in Kuhn's paradigm thesis.75 He too has a piercing conclusion: “No philosopher, from Descartes to Kuhn, who has used science as a model of understanding, has ever produced a description of human knowledge which has not (a) been misunderstood by religious philosophers and (b) been ultimately destructive, to a greater or less degree, of their beliefs. If religion needs a reliable crutch, it will have to look elsewhere for one.”76 Based on the research I have done, I think Strug has correctly assessed the situation. As I have sought to show, many theological applications of Kuhn use his paradigm idea in ways not in keeping with his definitions of it.

Paul Helm writes about Kuhn's philosophy regarding its possible use as a philosophy of science for Christians. He sees Kuhn's main problems as the notion of incommensurability77 and relying too heavily upon history than objective standards of rationality.78 He considers Kuhn to espouse relativism and concludes that his theory ought not to be attractive to Christians.79

An Alternative to Paradigms and Relativism

At issue in this debate is the degree to which our present view of reality determines how we perceive data from the “real” world (the one God created). As I read Kuhn, I was struck by an example from a psychological experiment that he cited to show the effects of one's “paradigm” on his or her perception of facts. The example is that of the anomalous playing cards. “In a psychological experiment that deserves to be far better known outside the trade, Bruner and Postman asked experimental subjects to identify on short and controlled exposure a series of playing cards. Most of the cards were normal, but some were anomalous, e.g. a red six of spades and a black four of hearts.”80 The point of the experiment was to see how people responded to a totally unexpected phenomenon. The results were that “. . .the anomalous cards were almost always identified, without apparent hesitation or puzzlement, as normal.”81 This was what happened upon initial exposure. However, this is not the end of the experiment. “Further increase of exposure resulted in still more hesitation and confusion until finally, and sometimes quite suddenly, most subjects would produce the correct identification without hesitation.”82 Some subjects continued to fail to make correct identification over many exposures. They became quite distressed.

Kuhn makes the following applications of this experiment to scientific discovery:

Either as a metaphor or because it reflects the nature of the mind, that psychological experiment provides a wonderfully simple and cogent schema for the process of scientific discovery. In science as in the playing card experiment, novelty emerges only with difficulty, manifested by resistance, against a background provided by expectation. . . Further acquaintance, however, does result in awareness of something wrong or does relate the effect to something that has gone wrong before. That awareness of anomaly opens a period in which conceptual categories are adjusted until the initially anomalous has become the anticipated. At this point the discovery has been completed.83

I was impressed as I read this with the similarity between this experiment and several Biblical events. Miracles are anomalous in the sense that they are not expected and go against the mutually experienced norms of life. Biblical miracles by nature do not fit with the previously known categories of those who observed them. If they were the norm they would be natural events and not miracles. The response to miracles often fits the observations of the anomalous playing cards experiment. When the disciples first encountered the resurrected Christ, they did not recognize Him as the resurrected Christ (John 20:14) or failed to believe the report (Mark 16:11; Luke 24:11). Other explanations entered their minds first, such as that He was the gardener (John 20:15). Yet each of them eventually was convinced by the evidence, in spite of their lack of expectation and previous experience. Even Thomas, who was the most skeptical, finally believed (John 20:27-29). The Roman soldiers who were witnesses to the resurrection but took money to lie about it rather than to serve the resurrected Lord (Matthew 28:4,12-15) knew what the truth was.

Another example is that of Peter and the household of Cornelius in Acts 10. It was not Peter's expectation or experience that God would save Gentiles. Because of is own prejudice he had missed or ignored the Old Testament Biblical evidence about this and even the Lord's explicit teaching. He was confronted with startling supernatural evidence that was difficult to accept (Acts 10:14). When He preached to these Gentiles and witnessed God giving them the gift of the Holy Spirit, he completely changed his understanding in spite of a lifetime of teaching to the contrary in Judaism. The truth overcame Peter's mental construct of reality, changing him and church history in the process. Other examples such as Jesus walking on the water could be cited.

One can just as readily take the playing card experiment and the Biblical accounts as demonstrating that facts are conclusive and that one's perception of reality, if wrong, can be changed by evidence. If it is apparent that it was God who was revealing His will, truth and purpose through the event, then one could be confident that the truth had been ascertained and not just a new Kuhnian paradigm that inevitably is to be replaced by yet another in an endless and indefinite manner.

I just witnessed a contemporary event that shows this concept. One of our elders retired from his job of over thirty years. His wife and members of the congregation planned a surprise party for him on a Sunday afternoon. The plans were relayed to the congregation by word of mouth. So many evidences that this party was to happen were all around him that we thought the possibility of him really being surprised was non existent. He saw his wife making five pounds of carrot sticks and thought she was just stocking up! During the afternoon, with his house full of dozens of loved ones wishing him well, he described to me evidence that he had seen that this party was to happen, all of which he had explained away in his own mind or ignored. Only after the surprise was sprung on him did he realize the truth. The reason it happened like this was his universal experience over many years of not having had a surprise retirement party. This was the first and only occurrence. This shows that humans do not expect that which does not fit previous experience. It does not, however, prove relativism. This man knows that he had a surprise party, he was convinced by the evidence. The remarkable thing was how much evidence it took - ultimately a house full of people shouting “surprise.”

The experiment Kuhn cited shows people being convinced by evidence (even if they finally had to have someone explain to them what was going on). Ironically Kuhn describes the experiment to give evidence to convince his readers (who he assumes understand his use of the norms of language) of the correctness of his thesis. The writing of books and citing of authorities assumes that evidence will be necessary or conclusive for a reader. Relativism cuts itself off at the knees. The books written to “prove” it serve as proof against it if they are successful in convincing their readers of relativism's “veracity.”

Francis Schaeffer states this idea, “The sobering fact is that the only way one can reject thinking in terms of an antithesis and the rational is on the basis of the rational and the antithesis. . . That is the way God has made us and there is no other way to think. Therefore, the basis of classical logic is that A is not non-A.”84

There are not mutually exclusive, antithetical “truths” existing simultaneously and in the same relationship. A duck is not a rabbit even if a gestalt picture can be constructed that appears to viewers to be either a duck or a rabbit! By his own relativistic terms, it could legitimately be argued that Thomas Kuhn operated in a mental paradigm that caused him to think he saw paradigms in the history of science; but that this was only “his reality” and in another person's paradigmatic “world” science was historically a process of incremental achievements built one upon another. According to relativism, they could both be right. In which case, the writing of books to prove one position or the other would be an superfluous exercise in futility.

The Bible and Verifiable History

Biblical Christianity claims to be based on verifiable evidence. In the following section of 1Corinthians, Paul lays out the basis the faith:

Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as it were to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. . . But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we witnessed against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. (1Corinthians 1:1-8;13-17)

Paul calls faith “worthless” if it is not based on the veracity of the resurrection account. A paradigm that works to solve problems for a group of practitioners for a limited time does not fit with this definition of the faith. A mental construct of a resurrection is not the same as a real resurrection. A resurrection that cannot nor need not be verified, but solves problems for a community of religious people is not the resurrection upon which the apostle is basing his hope of salvation. Paul understands this historical event to have been verified, and uses propositional statements and “if-then” logical deductions in his reasoning. The message of this passage is incongruous with the statements and theologizing of the liberal and neo-orthodox writers who apply Kuhnian thinking to the philosophy of religion.

One could argue that the Bible is in error, that Paul is deluded and that Christianity has no basis in reality; but one cannot claim that Biblical Christianity is valid on existential or relativistic grounds only. Paul, who did so much to define the doctrines of Christianity in his epistles, clearly would put a mythological faith in the category of a “worthless” faith. Either Christ is raised from the dead (according to Scripture and credible eyewitnesses) or He is not. There is no tertium quid of the paradigmatic sort.

The Biblical alternative to relativism does rest on certain criteria. Even as Kuhn and Barbour listed “criteria” for evaluating paradigms, propositional truth revealed in Scripture and understood hermeneutically also has certain presuppositions. R.C. Sproul, John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley list these in their book on apologetics. “The three basic assumptions are:

1. The validity of the law of noncontradiction

2. The validity of the law of causality

3. The basic reliability of sense perception”85

Unlike Kuhn's criteria, these are basic to the validity of rationality itself. The authors do a convincing job of describing these basic principles and showing how human knowledge is dependent on their validity.86 They conclude, “The triad of the law of noncontradiction, the law of causality, and the basic reliability of sense perception is integral to all knowledge. Their forced and temporary denials take place in the courts of subjectivism.”87

Francis Schaeffer makes a similar case in his writings. Though he claims to be a presuppostionalist,88 he uses very similar arguments to those of the classical apologists cited above. For example, he writes,

I want to suggest that scientific proof, philosophical proof and religious proof follow the same rules. . . After the question has been defined, in each case proof consists of two steps: A. The theory must be non-contradictory and must give an answer to the phenomenon in question. B. We must be able to live consistently with our theory. For example, the answer given to the chemical reaction must conform to what we observe in the test tube.89

Each of the three basic assumptions of Sproul and his co-authors can be seen in this statement: non-contradiction, an answer to the phenomenon (causality) and the validity of perceptions. I think this understanding is a correct and necessary foundation to avoid the relativism, subjectivism, and epistemological despair of Kuhn and his theological followers.

Ultimate Reality and One's “Paradigm”

The primary argument of those who see validity in Kuhn's philosophy as a basis for Christian epistemology is that of ultimate reality. As I previously outlined, they show that our understanding of reality does not have a one to one correlation with reality. This can be evidenced by looking into quantum physics, relativity, astronomy, or even spiritual matters. Since we are finite and even the finite universe is of so much detail and complexity that we cannot possibly penetrate its ultimate truths, then certainly we cannot claim to know the truth. All language of God, since He is infinite and we finite, must be analogous in some way. Thus we cannot claim truly to know God (according to this thinking).

As previously described, the resolution of this problem is seen to be “critical realism,” in which we believe that there is such a thing as truth and reality, but admit that we know it only in a provisional or relative way. This critical understanding of reality is good enough to give some guidance, like a road map would give guidance, though not a real picture of the world.90 On the surface this all seems plausible, but there are major problems with the critical realism of Hall, Barbour, Hiebert, Schilling,91 and others. For one thing, it denies, de facto, the basic reliability of one's sense perceptions. It sets up an “either-or” fallacy in which we are forced to claim foolishly to have the absolute knowledge that only God can have or accept the relativistic position of the authors in question.

Also, two maps could be constructed of the same perceived reality that are contradictory in many ways yet still supposedly valid. A map showing I-94 from Minneapolis to St. Cloud could be drawn with a straight line, showing only the exits necessary and serve the same purpose as a very detailed, geographically accurate map. Does it matter what the truth is? - not to the pragmatist. Perceptually, A could be non-A and the law of noncontradiction broken.

Most who use the term “critical realism” and the reasoning behind it give lists of various epistemological positions such as idealism, instrumentalism, positivism, determinism, etc. Paul Hiebert particularly focuses on “naive idealism/realism”92 as a commonly held position by Christians. It seems that we naively think that our theologies are “true” or have a one to one correspondence with reality. Because the alternatives to critical realism are described in terms that make them unacceptable to evangelical Christians, we seem forced to “naively” accept the critical realist position even though its primary developers (Barbour, Schilling) are quite liberal in ways not acceptable to most evangelicals.

I suggest that the problem is a wrong definition of the issues. Even very conservative Christians are not claiming exhaustive truth, or a totally comprehensive understanding of God or even the created universe. Francis Schaeffer writes, “To know anything exhaustively we should need to be infinite, as God. Even in heaven we shall not be this.”93 However, this should not cause despair: “Therefore in the biblical position there is the possibility of verifiable facts involved: a personal God communicating in verbalized form propositionally to man -not only concerning those things man would call in our generation `religious truths', but also down into the areas of history and science.”94 Throughout his writings, Schaeffer asserts that rationalism leads to despair because of autonomy. This I think is a much better description than that of naivety versus criticalism (as defined in relationship to Kuhn's thesis which de facto gives us “relativistic realism”).

The categories would then be autonomous realism or dependent realism. This more adequately describes the alternatives from a Biblical perspective on humanity. Francis Schaeffer used the term “Christian realism.”95 One need not resort to positivism, idealism, nor naive fundamentalism. We realize that reason and rationality are valid, but have been influenced by the Fall. This does not mean that unbelievers cannot make rational statements nor that Christians always reason and act rationally. It means that all of humanity by nature is in a state of autonomy and thus cut of from the only hope of knowing the truth, objective revelation by God. Schaeffer continues, “Finite man in the external universe, being finite, has no sufficient reference point if he begins absolutely and autonomously from himself and thus needs certain knowledge. God gives is this in Scriptures. With this in mind the scientist can understand, in their ultimate relationships, the truths that he is looking at.”96

Calvin's famous spectacles go on when we switch from the state of autonomy to that of dependence by confessing Christ as the resurrected Lord and Savior of our life. Then the epistemological despair is dissipated with a sure and certain knowledge of the truth. The fact that as creatures this is dependent rather than absolute knowledge does not bother us because we know God, who is true in all the fullness of reality that can be. I agree with Schaeffer that the root problem is autonomy, that autonomy leads to rationalism, and that rationalism finally leads to despair. The result of despair is the irrational, blind leap of faith.

Schaeffer identifies this leap as a shift in epistemology that is characteristic of existentialism:

But as Kierkegaard, with his leap, opened the door to existentialism in general, so Karl Barth opened the door to the existentialistic leap in theology. As in other disciplines, the basic issue is the shift in epistemology. . . it is the struggle of modern man who has given up a unified field of knowledge. As far as the theologians are concerned, they have separated religious truth from contact with science on the one hand and history on the other. Their new system is not open to verification, it must simply be believed.97

Thomas Kuhn extended the non-verifiability problem to the last hold out of objectivity, the hard sciences. In so doing he seems to have provided autonomous humanity with a unified field of “knowledge,” but it could more aptly be termed a “field of despair.” All human endeavors now are considered paradigm dependent and incommensurable with truth and reality.

A Christian View of Reality

John starts his first epistle: “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life-- and the life was manifested, and we have seen and bear witness and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us-- what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, that you also may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.” (1John 1:1-3)

Clearly the Biblical writers did not view life relativistically. If they were in a Kuhnian paradigm, soon to be overthrown by a revolution, they were oblivious to the fact. If one's paradigm is comprised of those beliefs that are basic and determinative of their view of reality, then the existence of an eternal, non-contingent Creator, the authority of Scripture, the Deity of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, and justification by faith (others could be added) must comprise the paradigm of an evangelical Christian. If such a Christian experienced a “paradigm shift,” to what would he or she shift? Also, since these truths comprise what Biblical Christianity is in its essential nature, it would no longer be appropriate for one who shifted from this “paradigm” to continue to use the term “Christian” as self-descriptive. If we know anything absolutely, we know that these truths will not change because they have been revealed once for all by the changeless God.

The hermeneutical circle is the idea in hermeneutics that the norms of utterance taken as a whole comprise the norms of language. The norms of language are determined and understood by an overview of the particulars, the particulars are understood by their relationship to the whole. Systematic theology is like that. We come to Christ with perhaps only the understanding gained through the hearing of the message of the cross (Romans 10, 1Corinthians 1). Having believed this message and submitted to Christ as Creator, Redeemer and Lord, we also acknowledge His specific revelation in Scripture. The veracity of Scripture can also be demonstrated objectively in many ways as is done in classical apologetics. The essence of the whole (Creation, Redemption, etc.) helps us interpret the parts, even as the parts contribute to understanding the whole in greater depth. Thus theology is deductive (judging the particulars from the perspective of the whole) and inductive (strengthening and systematizing the understanding of the whole through the particulars being correctly understood). This is the alternative to relativism and epistemological despair. We simultaneously know the truth (John 8:32) and are growing in the knowledge of the truth (John 8:31) through a dependent, discipleship relationship with the Eternal Logos, Jesus Christ.


The Biblical view is in stark contrast to the modern, post-modern, “modern, modern,” or whatever else one prefers to call it world. In this world view, personal and incommensurable paradigms (mental constructs of reality - what Kuhn's paradigms in fact are) are the prevalent understanding of epistemology. This spans New Age religion (which has enthusiastically integrated the paradigm notion), para-psychology, psychology proper, liberal and neo-orthodox theology, sociology, the “hard” sciences, politics, and many other human endeavors. Only engineering and technology seem to ignore these philosophical matters and plunge ahead making seeming progress as if science, observation, rationality, etc., were indeed valid. Some in these fields have personally embraced the New Age philosophy and yet operate in their professions as if the law of non-contradiction, causality and the reliability one's perceptions were valid. This schizophrenia will not last long. If relativism continues to prevail, I wonder how the West can avoid the consequences that this type of thinking has brought to India where it has been the prevalent view for centuries.

This “new” concept of reality has its roots in the Fall, where the first humans succumbed to the temptation to “be like God” (Genesis 3:5). By revolting from dependence on God for knowledge of the truth and validity of perception in God's created universe (they had the freedom to identify and name the animals - Genesis 2:19), they opened the door of autonomous possibilities. “Knowledge,” illicit and enticing, could be had without dependence on God. The reason this is so exciting is that it gives us the seeming opportunity to create our own “reality.” By “escaping” the law of noncontradiction we can be “god” and creature simultaneously. By creating and choosing our own mental “world,” we can hopefully escape the despair of nihilism that is the ultimate, logically deduced philosophy of autonomous humanity. By denying rationality we can “escape from reason,” to use the title of Schaeffer's book and be the god of our own paradigmatic creation. In this mental world of illusion, gestalt switches, and paradigm shifts, one need not be challenged by God's world or anyone else's. In that sense the result is solipsism.

I do not think that this was particularly in Thomas Kuhn's mind as he wrote his book on the history and philosophy of science, but he struck a resonant cord across the spectrum of modern, human thinking. It came along at the right time to create a revolution, or more accurately, to describe the epistemology of a revolution that was already beginning. It has since spread into all aspects of life.

Thomas Kuhn's paradigm thesis may serve some purpose in historically analyzing the development of modern science. It does not, however, serve any good purpose in providing the epistemological foundation of Biblical Christianity. That foundation has already been laid, once for all. Thomas Kuhn's thesis embraces relativism in ways that will prove seriously damaging to Christian theology if adopted as its epistemological basis.

End Notes

  1. Thomas S. Kuhn; THE STRUCTURE OF SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTIONS, second edition (Chicago:The University of Chicago Press, 1970) viii.
  2. ibid. 10.
  3. ibid. 36,37.
  4. ibid. 2,3.
  5. ibid. 2.
  6. ibid. 62,63.
  7. ibid. 77.
  8. ibid. 78.
  9. ibid. 79.
  10. ibid. 176,178.
  11. ibid. 4.
  12. Paul Hiebert, “Epistemological Foundations For Science and Theology,” Theological Students Fellowship Bulletin, (March/April 1985) 9.
  13. ibid. 6.
  14. Arthur J. Moen, “Paradigms, Language Games, and Religious Belief,” Christian Scholar's Review, Vol 9 N. 1 (1979) 19.
  15. Kuhn, 148.
  16. ibid. 150.
  17. ibid.
  18. ibid. 151.
  19. Hiebert, 6.
  20. ibid. 5.
  21. Kuhn, 170.
  22. ibid. 172.
  23. ibid. 173.
  24. ibid.
  25. ibid. 200.
  26. ibid. 199.
  27. ibid. 206,207.
  28. ibid. 206.
  29. ibid.
  30. ibid.
  31. ibid. 158.
  32. Ian G. Barbour, Myths, Models, and Paradigms, first edition, (New York: Harper & Row, 1974).
  33. ibid. 113.
  34. ibid.
  35. ibid. 116.
  36. ibid. 20.
  37. ibid. 22,23.
  38. ibid. 23.
  39. ibid. 37.
  40. ibid. 38.
  41. ibid. 53.
  42. ibid. 134.
  43. ibid. 143.
  44. ibid. 122,123.
  45. ibid. the title of chapter 8.
  46. ibid. 154,155.
  47. ibid. 155.
  48. ibid. 161.
  49. ibid. 166.
  50. Richard A. Rhem, “Theological Method: The Search for a New Paradigm in a Pluralistic Age,” Reformed Review Vol. 39 No. 3 (Spring 1986), page 243.
  51. ibid.
  52. ibid.
  53. ibid.
  54. Gordon Charles Nagayama Hall, “An Integration of Science and Theology in a Piagetian Epistemology,” Journal of Psychology and Theology, Vol. 8 (Winter 1980).
  55. ibid. 296.
  56. ibid. 297.
  57. ibid. 299.
  58. ibid.
  59. Francis A. Schaeffer, The God Who is There, (Downers Grove: IVP, 1968) pages 15,16.
  60. ibid. 92.
  61. Hall, 301.
  62. Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,1986) 52.
  63. ibid.
  64. ibid. 53.
  65. ibid. 55.
  66. ibid. 56.
  67. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, (London: James Clark and Co., 1953) reprinted section in Millard J. Erickson, Editor Readings in Christian Theology Vol 1 The Living God, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1973) 150.
  68. Newbigin, 59.
  69. ibid. 60.
  70. ibid. 64.
  71. Moen, 29.
  72. ibid.
  73. Cordell Strug, “Kuhn's Paradigm Thesis: A Two-edged Sword for the Philosophy of Religion,” Religious Studies, Vol. 20 #2 (June 1984) 273.
  74. ibid. 277, 278.
  75. ibid. 278.
  76. ibid. 279.
  77. Paul Helm, “Is there a Preferred Philosophy of Science for Christians?” Science & Christian Belief, Vol. 2 No. 1 (April 1990) 10.
  78. ibid.
  79. ibid. page 13.
  80. Kuhn, 62, 63; referencing J.S. Bruner and Leo Postman, “On the Perception of Incongruity: A Paradigm” Journal of Personality, XVIII (1949), 206-23.
  81. Kuhn, 63.
  82. ibid.
  83. ibid 64.
  84. Francis A. Schaeffer, Escape From Reason, (Downers Grove: IVP, 1968) 35.
  85. R.C. Sproul, John Gerstner, & Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics, (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1984) 72.
  86. ibid. 72-90.
  87. ibid. 90.
  88. Schaeffer, God Who is There, 15.
  89. ibid. 109.
  90. Hiebert, 7.
  91. Harold K. Schilling, The New Consciousness in Science and Religion, (Chicago: SCM Press, 1973).
  92. Hiebert, 6,7.
  93. Schaeffer, God Who is There, 96.
  94. ibid. 92.
  95. ibid. page 46.
  96. ibid. 93.
  97. ibid. 54.

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