The most important interpreter of science in the second half of the last century was not trained as a philosopher. Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published in 1962, was a physicist who then turned to the history of science. His main tool of understanding – the paradigm – has entered into everyday discourse, often with meanings very different from those that he intended.
Basically, Kuhn saw all scientific activity as taking place (or striving to take place) within a given conceptual framework, something which guides our understanding by setting new problems (Kuhn called them puzzles) and by disallowing certain strategies and methodologies. You can change frameworks, or paradigms, but you cannot do productive science without them.
In my last piece on the relationship between science and religion, I left hanging the problem of how it is that one is to argue that science and religion deal with different issues, asking different questions, offering different solutions, and thus by their very nature not in conflict. Note that this is not the same as saying that religion is right. The ultimate question is whether science shows or could even show that religion is wrong. Of course we know for a fact that science shows that some claims made in the name of religion–the universality of Noah’s Flood for instance–cannot be right. But what about the central issues, like God as Creator and humans as special and the promise of eternal life?
I think Kuhn has something to say to this issue. He always stressed the deeply metaphorical nature of science and indeed often identified paradigms with metaphors. Without necessarily buying into Kuhn’s overall philosophy–I once wrote a whole book (Mystery of Mysteries: Is Evolution a Social Construction?) trying to show that his idealism is inadequate–he certainly has a point about the nature of metaphor.
Take Darwinian evolutionary biology. Through and through it is infused with the metaphor of design. You look at some strange feature of organism –say, the funny plates running along the back of the dinosaur Stegosaurus–and you ask: What is the purpose of those plates? For what end were they designed? And by asking questions such as these, you come up with some pretty good answers. In the Stegosaurus case–based in major part on the similarities with blades found in electric-generating cooling towers–the favored answer today is that they are for heat transfer. They help the cold-blooded brute to heat up in the morning sunshine, and then they help the vegetarian reptile cool off when its fermenting fodder generates too much heat.
As Kuhn emphasized, an example like design (this is my example, not his) directs us to what is an acceptable answer and what is not. It rules out answers like: It just happened. This is why critics of Darwinism, like the late Stephen Jay Gould and the all-too-present Jerry Fodor (whom I have criticized elsewhere in The Chronicle of Higher Education), spend so much time trying to show that organic features are not necessarily design-like. Gould’s notorious argument about “spandrels,” by-products of medieval building processes, was intended to show precisely this.
The other big point is that a metaphor succeeds by putting blinkers on you, just as they do for race horses. It focuses your attention on the job at hand and does not let you get distracted by other things. Suppose I speak of my beloved wife, Lizzie, as a rose. I am referring to her beauty and the constant freshness that dazzles and bewitches me daily. I might also jokingly be referring to the fact that sometimes she is a little bit prickly. (Not the kind of joke I dare make too often.) What I am not talking about are her mathematical abilities or her religious affiliations. It is not that questions about either are meaningless but that I am simply not talking about them when I refer to her as a rose. It’s blinkers all the way down.
Now think about modern science. As students of metaphor know full well–and if you haven’t twigged on to it yet, I am a major enthusiast for the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, especially their Metaphors We Live By–metaphors come layered, as it were. Some are more basic and embracing than others. You have the design metaphor as a “root” metaphor, and then you have submetaphors, say about eating apparatuses as opposed to running apparatuses.
In the case of science as we have known it since the 16th and 17th centuries, the time of the Scientific Revolution, the big root metaphor is that of the machine. As one of the greatest of books on the topic called what happened, we had The Mechanization of the World Picture. Before that, it was the world as an organism that counted. Think of Plato’s Timaeus. But then a new metaphor took over.
The story of the past five hundred years is not entirely straightforward. For a start, machines as we know them have ends. An auto is for traveling distances. An electric chair is fo r… Well, you get the idea. Pretty soon people discovered that taking about ends in this way is not very helpful. Francis Bacon spoke of them (usually called “final causes”) as akin to Vestal Virgins. Decorative but not useful.
So we find that it was the working according to rules or laws, that could be quantified and mathematized, that was emphasized. Ends got dropped. Almost everyone thought that God had designed the machine, but before long, people stopped speaking (as scientists) about God’s purposes. To use a felicitous phrase, God became a “retired engineer.”
For a second, as was stressed above, in the biological sciences, it still made very good sense to talk about ends. The eye exists in order to see. The root exists in order to anchor the plant and supply nutrition. It was the genius of Charles Darwin with his mechanism of natural selection to show how you could have ends that were nevertheless explicable strictly in terms of blind law. In other words, he brought organisms under the machine metaphor. More recently, cognitive scientists have been doing the same for intelligence. To quote Marvin Minsky: “The brain is a computer made of meat.” And what are computers but fancy machines?
No one denies the power of the machine metaphor, although there are always those who would have us return to the world-as-an-organism picture. Most recently, this was the aim of the inventor and scientist James Lovelock with his Gaia hypothesis. (I would say that, under criticism, he has stepped back smartly into the machine metaphor. I am less certain that this is so of his co-enthusiast, cell biologist Lynn Margulis. But ask me more on these questions in about a year’s time when I have finished my book on the topic.)
However, if the machine metaphor rules modern science, then what questions is it simply not allowing scientists to ask? Are these genuine questions? And if they are genuine questions, is it then open for the religious person to try to answer them? It is to these issues that I shall be turning in the next piece in this series.Return to Top