#6 Having faith in past theories and concepts is necessary for having faith in future ones

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn, pages 144-210

There are at least two things on my mind from reading the last pages of Kuhn’s book. First, is the idea of faith. Kuhn says that any adopter of a new paradigm, or at least that of a skeptical investigator of anomalies, requires faith (p. 157-158). One must have faith in the potential of new methods to solve problems the previous paradigm could not. I find this concept of faith, however, to be a bit disturbing considering scientists do not appear, to me anyway, to be people of faith. When I hear the word faith, I think of it in religious contexts. Although I don’t have concrete sources to back up what I’m about to say (this is a stream of consciousness after all), my impression of scientists is that they are faith-less, irreligious for the most part. Scientists do not operate on faith; they want hard proof, and, evidence that is open to falsifiability. That which is under study must be confirmed by instruments, standards, and others within the field. They depend on and demand objectivity, not some subjective account of what happened. (Although subjective accounts would be accepted for fields such as phenomenology and other fields in the humanities.) So, when I read Kuhn talking about faith, it makes me wonder how a stereotypical faith-less scientist musters up enough faith to explore alternatives in explaining anomalies within his/her current paradigm. Does this make sense? The faith-less becoming the faithful. I suppose this faith stems from their lack of faith in the old ways. They are forced to become faithful out of necessity. It makes one wonder as well whether anyone from any field who puts forward a new idea is doing so on faith that their idea could be a viable alternative to current ways, albeit backed up by evidence and logical arguments. 

Faith also touches upon Kuhn’s arguments in the book’s postscript. He speaks about the student that learns Newton’s Second Law of Motion, f = ma (p. 187-189). The student will learn the formula by performing problems, but what happens when the student must determine the force, mass, and acceleration of something s/he has never encountered before? The student must improvise, slightly tweaking the original formula to fit the needs of the problem at hand. The point is that the student experiences a gestalt switch; by already knowing f = ma, the tweaking part comes naturally because the base of the formula is set. Thus, it matters not the kind of dynamics one is investigating to understand the motion of its forces; as long as the student knows Newton’s Second Law the rest can be adjusted depending on the skill and innate creativity of the researcher to see the problem with new eyes. In this sense, one must have faith in oneself, one must agonize to get the formula down pat, one must exhaust oneself to extremes. I suppose then that faith in new problem-solving methods and faith in oneself boil down to something deeper: passion. Why would anyone try to crack a particular nut if s/he did not live for it, if they were not consumed and obsessed by the problem and believing that they could indeed solve it. Is there a difference in passion levels between those who continue to hash out the problems du jour and those who investigate inexplicable anomalies within the paradigm? Or does it come down to one’s propensity to gravitate toward greater levels of the unknown?

Another consideration about faith pertains to psychedelics in that psychedelic experiences have been equated to mystical and religious experiences, which also regard matters of faith. People that have had psychedelic, mystical, or religious experiences ask for other people to have faith when hearing what they experienced. It’s difficult for other people to have faith unless those others have had experiences with similar substances or within the same mystical tradition or religion. It’s difficult to have faith in someone else’s subjective experiences, in other words, that are unprovable and unfalsifiable. And even if others do have faith in others’ experiences, they will not know fully what they have faith in for they did not experience the event firsthand. I suppose one reason why some others might have faith in other people’s experiences is if their own life experiences are extremely dire. I’m thinking now of Jesus, claiming to be the son of God (or did other people claim this, not sure), and people believing him. Were these people’s lives so hard, so shit, that they looked up to this pretty switched on guy, super positive, etc. etc., and said, yeah, he must be right, you know what, he is right, I believe everything he says. 

Again, this idea of scientists having faith caught my attention because it seems counterintuitive. As with anything, there is bound to be some overlap. Conversely, there are sure to be religious people, for example in the Catholic Church, that are scientists and are objective in their field. Interesting how they can be objective in scientific pursuits, yet at the same time have faith in Jesus and God. Newton said he did science to prove the existence of God and Rudolph Steiner aimed to scientize the spiritual realms. All this faith and science talk is burning me out, I think this post is done. Please leave a comment below if you’d like to carry on opening this last can of worms…

Kuhn, T. S. (1996/1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (3rd ed.). University of Chicago Press.

Scroll to Top