The man who finished off authority

faith & reason: What implications do the theories of Thomas Kuhn have for contemporary theology? Andrew Brown argues that theology, as much as science, is the prisoner of its time.

Thomas S. Kuhn dies on this page: a man who did as much as anyone to destroy the authority of science. He did not mean to do this. He certainly didn't mean to make Dr George Carey miserable. But that, too, was one of the long-term effects of his great discovery.

Before Kuhn wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, scientists believed that their disciplines progressed logically. Knowledge might stagnate for centuries, as it did in the Middle Ages, but it could not easily regress, and each advance rested on all that had gone before. A faith in this inexorable, logical progress of scientific knowledge remained long after a similar faith in moral progress had been discredited. Indeed, it is possible to find in the writings of Karl Popper, for example, a belief that scientific knowledge was the truest, or purest kind we could have; and much of this prestige derived from the idea that it provided an escape from the fuzziness of human knowledge towards something sharp- edged and reliable.

Kuhn blew that up. He showed that gigantic scientific advances, such as Newtonian physics, or the heliocentric system, do not improve the theories that precede them in a tidy and logical way. They shoulder them aside completely, so that the old problems are not so much solved as replaced by new, productive ones. This does not mean that scientific statements are arbitrary or untrue. But it does show that they are constrained by scientists' imagination, and this, in turn, is constrained by all the assumptions of the culture in which they work. When some great leap of the imagination surmounts these difficulties, it is almost impossible for others who have grown up in the old way of thinking to follow it. Only the young can fully take advantage of the new discoveries. His term for these giant changes, since grossly abused, was a "paradigm shift".

However, it is fair to describe his own work as a paradigm shift, and the effects of this have been working their way through all sorts of disciplines ever since. His work was extended, often in directions which he would have disliked, by philosophers of science such as Paul Feyerabend; but always with the same tendency - to diminish the authority of science as a way of reaching out to non-human forms of wisdom. Even scientists, he showed, were confined within the assumptions of their time. Science could no more be the arbiter of all other knowledge than theology could maintain its position as Queen of the Sciences.

This might seem good news for theology. Theology has been steadily displaced as a source of reliable knowledge about the world since the Middle Ages; and science had been doing much of this displacement. If science turns out to be as socially constrained as poetry, then perhaps we should be looking elsewhere for objective knowledge. You will still find a lot of Christians who argue like this, with varying degrees of subtlety: from those who tell you that "evolution is just a theory" to the Pope, for whom the social conditions of first-century Palestine display the objective truth about human nature and the relations between men and women.

The belief that there must be some knowledge that is not socially conditioned is very deeply implanted in us; and there are many very good reasons for wanting to reject the idea that science or anything else cannot connect with objective truth. This century has probably seen more deliberate lying than any other in history. Against this, the idea that "you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free" is hard to give up. It is probably wrong to give up, too, because "socially constructed" does not mean "unconstrained". Money is socially constructed: that does not mean it does what we want.

Science is socially constructed: but it must still explain the tendency of dropped objects to fall and predict the rate at which they will fall. Theology, too, is socially constructed. It carries with it not merely the thoughts of the theologians who have gone before, but a whole burden of assumptions about the way the world works, whether these are to do with the likelihood of miracles or the degree to which patriarchy or slavery are part of the natural order. Within theology there have been paradigm shifts, just as within science. Yet none of these can claim a privileged position.

It is no use appealing to an objective morality, because - even if it exists - we can only approach it through a shared subjectivity, and it is beyond the power of science, beyond even the power of an Archbishop, to be able to give us that back.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR and Payroll Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This dynamic outsourced contact...

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing