Modern Technology is akin to the Metaphysics of Vedanta


Akhandadhi Das | Aeon Ideas

You might think that digital technologies, often considered a product of ‘the West’, would hasten the divergence of Eastern and Western philosophies. But within the study of Vedanta, an ancient Indian school of thought, I see the opposite effect at work. Thanks to our growing familiarity with computing, virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI), ‘modern’ societies are now better placed than ever to grasp the insights of this tradition.

Vedanta summarises the metaphysics of the Upanishads, a clutch of Sanskrit religious texts, likely written between 800 and 500 BCE. They form the basis for the many philosophical, spiritual and mystical traditions of the Indian sub-continent. The Upanishads were also a source of inspiration for some modern scientists, including Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg, as they struggled to comprehend quantum physics of the 20th century.

The Vedantic quest for understanding begins from what it considers the logical starting point: our own consciousness. How can we trust conclusions about what we observe and analyse unless we understand what is doing the observation and analysis? The progress of AI, neural nets and deep learning have inclined some modern observers to claim that the human mind is merely an intricate organic processing machine – and consciousness, if it exists at all, might simply be a property that emerges from information complexity. However, this view fails to explain intractable issues such as the subjective self and our experience of qualia, those aspects of mental content such as ‘redness’ or ‘sweetness’ that we experience during conscious awareness. Figuring out how matter can produce phenomenal consciousness remains the so-called ‘hard problem’.

Vedanta offers a model to integrate subjective consciousness and the information-processing systems of our body and brains. Its theory separates the brain and the senses from the mind. But it also distinguishes the mind from the function of consciousness, which it defines as the ability to experience mental output. We’re familiar with this notion from our digital devices. A camera, microphone or other sensors linked to a computer gather information about the world, and convert the various forms of physical energy – light waves, air pressure-waves and so forth – into digital data, just as our bodily senses do. The central processing unit processes this data and produces relevant outputs. The same is true of our brain. In both contexts, there seems to be little scope for subjective experience to play a role within these mechanisms.

While computers can handle all sorts of processing without our help, we furnish them with a screen as an interface between the machine and ourselves. Similarly, Vedanta postulates that the conscious entity – something it terms the atma – is the observer of the output of the mind. The atma possesses, and is said to be composed of, the fundamental property of consciousness. The concept is explored in many of the meditative practices of Eastern traditions.

You might think of the atma like this. Imagine you’re watching a film in the cinema. It’s a thriller, and you’re anxious about the lead character, trapped in a room. Suddenly, the door in the movie crashes open and there stands… You jump, as if startled. But what is the real threat to you, other than maybe spilling your popcorn? By suspending an awareness of your body in the cinema, and identifying with the character on the screen, we are allowing our emotional state to be manipulated. Vedanta suggests that the atma, the conscious self, identifies with the physical world in a similar fashion.

This idea can also be explored in the all-consuming realm of VR. On entering a game, we might be asked to choose our character or avatar – originally a Sanskrit word, aptly enough, meaning ‘one who descends from a higher dimension’. In older texts, the term often refers to divine incarnations. However, the etymology suits the gamer, as he or she chooses to descend from ‘normal’ reality and enter the VR world. Having specified our avatar’s gender, bodily features, attributes and skills, next we learn how to control its limbs and tools. Soon, our awareness diverts from our physical self to the VR capabilities of the avatar.

In Vedanta psychology, this is akin to the atma adopting the psychological persona-self it calls the ahankara, or the ‘pseudo-ego’. Instead of a detached conscious observer, we choose to define ourselves in terms of our social connections and the physical characteristics of the body. Thus, I come to believe in myself with reference to my gender, race, size, age and so forth, along with the roles and responsibilities of family, work and community. Conditioned by such identification, I indulge in the relevant emotions – some happy, some challenging or distressing – produced by the circumstances I witness myself undergoing.

Within a VR game, our avatar represents a pale imitation of our actual self and its entanglements. In our interactions with the avatar-selves of others, we might reveal little about our true personality or feelings, and know correspondingly little about others’. Indeed, encounters among avatars – particularly when competitive or combative – are often vitriolic, seemingly unrestrained by concern for the feelings of the people behind the avatars. Connections made through online gaming aren’t a substitute for other relationships. Rather, as researchers at Johns Hopkins University have noted, gamers with strong real-world social lives are less likely to fall prey to gaming addiction and depression.

These observations mirror the Vedantic claim that our ability to form meaningful relationships is diminished by absorption in the ahankara, the pseudo-ego. The more I regard myself as a physical entity requiring various forms of sensual gratification, the more likely I am to objectify those who can satisfy my desires, and to forge relationships based on mutual selfishness. But Vedanta suggests that love should emanate from the deepest part of the self, not its assumed persona. Love, it claims, is soul-to-soul experience. Interactions with others on the basis of the ahankara offer only a parody of affection.

As the atma, we remain the same subjective self throughout the whole of our life. Our body, mentality and personality change dramatically – but throughout it all, we know ourselves to be the constant observer. However, seeing everything shift and give way around us, we suspect that we’re also subject to change, ageing and heading for annihilation. Yoga, as systematised by Patanjali – an author or authors, like ‘Homer’, who lived in the 2nd century BCE – is intended to be a practical method for freeing the atma from relentless mental tribulation, and to be properly situated in the reality of pure consciousness.

In VR, we’re often called upon to do battle with evil forces, confronting jeopardy and virtual mortality along the way. Despite our efforts, the inevitable almost always happens: our avatar is killed. Game over. Gamers, especially pathological gamers, are known to become deeply attached to their avatars, and can suffer distress when their avatars are harmed. Fortunately, we’re usually offered another chance: Do you want to play again? Sure enough, we do. Perhaps we create a new avatar, someone more adept, based on the lessons learned last time around. This mirrors the Vedantic concept of reincarnation, specifically in its form of metempsychosis: the transmigration of the conscious self into a new physical vehicle.

Some commentators interpret Vedanta as suggesting that there is no real world, and that all that exists is conscious awareness. However, a broader take on Vedantic texts is more akin to VR. The VR world is wholly data, but it becomes ‘real’ when that information manifests itself to our senses as imagery and sounds on the screen or through a headset. Similarly, for Vedanta, it is the external world’s transitory manifestation as observable objects that makes it less ‘real’ than the perpetual, unchanging nature of the consciousness that observes it.

To the sages of old, immersing ourselves in the ephemeral world means allowing the atma to succumb to an illusion: the illusion that our consciousness is somehow part of an external scene, and must suffer or enjoy along with it. It’s amusing to think what Patanjali and the Vedantic fathers would make of VR: an illusion within an illusion, perhaps, but one that might help us to grasp the potency of their message.Aeon counter – do not remove

Akhandadhi Das

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.


What Einstein Meant by ‘God Does Not Play Dice’

Einstein with his second wife Elsa, 1921. Wikipedia.

Jim Baggott | Aeon Ideas

‘The theory produces a good deal but hardly brings us closer to the secret of the Old One,’ wrote Albert Einstein in December 1926. ‘I am at all events convinced that He does not play dice.’

Einstein was responding to a letter from the German physicist Max Born. The heart of the new theory of quantum mechanics, Born had argued, beats randomly and uncertainly, as though suffering from arrhythmia. Whereas physics before the quantum had always been about doing this and getting that, the new quantum mechanics appeared to say that when we do this, we get that only with a certain probability. And in some circumstances we might get the other.

Einstein was having none of it, and his insistence that God does not play dice with the Universe has echoed down the decades, as familiar and yet as elusive in its meaning as E = mc2. What did Einstein mean by it? And how did Einstein conceive of God?

Hermann and Pauline Einstein were nonobservant Ashkenazi Jews. Despite his parents’ secularism, the nine-year-old Albert discovered and embraced Judaism with some considerable passion, and for a time he was a dutiful, observant Jew. Following Jewish custom, his parents would invite a poor scholar to share a meal with them each week, and from the impoverished medical student Max Talmud (later Talmey) the young and impressionable Einstein learned about mathematics and science. He consumed all 21 volumes of Aaron Bernstein’s joyful Popular Books on Natural Science (1880). Talmud then steered him in the direction of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781), from which he migrated to the philosophy of David Hume. From Hume, it was a relatively short step to the Austrian physicist Ernst Mach, whose stridently empiricist, seeing-is-believing brand of philosophy demanded a complete rejection of metaphysics, including notions of absolute space and time, and the existence of atoms.

But this intellectual journey had mercilessly exposed the conflict between science and scripture. The now 12-year-old Einstein rebelled. He developed a deep aversion to the dogma of organised religion that would last for his lifetime, an aversion that extended to all forms of authoritarianism, including any kind of dogmatic atheism.

This youthful, heavy diet of empiricist philosophy would serve Einstein well some 14 years later. Mach’s rejection of absolute space and time helped to shape Einstein’s special theory of relativity (including the iconic equation E = mc2), which he formulated in 1905 while working as a ‘technical expert, third class’ at the Swiss Patent Office in Bern. Ten years later, Einstein would complete the transformation of our understanding of space and time with the formulation of his general theory of relativity, in which the force of gravity is replaced by curved spacetime. But as he grew older (and wiser), he came to reject Mach’s aggressive empiricism, and once declared that ‘Mach was as good at mechanics as he was wretched at philosophy.’

Over time, Einstein evolved a much more realist position. He preferred to accept the content of a scientific theory realistically, as a contingently ‘true’ representation of an objective physical reality. And, although he wanted no part of religion, the belief in God that he had carried with him from his brief flirtation with Judaism became the foundation on which he constructed his philosophy. When asked about the basis for his realist stance, he explained: ‘I have no better expression than the term “religious” for this trust in the rational character of reality and in its being accessible, at least to some extent, to human reason.’

But Einstein’s was a God of philosophy, not religion. When asked many years later whether he believed in God, he replied: ‘I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.’ Baruch Spinoza, a contemporary of Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, had conceived of God as identical with nature. For this, he was considered a dangerous heretic, and was excommunicated from the Jewish community in Amsterdam.

Einstein’s God is infinitely superior but impersonal and intangible, subtle but not malicious. He is also firmly determinist. As far as Einstein was concerned, God’s ‘lawful harmony’ is established throughout the cosmos by strict adherence to the physical principles of cause and effect. Thus, there is no room in Einstein’s philosophy for free will: ‘Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control … we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible player.’

The special and general theories of relativity provided a radical new way of conceiving of space and time and their active interactions with matter and energy. These theories are entirely consistent with the ‘lawful harmony’ established by Einstein’s God. But the new theory of quantum mechanics, which Einstein had also helped to found in 1905, was telling a different story. Quantum mechanics is about interactions involving matter and radiation, at the scale of atoms and molecules, set against a passive background of space and time.

Earlier in 1926, the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger had radically transformed the theory by formulating it in terms of rather obscure ‘wavefunctions’. Schrödinger himself preferred to interpret these realistically, as descriptive of ‘matter waves’. But a consensus was growing, strongly promoted by the Danish physicist Niels Bohr and the German physicist Werner Heisenberg, that the new quantum representation shouldn’t be taken too literally.

In essence, Bohr and Heisenberg argued that science had finally caught up with the conceptual problems involved in the description of reality that philosophers had been warning of for centuries. Bohr is quoted as saying: ‘There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract quantum physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.’ This vaguely positivist statement was echoed by Heisenberg: ‘[W]e have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning.’ Their broadly antirealist ‘Copenhagen interpretation’ – denying that the wavefunction represents the real physical state of a quantum system – quickly became the dominant way of thinking about quantum mechanics. More recent variations of such antirealist interpretations suggest that the wavefunction is simply a way of ‘coding’ our experience, or our subjective beliefs derived from our experience of the physics, allowing us to use what we’ve learned in the past to predict the future.

But this was utterly inconsistent with Einstein’s philosophy. Einstein could not accept an interpretation in which the principal object of the representation – the wavefunction – is not ‘real’. He could not accept that his God would allow the ‘lawful harmony’ to unravel so completely at the atomic scale, bringing lawless indeterminism and uncertainty, with effects that can’t be entirely and unambiguously predicted from their causes.

The stage was thus set for one of the most remarkable debates in the entire history of science, as Bohr and Einstein went head-to-head on the interpretation of quantum mechanics. It was a clash of two philosophies, two conflicting sets of metaphysical preconceptions about the nature of reality and what we might expect from a scientific representation of this. The debate began in 1927, and although the protagonists are no longer with us, the debate is still very much alive.

And unresolved.

I don’t think Einstein would have been particularly surprised by this. In February 1954, just 14 months before he died, he wrote in a letter to the American physicist David Bohm: ‘If God created the world, his primary concern was certainly not to make its understanding easy for us.’

Jim Baggott

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Why it’s only Science that can Answer all the Big Questions


An amplituhedron is a geometric structure introduced in 2013 by Nima Arkani-Hamed and Jaroslav Trnka. It enables simplified calculation of particle interactions in some quantum field theories. – Wikipedia

Peter Atkins | Aeon Ideas

Science has proved itself to be a reliable way to approach all kinds of questions about the physical world. As a scientist, I am led to wonder whether its ability to provide understanding is unlimited. Can it in fact answer all the great questions, the ‘big questions of being’, that occur to us?

To begin with, what are these big questions? In my view, they fall into two classes.

One class consists of invented questions that are often based on unwarranted extrapolations of human experience. They typically include questions of purpose and worries about the annihilation of the self, such as Why are we here? and What are the attributes of the soul? They are not real questions, because they are not based on evidence. Thus, as there is no evidence for the Universe having a purpose, there is no point in trying to establish its purpose or to explore the consequences of that purported purpose. As there is no evidence for the existence of a soul (except in a metaphorical sense), there is no point in spending time wondering what the properties of that soul might be should the concept ever be substantiated. Most questions of this class are a waste of time; and because they are not open to rational discourse, at worst they are resolved only by resort to the sword, the bomb or the flame.

The second class of big questions concerns features of the Universe for which there is evidence other than wish-fulfilling speculation and the stimulation provided by the study of sacred texts. They include investigations into the origin of the Universe, and specifically how it is that there is something rather than nothing, the details of the structure of the Universe (particularly the relative strengths of the fundamental forces and the existence of the fundamental particles), and the nature of consciousness. These are all real big questions and, in my view, are open to scientific elucidation.

The first class of questions, the inventions, commonly but not invariably begin with Why. The second class properly begin with How but, to avoid a lot of clumsy language, are often packaged as Why questions for convenience of discourse. Thus, Why is there something rather than nothing? (which is coloured by hints of purpose) is actually a disguised form of How is it that something emerged from nothing? Such Why questions can always be deconstructed into concatenations of How questions, and are in principle worthy of consideration with an expectation of being answered.

I accept that some will criticise me along the lines that I am using a circular argument: that the real big questions are the ones that can be answered scientifically, and therefore only science can in principle elucidate such questions, leaving aside the invented questions as intellectual weeds. That might be so. Publicly accessible evidence, after all, is surely an excellent sieve for distinguishing the two classes of question, and the foundation of science is evidence.

Science is like Michelangelo. The young Michelangelo demonstrated his skill as a sculptor by carving the ravishing Pietà in the Vatican; the mature Michelangelo, having acquired and demonstrated his skill, broke free of the conventions and created his extraordinary later quasi-abstractions. Science has trod a similar path. Through its four centuries of serious endeavour, from Galileo onwards, when evidence was mingled with mathematics, and the extraordinary reticulation of concepts and achievements emerged, science has acquired maturity, and from the elucidation of simple observations it is now capable of dealing with the complex. Indeed, the emergence of computation as a component of the unfolding implications of theories and the detection of patterns in massive data sets has extended the reach of the rational and greatly enriches the scientific method by augmenting the analytic.

The triple-pronged armoury of science – the observational, the analytic and the computational – is now ready to attack the real big questions. They are, in chronological order: How did the Universe begin? How did matter in the Universe become alive? and How did living matter become self-conscious? When inspected and picked apart, these questions include many others, such as – in the first question – the existence of the fundamental forces and particles and, by extension, the long-term future of the Universe. It includes the not-so-little problem of the union of gravitation and quantum mechanics.

The second question includes not only the transition from inorganic to organic but details of the evolution of species and the ramifications of molecular biology. The third includes not merely our ability to cogitate and create but also the nature of aesthetic and moral judgment. I see no reason why the scientific method cannot be used to answer, or at least illuminate, Socrates’ question ‘How should we live?’ by appealing to those currently semi-sciences (the social sciences) including anthropology, ethology, psychology and economics. The cyclic raises its head here too, for it is conceivable that the limitations of consciousness preclude full comprehension of the deep structure of the fabric of reality, so perhaps in the third, arising as it does from the first, the first finds itself bounded. We are already seeing a hint of that with quantum mechanics, which is so far removed from common experience (I could add, as it maps on to our brains) that no one currently really understands it (but that has not inhibited our ability to deploy it).

The lubricant of the scientific method is optimism, optimism that given patience and effort, often collaborative effort, comprehension will come. It has in the past, and there is no reason to suppose that such optimism is misplaced now. Of course, foothills have given way to mountains, and rapid progress cannot be expected in the final push. Maybe effort will take us, at least temporarily, down blind alleys (string theory perhaps) but then the blindness of that alley might suddenly be opened and there is a surge of achievement. Perhaps whole revised paradigms of thought, such as those a century or so ago when relativity and quantum mechanics emerged, will take comprehension in currently unimaginable directions. Maybe we shall find that the cosmos is just mathematics rendered substantial. Maybe our comprehension of consciousness will have to be left to the artificial device that we thought was merely a machine for simulating it. Maybe, indeed, circularity again, only the artificial consciousness we shall have built will have the capacity to understand the emergence of something from nothing.

I consider that there is nothing that the scientific method cannot elucidate. Indeed, we should delight in the journey of the collective human mind in the enterprise we call science.Aeon counter – do not remove

Peter Atkins

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

The Varieties of Religious Experience


The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature is a book by Harvard University psychologist and philosopher William James (1842 – 1910). James was an American philosopher and psychologist, and the first educator to offer a psychology course in the United States. He was one of the leading thinkers of the late nineteenth century and is believed by many to be one of the most influential philosophers the United States has ever produced, while others have labelled him the “Father of American psychology”.

Varieties comprises his edited Gifford Lectures on natural theology, which were delivered at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 1901 and 1902. The lectures concerned the nature of religion and the neglect of science in the academic study of religion.

Soon after its publication, Varieties entered the Western canon of psychology and philosophy and has remained in print for over a century.

James later developed his philosophy of pragmatism. There are many overlapping ideas in Varieties and his 1907 book, Pragmatism.

Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine. Since the relation may be either moral, physical, or ritual, it is evident that out of religion in the sense in which we take it, theologies, philosophies, and ecclesiastical organizations may secondarily grow. Religion is a man’s total reaction upon life.

James was most interested in direct religious experiences. Theology and the organizational aspects of religion were of secondary interest. He believed that religious experiences were simply human experiences: “Religious happiness is happiness. Religious trance is trance.”

He believed that religious experiences can have “morbid origins” in brain pathology and can be irrational but nevertheless are largely positive. Unlike the bad ideas that people have under the influence of a high fever, after a religious experience, the ideas and insights usually remain and are often valued for the rest of the person’s life.

Under James’ pragmatism, the effectiveness of religious experiences proves their truth, whether they stem from religious practices or from drugs: “Nitrous oxide … stimulate[s] the mystical consciousness in an extraordinary degree.”

James had relatively little interest in the legitimacy or illegitimacy of religious experiences. Further, despite James’ examples being almost exclusively drawn from Christianity, he did not mean to limit his ideas to any single religion. Religious experiences are something that people sometimes have under certain conditions. In James’ description, these conditions are likely to be psychological or pharmaceutical rather than cultural.

Religion thus makes easy and felicitous what in any case is necessary; and if it be the only agency that can accomplish this result, its vital importance as a human faculty stands vindicated beyond dispute. It becomes an essential organ of our life, performing a function which no other portion of our nature can so successfully fulfill.

James believed that the origins of a religion shed little light upon its value. There is a distinction between an existential judgment (a judgment on “constitution, origin, and history”) and a proposition of value (a judgment on “importance, meaning, or significance”).

For example, if the founder of the Quaker religion, George Fox, had been a hereditary degenerate, the Quaker religion could yet be “a religion of veracity rooted in spiritual inwardness, and a return to something more like the original gospel truth than men had ever known in England.”

Furthermore, the potentially dubious psychological origins of religious beliefs apply just as well to non-religious beliefs:

Scientific theories are organically conditioned just as much as religious emotions are; and if we only knew the facts intimately enough, we should doubtless see “the liver” determining the dicta of the sturdy atheist as decisively as it does those of the Methodist under conviction anxious about his soul. Science… has ended by utterly repudiating the personal point of view.

James criticized scientists for ignoring unseen aspects of the universe. Science studies some of reality, but not all of it:

Vague impressions of something indefinable have no place in the rationalistic system…. Nevertheless, if we look on man’s whole mental life as it exists … we have to confess that the part of it of which rationalism can give an account of is relatively superficial. It is the part that has the prestige undoubtedly, for it has the loquacity, it can challenge you for proofs, and chop logic, and put you down with words … Your whole subconscious life, your impulses, your faiths, your needs, your divinations, have prepared the premises, of which your consciousness now feels the weight of the result; and something in you absolutely knows that that result must be truer than any logic-chopping rationalistic talk, however clever, that may contradict it.

James saw “healthy-mindedness” as America’s main contribution to religion. This is the religious experience of optimism and positive thinking which James sees running from the transcendentalists Emerson and Whitman to Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science. At the extreme, the “healthy-minded” see sickness and evil as an illusion. James considered belief in the “mind cure” to be reasonable when compared to medicine as practiced at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The “sick souls” (“morbid-mindedness” / the “twice-born”) are merely those who hit bottom before their religious experience; those whose redemption gives relief from the pains they suffered beforehand. By contrast, the “healthy-minded” deny the need for such preparatory pain or suffering. James believes that “morbid-mindedness ranges over the wider scale of experience” and that while healthy-mindedness is a surprisingly effective “religious solution”,

healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a philosophical doctrine, because the evil facts which it refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth.

James sees the two types as being a mere matter of temperament: the healthy minded having a “constitutional incapacity for prolonged suffering”; the morbid-minded being those prone to “religious melancholia”.

The basenesses so commonly charged to religion’s account are thus, almost all of them, not chargeable at all to religion proper, but rather to religion’s wicked practical partner, the spirit of corporate dominion. And the bigotries are most of them in their turn chargeable to religion’s wicked intellectual partner, the spirit of dogmatic dominion, the passion for laying down the law in the form of an absolutely closed-in theoretic system.

For James, a saintly character is one where “spiritual emotions are the habitual centre of the personal energy.” James states that saintliness includes:

1. A feeling of being in a wider life than that of this world’s selfish little interests; and a conviction … of the existence of an Ideal Power.

2. A sense of the friendly continuity of the ideal power with our own life, and a willing self-surrender to its control.

3. An immense elation and freedom, as the outlines of the confining selfhood melt down.

4. A shifting of the emotional Centre towards loving and harmonious affections, towards “yes, yes” and away from “no,” where the claims of the non-ego are concerned.

For James, the practical consequences of saintliness are asceticism (pleasure in sacrifice), strength of soul (a “blissful equanimity” free from anxieties), purity (a withdrawal from the material world), and charity (tenderness to those most would naturally disdain).

James identified two main features to a mystical experience:

Ineffability —”No adequate report of its contents can be given in words. … its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. … mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect. No one can make clear to another who has never had a certain feeling, in what the quality or worth of it consists.”

Noetic quality —”Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time.”

He also identified two subsidiary features that are often, but not always, found with mystical experiences:

Transiency —”Mystical states cannot be sustained for long.”

Passivity —”The mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power.”

The only thing that religious experience, as we have studied it, unequivocally testifies to is that we can experience union with something larger than ourselves and in that union find our greatest peace.

Read Now: The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James (PDF)

What makes People distrust Science?


A Map of the Square and Stationary Earth by Professor Orlando Ferguson, South Dakota, 1893. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

Bastiaan T Rutjens | Aeon Ideas

Today, there is a crisis of trust in science. Many people – including politicians and, yes, even presidents – publicly express doubts about the validity of scientific findings. Meanwhile, scientific institutions and journals express their concerns about the public’s increasing distrust in science. How is it possible that science, the products of which permeate our everyday lives, making them in many ways more comfortable, elicits such negative attitudes among a substantial part of the population? Understanding why people distrust science will go a long way towards understanding what needs to be done for people to take science seriously.

Political ideology is seen by many researchers as the main culprit of science skepticism. The sociologist Gordon Gauchat has shown that political conservatives in the United States have become more distrusting of science, a trend that started in the 1970s. And a swath of recent research conducted by social and political psychologists has consistently shown that climate-change skepticism in particular is typically found among those on the conservative side of the political spectrum. However, there is more to science skepticism than just political ideology.

The same research that has observed the effects of political ideology on attitudes towards climate change has also found that political ideology is not that predictive of skepticism about other controversial research topics. Work by the cognitive scientist Stephan Lewandowsky, as well as research led by the psychologist Sydney Scott, observed no relation between political ideology and attitudes toward genetic modification. Lewandowsky also found no clear relation between political conservatism and vaccine skepticism.

So there is more that underlies science skepticism than just political conservatism. But what? It is important to systematically map which factors do and do not contribute to science skepticism and science (dis)trust in order to provide more precise explanations for why a growing number of individuals reject the notion of anthropogenic climate change, or fear that eating genetically modified products is dangerous, or believe that vaccines cause autism.

My colleagues and I recently published a set of studies that investigated science trust and science skepticism. One of the take-home messages of our research is that it is crucial not to lump various forms of science skepticism together. And although we were certainly not the first to look beyond political ideology, we did note two important lacunae in the literature. First, religiosity has so far been curiously under-researched as a precursor to science skepticism, perhaps because political ideology commanded so much attention. Second, current research lacks a systematic investigation into various forms of skepticism, alongside more general measures of trust in science. We attempted to correct both oversights.

People can be skeptical or distrusting of science for different reasons, whether it is about one specific finding from one discipline (for example, ‘The climate is not warming, but I believe in evolution’), or about science in general (‘Science is just one of many opinions’). We identified four major predictors of science acceptance and science skepticism: political ideology; religiosity; morality; and knowledge about science. These variables tend to intercorrelate – in some cases quite strongly – which means that they are potentially confounded. To illustrate, an observed relation between political conservatism and trust in science might in reality be caused by another variable, for example religiosity. When not measuring all constructs simultaneously, it is hard to properly assess what the predictive value of each of these is.

So, we investigated the heterogeneity of science skepticism among samples of North American participants (a large-scale cross-national study of science skepticism in Europe and beyond will follow). We provided participants with statements about climate change (eg, ‘Human CO2 emissions cause climate change’), genetic modification (eg, ‘GM of foods is a safe and reliable technology’), and vaccination (eg, ‘I believe that vaccines have negative side effects that outweigh the benefits of vaccination for children’). Participants could indicate to what extent they agreed or disagreed with these statements. We also measured participants’ general faith in science, and included a task in which they could indicate how much federal money should be spent on science, compared with various other domains. We assessed the impact of political ideology, religiosity, moral concerns and science knowledge (measured with a science literacy test, consisting of true or false items such as ‘All radioactivity is made by humans’, and ‘The centre of the Earth is very hot’) on participants’ responses to these various measures.

Political ideology did not play a meaningful role when it came to most of our measures. The only form of science skepticism that was consistently more pronounced among the politically conservative respondents in our studies was, not surprisingly, climate-change skepticism. But what about the other forms of skepticism, or skepticism of science generally?

Skepticism about genetic modification was not related to political ideology or religious beliefs, though it did correlate with science knowledge: the worse people did on the scientific literacy test, the more skeptical they were about the safety of genetically modified food. Vaccine skepticism also had no relation to political ideology, but it was strongest among religious participants, with a particular relation to moral concerns about the naturalness of vaccination.

Moving beyond domain-specific skepticism, what did we observe about a general trust in science, and the willingness to support science more broadly? The results were quite clear: trust in science was by far the lowest among the religious. In particular, religious orthodoxy was a strong negative predictor of faith in science and the orthodox participants were also the least positive about investing federal money in science. But notice here again political ideology did not contribute any meaningful variance over and beyond religiosity.

From these studies there are a couple of lessons to be learned about the current crisis of faith that plagues science. Science skepticism is quite diverse. Further, distrust of science is not really that much about political ideology, with the exception of climate-change skepticism, which is consistently found to be politically driven. Additionally, these results suggest that science skepticism cannot simply be remedied by increasing people’s knowledge about science. The impact of scientific literacy on science skepticism, trust in science, and willingness to support science was minor, save for the case of genetic modification. Some people are reluctant to accept particular scientific findings, for various reasons. When the aim is to combat skepticism and increase trust in science, a good starting point is to acknowledge that science skepticism comes in many forms.Aeon counter – do not remove

Bastiaan T Rutjens

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.


Seven Types of Atheism

But you will have gathered what I am driving at, namely, that it is still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests—that even we seekers after knowledge today, we godless anti-metaphysicians still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by a faith that is thousands of years old, that Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato, that God is the truth, that truth is divine. —But what if this should become more and more incredible, if nothing should prove to be divine any more unless it were error, blindness, the lie—if God himself should prove to be our most enduring lie?

– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882)


From the provocative author of Straw Dogs comes an incisive, surprising intervention in the political and scientific debate over religion and atheism. A meditation on the importance of atheism in the modern world – and its inadequacies and contradictions – by one of Britain’s leading philosophers.

When you explore older atheisms, you will find that some of your firmest convictions―secular or religious―are highly questionable. If this prospect disturbs you, what you are looking for may be freedom from thought.

For a generation now, public debate has been corroded by a shrill, narrow derision of religion in the name of an often vaguely understood “science.” John Gray’s stimulating and enjoyable new book, Seven Types of Atheism, describes the complex, dynamic world of older atheisms, a tradition that is, he writes, in many ways intertwined with and as rich as religion itself.

Along a spectrum that ranges from the convictions of “God-haters” like the Marquis de Sade to the mysticism of Arthur Schopenhauer, from Bertrand Russell’s search for truth in mathematics to secular political religions like Jacobinism and Nazism, Gray explores the various ways great minds have attempted to understand the questions of salvation, purpose, progress, and evil. The result is a book that sheds an extraordinary light on what it is to be human.

“In former times, one sought to prove that there is no God—today one indicates how the belief that there is a God arose and how this belief acquired its weight and importance: a counter-proof that there is no God thereby becomes superfluous.—When in former times one had refuted the ‘proofs of the existence of God’ put forward, there always remained the doubt whether better proofs might not be adduced than those just refuted: in those days atheists did not know how to make a clean sweep.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak (1881)

See also: VICE Interviews John Gray about Seven Types of Atheism

Why Religion is not Going Away and Science will not Destroy It


At the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, Istanbul. Photo by Guillen Perez/Flickr

Peter Harrison | Aeon Ideas

In 1966, just over 50 years ago, the distinguished Canadian-born anthropologist Anthony Wallace confidently predicted the global demise of religion at the hands of an advancing science: ‘belief in supernatural powers is doomed to die out, all over the world, as a result of the increasing adequacy and diffusion of scientific knowledge’. Wallace’s vision was not exceptional. On the contrary, the modern social sciences, which took shape in 19th-century western Europe, took their own recent historical experience of secularisation as a universal model. An assumption lay at the core of the social sciences, either presuming or sometimes predicting that all cultures would eventually converge on something roughly approximating secular, Western, liberal democracy. Then something closer to the opposite happened.

Not only has secularism failed to continue its steady global march but countries as varied as Iran, India, Israel, Algeria and Turkey have either had their secular governments replaced by religious ones, or have seen the rise of influential religious nationalist movements. Secularisation, as predicted by the social sciences, has failed.

To be sure, this failure is not unqualified. Many Western countries continue to witness decline in religious belief and practice. The most recent census data released in Australia, for example, shows that 30 per cent of the population identify as having ‘no religion’, and that this percentage is increasing. International surveys confirm comparatively low levels of religious commitment in western Europe and Australasia. Even the United States, a long-time source of embarrassment for the secularisation thesis, has seen a rise in unbelief. The percentage of atheists in the US now sits at an all-time high (if ‘high’ is the right word) of around 3 per cent. Yet, for all that, globally, the total number of people who consider themselves to be religious remains high, and demographic trends suggest that the overall pattern for the immediate future will be one of religious growth. But this isn’t the only failure of the secularisation thesis.

Scientists, intellectuals and social scientists expected that the spread of modern science would drive secularisation – that science would be a secularising force. But that simply hasn’t been the case. If we look at those societies where religion remains vibrant, their key common features are less to do with science, and more to do with feelings of existential security and protection from some of the basic uncertainties of life in the form of public goods. A social safety net might be correlated with scientific advances but only loosely, and again the case of the US is instructive. The US is arguably the most scientifically and technologically advanced society in the world, and yet at the same time the most religious of Western societies. As the British sociologist David Martin concluded in The Future of Christianity (2011): ‘There is no consistent relation between the degree of scientific advance and a reduced profile of religious influence, belief and practice.’

The story of science and secularisation becomes even more intriguing when we consider those societies that have witnessed significant reactions against secularist agendas. India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru championed secular and scientific ideals, and enlisted scientific education in the project of modernisation. Nehru was confident that Hindu visions of a Vedic past and Muslim dreams of an Islamic theocracy would both succumb to the inexorable historical march of secularisation. ‘There is only one-way traffic in Time,’ he declared. But as the subsequent rise of Hindu and Islamic fundamentalism adequately attests, Nehru was wrong. Moreover, the association of science with a secularising agenda has backfired, with science becoming a collateral casualty of resistance to secularism.

Turkey provides an even more revealing case. Like most pioneering nationalists, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic, was a committed secularist. Atatürk believed that science was destined to displace religion. In order to make sure that Turkey was on the right side of history, he gave science, in particular evolutionary biology, a central place in the state education system of the fledgling Turkish republic. As a result, evolution came to be associated with Atatürk’s entire political programme, including secularism. Islamist parties in Turkey, seeking to counter the secularist ideals of the nation’s founders, have also attacked the teaching of evolution. For them, evolution is associated with secular materialism. This sentiment culminated in the decision this June to remove the teaching of evolution from the high-school classroom. Again, science has become a victim of guilt by association.

The US represents a different cultural context, where it might seem that the key issue is a conflict between literal readings of Genesis and key features of evolutionary history. But in fact, much of the creationist discourse centres on moral values. In the US case too, we see anti-evolutionism motivated at least in part by the assumption that evolutionary theory is a stalking horse for secular materialism and its attendant moral commitments. As in India and Turkey, secularism is actually hurting science.

In brief, global secularisation is not inevitable and, when it does happen, it is not caused by science. Further, when the attempt is made to use science to advance secularism, the results can damage science. The thesis that ‘science causes secularisation’ simply fails the empirical test, and enlisting science as an instrument of secularisation turns out to be poor strategy. The science and secularism pairing is so awkward that it raises the question: why did anyone think otherwise?

Historically, two related sources advanced the idea that science would displace religion. First, 19th-century progressivist conceptions of history, particularly associated with the French philosopher Auguste Comte, held to a theory of history in which societies pass through three stages – religious, metaphysical and scientific (or ‘positive’). Comte coined the term ‘sociology’ and he wanted to diminish the social influence of religion and replace it with a new science of society. Comte’s influence extended to the ‘young Turks’ and Atatürk.

The 19th century also witnessed the inception of the ‘conflict model’ of science and religion. This was the view that history can be understood in terms of a ‘conflict between two epochs in the evolution of human thought – the theological and the scientific’. This description comes from Andrew Dickson White’s influential A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896), the title of which nicely encapsulates its author’s general theory. White’s work, as well as John William Draper’s earlier History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (1874), firmly established the conflict thesis as the default way of thinking about the historical relations between science and religion. Both works were translated into multiple languages. Draper’s History went through more than 50 printings in the US alone, was translated into 20 languages and, notably, became a bestseller in the late Ottoman empire, where it informed Atatürk’s understanding that progress meant science superseding religion.

Today, people are less confident that history moves through a series of set stages toward a single destination. Nor, despite its popular persistence, do most historians of science support the idea of an enduring conflict between science and religion. Renowned collisions, such as the Galileo affair, turned on politics and personalities, not just science and religion. Darwin had significant religious supporters and scientific detractors, as well as vice versa. Many other alleged instances of science-religion conflict have now been exposed as pure inventions. In fact, contrary to conflict, the historical norm has more often been one of mutual support between science and religion. In its formative years in the 17th century, modern science relied on religious legitimation. During the 18th and 19th centuries, natural theology helped to popularise science.

The conflict model of science and religion offered a mistaken view of the past and, when combined with expectations of secularisation, led to a flawed vision of the future. Secularisation theory failed at both description and prediction. The real question is why we continue to encounter proponents of science-religion conflict. Many are prominent scientists. It would be superfluous to rehearse Richard Dawkins’s musings on this topic, but he is by no means a solitary voice. Stephen Hawking thinks that ‘science will win because it works’; Sam Harris has declared that ‘science must destroy religion’; Stephen Weinberg thinks that science has weakened religious certitude; Colin Blakemore predicts that science will eventually make religion unnecessary. Historical evidence simply does not support such contentions. Indeed, it suggests that they are misguided.

So why do they persist? The answers are political. Leaving aside any lingering fondness for quaint 19th-century understandings of history, we must look to the fear of Islamic fundamentalism, exasperation with creationism, an aversion to alliances between the religious Right and climate-change denial, and worries about the erosion of scientific authority. While we might be sympathetic to these concerns, there is no disguising the fact that they arise out of an unhelpful intrusion of normative commitments into the discussion. Wishful thinking – hoping that science will vanquish religion – is no substitute for a sober assessment of present realities. Continuing with this advocacy is likely to have an effect opposite to that intended.

Religion is not going away any time soon, and science will not destroy it. If anything, it is science that is subject to increasing threats to its authority and social legitimacy. Given this, science needs all the friends it can get. Its advocates would be well advised to stop fabricating an enemy out of religion, or insisting that the only path to a secure future lies in a marriage of science and secularism.Aeon counter – do not remove

Peter Harrison

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

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.

– Thomas Kuhn


The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) is a book about the history of science by the philosopher Thomas S. Kuhn. Its publication was a landmark event in the history, philosophy, and sociology of scientific knowledge. Kuhn challenged the then prevailing view of progress in “normal science”. Normal scientific progress was viewed as “development-by-accumulation” of accepted facts and theories. Kuhn argued for an episodic model in which periods of such conceptual continuity in normal science were interrupted by periods of revolutionary science. The discovery of “anomalies” during revolutions in science leads to new paradigms. New paradigms then ask new questions of old data, move beyond the mere “puzzle-solving” of the previous paradigm, change the rules of the game and the “map” directing new research.

For example, Kuhn’s analysis of the Copernican Revolution emphasized that, in its beginning, it did not offer more accurate predictions of celestial events, such as planetary positions, than the Ptolemaic system, but instead appealed to some practitioners based on a promise of better, simpler, solutions that might be developed at some point in the future. Kuhn called the core concepts of an ascendant revolution its “paradigms” and thereby launched this word into widespread analogical use in the second half of the 20th century. Kuhn’s insistence that a paradigm shift was a mélange of sociology, enthusiasm and scientific promise, but not a logically determinate procedure, caused an uproar in reaction to his work. Kuhn addressed concerns in the 1969 postscript to the second edition. For some commentators, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions introduced a realistic humanism into the core of science, while for others the nobility of science was tarnished by Kuhn’s introduction of an irrational element into the heart of its greatest achievements.

In a sense that I am unable to explicate further, the proponents of competing paradigms practice their trades in different worlds.


The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was first published as a monograph in the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, then as a book by University of Chicago Press in 1962. In 1969, Kuhn added a postscript to the book in which he replied to critical responses to the first edition. A 50th Anniversary Edition (with an introductory essay by Ian Hacking) was published by the University of Chicago Press in April 2012.

Kuhn dated the genesis of his book to 1947 when he was a graduate student at Harvard University and had been asked to teach a science class for humanities undergraduates with a focus on historical case studies. Kuhn later commented that until then, “I’d never read an old document in science.” Aristotle’s Physics was astonishingly unlike Isaac Newton’s work in its concepts of matter and motion. Kuhn wrote “… as I was reading him, Aristotle appeared not only ignorant of mechanics, but a dreadfully bad physical scientist as well. About motion, in particular, his writings seemed to me full of egregious errors, both of logic and of observation.” This was in an apparent contradiction with the fact that Aristotle was a brilliant mind. While perusing Aristotle’s Physics, Kuhn formed the view that in order to properly appreciate Aristotle’s reasoning, one must be aware of the scientific conventions of the time. Kuhn concluded that Aristotle’s concepts were not “bad Newton,” just different. This insight was the foundation of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Prior to the publication of Kuhn’s book, a number of ideas regarding the process of scientific investigation and discovery had already been proposed. Ludwik Fleck developed the first system of the sociology of scientific knowledge in his book The Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact (1935). He claimed that the exchange of ideas led to the establishment of a thought collective, which, when developed sufficiently, served to separate the field into esoteric (professional) and exoteric (laymen) circles. Kuhn wrote the foreword to the 1979 edition of Fleck’s book, noting that he read it in 1950 and was reassured that someone “saw in the history of science what I myself was finding there.”

Kuhn was not confident about how his book would be received. Harvard University had denied his tenure, a few years before. However, by the mid-1980s, his book had achieved blockbuster status.

One theory to which Kuhn replies directly is Karl Popper’s “falsificationism,” which stresses falsifiability as the most important criterion for distinguishing between that which is scientific and that which is unscientific. Kuhn also addresses verificationism, a philosophical movement that emerged in the 1920s among logical positivists. The verifiability principle claims that meaningful statements must be supported by empirical evidence or logical requirements.

Scientists work from models acquired through education and through subsequent exposure to the literature often without quite knowing or needing to know what characteristics have given these models the status of community paradigms.

Basic Approach

Kuhn’s approach to the history and philosophy of science focuses on conceptual issues like the practice of normal science, influence of historical events, emergence of scientific discoveries, nature of scientific revolutions and progress through scientific revolutions. What sorts of intellectual options and strategies were available to people during a given period? What types of lexicons and terminology were known and employed during certain epochs? Stressing the importance of not attributing traditional thought to earlier investigators, Kuhn’s book argues that the evolution of scientific theory does not emerge from the straightforward accumulation of facts, but rather from a set of changing intellectual circumstances and possibilities. Such an approach is largely commensurate with the general historical school of non-linear history.

Kuhn did not see scientific theory as proceeding linearly from an objective, unbiased accumulation of all available data, but rather as paradigm-driven. “The operations and measurements that a scientist undertakes in the laboratory are not ‘the given’ of experience but rather ‘the collected with difficulty.’ They are not what the scientist sees—at least not before his research is well advanced and his attention focused. Rather, they are concrete indices to the content of more elementary perceptions, and as such they are selected for the close scrutiny of normal research only because they promise opportunity for the fruitful elaboration of an accepted paradigm. Far more clearly than the immediate experience from which they in part derive, operations and measurements are paradigm-determined. Science does not deal in all possible laboratory manipulations. Instead, it selects those relevant to the juxtaposition of a paradigm with the immediate experience that that paradigm has partially determined. As a result, scientists with different paradigms engage in different concrete laboratory manipulations.”

History, if viewed as a repository for more than anecdote or chronology, could produce a decisive transformation in the image of science by which we are now possessed.

Historical Examples of Chemistry

Kuhn explains his ideas using examples taken from the history of science. For instance, eighteenth century scientists believed that homogenous solutions were chemical compounds. Therefore, a combination of water and alcohol was generally classified as a compound. Nowadays it is considered to be a solution, but there was no reason then to suspect that it was not a compound. Water and alcohol would not separate spontaneously, nor will they separate completely upon distillation (they form an azeotrope). Water and alcohol can be combined in any proportion.

Under this paradigm, scientists believed that chemical reactions (such as the combination of water and alcohol) did not necessarily occur in fixed proportion. This belief was ultimately overturned by Dalton’s atomic theory, which asserted that atoms can only combine in simple, whole-number ratios. Under this new paradigm, any reaction which did not occur in fixed proportion could not be a chemical process. This type world-view transition among the scientific community exemplifies Kuhn’s paradigm shift.

To my complete surprise, that exposure to out-of-date scientific theory and practice radically undermined some of my basic conceptions about the nature of science and the reasons for its special success.

Copernican Revolution

A famous example of a revolution in scientific thought is the Copernican Revolution. In Ptolemy’s school of thought, cycles and epicycles (with some additional concepts) were used for modeling the movements of the planets in a cosmos that had a stationary Earth at its center. As accuracy of celestial observations increased, complexity of the Ptolemaic cyclical and epicyclical mechanisms had to increase to maintain the calculated planetary positions close to the observed positions. Copernicus proposed a cosmology in which the Sun was at the center and the Earth was one of the planets revolving around it. For modeling the planetary motions, Copernicus used the tools he was familiar with, namely the cycles and epicycles of the Ptolemaic toolbox. Yet Copernicus’ model needed more cycles and epicycles than existed in the then-current Ptolemaic model, and due to a lack of accuracy in calculations, his model did not appear to provide more accurate predictions than the Ptolemy model. Copernicus’ contemporaries rejected his cosmology, and Kuhn asserts that they were quite right to do so: Copernicus’ cosmology lacked credibility.

Kuhn illustrates how a paradigm shift later became possible when Galileo Galilei introduced his new ideas concerning motion. Intuitively, when an object is set in motion, it soon comes to a halt. A well-made cart may travel a long distance before it stops, but unless something keeps pushing it, it will eventually stop moving. Aristotle had argued that this was presumably a fundamental property of nature: for the motion of an object to be sustained, it must continue to be pushed. Given the knowledge available at the time, this represented sensible, reasonable thinking.

Galileo put forward a bold alternative conjecture: suppose, he said, that we always observe objects coming to a halt simply because some friction is always occurring. Galileo had no equipment with which to objectively confirm his conjecture, but he suggested that without any friction to slow down an object in motion, its inherent tendency is to maintain its speed without the application of any additional force.

The Ptolemaic approach of using cycles and epicycles was becoming strained: there seemed to be no end to the mushrooming growth in complexity required to account for the observable phenomena. Johannes Kepler was the first person to abandon the tools of the Ptolemaic paradigm. He started to explore the possibility that the planet Mars might have an elliptical orbit rather than a circular one. Clearly, the angular velocity could not be constant, but it proved very difficult to find the formula describing the rate of change of the planet’s angular velocity. After many years of calculations, Kepler arrived at what we now know as the law of equal areas.

Galileo’s conjecture was merely that — a conjecture. So was Kepler’s cosmology. But each conjecture increased the credibility of the other, and together, they changed the prevailing perceptions of the scientific community. Later, Newton showed that Kepler’s three laws could all be derived from a single theory of motion and planetary motion. Newton solidified and unified the paradigm shift that Galileo and Kepler had initiated.

Only when they must choose between competing theories do scientists behave like philosophers.


One of the aims of science is to find models that will account for as many observations as possible within a coherent framework. Together, Galileo’s rethinking of the nature of motion and Keplerian cosmology represented a coherent framework that was capable of rivaling the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic framework.

Once a paradigm shift has taken place, the textbooks are rewritten. Often the history of science too is rewritten, being presented as an inevitable process leading up to the current, established framework of thought. There is a prevalent belief that all hitherto-unexplained phenomena will in due course be accounted for in terms of this established framework. Kuhn states that scientists spend most (if not all) of their careers in a process of puzzle-solving. Their puzzle-solving is pursued with great tenacity, because the previous successes of the established paradigm tend to generate great confidence that the approach being taken guarantees that a solution to the puzzle exists, even though it may be very hard to find. Kuhn calls this process normal science.

As a paradigm is stretched to its limits, anomalies — failures of the current paradigm to take into account observed phenomena — accumulate. Their significance is judged by the practitioners of the discipline. Some anomalies may be dismissed as errors in observation, others as merely requiring small adjustments to the current paradigm that will be clarified in due course. Some anomalies resolve themselves spontaneously, having increased the available depth of insight along the way. But no matter how great or numerous the anomalies that persist, Kuhn observes, the practicing scientists will not lose faith in the established paradigm until a credible alternative is available; to lose faith in the solvability of the problems would in effect mean ceasing to be a scientist.

In any community of scientists, Kuhn states, there are some individuals who are bolder than most. These scientists, judging that a crisis exists, embark on what Kuhn calls revolutionary science, exploring alternatives to long-held, obvious-seeming assumptions. Occasionally this generates a rival to the established framework of thought. The new candidate paradigm will appear to be accompanied by numerous anomalies, partly because it is still so new and incomplete. The majority of the scientific community will oppose any conceptual change, and, Kuhn emphasizes, so they should. To fulfill its potential, a scientific community needs to contain both individuals who are bold and individuals who are conservative. There are many examples in the history of science in which confidence in the established frame of thought was eventually vindicated. It is almost impossible to predict whether the anomalies in a candidate for a new paradigm will eventually be resolved. Those scientists who possess an exceptional ability to recognize a theory’s potential will be the first whose preference is likely to shift in favor of the challenging paradigm. There typically follows a period in which there are adherents of both paradigms. In time, if the challenging paradigm is solidified and unified, it will replace the old paradigm, and a paradigm shift will have occurred.

Suddenly the fragments in my head sorted themselves out in a new way, and fell into place together. My jaw dropped, for all at once Aristotle seemed a very good physicist indeed, but of a sort I’d never dreamed possible. Now I could understand why he had said what he’d said, and what his authority had been.


Kuhn explains the process of scientific change as the result of various phases of paradigm change.

Phase 1 – It exists only once and is the pre-paradigm phase, in which there is no consensus on any particular theory. This phase is characterized by several incompatible and incomplete theories. Consequently, most scientific inquiry takes the form of lengthy books, as there is no common body of facts that may be taken for granted. If the actors in the pre-paradigm community eventually gravitate to one of these conceptual frameworks and ultimately to a widespread consensus on the appropriate choice of methods, terminology and on the kinds of experiment that are likely to contribute to increased insights.

Phase 2 – Normal science begins, in which puzzles are solved within the context of the dominant paradigm. As long as there is consensus within the discipline, normal science continues. Over time, progress in normal science may reveal anomalies, facts that are difficult to explain within the context of the existing paradigm. While usually these anomalies are resolved, in some cases they may accumulate to the point where normal science becomes difficult and where weaknesses in the old paradigm are revealed.

Phase 3 – If the paradigm proves chronically unable to account for anomalies, the community enters a crisis period. Crises are often resolved within the context of normal science. However, after significant efforts of normal science within a paradigm fail, science may enter the next phase.

Phase 4 – Paradigm shift, or scientific revolution, is the phase in which the underlying assumptions of the field are reexamined and a new paradigm is established.

Phase 5- Post-Revolution, the new paradigm’s dominance is established and so scientists return to normal science, solving puzzles within the new paradigm.

A science may go through these cycles repeatedly, though Kuhn notes that it is a good thing for science that such shifts do not occur often or easily.

Philosophers of science have repeatedly demonstrated that more than one theoretical construction can always be placed upon a given collection of data. History of science indicates that, particularly in the early developmental stages of a new paradigm, it is not even very difficult to invent such alternates.


According to Kuhn, the scientific paradigms preceding and succeeding a paradigm shift are so different that their theories are incommensurable — the new paradigm cannot be proven or disproven by the rules of the old paradigm, and vice versa. (A later interpretation by Kuhn of ‘commensurable’ versus ‘incommensurable’ was as a distinction between languages, namely, that statements in commensurable languages were translatable fully from one to the other, while in incommensurable languages, strict translation is not possible.) The paradigm shift does not merely involve the revision or transformation of an individual theory, it changes the way terminology is defined, how the scientists in that field view their subject, and, perhaps most significantly, what questions are regarded as valid, and what rules are used to determine the truth of a particular theory. The new theories were not, as the scientists had previously thought, just extensions of old theories, but were instead completely new world views. Such incommensurability exists not just before and after a paradigm shift, but in the periods in between conflicting paradigms. It is simply not possible, according to Kuhn, to construct an impartial language that can be used to perform a neutral comparison between conflicting paradigms, because the very terms used are integral to the respective paradigms, and therefore have different connotations in each paradigm. The advocates of mutually exclusive paradigms are in a difficult position: “Though each may hope to convert the other to his way of seeing 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.” Scientists subscribing to different paradigms end up talking past one another.

Kuhn states that the probabilistic tools used by verificationists are inherently inadequate for the task of deciding between conflicting theories, since they belong to the very paradigms they seek to compare. Similarly, observations that are intended to falsify a statement will fall under one of the paradigms they are supposed to help compare, and will therefore also be inadequate for the task. According to Kuhn, the concept of falsifiability is unhelpful for understanding why and how science has developed as it has. In the practice of science, scientists will only consider the possibility that a theory has been falsified if an alternative theory is available that they judge credible. If there is not, scientists will continue to adhere to the established conceptual framework. If a paradigm shift has occurred, the textbooks will be rewritten to state that the previous theory has been falsified.

Kuhn further developed his ideas regarding incommensurability in the 1980s and 1990s. In his unpublished manuscript The Plurality of Worlds, Kuhn introduces the theory of kind concepts: sets of interrelated concepts that are characteristic of a time period in a science and differ in structure from the modern analogous kind concepts. These different structures imply different “taxonomies” of things and processes, and this difference in taxonomies constitutes incommensurability. This theory is strongly naturalistic and draws on developmental psychology to “found a quasi-transcendental theory of experience and of reality.”

Scientific revolutions are inaugurated by a growing sense… that an existing paradigm has ceased to function adequately in the exploration of an aspect of nature to which that paradigm itself had previously led the way.


Kuhn introduced the concept of an exemplar in a postscript to the second edition of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970). He noted that he was substituting the term ‘exemplars’ for ‘paradigm’, meaning the problems and solutions that students of a subject learn from the beginning of their education. For example, physicists might have as exemplars the inclined plane, Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, or instruments like the calorimeter.

According to Kuhn, scientific practice alternates between periods of normal science and revolutionary science. During periods of normalcy, scientists tend to subscribe to a large body of interconnecting knowledge, methods, and assumptions which make up the reigning paradigm. Normal science presents a series of problems that are solved as scientists explore their field. The solutions to some of these problems become well known and are the exemplars of the field.

Those who study a scientific discipline are expected to know its exemplars. There is no fixed set of exemplars, but for a physicist today it would probably include the harmonic oscillator from mechanics and the hydrogen atom from quantum mechanics.

By now it may be clear that the position I’m developing is a sort of post-Darwinian Kantianism.

Kuhn on Scientific Progress

The first edition of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions ended with a chapter titled “Progress through Revolutions”, in which Kuhn spelled out his views on the nature of scientific progress. Since he considered problem solving to be a central element of science, Kuhn saw that for a new candidate paradigm to be accepted by a scientific community, “First, the new candidate must seem to resolve some outstanding and generally recognized problem that can be met in no other way. Second, the new paradigm must promise to preserve a relatively large part of the concrete problem solving activity that has accrued to science through its predecessors.

While the new paradigm is rarely as expansive as the old paradigm in its initial stages, it must nevertheless have significant promise for future problem-solving. As a result, though new paradigms seldom or never possess all the capabilities of their predecessors, they usually preserve a great deal of the most concrete parts of past achievement and they always permit additional concrete problem-solutions besides.

In the second edition, Kuhn added a postscript in which he elaborated his ideas on the nature of scientific progress. He described a thought experiment involving an observer who has the opportunity to inspect an assortment of theories, each corresponding to a single stage in a succession of theories. What if the observer is presented with these theories without any explicit indication of their chronological order? Kuhn anticipates that it will be possible to reconstruct their chronology on the basis of the theories’ scope and content, because the more recent a theory is, the better it will be as an instrument for solving the kinds of puzzle that scientists aim to solve. Kuhn remarked: “That is not a relativist’s position, and it displays the sense in which I am a convinced believer in scientific progress.”

The man who is striving to solve a problem defined by existing knowledge and technique is not, however, just looking around. He knows what he wants to achieve, and he designs his instruments and directs his thoughts accordingly. Unanticipated novelty, the new discovery, can emerge only to the extent that his anticipations about nature and his instruments prove wrong… There is no other effective way in which discoveries might be generated.

If these out-of date beliefs are to be called myths, then myths can be produced by the same sorts of methods and held for the same sorts of reasons that now lead to scientific knowledge.

See Also: Science as Mythology

The Four Horsemen

This little chat, a casual yet intellectually stimulating discussion between four brilliant minds was so excellent that I felt the need to share it. Many topics are discussed spanning science, religion, psychology and sociology. The way they interact with each other with sincerity, empathy and humility and a sense of fellowship is hard to come by in the world today. My personal loss of faith was due more to the study of philosophy rather than science, although science certainly played a role. I don’t agree with some of the things that are said by these so-called “New Atheists,” but I think that is the point. We need more fellowship and real human connection. We need to learn to love one another, regardless of worldview.

Full Texts by these Authors (PDF)

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett

God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

The End of Faith by Sam Harris

Philosophy Primary Sources II


This post will serve as Part II of Philosophy Primary Sources and a supplement to Primary Sources & Encyclopedias (check out the Links section for even more research sources). There are certain books that are essential to an education about the human condition of which I believe should be available for free and with easy access to everybody. This list is more comprehensive and nuanced than the previous list, as it includes books that hold cultural significance in various fields of study. Each book on this list is in PDF format. I have organized them by topic (many topics intersect) and the last name of the author.


The Life of the Mind by Hannah Arendt

The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt

Language, Truth, and Logic by A.J. Ayer

The Problem of Knowledge by A.J. Ayer

Selected Writings of Jean Baudrillard

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

The Ethics of Ambiguity by Simone de Beauvoir

Matter and Memory by Henri Bergson

An Introduction to Metaphysics by Henri Bergson

I and Thou by Martin Buber

The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays by Albert Camus

The Rebel by Albert Camus

Language and Mind by Noam Chomsky

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

Nietzsche and Philosophy by Gilles Deleuze

What is Philosophy? by Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett

Speech and Phenomena & Other Essays by Jacques Derrida

Dissemination by Jacques Derrida

In Praise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus

The Vocation of Man by Johann Gottlieb Fichte

The Science of Knowledge by Johann Gottlieb Fichte

The Archaeology of Knowledge & The Discourse on Language by Michel Foucault

Selected Writings of Mahatma Gandhi

Being and Time by Martin Heidegger

The Question Concerning Technology & Other Essays by Martin Heidegger

What is Metaphysics? by Martin Heidegger

God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

Logical Investigations by Edmund Husserl

Reason and Existenz by Karl Jaspers

Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard

The Sickness Unto Death by Søren Kierkegaard

Philosophical Fragments by Søren Kierkegaard

Last Writings: Nothingness and the Religious Worldview by Nishida Kitarō

The Levinas Reader edited by Sáun Hand

The Postmodern Condition by Jean-François Lyotard

Essays of Michel de Montaigne

On the Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche

The Portable Nietzsche edited by Walter Kaufmann

The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism by Keiji Nishitani

Philosophical Explanations by Robert Nozick

Man Has No Nature by José Ortega y Gasset

The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine

Pensées by Blaise Pascal

The Morals of Plutarch

The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand

Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity by Richard Rorty

Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature by Richard Rorty

The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Free Thought & Official Propaganda by Bertrand Russell

In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell

Mysticism and Logic: And Other Essays by Bertrand Russell

Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre

Existentialism is a Humanism by Jean-Paul Sartre

The World as Will and Representation – Vol. 1 by Arthur Schopenhauer

The World as Will and Representation – Vol. 2 by Arthur Schopenhauer

The Basis of Morality by Arthur Schopenhauer

My View of the World (Excerpt) by Erwin Schrödinger

Athens and Jerusalem by Lev Shestov

The Ego and His Own by Max Stirner

The Courage to Be by Paul Tillich

The Eternal Now by Paul Tillich

Weak Thought edited by Gianni Vattimo and Pier Aldo Rovatti

The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts

Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein


The Essays of Francis Bacon

The New Organon by Francis Bacon

The Grounds for and Excellence of the Corpuscular or Mechanical Philosophy by Robert Boyle

On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (Dedication) by Nicolaus Copernicus

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection by Charles Darwin

The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

The Principles of Quantum Mechanics by Paul Dirac

Relativity: The Special and General Theory by Albert Einstein

The Assayer by Galileo Galilei

Dialogues Concerning the Two Chief World Systems by Galileo Galilei

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science by Werner Heisenberg

The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow

Treatise on Light by Christiaan Huygens

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn

The Copernican Revolution by Thomas Kuhn

The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy by Sir Isaac Newton

Science and Hypothesis by Henri Poincaré

What is Life? by Erwin Schrödinger

Mind and Matter by Erwin Schrödinger

The Physics of the Healing by Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna)


Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

The Complete Works of Sigmund Freud

The Principles of Psychology: Volume I by William James

The Principles of Psychology: Volume II by William James

Man and his Symbols by Carl Jung

Memories, Dreams, Reflection by Carl Jung

Écrits by Jacques Lacan

Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences by Abraham Maslow

Cognitive Psychology by Ulric Neisser

Verbal Behavior by B.F. Skinner


The Tragedies of Aeschylus

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Euripides: Ion, Hippolytus, Medea, & Alcestis

Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The Iliad of Homer

The Odyssey of Homer

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka

Paradise Lost by John Milton

1984 by George Orwell

Animal Farm by George Orwell

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

The Notes of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare

The Tragedies of Sophocles

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Candide by Voltaire

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut

Note: Planet Publish hosts a vast selection of literature in PDF format available for free.


A Study of Dōgen by Masao Abe

Deliverance from Error by Al-Ghazali

The Incoherence of the Philosophers by Al-Ghazali

The Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas

The Teaching of Buddha

Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin

The Analects of Confucius

The Vedas compiled by the Dharmic Scriptures Team

On Divine Names & Mystical Theology by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite

The Shōbōgenzō: Volume I by Eihei Dōgen

The Shōbōgenzō: Volume II by Eihei Dōgen

The Shōbōgenzō: Volume III by Eihei Dōgen

The Shōbōgenzō: Volume IV by Eihei Dōgen

Dōgen’s Extensive Record: A Translation of the Eihei Kōroku

The Tibetan Book of the Dead edited by W. Y. Evans-Wentz

The Essence of Christianity by Ludwig Feuerbach

Christian Apologetics by Norman Geisler

Philosophy of Religion by Norman Geisler

The Principia Discordia by Greg Hill and Kerry Wendell Thornley

The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley

The Guide for the Perplexed by Moses Maimonides

The Mūlamadhyamakakārikā of Nāgārjuna

On Buddhism by Keiji Nishitani

The Upanishads translated by Swami Paramananda

On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy by Ibn Rushd (Averroes)

The Incoherence of the Incoherence by Ibn Rushd (Averroes)

Forgotten Truth by Huston Smith

An Introduction to Zen Buddhism by D.T. Suzuki

The Bhagavad Gita translated by Shri Purohit Swami

The New Being by Paul Tillich

The Way of Zen by Alan Watts

Note: Internet Sacred Text Archive hosts an archive of online books about religion, mythology, folklore and the esoteric (including the writings of the early church fathers).


World History: Patterns of Interaction by Beck, et al.

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Volume I by Edward Gibbon

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Volume II by Edward Gibbon

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Volume III by Edward Gibbon

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Volume IV by Edward Gibbon

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Volume V by Edward Gibbon

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Volume VI by Edward Gibbon

The Histories of Herodotus

I Have a Dream by Martin Luther King Jr.

The History of Rome by Titus Livius

The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell

Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler

The Annals of Tacitus

The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides

Note: Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive are excellent sources of historical writings and much more. Ancient Greek and Roman histories can be found at Loebolus.

Important Historical Documents

Magna Carta Libertatum (Great Charter of Liberties)

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Code of Hammurabi

Note: hosts a list of 100 milestone documents, compiled by the National Archives and Records Administration, and drawn primarily from its nationwide holdings. The documents chronicle United States history from 1776 to 1965.

Political & Social Theory

On the Reproduction of Capitalism by Louis Althusser

An Introduction to The Principles of Morals and Legislation by Jeremy Bentham

Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky

Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia by Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari

Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison by Michel Foucault

The History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault

Madness and Civilization by Michel Foucault

The Theory of Communicative Action by Jürgen Habermas

Between Facts and Norms by Jürgen Habermas

Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes

Dialectic of Enlightenment by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno

The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money by John Maynard Keynes

Structural Anthropology by Claude Lévi-Strauss

The Savage Mind by Claude Lévi-Strauss

The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli

Capital: Critique of Political Economy, Volume I by Karl Marx

Capital: Critique of Political Economy, Volume II by Karl Marx

Capital: Critique of Political Economy, Volume III by Karl Marx

Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 by Karl Marx

The German Ideology by Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels

Areopagitica by John Milton

The Spirit of Laws by Montesquieu

A Theory of Justice by John Rawls

Émile, or Concerning Education by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The Origin of Inequality by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith

Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

Writings of Leon Trotsky

The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber

Check out the Links Section for more sources of primary texts and general research.