Paradigms and Pseudo-science

A guest post from Jim

Defenders of anthroposophy often like to deploy scientific or philosophical arguments in support of Steiner’s views on a range of subjects. They are not alone in this – the near incomprehensibility of modern physics makes it all to easy for the astrologer or homeopath to trot out a glib reference to “quantum entanglement” as if that justified their belief. And some scientists don’t help by metaphorical talk about “god particles” and “knowing the mind of god” when they intend no theological import at all.

But there is one particular line of argument which I would like to consider here – that is the one based on the notion of paradigms and paradigm shifts. It is very popular not only with Steiner supporters but with others who wish to give a gloss of intellectual respectability to what we can generalise as New Age beliefs. It goes hand in hand with the charge of “scientism” levelled against those who dismiss those beliefs. Essentially what it says is that there are different and competing ways of understanding the world which are equally valid and that giving science a specially privileged position is wrong and limiting.

The notion of paradigm and paradigm shift goes back to Thomas Kuhn, a philosopher of science, and his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In it he criticised the prevailing view that science proceeded by incrementally adding new knowledge and refining theories and thus smoothly progressed to an ever better understanding of the world. He accepted that much of the time it did indeed progress this way, the periods of so called normal science. However he also argued that during these normal periods there would be an accumulation of anomalies, of observations which did not quite fit, of theories in one area which could not be made consistent with those in another. Nonetheless there would be a prevailing scientific viewpoint ( the paradigm ) which in effect agrees how the world works and how all the theories which explain various aspects of it fit together. There may indeed be conflicting theories in some areas but they may in time be resolved by further research consistent with the current paradigm.

But occasionally something happens which leads to a change in the paradigm – ie to a paradigm shift. This comes about as a result of scientists investigating anomalies which simply cannot be explained within the current paradigm, ie something so fundamental that merely tweaking current theories is not enough. As a consequence some new fundamental theory is advanced which not only fits all the pre-existing knowledge but is now able to explain what had been anomalous and point to new areas of research. An example – the discovery that a particular illness is caused by bacterium X rather than bacterium Y is not a paradigm shift, it is not fundamental. But the discovery that diseases were caused by bacteria rather than by miasma ( a mysterious vapour supposed to drift in the air ) was. Other examples of paradigm shifts would include the acceptance of Einstein’s view of relativity over the Newtonian model of physics, or the shift away from an earth centric view of the universe.

So what does all this have to do with Steiner? Well, some Steiner supporters take the view that this demonstrates that the scientific consensus at any particular time is just a point of view which can be changed, and not only that but they go farther and say that other points of view can be equally valid. In particular they will say that their own view of a spiritual world with karma, reincarnation, elemental spirits etc represents a different but equally ( or more ) valid paradigm. Ie it is a different, broader ( and therefore better ) perspective. At this point they can no longer call on Kuhn for support because he was adamant that his theory did not support relativism. In his view a new paradigm did not simply exist alongside an existing one. And it was not merely different but better  – better in the sense that it explained everything the old paradigm explained plus things that it could not. And so after a period of debate the new paradigm replaces the old.

In this light it is not difficult to see that Steiner’s thought in no way represents a new paradigm. It does not emerge from the tension between the accepted paradigm and certain anomalous observations. It does not provide a better explanation for existing knowledge nor does it explain any anomalies. What are the anomalies? A defender might say it provides an explanation of how homeopathy works but that is nonsense since as has been demonstrated time after time homeopathy does not work. No anomaly, nothing to explain. Likewise with astrology, bio-dynamics and so on.

And so what are we left with? Nothing more than an old collection of magical beliefs, admittedly in a very subtly rendered form. Actually insofar as the term paradigm has any application to Steiner at all you would have to say his thought represents the pre-scientific magical paradigm that the modern scientific world view has successfully replaced. No amount of clutching at straws to find intellectual support by misrepresenting other’s thoughts will change that.

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5 comments

  1. Jim

    Me neither. To be fair to Kuhn it’s not his fault – he hated the way his idea was misused. And not just by New Agers. I remember the way every new management fashion was hailed as a new paradigm. And yet they changed nothing.

  2. Helen

    The fact that science is often seen as a difficult subject for the layman to understand seems to encourage people to latch on to any criticism of it – for example with vaccination. It is easier to believe the scare stories about side effects of vaccination than to read up on the scientific reasons why it works and provides vital protection.
    I know perfectly rational people who would not normally believe any form of pseudo-science or New Age practices who regard chiropractors, acupuncturists and homeopaths as a valid alternative to medical science, despite knowing little or nothing about the basis for these forms of alternative medicine.
    It is partly the failure of education to make science accessible to all that is responsible for this growth in the respectability of Pseudo-science in my opinion.
    I am not at all a scientist (biology “O”level was the peak of my attainment in that field), but I have a respect for scientists and their subject which seems to be lacking in society in general.

  3. Jim

    I think it is also in part down to a love of fantasy. There is nothing wrong with that, it is after all one of the things we enjoy in literature. But good literature whilst giving us imaginary worlds to explore usually has something worthwhile to say about the real world. Whereas pseudo-science represents a turning away from the real world.

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