Theology on the Model of Kuhnian Science

Many LDS thinkers are skeptical of “systematic” theology (e.g. Richard Bushman, whose posts we so enjoyed recently). Here’s a stab at a compromise. Thomas Kuhn presented a powerful way of understanding the development of scientific theories a few decades back in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions; here’s a first pass at appropriating his work to think about how our knowledge of God and his ways might develop, in a way that is friendly to continuing revelation and eternal progression.

I think a lot of why systematic theology has bad rap in the LDS community is just bad associations: all the prominent examples of it are in what we call apostate religion (e.g. Thomas Aquinas). But there are more substantial reasons to have doubts. The systematic method typically aspires to produce a closed, complete, univocal system of conceptual beliefs. But a closed system would presuppose that everything important has already been revealed. Perhaps closure to revelation is what makes the “creeds an abomination” as Christ says to Joseph Smith. And univocal, conceptual beliefs seem bound to leave out much of the richness and ambiguity (as Jim F. says, “polyphony”) of the scriptures, and hence to leave out some of the truth they bear. There is also the concern that building a system involves inordinately emphasizing belief over action, and over relationships with God and with our brothers and sisters, in the religious life. I think a Kuhnian approach to theology addresses all these concerns to a degree; let’s give it a look at how it might go, with bloggish presumption and quasi-precision!

For Kuhn, scientific inquiry is practiced by communities of individuals who share certain assumptions and methodologies (a research paradigm), and try to work up theories that explain some set of phenomena. Any given theory will be more helpful explaining some phenomena than others. The fact that it doesn’t help with some phenomena doesn’t keep it from being valuable, though; within its sphere it is helpful. “Normal science” is a mode of activity wherein a scientific community works with a given theory, tweaking it to try to extend it to help explain a wider range of phenomena, or to do a better job with those it already applies to. While one group is tweaking their theory (e.g. corpuscular theory of light), another group may be tweaking another (theory of light as a wave in the ether). People have their loyalties and their faith in a given theory, but nobody assumes they have the ultimate, all-explanatory theory; there is just too much going on in the natural world to think that. Sometimes theory A’s advocates manage to extend it so that it pretty much explains the stuff theory B explains, plus a chunk of other stuff theory B doesn’t help with. Then people may ditch theory B in favor of theory A. General relativity, for example, explains the usual stuff people explained with Newtonian gravity, plus some other things like the way light bends around massive objects like the sun. A lot of the time, though, different theories just have their different merits, and their different advocates, or people even switch back and forth depending on the context they’re trying to deal with. So today people use both general relativity and quantum mechanics, depending on what they’re dealing with, even though these theories conceptually can’t fit with each other. And heck, most engineers don’t use a relativistic conception of gravitation even though they know it’s more accurate than Newton.

So, on a Kuhnian model one tries to make one’s theory as comprehensive as possible, but one doesn’t assume any given theory is the last word on its own subject, let alone the complete explanation of everything. Each theory is more or less univocal, but the conception of inquiry is inherently pluralistic, and the manifold of nature receives the attention of a plurality of overlapping and developing theoretical views, which address its polyphony in concert. Further, the construction, development, and deployment of a theory or a paradigm is a matter of community practice, with a history. What if we could say the same things about theological inquiry? The phenomena to be explained would include religious texts, religious experiences, and morally relevant features of human life and society and such, with nucleotides and dark matter pretty well neglected, but it seems to me much of the structure and expectations of the process of inquiry could carry over pretty well. Here is a role for systematic explanation, in a context that addresses in significant ways the above-mentioned concerns about how LDS need to approach theology.

On this model, importantly, we can say that there is something right about both payment theories and empathy theories of the atonement. I might overall prefer one, but on occasion talk in terms of the other because on some questions or in some contexts it really is more helpful. And we can do this without implying that it’s all subjective; rather, we may suppose that in some eschatological sense the truth in each can be reconciled with the truth of the other, though we don’t see how at the moment, like people suppose there is some way of reconciling what is true in QM and GR, though we don’t see how.

We can also have revolutionary progression in knowledge, while continuing to talk about gravitation, light, etc. or, in the case of theology, the Son of God, repentance, faith, salvation etc.

Whaddya think?

44 comments for “Theology on the Model of Kuhnian Science

  1. Mark Butler
    May 3, 2004 at 9:33 pm

    I think this is an excellent idea. Too much theological discourse bogs down in disputes over premises, when paradigmatic accounts with explanatory power, looking forward to eventual reconcilation, would be much more productive.

  2. May 3, 2004 at 10:05 pm

    I suspect the reason why anti-systematic philosophy is popular is because the philosophers who tend to study Mormon philosophy have that preconception. (grin) Although to be fair Brigham Young had a pragmatic view which was pretty anti-systemizing. But Orson Pratt and B H Roberts were pretty much for systematic theology, as were Bruce R. McConkie and his father in law.

    The problem I have with Kuhn is his views of anti-commesurateness of theories. It would mean, for instance, that we really can’t compare the theological views of say Nephites with Joseph Smith or even modern theology. I’m not sure I buy that.

  3. Ben Huff
    May 3, 2004 at 10:50 pm

    Yeah, the incommensurability business would need some attention. There is something to it, but I think its implications aren’t as dramatic as they might initially seem.

  4. lyle
    May 3, 2004 at 10:53 pm


    Maybe I skew Kuhn (whose theories I like), but I got the impression that he was suggesting a condorcet-like paradox where Theory B is better than Theory A, And Theory C is better than B, but C isn’t adopted, or takes along time to get adopted, because other folks have a vested interested in A or B (i.e. expanding the theory, doing proofs, publications, reputations, etc).

    With this impression, it would seem that Kuhnian theology would have a similar bent; i.e. the “truest” theory isn’t currently in existence because the advocates/apostles of 1 theory over another simply aren’t ascendent with their paradigm yet. Kinda like how Mohammed claimed to “complete” the work of the earlier Prophets. While this might provide a fascile explanation for polygamy or Priesthood apologists…(or those that support SSM…no this is not an SSM post post/thread !!!), and seems to fit in well with “continuing” revelation…

    It just doesn’t sit right. your thoughts?

  5. Julie in Austin
    May 4, 2004 at 12:53 am


    I actually think ‘theory A didn’t get adopted because no one likes it’ might actually be a strong point for Kuhnian theology, or whatever we call it.

    Case in point: everyone always drags out that ‘eye of the needle was a gate and if the camel wanted to enter it had to get on its knees’ business every blessed time we talk about that saying, despite the fact that everyone (there was even an Ensign article!) disputes the idea. Why is it so persistent? Because it makes a tough doctrine easier to swallow.

    I wouldn’t be comfortable saying that Church leaders are guilty of perpetuating false-but-cozy doctrine, but I think the members do it often.

  6. Kingsley
    May 4, 2004 at 1:33 am

    Julie: I don’t know that the (mis)interpretation persists solely to make “a tough doctrine easier to swallow.” A lot of people find the imagery poignant: you can only get into the Kingdom of Heaven on your knees. My Sunday School, for example, consists mostly of “economically challenged” Saints, and yet the interpretation comes up whenever the scripture does, and these people are applying it to *themselves*— it’s really sort of touching, in an odd way.

  7. May 4, 2004 at 1:39 am

    Clark’s point about theories being incommensurate on Kuhn’s view is an important one. I’m not sure what it means for the Nephites and Joseph Smith to hold the same view, but it seems that there must be some sense in which they do.

    By the way, Clark, it is true that there are philosophers who think about Mormon philosophy who hold that philosophy itself is not systematic and that view almost certainly colors their understanding of LDS theology. (Mark Wrathall, Keith Lane, and I are among them; there are almost certainly others as well.) But given the popularity of Blake Ostler’s and David Paulsen’s work, I don’t think we are exactly a majority (yet–just warning everyone).

  8. Ben Huff
    May 4, 2004 at 1:42 am

    I was trying to avoid bringing up incommensurability because it would make this conversation really complicated! I’m convinced it’s only a technical point in the end, anyway, without major consequences for what I’m talking about. Those who don’t know what that refers to, just ignore it and talk about the other stuff!

    The analogy with quantum mechanics and general relativity might be helpful in interpreting a recent General Conference talk in which the speaker first talked at length about how important it is for the husband/father to preside in the home, and then talked at length about how husbands and wives are to be completely co-equal and to make all important decisions mutually! I don’t understand how those are supposed to fit together (like QM and GR don’t fit together), but I think he was right to present both patterns, and that they are probably complementary approximations to the truth.

  9. Mark Butler
    May 4, 2004 at 1:57 am

    Clark: Brigham Young’s theology wasn’t philosophically systematic, but it was certainly comprehensive – perhaps the most comprehensive LDS theology ever.

    Brigham Young certainly made every effort to make it as systematic as possible, a little too systematic, in the view of his successors.

    Ironically, shorn of certain well known mistakes, Brigham Young’s theology stands up to modern theosophical scrutiny as well as any other. One of the benefits of non-systematic theology is the whole thing doesn’t come crumbling down with the loss of a single assumption.

    Another nice thing about Brigham Young, John Taylor, and Wilford Woodruff is that they all seem to reflect Joseph Smith’s later teachings fairly accurately, rather than attempting to force fit theological absolutism, a la Pratt, perhaps Roberts, definitely Smith / McKonkie.

  10. May 4, 2004 at 2:01 am

    Brigham’s theology isn’t systematic in the sense that most philosophers mean it. Rather it attempts to deal with certain historic and anthropological issues. I’m not sure it is terribly systematic there either – especially compared to Pratt or Roberts who definitely were systemizers. Although as I’ve mentioned on my blog, Pratt has some glaring holes.

  11. Ben Huff
    May 4, 2004 at 2:04 am

    Okay okay, this point called “incommensurability”, is the point that two different theories may be framed in very different terms, so that they don’t even seem to be talking about the same things enough to say they agree or disagree. For instance, Newton was talking about a force attracting any two bodies, while Einstein was talking about a curvature in space-time — completely different kind of thing. So how do we compare them? How can we say they agree on everything that matters to engineers?

    BTW, I think we need to establish in everyone’s mind the incommensurability of time stamps on this blog site! Does anyone actually live in the time zone they are stamped from? Is the server in Greenland or something?

    Jim, here’s why I think incommensurability is not a problem for us and the Nephites. Whether gravity is an attractive force that varies inversely with the square of the distance between two bodies (Newton) or a curvature of space-time (Einstein), either way it is what makes what goes up come back down! What makes me fall over when I trip. There is a common-sense perspective from which we can recognize we are talking about the same thing. The two theories are incommensurable in isolation, but common sense co-measures them. LIkewise, whether we know Christ as the God of Israel (Nephites) or as our elder spirit brother who was chosen at the council in heaven (Joseph Smith), there are shared understandings whereby we can identify it’s the same person — e.g. he who was born of Mary, taught in Jerusalem, and died on the cross to save us from sin.

  12. May 4, 2004 at 2:48 am

    Ben, your point really is to deny the incommesurability of theories. I agree that the pragmatic maxim is an excellent way out of the problem. But also clearly those who raise the issue deny that this solves it, due to differences in meaning. One must also note that the theory entails more than the phenomena. But the issue often divides realists from empiricists from instrumentalists. However I suspect that’s more a topic for LDS-Phil.

    Jim, does Blake’s theology really fit the “systemizing” category? Perhaps it does. I’ve not seen him attempt a systematic theology though. Although perhaps that is his ultimate aim with his series of books. While the systemizing label is applied to process theology, I sometimes wonder how apt it is. If Blake is a systemizer, then I suspect I am (or will be) as well. Contrast this with Brigham Young who I think strongly distrusted any philosophical analysis. (As I do as well – but I think that is due to fallibilism triumphing over dogma)

  13. Mark Butler
    May 4, 2004 at 3:51 am

    Clark, I think what Brigham Young was worried about was the tendency of philosophers to drastically recast the scriptures to fit their theology, rather than drastically recasting their theology to match the scriptures. A re-interpretation of a fundamental doctrine ought to be confirmed by revelation (if only personal, non-authoritative revelation), not reason.

    The whole First Presidency, as well as much of the Twelve thought that Pratt was seriously out of line. When you have General Conferences devoted to the weaknesses of your theology, something is amiss, if only the public preaching of a radically non-normative theology.

  14. Ivan Wolfe
    May 4, 2004 at 8:37 am

    My problem with Kuhn is that he is used more widely in the humanities than in science.

    And when he is used in the humanities (especially English), he is used to attack science.

    Basically, he is used by literary critics to argue that knowledge changes so radically from time to time that we can’t trust or even rely on science – because science is socially constructed and therefore racist/sexist/classist.

    And so on.

  15. Sci
    May 4, 2004 at 9:38 am

    I agree that incommensurability is the problem–many read the metaphysics of Kuhn’s book chapter X as strict incommensurability, ie that people living under different paradigms literally live in other worlds. It is this reading (which is fair) that is emphasized in humanities departments and makes Kuhn seem like a relativist, ruled by “mob psychology.”

    There is another Kuhn to be found in the last chapter of the book and in his later writings, where he does believe there is progress through revolutions at least if you focus only on the number of problems (puzzles) solved and their degree of accuracy. He thinks there is some structure of scientific societies that ensures that more will be gained than lost in paradigm shifts. He is reluctant to say however that science is therefore approaching some kind of absolute metaphysical truth.

    I favor this pragmatic puzzle-solving Kuhn over the overblown relativist Kuhn. Perhaps because I do science.

    Kuhn wrote that one paradigm governs one field at a time. This is apparently not what Ben has in mind for Mormon theology (see comment above). So why not just call it pragmatism, or pluralism? Why use Kuhn at all?

    Specifically what role do revolutions play in theology? What would be the role of normal vs revolutionary theology? Kuhn’s description was of a scientific social structure that makes empirical knowledge more sure. I do not believe the same structure applies to the Mormon religion.

  16. Adam Greenwood
    May 4, 2004 at 10:04 am

    Your point about scientists working within a paradigm to refine it parallels my reasons for liking this blog (at its best). I’m really tired of discussing whether our current doctrines are true or not; I’m more interested in taking our beliefs as they are and running with them, seeing where we end up.

  17. May 4, 2004 at 11:42 am

    Two points:

    First, re Ivan’s story about non-scientists use of Kuhn. Discussion of paradigmns and paradigmn shifts is ridiculously ubiquitous in legal theory (especially after about 1990 when people pretty much gave up on trying to beat back law and economics). When I was an editor at the Harvard Law Review, we recieved a challenge from an attorney in Denver. If we could publish one issue of the Review (100-200 pages) without using the word “paradigmn” he would buy the whole staff ice cream. We had to visciously edit a couple of pieces, but we succeeded!

    Ben: I fear that I am with the Sci here. I am not sure how much work Kuhn’s ideas of paradigm, normal v. revolutionary science, paradigm shifts, and the like is doing in your account. It seems to me that you are arguing for something like a coherentist approach tempered by pragmatism. What am I missing?

    Mark: I just don’t buy the idea that BY’s theology was primarily concerned with saving scriptural texts from philosophical speculation. If there was ever a guy who was willing to play fast and easy with scriptural texts it was Brigham Young!

  18. Gary Cooper
    May 4, 2004 at 4:19 pm

    Adam Greenwood,

    You said, “Your point about scientists working within a paradigm to refine it parallels my reasons for liking this blog (at its best). I’m really tired of discussing whether our current doctrines are true or not; I’m more interested in taking our beliefs as they are and running with them, seeing where we end up.”

    Here, here!!!

  19. Ben Huff
    May 4, 2004 at 4:52 pm

    Nate and Sci,

    Fair questions. Part of why I think it’s useful to refer to Kuhnian science is that I can refer to the history of science as a set of examples of the sorts of developments one might see in theology. Here is a concrete example of how systematic method has worked within (broadly speaking, de facto) pragmatic pluralist limits to produce a really interesting development of ideas.
    So it might be more accurate to say I am more interested in using the history of science as a model, as it comes to be seen through Kuhn’s discussion (as contrasted with some simplistic conceptions of scientific progress you might find in textbooks).

    But I don’t want to distance myself from Kuhn; I think there really were revolutions and paradigm shifts in scientific knowledge, and that these are key to how I see the history of science as a useful model for theology. Of course, some examples of potential revolutions in theology I might be tempted to give would generate huge, raging debates calling for their own threads. So I’m feeling cautious about bringing up concrete examples. But one relatively safe example, of course, is the shift from classical Christianity (i.e. apostate Christianity from an LDS perspective) to the view reflected in Joseph Smith’s King Follett Discourse, in which God the Father is embodied and became God through a process of exaltation something like what he plans for us. This change implies changes in many other theological concepts. Another interesting and relatively uncontroversial case, this time within broadly a Mormon scene would be, as Jim mentions, the difference between a Nephite view of judgment day (a heaven/hell conception) and the contemporary LDS view (three degrees of glory, no hell per se, etc.). For a more controversial example, someone (e.g. Dennis Potter) might suggest that a payment theory of the atonement is based on Law of Moses logic that doesn’t hold up under New Testament or Book of Mormon notions of justice, and hence needs to be replaced by some other theory.

    Ivan, your concern has a lot to do with why I didn’t bring up the incommensurability business to begin with. Obviously the literary critics tend to exaggerate its importance, with some support from the original edition of _The Structure of Scientific Revolutions_, but Kuhn himself later distanced himself from these extreme interpretations and elaborated his views in a way that clarifies they are less radical. The incommensurability problem affects how we conceive of progress in science, but doesn’t change the fact that there is rationally identifiable progress in science; it only becomes more than a technical point for people who live in different worlds (the flip side of what Sci refers to; philosophers, think modus tollens).

  20. May 4, 2004 at 5:08 pm

    Ben: My next question. It seems to me that your analogy to science requires that we make some distinction between theory (theology) and the data that it seeks to explain (revelations?). I am not sure how easy it is to make such a distinction, particularlly since we have certain attempts at prophetic theorizing which claim to be divinely inspired. One can get around this problem — it seems to me — by claiming that we don’t really have concrete data that must be explained, but rather we simply have differing theological points of view that help us better get along in the world (broadly concieved to include the eterneties). However, in this case it seems that Kuhn is once more falling back toward pragmatism…

  21. Kevin Christensen
    May 4, 2004 at 7:32 pm

    Regarding Kuhn, has anyone read my essay “Paradigms Crossed” in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 7/2. I’ve several times compared Kuhn and Alma 32, but go into the most detail here.

    Regarding “incommensurability”, see Ian Barbour, “Myths, Models, and Paradigms: A Comparative Study in Science and Religion” (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), especially 108-118.

    “All data are theory-laden, but rival theories are not incommensurable. There is no pure observation language; the distinction between theory and observation is relative, pragmatic, and context dependent. But protagonists of rival theories can seek a common core of overlap in observation languages, on a level closer to agreed observations to which both can retreat…Even in a gestalt switch, after all, there are lines in the picture which remain unchanged. Unlike a gestalt switch, however, therer are in science criteria for favoring one interpretation over another – though I will suggest, in the very early stages, when a comprehensive theory is first proposed, those criteria seldom yield definitive conclustions” (Barbour, 113-114)

    Third, there are no rules for choice between research programs, but there are independent criteria of assessment… there is, in Kuhn’s words, ‘no systematic decision procedure which must lead every individual in the group to the same decision.’ Yet the criteria provide what Kuhn calls ‘shared values’ and ‘good reasons’ for choice; they are ‘important determinants of group behavior, even though the members of the group do not apply them in the same way.'” (Barbour, 115).

    Kevin Christensen
    Temporarily St. Louis

  22. May 4, 2004 at 7:41 pm

    Kevin, I think Kuhn denies the extent of this overlap. But he clearly in his overlap agrees we can compare accuracy of predictions. He would just point out that this doesn’t flow down to meanings.

  23. May 4, 2004 at 7:45 pm

    Mark, I think you are on weak ground. The big issue with Pratt and Young tended to have Pratt as the defender of the scripture and Young saying they don’t matter, that only modern revelation matters. In terms of defending scriptural exegesis what Nate says is right. Young was teaching things opposite to scripture and it is later prophets who’ve adopted the Pratt position and used fairly similar arguments to Pratt to downplay Young’s position. Young simply didn’t appeal to close scriptural exegesis to make a point. Now certainly in the quorum Pratt was in the minority. But there was more going on than you seem to suggest. As to who was right, I think that is fairly complex issue. (I think them both right and wrong in various ways) But it certainly isn’t the simple presentation you give.

  24. Ben Huff
    May 4, 2004 at 9:55 pm

    Thanks for the references, Kevin!

  25. Mark Butler
    May 5, 2004 at 1:00 am

    Certain aspects of both Pratt’s and Young’s theology have been rejected, and interestingly enough each was involved in the process. Pratt protested publicly against Young’s extended Adam-God theory on the basis that it contradicted Alma on the permanency of the resurrection.

    Pratt’s theory that we worship the attributes of God (divinity), rather than God (as a specific person) is the main thing that got him in trouble. There was a general conference held explaining the problems with Pratt’s doctrine. Brigham Young stated that he would not worship such a (non-personal) God.

    Young also notably disagreed with Paul on the natural man, as well as with the standard Christian absolutist interpretation of the scriptures in general. The main issue is not that each departed from scripture to some degree, but rather what motivated that departure.

    Young stated that he learned the Adam-God principle from Joseph Smith, was just continuing in the same tradition, and was dissapointed that the Saints would not trust him the way that they did Smith. As President of the Church, he certainly had more latitude to proclaim new doctrine than any single apostle.

    Pratt, on the other hand, like absolutists in general, axiomatized God to the degree that God wasn’t really a person any more, but rather a set of attributes shared by a number of divine persons. God is love, God is justice, etc. The idea is intriguing, but it seems to me a greater departure than identifying any exalted man, on this world, or any other world, as our Father and our God.

    As Joseph Smith said, “God is an exalted man”. However he also said that “Elohim” is a proper plural. So we are left with a paradox. Young tried to fix it in a way that few found acceptable, and which was later officially condemned. However, it seems to me that his theory, however flawed, is a much more coherent vision of the order of heaven, than one which attempts to absolutize divinity or exaltation or both.

    The Smith/McConkie theologies seem to me to be a hybrid of Brigham Young style infinite backward recursion, and Pratt style absolutism. Then we have more modern Ostler/Paulsen style theologies that reject the idea that there was ever a time when God the Father was not fully divine, despite possibly going through a kenotic experience on some earth.

    There are other alternatives, however. One is the idea that though each divine person is self-existent, divinity is not self-existent, but is a result of the plan of salvation. i.e. that God the Father became God – that his work and his glory is bringing to pass the salvation of his children, and that if he did not do that he would not be divine. That divinity flows upward in terms of honor, as well as downward in terms of grace. That the head God described by Joseph Smith authored the original plan, and became God to those who chose to follow him, etc. That God is first and foremost a relational role, that power comes by virtue of those relations. That is rough, but clear enough I trust.

  26. Sci
    May 5, 2004 at 3:11 pm

    Ben, what you have done is describe religious change. I see no reason to describe them as Kuhnian revolutions. Kuhn describes a very specific mechanism for revolution in science, and the structure of this mechanism does not apply to religions.

    Early readers of Kuhn were so disturbed by incommensurability and his apparent relativism, that the revolution part of the cycle got most of the attention. But what I think is really insightful about Kuhn is his description of “normal science.” Some things need to be taken off the table so that people can agree and focus their attention on the minutiae. Normal science is well focused, specialized, has jargon and journals, and seems to make progress. Without this commitment to a paradigm, no one would be willing to put time and money into determining some constant to the nth decimal place.

    But it is this focus of normal science that creates crises that bring about revolutions. Nothing like this happens in religion. We don’t select some very tiny sliver of scripture to study (the equivalent of one verse of the BofM). We don’t find anomalies in the Song of Solomn that lead to revolutions. The Kuhnian cycle of normal and revolutionary periods doesn’t fit.

    I see Kuhn as describing a mechanism for how science changes–and it is a mechanism specific to the structure of scientific communities and science’s relation to the details of the physical world.

    Which is not to say that I am against your idea of comparing change in religion and science from a pragmatist perspective. I just don’t see Kuhn as being helpful, unless you’re just trying to weaken science by emphasizing its pragmatic aspects.

  27. Ben Huff
    May 5, 2004 at 3:54 pm

    Sci, I am definitely not trying to weaken science. I’m trying to develop a picture of how human theoretical reason can get real traction in religious thought, while staying more humble than I think it often has in systematic theology in the past. It is the strength of the process of reason that drives science I am trying to draw on here, a strength that is also moderated by a serious confrontation with the mysteries of nature, a confrontation that keeps science humble, i.e. limits how dogmatic it can be.

    Thanks for sticking with this discussion; you’re helping me see where my thoughts need development. Ultimately some more generic, pluralist, pragmatist approach to systematic work in theology would be acceptable to me, but I think there is more to the comparison with Kuhn than you’re acknowledging.

    Sure, the examples of religions change I have referred to did not come about in the way that Kuhn describes scientific revolutions coming about. Or at least, if they did (particularly the Joseph Smith event), that would be a novel point so far unsupported. I brought these up primarily as examples of different theological paradigms, such that moving from one to another would be/is revolutionary.

    My point is not that theology made such movements in the past in the way science does, on Kuhn’s account. For all I know it hasn’t. But that doesn’t imply that it couldn’t or shouldn’t in the future.

    Still, how much past theological change resembles Kuhn’s scientific revolutions it seems to me is an open question. What motivated Luther and Calvin to make their break with Catholicism? Wasn’t it some set of problems with the existing theology that they found intolerable, and concern with a certain set of scriptural teachings and perhaps human issues that they felt were better addressed by a new view? Did something similar, in Joseph’s mind and perhaps the minds of others at his time (e.g. others who thought a restoration was called for, like Sidney Rigdon), set the stage for him to receive new revelation? These seem like questions that could go either way, if one went to look at the history.

    I don’t know exctly how small the hinges are on which Calvin’s revolution, for example, changed, but my impression is that emphasis on strict readings of a few passages in Paul was a big part of the justification. Joseph Smith, at fourteen, doesn’t seem to have been as articulate about why he was torn between the sects as Luther and Calvin were about their dissatisfaction. And we as a church are mostly concerned to just say, “God revealed new truth that showed the old was false”, not to talk about how problems visible from within the old paradigm might have motivated an experiment with a new. But I suspect there was more in that vein than we talk about. The movement today called Open Theism has made some movements that resemble ours, just on the basis of trying to read the Bible fresh, without a lot of philosophical presuppositions.

  28. May 5, 2004 at 5:09 pm

    While I agree with sci’s comments. We must also note that an other thing leading to revolutions in a Kuhnian sense is new data. Often the theories were always there. As revolutionary as GR and SR were – there were already movements in that directly within science. (i.e. the relativized mechanics of Leibniz or Mach) The Michaelson-Morrely experiment was what led to the revolution though. It repudiated the speed of light.

    Within *our* religion we can see similar things. Consider the repudiation of polygamy by Wilford Woodruff. That led to a huge rethinking and revaluing of theology – in effect Pratt triumphing over Young. Consider concerns about texts which ushered in a neo-Protestant literalism with Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie. Consider the civil rights movement and the revelation on Priesthood. There really are lots of extra evidence leading to a change in focus which I think is very Kuhnian.

    That’s not to say I don’t agree with many of your criticisms. And I think that there are definite problems with aspects of Kuhn. But I think the other problem is you are speaking of religion in general instead of Mormon religion. I think Mormonism’s emphasis on direct experience opens it up towards a Kuhnian analysis far more than other religions.

    However I must admit I find the coherentist view of truth that tends to be implicit with many uses of Kuhn by apologists very disturbing. (I’ve written about that at various times on my blog)

  29. May 5, 2004 at 5:56 pm

    Who is Kuhn and why is anything he/she said important or relevant in any way to our religion?

    It sounds like academic hogwash.

  30. May 5, 2004 at 6:05 pm

    Jordan, did you not bother to read Ben’s post? In it he answers both of your questions. Ben explains, briefly, who Kuhn is and suggests that Kuhn’s theories about the development of scientific theories may help us understand the development of LDS theologies–_not_, it is important to note, LDS religion. If, as seems to be the case for you, “academic” and “hogwash” mean the same thing, then you’re right: the discussion here is academic hogwash. But if that’s what you think, why bother reading the ramblings of those on this blog site or responding to them?

  31. May 5, 2004 at 6:21 pm


    Sorry to have impugned your profession. I read Ben’s explanation, and still did not understand what he meant or why Kuhn was important. He must speak your language.

    I may just be incredibly ignorant, but I did attend graduate school for several years, finally leaving a Ph.D. program because I just couldn’t take the meaningless theories any longer.

    Indeed, it was all “academic hogwash” in the truest sense- stuff that is admittedly interesting but practically useless. I visit this site and others 1) because I like to read and think about the real interface between my religion and modern culture, and 2) because I keep hoping that someone sometime will actually rid me of my academic disillusionment.

    It is hard to imagine that people actually make a career out of researching such stuff as “Alfred Doblin and Hysteria” or Gothic Syllable Structure (actual dissertations presented in the Michigan German Department…)

  32. Adam Greenwood
    May 5, 2004 at 6:39 pm

    On the fault-lines that made the old view intolerable, preparing the way for Joseph Smith:

    1) the growing discomfort with nigh-universal damnation (though I don’t know that it was forces with the old religious views that led to this discomfort)

    2) the lack of spiritual gifts (definitely a fault line within the old religion)

    3) along the same lines, what someone or other has called the crisis of authority–the search for prophets and priesthood as of old

    4) Finally, taking Joseph Smith’s account at face value, the mere multiplicity of sects tended to undermine the view of the intelligibility of the Bible on which those sects were founded.

  33. Sci
    May 5, 2004 at 7:14 pm


    Jordan has raied a wonderful issue here, the issue of Gothic syllable structure. No one in their right mind would possibly be interested in something so inane. Unless they were motivated by a paradigm that would lead them to believe they could make and test predictions about Gothic syllables, which might help explain the history of the German language. My area of expertise is the biochemical equivalent of such a small field. I just don’t see that “normal science” specialization and puzzle solving happening in religion. To say there are religious changes (even revolutions) in response to some need does not mean these crises were produced in the Kuhnian mechanism. Nor should they have to in order to be considered legitimate.

    I appreciate the distinction made between theology and religion. Perhaps theology is more Kuhnian in the sense that it is constrained by texts and experience in a similar way to science.

    What has long interested me in Kuhn and sociologists of science like Steven Shapin is the idea that there is a social strucutural aspect to the strength of science. A structure that allows trust in reporting, agreement on fundamentals, and close ties to empirical data. For Kuhn the social ordering is due to the sheer brilliance of a paradigm (that is, paradigm as technical advance). I wonder if something like Joseph’s First Vision could also be considered a technical advance (hey cool, I can talk to God) and a normative social structure for how answers should be sought and what makes a good answer.

  34. Sci
    May 5, 2004 at 7:24 pm

    Two quick things:

    I was very impressed by the first chapter of Steven Shapin’s book “A Social History of Truth” which describes the linkage of trust and knowledge. Anyone read it? Clark? Along these lines, I think its interesting to ask how we set up structures of trust and knowledge in the church. As Nate Oman has pointed out, we have a fairly democratic epistemology in the sense that anyone can pray and get answers through the spirit for themselves. Nicely decentralized, except that your interpretation may well be overruled by some higher church authority. The balance of authority and personal revelation allows the whole thing to work.

    Second, Jordan–Sadly some specialization is required nowadays in academia, and it may look uninteresting at the PhD dissertation level, but in aggregate lots of interesting work is done and progress made (esp in the natural sciences, woohoo natural science!). The trick is to be specialized enough to contribute but general enough to appreciate the whole picture and enjoy it. And sadly, much in academia is hogwash as you say. But to dismiss it all as such is probably a mistake.

  35. May 5, 2004 at 7:37 pm

    Sci is, of course, right.

    I must confess that I find myself wildly interested in many hogwash-like academic endeavours. I am just frustrated at the moment because I am trying to write one of those sorts of papers… :)

    Maybe it WOULD help if I took more time to actually read what Ben said about Kuhnian assumptions. What Ben describes as Kuhnian seems to be common sense to me, so it seems a shame to have to label it. But I guess there is some merit to being the first to articulate a common sense notion with words that we can actually use to exchange ideas, rather than keeping it in the realm of abstract intuition.

    But I have already digressed from the point of this thread too much. Carry on!

  36. Ben Huff
    May 5, 2004 at 7:42 pm

    Adam, great summary of how the Joseph Smith revolution could look Kuhnian!

    Sci, yes, I think it is important to distinguish the way theology develops from the way religion as a whole develops, though the two are interrelated. Scholastic disputes about angels and their properties start to look like some of the puzzle-solving that goes on in “normal science”, and which sometimes leads to revolution. The photoelectric effect must have seemed pretty obscure at the time! Mormons haven’t been around long enough to have a lot of this puzzle-solving appear among them, but if you look at the pages of _Faith and Philosophy_, you will see lots of it! Stuff about the grounding of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, for example. The reason I didn’t do a dissertation in philosophy of religion at Notre Dame is that while I was intrigued by the problems and methods, I didn’t share the assumptions of the other practitioners, so I wasn’t deeply interested in working on their puzzles, and didn’t think research into *my* puzzles, or a project of expounding my objections to their assumptions, would be a very satisfying way (and not as effective as some other options) to orient myself in the partly social role of PhD student there.

  37. May 5, 2004 at 7:52 pm

    Jordan, the main point of Kuhn tends to only make sense if you are already familiar with the debates about what constitutes scientific theories and progress within science. Specifically Kuhn was opposed to both positivsm as well as the particular conception of science by Popper. The objection to Kuhn relates to whether we are converging on truth and whether we are getting more objective.

    Of course not everyone will find that interesting. On the other hand I don’t think it valid to criticize a discipline because it isn’t interesting to you. For instance I loved studying tensor formulations of classical mechanics problems in physics. One of my favorite blogs was the now defunct “This Week in Mathematical Physics.” I’m sure much of those things are *very* uninteresting to most. Yet, perhaps because physicists have a better reputation than philosophers, few would criticize it. Even though the most interesting physics is speculative theoretical physics which has the least amount of practical utility. (And let’s not get started on abstract mathematics)

    Kuhn is relevant to Mormon theology though, and FARMS authors often invoke him. (Unfortunately in my opinion) I blogged on him a bit a few weeks back.

    Here’s a nice overview of Kuhn with some links.

  38. May 5, 2004 at 7:59 pm

    “Scholastic disputes about angels and their properties start to look like some of the puzzle-solving that goes on in “normal science”, and which sometimes leads to revolution.”

    This is a good point, especially since the debate about angels was whether a pin could hold a finite or infinite amount of angels. And discussions of infinities are always relevant within mathematics.

    Sci, I’ve not read that particular book, although we’ve been discussion the place of belief on a Peirce list I’ve been in. I think there is a difference between the social role of truth as a kind of trust and the philosophical sense of truth which is more relevant within science. (Since most scientists are supposed to be skeptical and thus orient trust differently than lay people do)

  39. Mark Butler
    May 6, 2004 at 8:14 am

    Here is a good description of the limitations of Kuhn seen from a scientific perspective. It is from a review of Kuhn by Steven Weinberg, a world reknowned physicist:

    If we take Weinberg’s criticism’s to heart and use a quasi-Kuhnian multi-threaded model of theological development where each thread (or paradigm) has some necessary relation with the gospel truth, we can represent the development of multiple non-normative LDS theologies (such as those developed by different apostles) much better than if we assume that all faithful gospel scholars of a given time frame are necessarily working from the same thread or paradigm.

    There are at least a half-dozen questions that divide LDS theologies into camps. Eternal progression in knowledge is the most famous – dividing Pratt/McKonkie/JFSmith from Young/Taylor/Woodruff. Panpsychism, Metaphysical free will, Simple foreknowledge, Creation literalism, attitude towards science, and mode of scriptural exegesis are among many others.

    To the degree that the Church does not establish an official position on these questions, theological development will be multi-threaded, though subdued due to standard restrictions on discussing non-normative theology in Church settings. So rather than trying to establish once and for all the truth of some theological position, we might rather establish it within the context of some well-understood thread or paradigm of LDS thought, with the assumption (contra-Kuhn) that each thread has some bearing on the truth, and that no one thread necessarily predominates.

  40. Sci
    May 6, 2004 at 10:11 am


    The trouble that I have with your theology as normal science argument is that although theologians may ponder the number of angels that stand on the head of a pin, it seems to me that the revolutions come through some other source entirely–some obscure boy praying in the woods near his farm. The revolutions do not come through philosophical theology (at least it seems this way in Mormonism). The work of the theologian is not really what precipitates crisis. Other social and historical factors do.

    Clark, the distinction between the so-called context of discovery and context of justification seems to be what you are maintaining–a good logical empiricist workhorse. I don’t think I buy it. While I accept that scientists have a peculiar orientation of trust that allows problem-solving and empirical data to play important roles, I reject the idea that skepticism plays as big a role as people like Feynman would have you believe. After all, 99.99% of everything I know about science I take on authority. Someone like a sociologist would be much more skeptical, I would say–a sociology PhD is skeptical of the very methods, the very foundation of the discipline, and doubts his/her advisor far more than a chemist does. The social role is tied into holism about testing–I can’t possibly empirically test everything I know and therefore have to rely on trust. What becomes important is knowing who and what to trust. Science is very good at this.

    Mark, of course someone like Weinberg would have major problems with Kuhn. He believes that science is converging on objective truth; Kuhn denies this (though I think he is less of a relativist (like Rorty) than a pragmatist–“who cares, as long as the solutions to the problems we are interested in get better?”). Scientists are not to be trusted for philosophical insight. (I suppose that includes myself).

  41. May 6, 2004 at 12:40 pm

    Sci, I thought Rorty was the pragmatist (of the Dewey sort, according to him) while Kuhn was the Kantian.

    Regarding contexts of discovery and justification, I agree with your comments up to a point. I disagree with your downplaying of skepticism in physics. Indeed I think many major physics paradigms are distrusted far more than what we find in sociology. I think all physicists consider the standard model at best flawed and most expect it to be very wrong. The inconsistencies between QM and GR make this fairly easy for the physicist to do thoguh.

    Feynman was a bit more of a skeptic, of course. But that’s because he was primarily an instrumentalist and not an empiricist or realist. Instrumentalists are always more skeptical since they feel knowledge really is never present, only useful models. (They also tend to be very antithetical to philosophy)

    I also diagree with the 99% figure. While there is always the “authority issue” most physicists I know prefer to see the arguments and data. This is fairly easy in physics since you generally go through all the proofs and assumptions for nearly everything in your course work. For the rest most physics papers of the last decade or more are available online fairly easily. It has been my experience that they do at least try to investigate other disciplines with a similar rigor. Of course when they find it often can’t be done or that there is less rigor to the disciplines many get cynical. Perhaps overly so. I suspect this is also in part why many physicists don’t trust philosophy – too many alternatives.

  42. May 6, 2004 at 1:08 pm

    Clark: How useful is physics these days as a model of science anyway? I claim no expertise or knowledge at all here, but my understanding is that the field has become largely mathematicized and deductive, so that one can walk most of the epistemological path one’s self because it consists of logical proofs. On the other hand, it seems that a field like biology or chemistry is more dominated by complex observation and less by logical deduction. Accordingly, the Sci figure (which I take as a rhetorical device meaning “a whole bunch” rather than the result of a precise tabulation) seems more plausible to me.

  43. Mark Butler
    May 6, 2004 at 8:33 pm

    Nate: Physics is first and foremost an expirimental science. Though there is a very large theoretical contingent these days, I think it is safe to say most physicists treat physical theories with a very healthy skepticism until confirmatory evidence is provided. Physical theories without evidence are basically mathematical speculation. Fortunately, most physical theories are relatively easy to test. The type of theory that gets popular press tends to be the far out stuff where testing is difficult.

  44. Tatiana
    September 14, 2005 at 3:13 pm

    Ben, you’ve described exactly how I approach religion, as a branch of science that allows for both subjective and objective observations. Or perhaps science is the branch of my religion that deals with some of the easier questions. (smiles)

    “… which address its polyphony in concert …” Is this a very clever pun or the extension of a great metaphor? As a metaphor it reminds me of the song of creation by the Ainur in Tolkien’s cosmology.

    I enjoyed Kuhn’s book and agree with him, except I think perhaps his dichotomy of normal vs. revolutionary science is too extreme. To me all extensions of knowledge are revolutionary to a greater or lesser degree. I disagree that there is any sharp divide between the two types of science. This leads me to wonder again just how much science is shaped by the minds who discover it. Would physics have unfolded in anything like the same way if Newton had never lived? Would our theories now be very different? This ties in to your post of 9/9/2005 “Touched by Our Infirmities”. How much is our theology shaped by our own minds and, spirits, our abilities and limitations?

    This idea does reconcile my difficulty with some of the current teachings of the Church, in emphasizing that our knowledge isn’t complete and monolithic. There’s no reason to abandon physics because general relativity doesn’t square with quantum electrodynamics, and Einstein can be wrong about determinism while still being right about the photoelectric effect. What a fruitful parallel!

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