September 21, 2020
Kuhn’s 1962 essay (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) exploring the nature of changes in scientific theories, and a plethora of commentaries since, have made it out to be a Big Deal and to be also somewhat mysterious: “revolution”, “incommensurability of paradigms”, “new world”, etc.
It seems to me the essence of it is simply different viewpoints. Just as the landscape looks different when viewed from different locations, the facts and theories of the sciences appear different when understood from different conceptual locations in the intellectual landscape.
Ptolemy drew a picture of what the universe looked like from the Earth. Copernicus described how it looked from the Sun. Newton depicted the view from gravity. Notice that the terms “Earth”, “Sun”, and “gravity” are not “something out there” but are concepts that make sense of or create meaning from a selection of observations. Gravity, for example, made sense of falling apples and revolving planets. The other viewpoints “saw” no connection between apples and planets. Definitions changed: The observations once considered important in the term “planet” were replaced with other observations. New mathematical techniques were developed which would have seemed nonsensical to people occupying the old viewpoints. The resulting view of the “gravity universe” was that of isolated “billiard balls” occasionally perturbing each other. This replaced the old views of a system of nested spheres or an assembly of epicycles.
Now the “Electric Universe” is a different viewpoint. Notice, for example, that its definition of “plasma” is not the conventional one of “ionized gas”. That latter definition jumps to the conclusion that you can understand something about plasma by falling back on what you know about ideal gasses and thermal
ionization. The ideal gas law is an important insight in the conventional view, but it becomes a blindfold in the electric view, preventing you from seeing what’s before your eyes. Rather, “plasma” is an emergent (i.e., higher-level or statistical-level) orderliness of complex electrical forces: such properties as filamentation, long-range attraction and short-range repulsion, braiding, characteristic velocities, formation and decay of plasmoids, and identity of properties at different scales.
The mathematical shorthand that was developed for articulating the gravity view and for using the technologies based on it doesn’t work for the plasma view. A new mathematics-and new technologies-will need to be invented.The view of the universe from a plasma vantage point is one of persistently interacting aggregates with wide-spread resonance effects: a “driven” universe rather than one rolling to a stop.
So the definitions are different, the facts are different, the math is different, the theories are different: The universe looks different because the plasma physicist is standing in a different conceptual location from the gravity physicist. And although the content of each paradigm can’t be compared with the other, the respective viewpoints can be compared.
B. J. F. Lonergan’s 1957 work (Insight) on the nature of understanding provides one ground upon which different viewpoints can be compared. Theories come and go, but the underlying function, purpose, and construction of theories arise from the nature of cognition. As one of the ways in which people relate to the universe, cognition fashions intellectual tools-theories-to accomplish particular goals. Hence, from a selection of theories, one can be preferred on the basis of its utility value-the one which seems most likely to achieve the goal with the greatest efficiency and least effort.
One criterion for the efficient achievement of the goal of understanding the universe is comprehensiveness. Again comparing the intellectual landscape with the physical, the higher the viewpoint the greater the purview. In this sense, Kuhn’s process of periods of cumulation of knowledge within a paradigm separated by episodes of paradigm shifts can be understood as the progressive achievement of higher viewpoints affording greater purviews. Notice that from this understanding the often-used (and abused when applied outside a paradigm) judgements of “right/wrong”, “correct/incorrect”, even “true/false”, are meaningless.
Upon this ground for comparing viewpoints, the case can be made that the plasma paradigm is “higher” than the gravity one in that it encompasses a larger domain of evidence. Not only does it explain more phenomena, it explains those phenomena with a comprehensive and unitary theory. It “sees” more landscape, more features of that landscape, and more relationships among those features.
Gravity, in contrast, “sees” fewer features and “sees” them as disparate events, each requiring a separate ad hoc explanation. For example, every feature on every planet has its own theory: impact craters, volcanoes, tidal cracks, floods of disappearing water, lava that runs uphill, runaway greenhouses, etc. The generality of gravity is obscured with ad hoc inventions, and those inventions fail to account for details intrinsic in the plasma view. Gravity fails to account for entire new observations, extrapolating itself beyond reality and into denial: Super-massive stars spinning super-fast, exploding stars whose shock-waves create intricate structures, cannibalistic galaxies, dark matter that overwhelms observed matter, photos cropped between galaxies and connected quasars, silence in the face of the quantization of redshifts, etc. More and more evidence is being ignored.
Newton was unaware of plasma. Today his disciples spend years in training learning when and how to shut their eyes to it. It’s not just the Big Bang, General Relativity, and Quantum Mechanics that are in trouble but the foundation of them all: Gravity is an exhausted and bankrupt concept. A higher, more comprehensive foundation is needed. The technologies of gravity have lifted us to a viewpoint that’s bigger than gravity, and we need new ideas and new tools to make sense of the new vistas.
The Thunderbolts Picture of the Day is generously supported by the Mainwaring Archive Foundation.