Epistemic Stagnation and Proto-Paradigmatic Sciences

Friday 29 March 2024

Nick Nielsen
9 min readApr 1, 2024

As I have been thinking more about philosophy of history recently, I often find myself thinking about the scientific status of history, and this in turn causes me to reflect on the scientific status of the natural sciences in comparison to history. While there are many differences, there are also a lot of surprising similarities. I recently learned about the work of Nathan Rotenstreich on philosophy of history, so I got a copy of his book Between Past and Present: An Essay on History. I learned about this from a book I happened upon at a used book store, A Behavioral Approach to Historical Analysis by Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr., which has provided me with many interesting references previously unknown to me. And now Rotenstreich is also providing me with previously unknown references. In any case, I found this in Between Past and Present:

“…historical knowledge and its concrete and practical expression, historical research, isolate events from their actual context. They choose from the domain of occurrence some events and then contract the process into a fragment or composition of fragments. From the tapestry of life, as Georg Simmel has so well put it, a few threads are chosen. Therefore this knowledge faces the problem of choice, i.e. how and what to take from the actual occurrence.” (p. 13)

While this is true, and it presents problems for historical knowledge, it is also true for the natural sciences. There is a telling passage in Eugene Wigner’s essay “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences” that I have quoted previously, as I find it quite striking:

“…someone came to me and expressed his bewilderment with the fact that we make a rather narrow selection when choosing the data on which we test our theories. ‘How do we know that, if we made a theory which focuses its attention on phenomena we disregard and disregards some of the phenomena now commanding our attention, that we could not build another theory which has little in common with the present one but which, nevertheless, explains just as many phenomena as the present theory?’ It has to be admitted that we have no definite evidence that there is no such theory.”

This is precisely what Rotenstreich was quoting Simmel about on history, transposed into the natural sciences, and Rotenstreich’s concern about history is Wigner’s problematic observation transposed into history. And the problem involves both history and the natural sciences because both employ abstractions; science and history isolate events from their actual context because both use concepts that pick out some features of the world while neglecting other features of the world.

The use of abstractions, which is characteristic of human thought, unifies history and science so that we have this surprising correspondence of a problem in both history and science. However, while anyone can see this problem in history, because there are so many differing accounts that the problem of the objectivity of history is a fundamental concern for philosophers of history, philosophers of science are not troubled by the problem of objectivity in the same way. Perhaps they should be. It takes a particularly perceptive individual, as in Wigner’s anecdote, to notice that the problem even occurs in science. History is not isolated within human thought by this difficulty of the possibility of alternative histories, but alternative natural sciences are much less in evidence.

We can go back through the origins of contemporary natural science in the early modern period, and there we can find in abundance alternative natural sciences, but subsequent research has allowed us to converge upon a robust consensus that allows the natural sciences to continue to develop almost seamlessly. I say “almost” because there are a lot of problems that we don’t know how to solve — dark matter, dark energy, the relationship between relativity and quantum theory, and the disagreements in measurements of the Hubble constant, for example — but science goes on nevertheless (science goes on as what Kuhn called “normal science”), with the background assumption being that, at some point, something will break and some of these apparently insoluble problems will be solved, albeit at the expense of some revision and readjustment of the conceptual framework of the sciences. We’re okay with that; over the nearly half millennium of modern science, we’ve had to repeatedly revise the conceptual framework of science. Yet we find it somewhat more disturbing to have to revise our conceptions of history.

Different techniques for measuring the Hubble Constant yield different results, which is sometimes downplayed as the “Hubble tension” and sometimes dramatized as the “Crisis in Cosmology.”

Some of these revisions of our conception of the world in terms of natural science are not small, and not really in the distant past. Geomorphology and plate tectonics gave us Earth with a natural history, constantly changing, and cosmology has given us an Earth that has formed and will someday disintegrate, and this happened in the twentieth century. Nothing could be a more radical change from the presupposition of Earth as essentially unchanged over geological time — an eternal Earth — to the presupposition of Earth with a natural history, but we did eventually accept this change, perhaps not with equanimity, as it was bitterly opposed by many geologists, but it is now geological orthodoxy.

Imagine if the twentieth century had equally revolutionized our conception of the historical past — would we have been able to integrate into the body of human knowledge a radically changed history within the period of a single century? Some would argue that we have had radical changes in our history. For example, the discovery of Göbekli Tepe has deepened human history by many thousands of years, and has enriched our understanding of the many ways it is possible for human beings to gather together and to create societies. The argument can be made, then, but I am skeptical that this change is as radical as our change in understanding Earth over the past century. Partly this is due to the fact that history doesn’t seem to provide the hard-edged hypotheses of the natural sciences, so new discoveries aren’t necessarily seen as overturning previous ways of understanding the past; there are always those who can make a plausible claim that they expected the unprecedented discovery, whatever it happens to be, and this claim isn’t always wrong. There are widely divergent conceptions of human history with contemporary currency, so that there is likely someone who has anticipated the unprecedented discovery.

Göbekli Tepe is an example of monumental architecture from the pre-pottery Neolithic era, and when it was discovered it was entirely unexpected. How was it built, who built it, and why?

At this point I could make the pedestrian and comforting generalization that all the sciences, all the branches of human knowledge, including history, are in continual development, and must always be open to revision. Except this isn’t true. Human knowledge, or some branch of human knowledge, often enters into periods of extended stagnation in which little or no development takes place, and the stagnant body of knowledge is not open to revision.

This past week it occurred to me that some sciences stagnate prior to their achieving an initial condition of conceptual maturity, whereas other sciences seem to stagnate after they have achieved an initial state of conceptual maturity. By “initial state of maturity” I mean something like Newtonian physics, which has subsequently undergone revisions, but it is a recognizably sophisticated science of physics that captures both features of the world and significant human intuitions in a single body of knowledge. A science having attained an initial state of maturity is still subject to development and revision, and indeed also subject to stagnation, but it has at least established itself as a science, and it can continue to develop through hypothesis testing and experimentation.

The Kuhnian terminology of “paradigmatic” is used for sciences that converge on a coherent framework for scientific research, and this is close to what I mean by a science in an initial state of maturity (although by calling it “initial” I am implying a kind of linear development over time, and not the interpretation of Kuhn that makes the development of science into an irrational and unaccountable paradigm shift), so I am going to expropriate “paradigm” according to my own usage, and extend it as follows.

Sciences that have not yet converged on a coherent scientific research program are called pre-paradigmatic. I have observed elsewhere that the study of civilization is pre-paradigmatic; there is no established research program and unifies the efforts of researchers. We can further posit proto-paradigmatic science as nascent sciences that stagnate prior to achieving an initial state of maturity. History is like this, though it isn’t necessarily the best example of a proto-paradigmatic science. I would argue that ancient science and through the medieval period up to the scientific revolution was proto-paradigmatic. Yes, there were a few good results, but for whatever reason (probably for many reasons) no unified and coherent research program emerged for the study of nature. And while proto-science in antiquity seemed to be making strides toward advancement, the nascent enterprise of science stagnated before it could converge on a viable paradigm, making it proto-paradigmatic. Science had to wait for the scientific revolution to attain a paradigmatic status.

Origins of life on Earth may have seen competing biochemical regimes, but once one regime became dominant other possibilities for biochemistry have been excluded ever since. This is also true for epistemic regimes.

Nascent sciences that fossilize in their proto-paradigmatic state of development monopolize an epistemic region and, in so doing, displace (or prevent) other efforts that might be made to fill this epistemic region were it a mere void. This is analogous to the development of life on Earth in this way: once life became well established on Earth, the presence of a biosphere meant that there could be no further origin of life event (or events) on Earth because its surface chemistry was monopolized by the biochemistry of the life that had evolved already and established itself. We can imagine many scenarios in which one kind of origins of life event occurred on one part of Earth’s surface, while on a distant part of Earth’s surface another kind of origins of life event took place, but one variety of life out-competed the other, established its monopoly on biospheric chemistry, and so ever since has precluded the emergence of alternative possibilities for biochemistry, except for those consistent with continuous development from existing biochemistry.

Given the possibility of a proto-paradigmatic science establishing itself in a region of human knowledge and so excluding other epistemic formalizations of the same region of knowledge, we can easily see both how this could occur in a relatively isolated branch of knowledge, while other epistemic regions undergo further development, and we can see how a sufficient number of proto-paradigmatic sciences could effectively sabotage epistemic growth over the whole range of human knowledge, producing a stagnant scientific context that would retard the development of any still functional science, slowing or stopping any remaining growth of knowledge in a given field.

A stagnant proto-science can occupy an epistemic space and exclude viable sciences from coming into being; in worst case scenarios, the proto-science stagnation spreads like a contagion to other areas of knowledge.

In contrast with a multiplicity of stagnant proto-paradigmatic sciences being a drag on any still functional sciences, in a robust scientific context, neighboring sciences may impinge upon the epistemic ground of a proto-paradigmatic science, indirectly forcing the development of knowledge, and forcing the proto-paradigmatic science to change or to be replaced. I would like to say that the contemporary field of science is now so filled with competitors for the same epistemic space that it would be difficult for a stagnant or fossilized science to hold its own, but I don’t believe this.

I think the best description of contemporary science in light of what I have discussed above is that the division between the natural sciences and the social sciences marks an uneasy frontier between the epistemic domain of the natural sciences, which are fully paradigmatic and in competition to produce knowledge across the range of the natural sciences, and the epistemic domain of the social sciences, which constitute an admixture of paradigmatic, proto-paradigmatic, and pre-paradigmatic disciplines, and in which hopeful progress in one domain is dragged back to stagnation by the dysfunction in neighboring disciplines. The abstract character of all human knowledge, where I began this newsletter, allows us to maintain this seemingly unstable division of the sciences between a largely paradigmatic domain and a largely proto-paradigmatic domain, because we have one set of abstractions for the natural sciences and another set of abstractions for the social sciences, and we can’t yet bring these abstractions together into a coherent whole, or overcome the endemic stagnation of the unproductive abstractions of the social sciences.