Philosopher's book explores nature of scientific advances

Dr. K. Brad Wray, an associate professor of philosophy, has written a new book exploring one of the 20th century’s most influential and revolutionary science philosophers.

Brad Wray.Cambridge University Press, a nearly 500-year-old academic publisher, last month released in Great Britain Wray’s new book, “Kuhn’s Evolutionary Social Epistemology,” which details and defends the full spectrum of philosopher Thomas Kuhn’s work. The publisher plans to do the same in this country in October and in Australia and New Zealand in November.

“It feels wonderful. It’s a real honor,” said Wray, who has long been fascinated with studying the history and advances of science through a Kuhn-like social lens.

The River’s End Bookstore, 19 W. Bridge St., plans to hold a book-launch party for Wray at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 16. It is free and open to the public.

Social dimensions

Wray, who completed his doctorate at the University of Western Ontario in 1997 and came to SUNY Oswego in 2002, said his Kuhn book arose as a sabbatical project three years ago. Wray had published a number of papers about Kuhn, whose 1962 book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” has generated intense debate among scientific historians, sociologists and philosophers of science.

“What’s important about Kuhn, as far as I’m concerned, is that he emphasizes the social dimensions of science—that it’s a complex thing,” Wray said. “He’s not just concerned with the relationship between evidence and theory. That’s what really intrigued me, what I thought was neglected by philosophers.”

Wray said he believes reading only the early “Structure” and neglecting later papers and the posthumously published compendium “The Road Since ‘Structure,’” edited by two colleagues, ignores that Kuhn himself refined and advanced his earlier thinking.

“Kuhn thought that rather than see science as driven toward ‘the truth’ and to think the truth explains why we’re so successful because we’re getting closer to it,” Wray said, “we should see science as more like evolution by natural selection—we’re pushed from behind. We’re responding to problems inherited from our predecessors in science, and in this way we keep moving.”

‘Virus’ example

Wray pointed, as an example, to the ever-increasing specialization of science, where scientists form a research community that eventually evolves into a discipline based on new generations of scientists having swept away the errors and the misunderstandings of the past.

What is now known as “a virus,” he said, used to have numerous definitions and was studied by bacteriologists and chemists. Virology, then, evolved from developing a precise conception of “virus,” and, eventually, the widespread acceptance of the new concept among peers and successors.

Wray said Kuhn rethought his earlier work on scientific revolutions as “paradigm changes.” He later called such drastic new directions in theory “lexical changes”—changing the way concepts relate to each other.

Even so profound a shift as the Copernican redefinition of “planet”—suddenly the Earth is not just an object in space, it also revolves—serves as an example of Kuhnian social forces at work on science.

“Planets, in Ptolemy’s theory, are wandering stars, so the Earth by definition is not a planet. With Copernicus’ theory, ‘planet’ gets redefined as a celestial body that orbits the sun,” Wray said. “So we’ve reordered things in the world according to a different set of concepts; science has fundamentally changed the way the concepts relate to each other. It took a great deal of energy to convince other scientists that this change was necessary.”

During his 2009 sabbatical, Wray served as a visiting scholar at Cornell University, learning from sociologists and historians in the department of science and technology studies.

“I got to appreciate how differently historians and sociologists read Kuhn, and that was really formative in the book—it left its mark on the book,” said Wray, who edited an anthology, “Knowledge and Inquiry,” in 2002.

PHOTO CAPTION: Philosopher published—Dr. K. Brad Wray, associate professor of philosophy at SUNY Oswego, examines the full range of influential and revolutionary philosopher Thomas Kuhn’s work in a new book, “Kuhn’s Evolutionary Social Epistemology,” published last month in Great Britain and due for U.S. release in October.

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(Posted: Oct 12, 2011)

Tags: science, research news: books and publications, philosophy, brad wray