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Paradigm Shifts in Science – Conclusion of the FRIAS „Lunch Lecture“ Series

When and where do we witness scientific revolutions? How can we tell that scientific views are fundamentally changing? Are there differences between the natural and life sciences on the one hand and the humanities and social sciences on the other with regard to such profound transformation processes?

FRIAS fellows and guests have dealt with these and similar questions during the Academic Year 2015/16 in a range of lectures within the framework of the FRIAS Lunch Lecture Series on the topic of “Paradigm Shifts in Science”.

The FRIAS Lunch Lectures are directed to both students of all semesters as well as an interested audience from the university and the city. Not least of all due to this interesting audience, there were inspiring and exciting discussions after every lecture.


Science is always based on specific assumptions about problems, solutions and methods – it takes place within a certain paradigm. Already in the 1960s, the science historian and philosopher Thomas S. Kuhn defined scientific paradigms as a range of observations, conceptualizations, assumptions, methods and fundamental problems with which the “scientific community” specifies its most important questions and answers in science. Every once in a while there are fundamental changes in these scientific concepts leading to reassessments and ultimately to paradigm shifts, which can eventually lead to scientific revolutions. According to Kuhn, a paradigm shift occurs when an established paradigm loses explanatory power, i.e. when deviations occur that cannot be explained within existing scientific paradigms.


FRIAS fellows and guests from different disciplines such as linguistics, literature studies, physics, history, political sciences, informatics, economics, Islamic studies, mathematics or neurosciences  gave Lunch Lectures on questions such as “Which paradigm shifts have taken place within my discipline?”, “Has technology been a chief driver of those shifts?” or “Is the term Paradigm Shift helpful at all?”. The answers to such questions differed depending on the academic discipline. While Ad Aertsen, longstanding Director of the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Freiburg,  maintained that a paradigm does not yet exist in the rather recent field of neurosciences, let alone a paradigm shift, Riccardo Leoncini (Bologna) and  Stefan Kebekus (Freiburg) provided specific examples for paradigm shifts in economics and mathematics, respectively. There were also different viewpoints on the role of technology in paradigm shifts. While most speakers considered technological developments as changes in methodology, Robert Murphy (Carnegie Mellon, Pittsburgh) predicted a paradigm shift towards automated biology. Nowadays computers can deliver answers to questions that cannot be answered by the researchers themselves, through simulations and experiments.


Towards the end of the academic year, the speakers of the Lunch Lectures and other current fellows met for an  interdisciplinary colloquium in order to discuss these and further questions one last time. Researchers from the humanities and natural sciences exchanged thoughts about which paradigm shifts have taken place within their respective disciplines. Examples that were  presented were the change from genetics to epigenetics or new theories, models and concepts of quantum physics. In the humanities and especially in the field of history, fellows identified a major paradigm shift in the fact that the aspiration for complete objectivity has been  ceded.   It is not yet clear, however, what the new paradigm replacing objectivity will be. In particular in the German research system after the second World War it became clear that all scientific work was based on specific views and assumptions and that denying these underlying views was  dangerous.


Another subject of debate was the question whether the concept of paradigm shifts is useful at all or whether the term has become merely fashionable. Fellows from the humanities and social sciences explained that the term „paradigm shift“ is often used to describe new viewpoints which  might not lead to a completely new understanding of science at all – these developments are often described as a “turn”. If they  prove to be actual paradigm shifts, this often causes researchers to attach these paradigm shifts to their studies and publications in order to appeal to certain funding  parties.


Furthermore, the question whether technological progress is or was a significant driver of paradigm shifts was heavily debated. While new technologies in the natural sciences have often co-occurred with paradigm shifts, such a direct link could not be established for the humanities. While some argued that, for example, the digitalization of old scriptures has led to new ways of dealing with materiality, others only viewed new technologies as new instruments and methods that are often compatible with existing paradigms.

On the other hand, technologies can pose new challenges to science and ethics, such as in the case of  driverless cars, stem-cell techniques or the use of neuro-implants.  In earlier times technological developments such as the railway system in the 19th century  caused Albert Einstein to think about relativity which led to his revolutionary theory. Some colloquium participants pointed out that digital worldwide networks have not led to paradigm shifts but to an acceleration of scientific exchange and the establishment of new knowledge. This has, for example, created a trend of transnational, comparative sciences such as the new field of “global history”.


Another controversial debate focussed on the question whether and how paradigm shifts can take place across the disciplines. It became clear that in  recent  years the humanities and social sciences have looked increasingly to the natural sciences for inspiration, which  is evidenced in the growing number of “neuro” or “cognitive” turns  as well as  in a certain trend towards quantification and evidence-based research especially in the social sciences. Some considered this development as a paradigm shift in itself. Whether the humanities and social sciences have profited from this trend was debated heavily. While some considered it a useful contribution to research, others argued that the focus on evidence-based research misses the relevant questions in the humanities. The turn away from authoritative value systems especially in literature and cultural studies was a necessary advancement – however, the limitation on pure data analysis and quantifiable factors restricts the significance of research in the social sciences. A debate on the role of theology within the German research system emerged in this context, since this discipline has played a central role in the establishment of German universities as model institutions for the rest of the world. Especially in history studies, religion was a defining ideological basis for research – and was substituted with nationalistic ideologies in the beginning of the 20th century. After theology lost its academic appeal in the course of the 20th century, it became a side stage of university education. Nevertheless, the question remains whether certain theological belief- and value systems have wandered into other academic disciplines.


After a year of intensive reflection on paradigms and paradigm shifts, the conclusion remains that paradigms do not necessarily apply to whole disciplines but can be important in providing orientation to individual researchers for research questions and projects. Furthermore, many paradigms can in fact coexist in parallel. Generally, established paradigms always have to be examined and developed in view of new knowledge with regard to their plausibility, implications and explanatory power.

The concluding Lunch Lecture within this series was given by Veronika Lipphardt (University College Freiburg) on paradigm shifts from the perspective of Science Studies. A  large number of the lectures are available as video-podcasts at the FRIAS media center. The promising cooperation between FRIAS and the UCF on topics within the science of philosophy and  history will be continued in the coming winter term 2016/17.