paradigm shifts and the theology of conversion

I’m almost finished with Thomas Kuhn’s classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. (Next up on my “science reading list” is The Origin of Species.) Dubbed “one of the most influential books of the 20th century” by the Times Literary Supplement, it records Kuhn’s groundbreaking work on the pattern scientific discovery.

This book is where the phrase “paradigm shift” comes from.

Kuhn describes an individual’s shift in scientific paradigm—the foundational theory or group of theories underpinning research in a given field—as a “conversion experience,” after which the world seems only to bespeak the new paradigm. In many ways, as Kuhn writes, the converted scientist operates “in a different world” from his colleagues (p. 111).

To further explain what he means, Kuhn contracts the help of 20th century Gestalt (German, meaning “form” or “shape”) psychology. In the experiments of Gestalt psychology, a participant observed a visual phenomenon which could portray either a frog or a rabbit—depending on which elements one chose to concentrate one’s perception. Two participants could, theoretically, argue whether the visual phenomena primarily figured a frog or a rabbit. Since each participant was able to alter his perception to see the rival creature, such debates rarely occurred.

And this, Kuhn argues, is what separates a paradigm shift from the gestalt experiment. Paradigm shifts, taken as individual conversion experiences, are always irreversible. In other words, once a scientist sees a particular set of data through the lens of a new paradigm, he or she is unable to see it through the old lens. The self-same data that corroborated the earlier paradigm now corroborates the new paradigm.

In many ways, Kuhn notes, paradigm shifts correspond to shifts in an individual’s—and sometimes a culture’s—worldview. I find Kuhn’s study of them interesting because they parallel religious worldviews (or, if you like, “theologies”) well.

Take, for instance, the irreversibility of paradigm shifts. Have you ever tried to argue with someone who’s just had a conversion experience? In addition to the uncommon zeal with which this person is likely to approach the conversation, these arguments are characterized by a sense that the two participants are simply “talking past each other.” In short, they go nowhere fast.


Well, conversion is an extremely unique experience. Folks often have many reasons
(cultural as well as personal, articulated as well as hidden) for converting from one religion or theology to another. These reasons—or, rather, this idiosyncratic conglomeration of reasons—shape a person’s vision of things. Thus they have a difficult time identifying with your manner of seeing.

Conversions are also usually unforced. You cannot try to have a conversion. (Which is another reason conversations with a convert end in impasse: logical assessment doesn’t move hearts.)

Kuhn would argue that these characteristics of conversions contribute to the irreversibility of paradigm shifts. In fact, he observes that a complete paradigm shift in a professional scientific discipline often requires the dying off (literally!) of older scientists in that field who simply cannot make the shift.

There’s another characteristic of paradigms for sake of which they resemble theologies.

In addition to their explaining power, new paradigms often gain adherents because of a very different sort of consideration:

These are the arguments, rarely made entirely explicit, that appeal to the individual’s sense of the appropriate or the aesthetic—the new theory is said to be “neater,” “more suitable,” or “simpler” than the old. Probably such arguments are less effective in the sciences than in mathematics.”

(p. 155-156)

And a bit later, where Kuhn begins speaking of the acceptance of a new paradigm as an “act of faith”:

“Something must make at least a few scientists feel that the new proposal is on the right track, and sometimes it is only personal and inarticulate aesthetic considerations that can do that. Men have been converted by them at times when most of the articulable technical arguments pointed the other way. When first introduced, neither Copernicus’ astronomical theory nor De Broglie’s theory of matter had many other significant grounds of appeal. Even today Einstein’s general theory [of relativity] attracts men principally on aesthetic grounds, an appeal that few people outside of mathematics have been able to feel.”

(p. 158)

Fascinating. How many have been converted to the Christian faith primarily on aesthetic grounds? I suspect very many; my own faith has been stayed at least a couple time owing to the sheer perceptual grandeur of the doctrine of the Trinity. I believe that’s because we know in our hearts that the old Platonic dictum is right—the True must equal the Beautiful. And so we gravitate toward the Beautiful as often as to the True, hoping the two eclipse in some new and final version of the world.

(Notice in the preceding paragraph I said “the doctrine of the Trinity” is aesthetically pleasing, not the Trinity proper—though I admit that the beauty of the Trinity proper is enough to provoke contemplation for ages to come. Since we’re talking about paradigms that purport to account for the natural world, the correct theological counterpart is the doctrine, not the reality the doctrine attempts to describe. This in no way precludes the aesthetic value of the reality—be it God, heaven, the God-man, the cross, and so forth. Further, none of what I’ve said so far excludes either the reality or the theological legitimacy of the work of the Holy Spirit in conversion. Rather, I take most of the mystery around Kuhn’s account of paradigm shift—its suddenness, for example, or its independence from logical constraints—to signify just the sort of phenomenal happening the Holy Spirit’s work is.)

Alright. Let me close with an application for the parallelism I’ve tried to tease out between paradigm shifts and religious conversions.

I think the similarity between the two enables us to be more humble in our interactions with folks of dissimilar religious backgrounds. The implications of Kuhn’s claim that the scientist who has undergone a paradigm shift “responds to a different world” than his colleagues still operating under the old paradigm must be taken seriously. Kuhn goes to great lengths to say that it is not simply that the interpretations of various phenomena differ between these two groups of scientists; rather, something more fundamental is at stake. Kuhn concedes that it is nonsense to try and claim that the phenomena themselves are changed, so what he ends up saying is that the perceptual mechanisms (which we are to take as of a psychological origin) in the group of converted scientists have been altered such that—despite being shown the same phenomena—what these scientists see is different. The anecdote about the gestalt experiment serves to provide an example of this theory.

That means that we should expect conflicts between theological perception of the world to be irreducible to the same terms. Take the debate on homosexuality, for instance. One side argues that sexual orientation is a highly personal and private matter; therefore, an individual ought to be able to make decisions about such a matter without reference to any external standard. The other side argues that there is a standard defined by God and/or the natural order and homosexual behavior defies it.

But what happens when the former party counters, saying “We don’t posit a God in our world, and the natural order doesn’t imply a moral order” (or, alternatively, “There exist examples of homosexual behavior in nature–e.g., bonobo apes, transgender plants”)?

The latter party realize that their reasons are so entrenched in their own theological vision of the world that they must begin at page one, arguing on behalf of all sorts of assumptions that they had since forgotten—being so necessarily internal to their thought patterns that they had become invisible to them.

I’m not saying that we should not devote our efforts to providing arguments for these fundamental assumptions. (Kuhn calls such efforts “translation” (pp. 201-204), trading on the work of linguistic philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and W.V.O. Quine. Wittgenstein and Quine saw that language enables one to inhabit a world; your language determines what sorts of phenomena exist and do not exist in the world, thereby giving you perceptual categories for experiencing reality.) But if we do undertake such arguments, perhaps we ought to bear in mind the considerations above—that sometimes the best tool for inducing conversion is the aesthetic merit of the proposed paradigm. This ought to skew our efforts at translation (read “witnessing”) away from rationalization and toward an emphasis on the glory of our Lord. People may try and show that their beliefs amount to a rational view of the world; but they truly live only when they recognize the world’s beauty.

And what do you think the best way to witness to the beauty of a specific view of the world (read “a theology”) looks like?

The answer’s easy: worship.


“O come, let us worship and bow down,

let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!

For he is our God,

and we are the people of his pasture,

and the sheep of his hand.

O that today you would listen to his voice!”

(Ps. 95:6-7)


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