Recent technological advances and moves toward hyper-specialization have led to the emergence of several new scientific fields and sub-fields. As these nascent fields have developed, they have been subjects of immense scrutiny. A primary threshold for true emergence is ‘scientific maturity’—a term that is given a considerable amount of weight, but is largely misunderstood.
An important application of the concept of ‘scientific maturity’ in the philosophy of science revolves around critiques of convergent realism. Convergent realism is based on the premises that new scientific theories are “closer to the truth than older theories in the same domain,” and that “successive theories in any mature science will be such that they preserve the theoretical relations and the apparent referents of earlier theories.”
- Larry Laudan, in his paper A Confutation of Convergent Realism, questions the arbitrary nature of scientific maturity presented by convergent realists. As convergent realism requires that theories in the same domain must ‘refer’, counter-examples of failed reference from the history of science would presumably be problematic.
- Hilary Putnam, perhaps the most notable proponent of convergent realism, however, suggested that terms in “mature science typically refer.” Reference in the philosophy of science can best be described as the use of a shared language. Some may further develop the language to formulate increasingly complex sentences and paragraphs, but the alphabet and syntax remain the same. Meaning, that pre-science lacks reference, as it lacks a standardized alphabet and the syntactical rules that allow for ‘normal’ linguistic progress.
Laudan responds by suggesting that Putnam’s introduction of a notion of maturity allowed him to ignore any past counter-examples to his theory by merely stating that those fields had yet to cross the threshold of maturity.
Maturity is not just some abstract concept that lacks relevance beyond the ivory tower debates of academic philosophers. An understanding of scientific maturity will allow us to better predict the success and trajectory of emergent scientific fields. The differing perspectives reflect a century-old debate over whether maturity is an intensive or extensive property of a scientific discipline.
Two Perspectives on Scientific Maturity
Maturity as Entirely Sociological
Alexander Bird, a philosopher of science who focused on the work of Thomas Kuhn, explains how the notion of maturity is important to Kuhn’s conception of scientific paradigms. “Because of the close relationship between normal science and paradigms,” notes Bird, “it is useful to start by thinking of this earlier, immature stage [of science[ as being science without a single governing paradigm.” Maturity, as presented by Bird and Kuhn, is entirely sociological.
The maturity process occurs when a proposed theory is sufficiently compelling to lead to a (near) consensus and allow for the beginning of normal science. In describing the field of optics before Newton, Kuhn asserts “though the field’s practitioners were scientists, the net result of their activity was something less than science.” Before the existence of a single accepted theory—a paradigm—the field of optics existed in a state of immaturity.
By rooting his definition in scientific consensus, Kuhn suggests that the maturity of a scientific field is entirely subjective. The ‘threshold of maturity is not related to the theory itself, but rather only to its acceptance within the scientific community. Though one would hope that the scientific community would not reach consensus on a scientific theory that was ‘immature’ (in the traditional sense), it must be noted that Aristotelian Physics was the prevailing theory for over fifteen-hundred years (and should be thought of as an early paradigm).
The Polish philosopher of science Wladislaw Krajewski offers a different understating of scientific maturity. Krajewski suggests that revolutions that bring a scientific theory past the threshold of maturity do not allow for correspondence between the initial and the replacement theories (i.e., incommensurability). Once a scientific discipline has ‘matured,’ correspondence becomes a necessary component of a revolutionary theory (contrary to Kuhn’s assumption that revolutionary theories lead to incommensurability).
According to Krajewski, the fact that there was no correspondence between Aristotelian and Classical Physics but that there is between Classical Physics and Quantum Mechanics (as distances approach infinity or as sizes are beyond the atomic scale, quantum mechanical calculations approach the classical result) indicates the inherent immaturity of Aristotelian Physics, and the maturity of both Classical Physics and Quantum Mechanics.
The differences between the Kuhnian and Krajewskian notions of maturity are of great relevance to Laudan’s critique of convergent realism. As Kuhn’s version of scientific maturity is not directly related to the nature of the theory, but rather the acceptance thereof, it does not add much in defense of convergent realism. The invoking of maturity would be inappropriate, since several of Laudan’s historical counter-examples could be said to have existed within a scientific consensus.
Krajewski’s approach toward maturity appears to much more fitting in this context. Phlogiston theory, a superseded scientific theory that all combustible bodies contained an element called phlogiston, could not be considered a part of mature science, as it lacks any correspondence to any other theory in that domain. It is the correspondence that exists in the core of a scientific discipline that allows it to be mature, and, in turn, allows for convergence.
Laudan notes, however, that even a well-reasoned notion of scientific maturity cannot the explanatory successes of several immature sciences.
Pre-Science Phase and The Maturity Threshold
As both Kuhn and Krajewski would admit that scientific maturity allows for true scientific progress, it is valuable to know whether a nascent field is in a pre-science phase or has passed the maturity threshold. While hyper-specialization may lead to difficulty in establishing a Kuhnian consensus, (consensuses become more tenuous as the size of a field shrinks, and are more difficult to establish as communication between subfields weakens), it seems that Krajewskian maturity would be a useful tool. If a field is developing so quickly that successive theories seem not to correspond, then it is probably best to assume that maturity has not yet been reached.
Laudan may have considered a conversation about maturity to be a red-herring in a debate over convergent realism, but even he would likely agree that there is a state at which scientific disciplines appear to ‘normalize’ and increase productivity. Perhaps if we focused more on maturity we would be better equipped at determining which new fields are just fads and which will be immensely impactful.
Bird, Alexander. Thomas Kuhn. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2000.
Krajewski, Wladislaw. The Correspondence Principle and the Growth of Science. 1977.
Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientifc Revolutions. Chicago, Ill: U of Chicago, 1970.
Laudan, Larry. “A Confutation of Convergent Realism.” Philosophy of Science 48.1 (1981).