Normal Science is Lamp-Post Science

There is a popular joke that goes something like this: A drunken man is crawling around on his hands and knees under a lamp-post. His friend asks him “what are you doing crawling around under that lamp-post? The drunk responds that he has lost his keys and is looking for them. His friend responds “your car is over here, you have not been near that lamp-post”. The drunk responds “it is very dark and this is the only place where there is some light”.

Normal science is a puzzle-solving enterprise. Normal science is a slow accumulation of knowledge by a methodical step-by-step process undertaken by a group of scientists.

‘Paradigm’ is a word that was given great meaning and clarity by Thomas Kuhn in his book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”.

The author notes that all “real science is normally a habit-governed, puzzle-solving activity” and not a philosophical activity. Paradigm and not hypothesis is the active meaning for the ‘new image of science’. Paradigm is neither a theory nor a metaphysical viewpoint.

The paradigm is analogous to the lamp-post in the joke. The paradigm provides the illumination that allows the scientist to look for the “laws of nature” that drive our high tech culture.


I recently had occasion to hang out in the waiting area of St Joseph Hospital in Asheville for a few hours. I was free to walk many of the corridors and rest in many of the waiting areas along with everyone else. It was early morning but it was obvious that the hospital functioned fully 24/7.

A person can walk the corridors of any big city hospital and observe the effectiveness of human rationality in action. One can also visit the UN building in NYC or read the morning papers and observe just how ineffective, frustrating and disappointing human rationality can be. Why does human reason perform so well in some matters and so poorly in others?

We live in two very different worlds; a world of technical and technological order and clarity, and a world of personal and social disorder and confusion. We are increasingly able to solve problems in one domain and increasingly endangered by our inability to solve problems in the other.

Normal science is successful primarily because it is a domain of knowledge controlled by paradigms. Science uses instrumental rationality to solve puzzles. Instrumental rationality is a systematic process for reflecting upon the best action to take to reach an established end. The obvious question becomes ‘what mode of rationality is available for determining ends?’ Instrumental rationality appears to be of little use in determining such matters as “good” and “right”, i.e. social morality.

There is a striking difference between the logic of technical problems and that of dialectical problems. The principles, methods and standards for dealing with technical problems and problems of “real life” are as different as night and day. Real life problems cannot be solved only using deductive and inductive reasoning.

Dialectical reasoning methods require the ability to slip quickly between contradictory lines of reasoning. One needs skill to develop a synthesis of one point of view with another. Where technical matters are generally confined to only one well understood frame of reference real life problems become multi-dimensional totalities.

When we think dialectically we are guided by principles not by procedures. Real life problems span multiple categories and academic disciplines. We need point-counter-point argumentation; we need emancipatory reasoning to resolve dialectical problems. We need critical thinking skills and attitudes to resolve real life problems.

Normal science is a science normally driven at high speed by our culture because it is a dramatic performance enhancing drug for our culture that places the maximizing of production and consumption as humanities’ sui generis (uncaused cause) value.

I claim that our human sciences that can help us to create a social morality that is required to save the species and perhaps the planet must receive a much higher priority. We can no longer afford the luxury of looking only under the lamp-post for our lost keys.