Progressive Religion…Is Not an Oxymoron, Oct. 2012: “Incommensurable”? Really, Now, Do You Have to Say This Out Loud?

Progressive Religion…Is Not an Oxymoron, Oct. 2012: “Incommensurable”? Really, Now, Do You Have to Say This Out Loud?
David Roy

By David E. Roy

For those who like to keep track of anniversaries (take note all who are not romantic), this year is the 50th anniversary of Thomas Kuhn’s groundbreaking book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Huh? Um, gee, I’m glad for you. But, forgive me, why is this important to the 99%? No, no, not the financial 99%. I meant the 99% of us who have normal interests in the real world. The 99% who’ve never heard of this Kuhn guy. And what is with the notion of a “scientific revolution”? Some of those scientist types might be more than a little revolting, but they don’t charge the hill with guns blazing. They sit quietly, studying their instruments in little labs around the world. Of course, they did help create and build The Bomb.

David Roy

Let me explain in a Sesame Street minute* why this man is important and why some of the ideas he helped generate illuminate at a deep level some of the problems we are all facing today in such a manner as to point toward possible solutions.

Thomas S. Kuhn: Physicist and a Lot More

Kuhn was trained and educated as a physicist. In the hierarchy of science, physicists have been the high priests of the modern era. Although they might be challenged for supremacy today by other fields, such as the neuroscience types, I think the “proof” of the existence of the Higgs boson particle has at least temporarily put physics back in the lead. All of this is to say that Kuhn had some authority in his era simply because of his field. Physicists are not nearly as flaky or whimsical, supposedly, as poets, for example (though there is poetry in physics), or as dogmatic as priests (though there can be dogmatic physicists).

Kuhn Applied Critical, Analytical Thinking to the Scientific Process

Kuhn shook things up profoundly with his analysis of how scientific theories came into existence in order to explain phenomena that the status quo theory could not. In so doing, the new theory challenged and eventually overthrew the existing order. Eventually, however, the new theory would be subject to the same fate for it, too, could not include all phenomena. Each upheaval was rooted in the persistent intrusion of inexplicable anomalies, those phenomena that don’t follow the rules and that, as a result, bog down a theory and cause it to go on life support.

One of the things that Kuhn noted was the sharp contrast between the smooth way the evolution of science was described and the actual and often heated revolution that established the new paradigm. Some loved his work and others attacked it vehemently. Changing one’s worldview, or the assumed worldview of a group of similar-minded colleagues, is never easy and never without intense push back. I will share my speculations on why this is so a bit later in this essay. I first want to keep faith with the promise I made a couple of paragraphs ago to explain why some of his ideas might point the way to solutions I believe our world needs now and soon.

Taking Up “Incommensurable” Once Again, This Time with Feeling!

Kuhn and others had extensive discussions and written exchanges about the idea of incommensurability as it pertained to science. The term originates in mathematics with a highly specific meaning: It means there is no common factor that can be used in a mathematical way with different units; mathematically speaking, they have nothing in common. When this concept was generalized by applying it to science and scientific theory, it came to refer to theories that appear to have nothing in common; therefore, there is no way in which they can compared. (I assure you that much more about this concept was said back in the early 1960s.)

Today, for example, when I read non-technical articles about physics, I sense at least some incommensurability between the views held in macro-physics topics (galaxy-scale) and those in the micro-physics of quantum mechanics (quarks). Yet now some among the quantum physicists are advocating the idea that the principles of quantum mechanics also apply to large-scale phenomenon. It is reasonable to think that there ought to be some consistency from quarks to galaxies, even if there is allowance for different dynamics to come into play based on scale. But is there real commensurability? And, if there is, will the scientists who have a lot at stake support this shift even if it comes at the expense of the perceived importance of their lifelong efforts?

In my own field of psychology and psychotherapy, there is an ongoing high degree of incommensurability that cuts many ways and that has persisted since Jung broke with Freud. (This may be starting to change, however, with the ascendency of neuropsychology for there is the start of a common perspective and language that is rooted in the brain processes.)

The Human Drive for Connection via Commensurability and Its Limits

In general, my education, training and life experience leads me to understand that human beings are social creatures and that we tend to associate with people with whom we have something in common, perhaps a great deal. While some of this may be superficial, it does go to the core of being human and the connection can run deep and be extensive. Feeling at home with others is a rich experience, and current research assures us that friendships correlate with health. Evolutionary biology suggests our social nature is rooted in the drive for survival. So, with few exceptions, we want to associate with others with whom we share things in common.

But there are limits to this and when we are faced with people who look different than we do (race, dress and so on), who hold different values about any number of things (religion, politics, money, the roles of women and men, sex and sexual orientation, property, the care of the planet and so on), who speak a different language, to name but a few defining factors, human beings can and do often react by only seeing difference, not seeing anything in common—as though they are incommensurable.

Most Common Emotional Frame: Fear and Anger Rooted in Fear

The most prevalent emotional frame is fear and fear-driven anger. The differences are perceived as radical, unbridgeable and threatening. Either “they” win and replace “us,” or the other way around. We cannot forget that this most likely has worked in our species favor for millennia. It has been a precondition for survival.

Yet, there are other possible emotional frames; the most common after fear might be interest and curiosity. Carried out long enough, this position could lead to connections with those who are different (spices, trade, marriage). A third position, the most positive, would be interest and excitement. What do these people who are different have to offer?

The United States Started with an Aim Toward Inclusivity

But the dominant stance today in our nation, at least the one that gets by far the most attention, is the first position, the one of fear and an inability to see anything in common. Of course, we are not alone in this, but our nation has aspired from the first days of our national experiment to be inclusive—even if few really have understood what this could mean to any degree of fullness. This is a value we must continue to affirm and reaffirm, to keep this spirit of inclusiveness protected and fought for as we strive to include more and more differences in our nation. Inclusiveness might happen without a sense of commensurability, but that is unlikely. It really has more to do with the extent of the inclusiveness (the more the better, at least from a progressive point of view).

At the moment of writing this, sadly, we are witnessing yet another exchange of viciousness on the part of U.S. Christian extremists and huge areas where Muslim extremists can easily light a fire of outrage that leads to death and destruction. It would be safe to say that the extremists on both sides a) feel they have nothing in common with their enemy and b) feel threatened by the very existence of the other. The irony, of course, is that the extremists on both sides have far more in common with each other than with the rest of the larger society. They believe their way is the only way and that the ends justify any and all means, that the opposition is dangerous and must be eliminated if at all possible.

Shame: A Powerful Weapon…Seek Commensurability Instead!

While I will not go into depth on this point, I do want to emphasize that a huge part of what is at stake here is self-esteem or pride, and the weapon being used on one side appears to be a high dose of shame and on the other side a reaction of highly threatening lethal outrage.

The solution in the most general sense is to counter the idea and the subjective experience of incommensurability. This can only happen if people on all sides of this issue work hard to bring out the features that we have in common. By “all sides,” I mean not just the active participants who are opposing each other in the struggle but also the many witnesses on the sidelines. It is not safe there anymore either.

One important appeal should be to the wonderful notion of “enlightened self-interest,” where each of us realizes that it is in our own best interest to improve the quality of treatment for those who are different, as well as to improve the quality of life for others, particularly those who are the most marginalized (globally). We all benefit when this happens.

What Can We Do?

It is not easy to know what any one of us can do. Few of us have much direct influence over large groups of people. Somehow, though, we have to get the point across that human beings at their best—and at their worst—have a great deal in common. One major factor that can interfere strongly was touched on a couple of paragraphs above, as well as in previous columns, and that is centered on the emotions of shame and joy, both directed at oneself, either by others or by oneself.

If someone likes us, tells us we are good or wonderful or precious, or we feel positive about ourselves, we do well in life, and we are enjoying who we are. However, if we feel criticized, perhaps strongly, or we feel ridiculed by others (strangers as well as family), we are going to be upset, possibly even outraged. Few, if any, could endure being treated this way by others who are also quite different without it contributing to a sense of irreconcilable differences, or incommensurability.

One suggestion: Seek out and affirm those who are different. Do this in as many ways as possible.

We also have to make certain we rein in our own impulses to do this to those with whom we disagree, particularly those who are treating others who disagree with them as though they are stupid, idiotic, sleezy weaklings. This does not mean we should avoid using the pressure of shame against these offenders to common decency.

The suggestion: Use the type of shame that decent people bring against those who lack manners. Although it could sound arrogant or come across as pretentious, it is a legitimate approach to use with the stations that carry people like himself.

There may be other actions as well and, as I have said before, if anyone wants to share their thoughts with me about what might work to open people to appreciate difference, to see and feel the commensurability of our human society worldwide, I would be quite happy to learn about them.

*A Sesame Street minute is the interval between when Count Dracula says “one” and when he says “10.” It’s longer than a New York minute, which, according to the late Johnny Carson, is the interval between the light turning green and the guy behind you blasting his horn. Of course, in both cases, people would approach timelessness if they were traveling nearly at the speed of light. Imagine a New York minute that lasted for a century. Need I say it? It’s pretty much all relative.


Ordained in the United Church of Christ, David Roy is a pastoral counselor and a California licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who directs the Center for Creative Transformation. He has a Ph.D. in theology and personality from the Claremont (California) School of Theology. Send comments to him at or 5475 N. Fresno St., Suite 109, Fresno, CA 93711.


  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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