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The Spiritist Paradigm

by Silvio Chibeni

This paper reviews briefly Kuhn's conception of science, in contrast with the traditional conception, arguing then that Spiritism - such as established by Allan Kardec - constitutes a genuine scientific paradigm. It is further claimed that the normal science tradition of the Kardequian paradigm remains unrivalled as a scientific guide to the study of the spiritist phenomena.

*This text is the English version, prepared by the Author with some modifications, of the article: ``O paradigma espírita'', published in the official journal of the Brazilian Spiritist Federation, Reformador, June 1994. pp. 176-80.

1. Introduction

Philosophy of science is the branch of philosophy that treats scientific knowledge: its foundations, evolution, specificity, scope, etc. In the present work we shall be particularly interested in the issue of the so-called ``demarcation criterion''. It is generally admitted that scientific knowledge demarcates itself from other forms of knowledge by certain specific features. To determine what, if any, these features are has constituted a major challenge for philosophers, at least since the inception of modern science, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In his pioneering philosophical analysis of science, Francis Bacon submitted that it was the adoption of a special method, the scientific method, which differentiated science from non-science and pseudo-science. In philosophy of science, the description of the scientific method given by Bacon survived, with some alternations, until approximately the middle of our century, and is still widely adopted by laymen and scientists.

It is beyond the scope of this article to present in detail this classical conception of science, as well as the historical and philosophical criticisms that led to its abandonment. In broad outline, the traditional view of science assumes that a scientific discipline begins with a long process of pure observation. From the data thus collected general laws governing the phenomena are then extracted. A scientific theory is an ensemble of such laws, concerning a determinate field of phenomena. Science progresses by the addition of new experimental data and new laws to the existing theories.

In the view thus sketched, the following assumptions are essential: 1) No theoretical hypotheses whatsoever are allowed to intervene in the data-collecting period: the observations should be theoretically neutral. 2) Likewise, the laws should be extracted from the observational basis by objective, theoretically neutral methods. 3) The new laws discovered along the evolution of a science are always complementary to, and never incompatible with, the laws already established.

The most rigorous elaboration of the classical conception of science was undertaken by the philosophical programme called logical positivism, which flourished from 1920 to 1940, approximately. This programme reached a high level of formal and theoretical sophistication, and exerted a profound and lasting influence upon the scientific community. Already in 1934, however, the basic tenets of logical positivism were vigorously attacked by a yet unknown philosopher, Karl Popper, in a book that remained virtually ignored for more than two decades. In the late fifties, when the logical positivist programme was already weakened by a sustained process of self-criticism, and Popper's work was translated into English (The Logic of Scientific Discovery), it became clear that the traditional view of science was no longer tenable.

Here again we lack space to present the arguments levelled by Popper against logical positivism, as well his conception of science, known as falseationism. We remark only that the Popperian theses run, in their turn, into severe difficulties, pointed out by several philosophers of science, notably by Thomas Kuhn, Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyerabend**.

We have discussed elsewhere (Chibeni 1984, 1988 and 1991) the issue of the spiritist science in connection with Lakato's philosophy of science. This same issue will be now analysed in the light of the Kuhnian philosophical ideas. To be fully accomplished, however, this undertaking would require a detailed exposition to the Kuhnian and Kardequian theories, which evidently cannot be made within the restricted limits of an article. The sequel should therefore be taken only as an outline and invitation to further research. We shall begin by reviewing some of the basic concepts and proposals put forward by Thomas Kuhn.

2. A sketch of the Kuhnian philosophy of science

Kuhn began his academic career as a theoretical physicist, and afterwards became interested in history of science. Undertaking important historical research from the perspective of a new historiographical tradition, according to which past scientific theories should be analysed in their own scientific context, Kuhn realised that the traditional conception of science did not at all match with the actual process of genesis and evolution of the theories of mature science (physics, chemistry). Such a perception of the historical inadequacy of the current opinions concerning the nature of science led him finally to philosophy of science. His studies in this field were first published in a systematic way in his book of 1962, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which had a profound influence on the development of philosophy of science. In a language apparently accessible to the non-specialist, Kuhn advances in this book several sophisticated epistemological theses about scientific knowledge, that soon became object of hot debate amongst philosophers. We cannot evidently enter into these technical discussions here, but shall attempt at a simplified exposition of some of the most widely accepted contributions of this American philosopher.

Kuhn's theory of science spins around the thesis that the typical development of a scientific discipline occurs according to the following open structure:

pre-paradigmatic phase -> normal science -> crisis -> revolution ->new normal science -> new crisis -> new revolution -> ...

The pre-paradigmatic phase represents, so to speak, the ``pre-history'' of a science, that period in which reigns a wide disagreement amongst the researchers, or groups of researchers, about fundamental topics such as: what phenomena should be explained, and according to which theoretical principle; what are the relations of the theoretical principles one with another and with theories of neighbouring domains; what methods and values should guide the search of new phenomena and new principles; what techniques and instruments can be used, etc. While such a state of affairs persists, the discipline cannot be said to be truly scientific.

A discipline becomes scientific when it acquires a scientific paradigm, capable of putting an end to the generalised and deep-reaching disagreement of its initial period. The term `paradigm' has several meanings in Kuhn's book, and we cannot discuss its intricacies here. In its original, pre-Kuhnian signification, the term means `example', `model', as used, for instance, in grammar. Kuhn keeps part of this meaning when he proposes that the transition to the scientific period requires the acknowledgement, from the part of the community of researches, of an exemplary scientific achievement settling the issues at dispute in the pre-paradigmatic phase. Aristotle's mechanics, Newtons's optics, Boyle's chemistry, Franklin's electricity theory are some of the examples given by Kuhn of paradigms that promoted the respective disciplines to the categories of sciences.

It is not easy to explicit (specially in few sentences) the elements that form a Kuhninan paradigm. Kuhn even claims that such an explication can never be complete, because the knowledge of a paradigm is partially tacit, acquired by direct acquaintance with the way of doing science determined by the paradigm. Thus, it is only by doing optics in the way Newton did, or electromagnetism in the way Maxwell did that one can know exactly the paradigms of Newtonian optics of electromagnetism, for instance. However, we can mention, as integral parts of a paradigm: 1) an ontology, indicating the kind of things which constitutes reality; 2) fundamental theoretical principles, specifying the laws which regulate the behaviour of the things; 3) auxiliary theoretical principles, establishing the connections of the basic principles with the phenomena, as well with theories of contiguous domains; 4) methodological rules, standards and values, directing the further articulation of the paradigm; 5) concrete examples of applications of the theory to the facts, etc.

A paradigm provides the foundations upon which the scientific community works. It represents a ``map'' to be used by the scientists in the exploration of Nature. Research firmly grounded on the theories, methods and examples of a paradigm is called normal science by Kuhn. Normal science aims to extend the knowledge of the facts that the paradigm identifies as relevant, by further elaboration of the theory and by more accurate observations.

Normal science is a highly directed and, in a sense, selective activity. This is essential to the development of science, as Kuhn has shown. It is only by focusing their attention on a selected range of phenomena and explanatory theoretical principles that the scientists succeed in going deep in the study of Nature. No scientific research is possible without the guidance of a body of theoretical and methodological principles: they allow the selection, understanding and evaluation of what is observed. One of the main mistakes of the classical conception of science was precisely the belief that the progress of observation can, and should, be theoretically neutral. It is acknowledged today that the facts and theories are closely interdependent. There is a kind of ``symbiosis'' between them; facts give support to the theories, and theories make possible their classification, concatenation, prediction and explanation. Working under the direction of a paradigm the scientist need not constantly reconstruct the foundations of this field, explain the meaning and usefulness of the concepts he uses, and justify the observations he chooses to make.

Kuhn describes normal science as a ``puzzle-solving'' activity. It presupposes well defined rules, like ordinary puzzles. It may happen that along the development of a paradigm some of the puzzles posed by Nature prove to be hard to solve. The scientists duty is to insist in the rules and basic principles of the paradigm. In the same way as in a jigsaw puzzle, for example, to cut off a non-fitting edge of a piece is not a valid move, in normal science the fundamental laws and standards should not be abandoned or mutilated when a problem is tackled. Kuhn emphasises that as long as the paradigm experiences no serious and generalised failures the scientists should hold fast their commitment to the paradigm. The progress of science requires that paradigms should not be too lightly abandoned. All paradigms, specially in their initial periods, face difficulties, and a certain amount of conservation is necessary to give them time to exhibit their full strength.

But this calculated tolerance should have a limit, of course. When unsolved puzzles - called anomalies by Kuhn - do not yield to the best efforts of the best scientists for a long time, and furthermore strike on vital areas of the paradigm, the time is ripe to considering the substitution of the whole paradigm. In such situations of crisis, the most daring and creative members of the scientific community come out with alternative paradigms. Once the confidence on the dominant paradigm is lost, such alternatives become appealing to a growing number of scientists. Discussions and disagreements over fundamental resembling those of the pre-paradigmatic take place, with the difference that during a crisis the old paradigm continues to guide research until a better paradigm is clearly at hand.

When a new paradigm is finally adopted, science will have undergone what Kuhn calls a scientific revolution. The most controversial theses put forward by Kuhn concern scientific revolutions. For our purposes here, however, we fortunately need not occupy ourselves with this complex philosophical issue. The analysis of Spiritism to be developed in the following section will hinge only on the general schema of the nature of science reproduced above, which is generally agreed by contemporary philosophers of science.

3. The spiritist paradigm

The reader acquainted with the history of Spiritism and who had read, analysed and understood the contributions of Allan Kardec will perhaps grant our two main theses: Kardec's work constitutes a genuine scientific paradigm, and this paradigm represents till our days the only secure path along which scientific research of spirit can be conducted. The complete explication and justification of these claims would require a complete exposition and analysis of Spiritism and of the alternative proposals of study of the spiritist phenomena that have arisen since Kardec's time. Such an undertaking cannot evidently be carried out here. We shall only indicate some salient points, in the hope of motivating those who may wish to inquire further into this issue.

As Kardec himself repeatedly observed, some of the most conspicuous facts that founded his research were already known, although imprecisely and obscurely, since the earliest times of human civilization. Notwithstanding their having cast the interest of individuals and doctrines, until the inception of Spiritism there was no scientific paradigm capable of integrating them in an encompassing, precise and objective theory. It was the pre-paradigmatic period of the spirit research. Allan Kardec has put an end to this period. He proposed the first well grounded theory of the spiritist phenomena. Besides the explanatory theory properly considered, Spiritism as formulated by Kardec provides a set of methods, criteria and values to guide the development of theory and experience. The Kardequian paradigm is admirably coherent and encompassing, empirically adequate and heuristically fertile, ranking, in its field, with the most successful paradigms of ordinary academic sciences, such as thermodynamics, electromagnetism, relativity and quantum theories, etc.

In an approximate indication, we can say that the Spirits' Book establishes the ontology and the fundamental theoretical principles of Spiritism. The Mediums' Book links the theory with the experimental basis. The Gospel According to Spiritism and Heaven and Hell develop the philosophical implications of the paradigm. The Genesis, Miracles and Predictions According to Spiritism and many essays published in the Revue Spirite and in the Postumous Works provide in depth analyses of several theoretical issues. The Revue also represents a rich repository of experimental reports. Besides the theory and methods of the spiritist science, Kardec offered us a wealth of concrete examples of application of the theory in the explanation of phenomena and in the resolution of long lasting philosophical problems concerning human nature. We can see, in consonance with Kuhn's ideas, that such puzzle-solving models play an important role in the understanding of the real essence of Spiritism. Those who have not delved into them will always be incapable of a correct judgement of Spiritism. A purely ``external'' view of the theory does not afford the important tacit knowledge of the spiritist science. Oddly enough, the virtual totality of the critics of Spiritism cannot even claim a perfunctory knowledge of its theory.

It is very important to remark that the pioneering work of Kardec does not represent a closed system, but the foundation from which the spiritist science proceeds in its continuous advance. As it is well known, the spiritist paradigm has been developed in important respects by several researches, in a solid tradition of normal science. To mention just few, Léon Denis and Gabriel Dellane in earlier times, and later Bezerra de Menezes, Emmanuel, André Luiz, Yvonne Pereira and Philomeno de Miranda have greatly contributed to the extension and deepening of the spiritist paradigm, without any violation of its fundamental principles and standards.

History of science indicates that revolutions have occurred in almost all scientific disciplines. Someone may raise the question whether the spiritist paradigm does not, or will not need to be replaced. This is a rather complex issue, and limitations of space do not allow us to analyse it thoroughly here. However, we would like to sketch two considerations in this respect.

First, careful examination shows that Spiritism does not experience, and has never experienced any process of accumulation of anomalies. As we have seen, in science this process is a pre-requisite for the installation of crises and paradigm proliferation, and therefore for scientific revolutions. Given this fact, it is easy to conclude that all the attempts that have been made to create, in the name of science, new lines of research of the spiritist phenomena are methodologically premature and unjustifiable, contributing to hinder rather than to promote the progress of knowledge.

Secondly, given the specific nature of the spiritist theory, one should not expect that it will be superseded, at least in what concerns its basic principles. Such principles are very close to the phenomenal level, being therefore highly stable from a theoretical point of view. Utilising a philosophical concept, one can classify the spiritist theory as largely phenomenological. The most famous example of a phenomenological theory in the academic sciences is thermodynamics, which has developed in the mid nineteenth century, and has since remained unaltered. It was not shaken when physics underwent the great relativistic and quantum revolutions, which have radically changed the conception of matter. This feature of thermodynamics was very appealing to, amongst others, Einstein, who endeavoured to develop his special relativity theory in phenomenological moulds.

In non-phenomenological theories - the so called constructive theories -, which form the largest part of physics and chemistry, the degree of ``theory'' of the principles is much greater, they are farther removed from the empirical level. The gap between theory and observation is wider, and the confidence with which the former can be asserted is correspondingly smaller, as there always are several plausible alternative principles and theories for the prediction and explanation of the same phenomena. The history of physics and chemistry illustrates the vulnerability of their constructive theories.

The fundamental principles of Spiritism, such as the existence, pre-existence and survival of the spirit, the free-will and the law of cause and effect, etc, are propositions belonging to the same epistemic category as, for example, the propositions that fire burns and hemlock poisons, that Rome and the Sun exist. Their confirmation depends neither on instruments nor on high-level risky constructive theories whatsoever. This point has been analysed by Allan Kardec himself.

Let us take an example. A man must be downright crazy not to conclude the existence of a friend upon the receipt of a letter of hers commenting details of their confidential relations, written in her typescript, and containing her signature. Suppose now the friend is dead and another letter of the very same kind is delivered, not by the ordinary postman, but by a psychographic medium. What has changed from the epistemological point of view ? Nothing at all, and the same inference can legitimately be drawn. Now it is facts and reasonings as staightforward as these that form the scientific basis of Spiritism.

The class of phenomena that gave rise, and uphold directly the spiritist paradigm is very broad, including not only the above-mentioned psychographic communications but also phychophony (oral spirit communication), xenoglossy (expression in unknown languages), materializations of spirits and objects, sight and hearing of spirits and things belonging to the spiritual world, and many others. Besides these specific phenomena (the spiritist phenomena), Spiritism explains, and is therefore confirmed, by numberless ordinary phenomena concerning human physic, physiological and moral characteristics such as sentiments and inclinations, sympathies and antipathies, some remarkable occurrences of our lives, psychosomatic effect, psychic pathologies, etc. Those who have been attempting to formulate non-spiritist sciences of the spirit almost invariably overlook this vast body of evidence in favour of Spiritism. Worse, even the variety of spiritist phenomena is not taken into account, and much less explained by a coherent and heuristically powerful theory.

We have shown elsewhere (Chibeni 1988; see also 1986) that Allan Kardec had a philosophical sense that was much ahead of his time. He has correctly identified the features of a genuine science, and carried his research accordingly. This claim is upheld by both the inspection of his accomplishments and the many explicit passages of his texts concerning the nature and the method of science. Contemporary philosophy of science has overwhelmingly vindicated the Kardequian analyses and procedures, showing where the true science of spirit really is.

** The most representative works of these philosophers are Kuhn 1970, Lakatos 1970 and Feyerabend 1978. For a simple exposition of their ideas, in contrast with the traditional and Popperian views, see Chalmers 1978.


CHALMERS, A. F. What is this thing called science ? St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1978.


  • Espiritismo e ciência. Esboço de uma análise do Espiritismo à luz da moderna filosofia da ciência. Reformador, May 1984, pp. 144-7 e 157-9.
  • Os fundamentos da ética espírita. Reformador, June 1985, pp. 166-9.
  • Por que Allan Kardec? Reformador, April 1986, pp. 102-3.
  • A excelência metodológica do Espiritismo. Reformador, December 1988 , pp 373-8.
  • Ciência espírita. Revista Internacional do Espiritismo, March 1991, pp. 45-52.
FEYERABEND, P. K. Against Method. London, Verso, 1978.


  • Le Livre des Esprits. Paris, Dervy-Livres. O Livro dos Espíritos. Transl. Guillon Ribeiro, 43 ed, Rio de Janeiro, Federação Espírita Brasileira, 1979.
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  • Le Ciel et L'Enfer. Farciennes, &Eacuteditions de L'Union Spirite, 1951. O Cé e o Inferno. Transl. Manuel Quintão. 28 ed. Rio de Janeiro, Federação Espírita Brasileira.
  • La Genèse, les Miracle et les Prédictions selon le Spiritisme. Paris, La Diffusion Scientifique. A Gênese, os Milagres e as Predições segundo o Espiritismo. Transl. Guillon Ribeiro, 23 ed., Rio de Janeiro, Federação Espírita Brasileira.
  • Oeuvres Posthumes. Paris, Dervy-Livres, 1978. Obras Póstumas. Transl. Guillon Ribeiro, 18 ed., Rio de Janeiro, Federação Espírita Brasileira.
KUHN, T. S.The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2 ed., enlarged. Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 1970.

LAKATOS, I. Falsification and the methodology of scientific programmes. In: Lakatos & Musgrave 1970, pp. 91-195.

LAKATOS, I & MUSGRAVE, A. (eds.) Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1970.

POPPER, K. R. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. 2 ed., revised, London, Hutchinson, 1968