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Paradigms shift

Thomas Kuhn changed the way people think. Although his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, was specifically about scientific thinking, his ideas have become part of our cultural language. Kuhn proposed that,

  • Scientific thinking has a context created by culture and previous knowledge called a paradigm.

  • A paradigm is a way of thinking about the world.

  • Scientific thinking does not progress in a linear, continuous fashion.

  • Scientific thinking undergoes paradigm shifts that open up new ways of thinking.

The concept of paradigm shifts caught on quickly, perhaps because our culture and our understanding of the world has become too complex for simpler theories to explain. A paradigm is a world-view rather than a theory, a tool for how-to-think rather than a description for what-to-think.

Everyone has a world-view, even if it is not formal, because everyone has someidea of how the world works. As E. Brian Davies observes in Why Beliefs Matter,

World-views can be evaluated, compared and changed,but you cannot avoid having one.

A world-view/paradigm is why you think the answer is important, how you approach the problem, what you look at and how you think about it. A paradigm is both subjective and objective: it is what you think about the objective world and how your interpretation of the objective world influences how you think and act. It is why some ideas or actions are unthinkable.

Paradigms can be large or small. At the smallest level, every human individual has a slightly different paradigm, a slightly different way of putting together facts and feelings and actions. Groups of humans usually share the same basic paradigm, though the paradigms will differ from one group to another. We often call these paradigm-united groups religions, tribes, communities or cultures.

The blind men and the puzzle of the elephant

Like the story of the blind men and the elephant, different cultural paradigms can provide very different views of the same reality. In the story, several blind men examine an elephant. One touches the leg and declares that the elephant is like a tree trunk. One touches the trunk and declares that the elephant is like a snake. Another touches the ear and declares that the elephant is like a large fan moving in the wind.

The blind men and the elephant

Like the blind men, human cultures examine the universe as best they can, and from what they find create a paradigm. A cultural paradigm can be startlingly beautiful, whether expressed in mathematics or in myth and art and literature. For a paradigm to survive, it must also be useful.

Where different human cultural groups might once have been separated in distance or in time, today they are all rubbing up against each other and overlapping in a new and evolving global culture.

Humans everywhere are borrowing madly from other cultures, because their own particular cultural paradigm is insufficient to deal with our complex, modern world. This has left most humans with a jigsaw-puzzle life of pieces that don’t quite match: science, history, emotion, religion, tradition, folk-lore, and the latest news on the internet.

how do we make the pieces fit?

Even science, such an effective tool for explaining, predicting and manipulating objective reality, is terribly incomplete: it ignores the fact that every human lives in a very subjective world. Science can describe large statistical events involving many microbes or many humans, but it falters at the most personal of events: an individual’s life.

We need a bigger paradigm

If in today’s world we have competing and overlapping sets of scientific and cultural paradigms, then what kind of paradigm would work better? It would need to be bigger than the current splits between body/mind, East/West, science/religion. It would need to be a paradigm of rapid evolution. A paradigm that speaks to our deepest natures while describing the marvelous complexity of the universe. In short, we need a paradigm that covers both sex and quantum physics.

Where do we begin?

We start with what we can reasonably take to be true. William James, an American philosopher associated with Pragmatism, once tried to define truth as “Truth is what works.” He meant that over the long run, what humans call true is what works for them. Turn the phrase around, and we come to the idea that what has had a long run must, in some fashion, be called true.

So what can we use that we are pretty sure is true?

Science: Has worked for several hundred years. Has provable theories about almost everything.

Evolution: We apply what we know about how things evolve: stars, ecosystems, humans and cultures.

Culture: Culture has been around for far too long to dismiss long-term cultural ideas as accidents and misunderstandings. What do cultures have in common? What images and ideas show up over and over again because they relate to the experience of all humans?

Our lives: We take as clear a look as we can at our own subjective experience. We can compare it to millennia of human experience reflected in art and literature. In our bodies we can compare one subjective experience to another. We can identify our own patterns and perhaps identify why we have them.

What to put in a paradigm

Is it really possible to deal with so many different levels at once?

It might be, if we look at what is common to them all.

Kuhn recognized that patterns of scientific thinking undergo paradigm shifts. In thermodynamics this same shift is the behavior of far-from-equilibrium systems that jump from lower levels of energy and order to higher levels. In evolution, this pattern is called punctuated equilibrium, and is unmistakable, though people disagree over the mechanisms.

In culture it might be called the Renaissance, where a culture blossoms in a short period of time. In religion it is called ecstatic insight that changes the human who experiences it. In physics it is called phase-change, where materials instantaneously change state, especially and unpredictably at extremely low temperatures.

In biology, non-linear change is everywhere. In our own lives non-linear, systemic changes could be due to a trauma that twists our mental, emotional and physical patterns. Or it might be a very different kind of twisting called falling in love.

The fact that so many utterly different things undergo similar changes focuses our attention on the process of change itself. And here we find that science tells us that change is energy flow, that everything in space-time and beyond is energy flow. That everything we see, touch and imagine is energy flow.

This is not a new idea for humans. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said two thousand years ago that “Everything flows and nothing stays.” This echoes the Taoist concept of the Tao as the flow of the universe.

What is new are precise descriptions of how change takes place and why. Descriptions that we can apply to our own lives. The descriptions of energy flow available to us also describe a new way of looking at the world. A paradigm that provides rich connections among things that appear separate from any other perspective. That might let us stop patching our modern lives with chewing gum and duct tape to hold the pieces together.

We have the opportunity to look at the world in terms of energy flow. To see if such a view is useful. To see if energy flow explains the things we know are true but can’t explain in other terms.

If the paradigm works, it might just be true.


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