Paradigm Shift

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Historian of science Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962 [1]) argued that the history of science could best be described as a series of scientific revolutions, during which old paradigms give way to new ones. He wished to counter the notion that science progressed in a slow, linear fashion toward ever-greater truths and the accumulation of facts. Instead, he observed, science tends to stay fixed on a particular paradigm, a story, dogma or orthodoxy to which it clings until enough anomalous information arises which cannot be explained by that paradigm.

The accumulation of anomalies calls into question the assumptions of the current paradigm, and stretches it beyond its ability to explain the observed world. But, because the current paradigm has been so successful, and because of the discomfort of not knowing, people will not abandon an old paradigm until a credible alternative exists. Even then there is huge resistance and, as Max Planck observed, often "a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." In other words, the Stone Age did not end for a lack of stones.

As explored in the documentary film, What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire, the present-day confluence of seemingly insoluble problems (including oil depletion, economic meltdown, political upheaval, climate destabilization, mass extinction and population overshoot) can be seen as anomalies that call into question the current cultural paradigm of growth, separation, domination and control. Contemporary culture tends to cling to old-paradigm stories that reinforce that things have never been better.

In the face of this collective predicament, many point to the famous quote from Albert Einstein, “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Humanity, with all of the best intentions, labors to engineer a mass consciousness change, a shift to some new paradigm from which it can solve its collective problems. Sadly this approach fails to notice that the whole notion of problem solving - seeing the world as a series of problems to be solved by humans - is likely an aspect of the paradigm or kind of thinking that created this predicament in the first place. And attempts to engineer, or in any way force, mass consciousness change may, unwittingly, be firmly rooted in that same paradigm.

New paradigms are not linear progressions from the old (cell phones instead of landlines), but represent radically new world views (let’s communicate telepathically) that are barely comprehensible to an older one. Given that, attempts to create or engineer a paradigm shift as a matter of design, intellect or will may be in vain.

This may be disconcerting to those steeped in a paradigm of separation, domination and control. A helpful construct may be that of ego. For these purposes, ego means that sense of separate self that most are familiar with; the collective ego is the widely shared stories about separation and the resultant need for control or domination of the world, and all of the cultural, economic and political ramifications of that. Ego, individual and collective, is by definition conservative and defensive. It defends a set of stories because its life depends on those stories. Ego is closed to any shift of paradigm that threatens that basic notion of separation, or any other notions that hinge on the idea of separation, like the unquestioned benefits of competition.

Interrupting ego, then, is likely necessary to further the movement into a new paradigm. When uncomfortable ego feelings that arise in the presence of different ways of thinking, experiences, and concepts, are identified, they can be used to inform and alter behavior or perception. An example of this is if an encounter leaves one feeling confused, afraid, angry, appalled, shocked, dismissive, or agitated, ego may have bumped into another paradigm. Or, if the notion of moving into a gift economy feels silly, impossible, or stupid, those reactions, paradoxically, could indicate a direction in which to head.

The ability to shift the paradigm may be aided by practices that help to break up ego and support openness to unfamiliar experiences. Dialogue, spiritual practices like meditation, chanting, vision quest, sacred use of experience-altering substances, or even falling in love with someone of a different paradigm may be useful in this venture.


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Authors: Tim Bennett & Sally Erickson