The end of the world as we know it: collapsing paradigms

This is an excerpt from Paradoxy: Creating Christian community beyond us and them by the Rev. Ken Howard, rector of St. Nicholas’ Church in Darnestown, Maryland.

By Ken Howard

I know. I know. The term paradigm sounds a little clichéd these days. In the world of business it seems like every other week somebody is promoting some new management technique as the newest paradigm in leadership. Yet while the term may have been overused (or even abused) of late, it is of great importance to understanding the turbulent times we face. If the word paradigm is a little hackneyed to you, just substitute world view, conceptual model, or some other equivalent term. Whatever you want to call it, if we want to understand how human beings learn and practice truth, we have to talk about paradigms. Because paradigms are the way we think and the way we interpret our perceptions of reality. It’s in our DNA.

The words truth and reality are commonly used as though they were interchangeable. But while they are integrally related, they really are two very different things. If we were to look at them in the form of a mathematical equation, the relationship might be expressed like this:

T = R + M

Truth Equals Reality plus Meaning

(what we seek when we seek what we call truth)

With apologies to agent Fox Mulder of The X-Files, it’s not the “truth” that is “out there” but “reality.” And while we are borrowing phrases from old T.V. shows, we might borrow a line from officer Joe Friday of Dragnet and say that reality is “just the facts,” without any meaning attributed to them.

We do like our reality filtered. Our minds seem “hard-wired” to develop paradigms. We are meaning-seeking creatures, determined to understand how and why things relate together the way they do, and we are driven to create conceptual systems based on our experience and observation of the world. It is this understanding of the hows and whys and relationships of reality that is what we mean by “truth.”

In fact, we so depend upon such understanding that we will create conceptual systems even in the face of minimal experience and a paucity of observations. For example, rather than accepting that major natural disasters are just expressions of random chaos at work in the world, we call them “acts of God.” Some find it easier to attribute poverty to character traits of the poor than to accept that their poverty and our prosperity might be as much a product of luck as of anything else. When a woman is sexually assaulted by a stranger, some are tempted to ask if she was wearing something revealing or acting in a seductive manner. In this way, creating paradigms gives us the illusion of predictability and control.

Paradigms help us negotiate our way through the world more effectively. As with walking, if we had to think about each step before we took it, our minds would be preoccupied with putting one foot in front of the other. We wouldn’t be able to chew bubble gum and walk at the same time. But once we “get” how walking works, we can move the activity out of our conscious minds and focus our conscious thinking processes on more important questions, such as “Where are we going?” and “Are we there yet?” Paradigms are the conceptual models we’ve developed to explain and predict how reality works. They provide a framework within which we can organize and integrate new experiences and observations.

The Problem with Paradigms: Confusing Truth with Reality

Paradigms seem to work so well for us, so much of the time, that we sometimes confuse our paradigms of reality with reality itself. Just like the glasses or contacts many of us wear, we forget that we have them on.

Similarly, when we lose sight of the provisional nature of our paradigms and begin to think of them as timeless and immutable, we can become reactive when faced with new experiences that don’t fit our old way of thinking. We may be tempted to deny them. We may be suspicious of anomalous observations that threaten the old way of seeing things, or of the motives of those who bring them to our attention.

But our denial cannot stop the accumulation of discordant observations and experiences that the old paradigm no longer explains. Sooner or later—usually later, human nature being what it is —the weight of the evidence becomes so great that the old paradigm collapses it. It is only then that a new paradigm can arise.

Physicist and historian of science Thomas Kuhn once explained the process of individual and collective denial that historically happens when major paradigms shift in fields of scientific knowledge. Some scientists dismissed discrepant data as measurement errors, even when they arose in their own experiments. Others attacked the competence or motivation of the researcher (when anomalies arose in other scientist’s experiments). Some appeared to “adjust” the data (mostly unconsciously) to fit the ruling paradigm. Others worked heroically to adapt the old paradigm to fit new data by introducing corollaries or constants. In some cases, researchers’ commitment to the old paradigm was so strong it actually rendered them incapable of perceiving the data that didn’t fit. These reactions were not limited to individual scientists. Resisters of change tended to be drawn to other like-minded scientists, eventually forming factions to oppose any consideration of abandoning the old, ruling paradigm of knowledge.

Meanwhile, Kuhn noted, other scientists would react in the opposite direction, intuitively formulating and often aggressively proposing alternative paradigms to account for those discrepancies. Often, several alternate paradigms would be formed. Some of these would be truly radical departures from the ruling paradigm; others merely an artful repackaging of the old way. Sometimes several of these alternative paradigms would be mutually exclusive of each other. The one thing they shared was that each would be championed with great hubris by their promoters. And as with the conservative scientists, factions of these progressive theorists tended to form to defend their positions.

But when the new paradigm finally emerged, it was neither exactly what the reactionaries feared nor what the radicals were advocating. Rather, the new paradigm usually contained some aspects of the heavily defended ruling paradigm, some aspects of the heavily promoted proposed ones, and—this is the interesting part—some aspects that neither side expected. Obviously, if scientists, who are in a field of understanding that is supposed to be the epitome of open-minded objectivity, respond to shifts in understanding reality with such a high level of reactive subjectivity, how can we expect the rest of us to be any less reactive and subjective in our responses?

The Rev. Ken Howard, author of em>Paradoxy: Creating Christian community beyond us and them, is rector of St. Nicholas’ Church in Darnestown, Maryland.

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