Part Two: What Is a Paradigm?
Many people would consider his opinions extreme, Kimo knew, so he mostly kept them to himself. He could afford to view unsustainable lifestyles and practices with disdain, for he had never benefited from the prevailing model; he had no vested interest.
Chapter 24, A Moment of Time
In Part One, I noted some of the characteristics of the conceptual box that has become known as the novel. In Part Two, I describe some of the features of paradigms.
In 1962, historian of science Thomas S. Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (hereinafter “SSR”), a controversial work that challenged cherished notions about the nature of scientific development. Kuhn proposed that science does not progress in a linear fashion, as many had supposed, but encounters revolutionary periods during which the paradigm that has governed scientific inquiry and methodology is replaced with a new and incommensurate paradigm. In other words, the new view is incompatible with the old view and cannot simply be incorporated into the existing model. The new paradigm may be superior to the old one because its theories provide better explanations for questions the old paradigm could not answer; using the new paradigm’s methodologies, scientists may be able to solve problems that adherents of the old paradigm were unable or unwilling to address. New discoveries or inventions can precipitate a paradigm shift, allowing approaches to emerge that previously were not possible or feasible. (Study of the behavior of minute particles awaited the availability of instruments that made observation possible, for example.)
Kuhn’s early training was in physics and his primary interest was in articulating his views about the beliefs and practices unique to the natural sciences. (Science is a self-governing community; scientists themselves decide upon the rules and review each other’s work. Though researchers must adhere to ethical standards imposed by the larger community in which they exist (and practitioners of professions like medicine must comply with licensing requirements), no external authority defines the scope of scientific activity or determines whether a theory is plausible.) Nonetheless, in developing his theses Kuhn turned to the social sciences as well as philosophy. (He reviewed studies about the nature of human perception, for example, and refers in his work to Gestalt and Wittgenstein.) As a result, many of Kuhn’s observations apply to human endeavors outside of the scientific tradition. Since the 1960s, paradigm has spread to psychology, theology, and economics — and beyond the world of academia. Paradigm is in vogue.
In SSR, Kuhn used the term in two ways. The first use refers to “the entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques, and so on shared by the members of a given community.” (1969 Postscript to the third edition) (The second use, paradigms as exemplary past achievements, is less relevant to the discussion that follows.)
Despite individual differences, members of a community accept the particular views that the model they follow prescribes. Beliefs and assumptions can be explicit or unexpressed, but adherence to the model is what defines the community. Different schools of thought within a discipline or profession may use similar terminology, share basic assumptions, and even study the same kinds of phenomena, but they will interpret the data according to the model, or paradigm, that guides their inquiry and determines the value of the results obtained. Ideas that run contrary to expectations predicted by the model are dismissed—the continued existence of the paradigm requires the elimination of extraneous matters so that the matters that are explained by the paradigm can be articulated in depth and detail. Problems that the paradigm cannot resolve are rejected as “metaphysical” or the concern of another discipline. (E.g., science cannot prove or disprove the continuation of consciousness after death; it remains, therefore, a matter of “faith.”)
The Importance of The Box
Kuhn says that “normal science” (“the activity in which most scientists inevitably spend almost all their time”) is an attempt to force nature “into the conceptual boxes supplied by professional education.” In other words, our training—in science or in other areas—tells us which items in the world of stimuli, experience, data, and sensation we should notice and pay attention to and which pieces are irrelevant or unimportant and can be ignored. Normal science strives “to bring theory and fact into closer agreement.” The paradigm’s raison d’être is to provide a framework for research that applies theory; the paradigm dictates what will be studied and how it will be studied. It also determines which results are valued and which are considered worthless (e.g., “mere” facts that do not advance understanding of the matters being studied). The placebo effect may merit investigation by some other discipline, but bears no relation to the question of a drug’s effectiveness in treating a particular disorder.
Commitment to a paradigm is essential; we must believe in what we are doing, or how could we invest the time, energy, and resources necessary to succeed in our endeavors? The firefighter must believe he (or she) has the necessary training and ability to rescue trapped inhabitants of a burning building before entering; the cult followers must believe they are on their way to a better life when they follow their leader’s instructions to drink cyanide-laced punch. Many of our choices in life are influenced by our beliefs and assumptions—and the stakes can be high.
If you are an astronomer and you believe that all the planets in our solar system have been discovered, you will initially attempt to identify an unknown celestial body as a comet or a star—which is exactly what happened for a century, until Sir William Herschel identified the planet Uranus after studying its orbit. (Of course, the community of astronomers decides what qualifies as a “planet”–a term that had no official definition until 2006, when the International Astronomical Union adopted one–and took Pluto off the list. An earlier proposal would have kept Pluto and added a number of other celestial bodies that satisfied the definition. Such classifications may seem arbitrary, as they are based on other values and considerations. Apparently, the astronomers wanted the designation planet to mean something special.)
The narrow scope that classification creates helps focus research, and the adoption of specialized terms aids communication among colleagues and eliminates the need to repeatedly state foundational assumptions. When shared standards gain acceptance, “normal science” can proceed with the business of solving the problems suggested by the paradigm. Scientists are not trained, Kuhn posits, to think outside the box—the box is what defines their discipline and its assumptions and conclusions.
In Kuhn’s use of the term, a paradigm is more than a school of thought; achieving paradigm status can be seen as a mark of maturity in the development of a branch or field, as the methodologies and theoretical principles have attained an adequate measure of coherence to attract followers who are committed to building a career around clarifying and demonstrating the viability of the model as it applies to experimental data and research. But no paradigm or theory is complete in its explanation of all phenomena; anomalies are aberrations that defy explanation and cannot be forced into the approved boxes. Ultimately, anomalies must be accounted for, as they “subvert the existing tradition” and lead to new inquiries. When traditions shatter, the resulting crisis causes confusion and can set the stage for a scientific revolution—a major turning point in scientific development.
Thus, with advances in scientific thought and measurement, a paradigm reaches a point when it can no longer find adherents in sufficient numbers to sustain its relevance and it is vulnerable to being replaced by a new paradigm. The precepts of the new model are often radically different from previously held views. Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein are among the pioneers whose ideas changed the course of scientific inquiry and understanding.
You Say You Want a Revolution?
Because commitment to a paradigm is what allows the business of “normal science” to proceed, challenges to the paradigm are not welcomed, whether those challenges come in the form of violated expectations when results fail to conform to those predicted by the model, or from followers of other paradigms, whose views are incompatible with the beliefs and theories that are under attack.
Consider the case of Galileo Galilei, the Italian scientist and visionary who was tried in 1633 by the Roman Inquisition after he published a book advancing the Copernican view that the Earth rotates on an axis and revolves around the sun. By then old and frail, Galileo was forced to publicly renounce Copernicanism and embrace the Ptolemaic view about the stability of the Earth and the motion of the sun.
Here is how the Vatican Observatory summarizes the reasons for the condemnation of Galileo:
Galileo provided persuasive, but not conclusive, evidence for a Sun-centered system. In so doing, he challenged the classical Greek philosophy of nature, which had dominated thinking about the universe for millennia. To embrace Copernicanism was to threaten Aristotelianism. The persistent requirement of fidelity to Aristotelianism had nothing to do with a sun-centered system; rather, Aristotelianism was the basis for the philosophical and theological teachings of the time. If Aristotelian natural philosophy crumbled, some feared that the whole system of theology that it supported would also crumble.
The Church officially apologized to Galileo in the year 2000.
The boxes that distinguish one paradigm from another impose limitations that at some point must be transcended as advances in thought and methodology occur. By remaining open to new avenues of thought and experimentation, attention can be given to matters that previously would have been ignored. Why would you waste your time looking for new planets if you believed they had all already been discovered? Once a barrier has been crossed, opportunities appear to those who are ready to embrace change. After the identification of Uranus demonstrated that a new planet could be found, additional discoveries followed. We didn’t know all there was to know about the universe after all. Imagine!
Old beliefs die hard, especially when vested interests are at stake. But if the new ideas more accurately represent reality, in time they will win acceptance. Then, new avenues of research and discovery often become possible. Think of the shift from believing that the Earth is flat to accepting that it is round; sailing expeditions need no longer fear plunging over the edge, into the abyss, if they advance too far.
When someone undergoes such a reorientation, he or she sees things in a new way. In A Moment of Time, Caitlin Rose is a successful, career-oriented woman but something is missing in her life. As she embarks upon a journey toward wholeness, new experiences and new information force her to examine her beliefs about the world, resulting in a profound shift in her thinking and a new direction for her life.
Up next: Paradigm Shift
Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, © 1962 (Third edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996)
“The Galileo Affair,” Vatican Observatory, 2013 (accessed March 3, 2013)