Paradigm Shift

Revelations and Revolutions

Crisis means turning point,” Kimo said.

            Chapter One, A Moment of Time*

In my last post, I discussed some of the features of paradigms. Recall that commitment to some paradigm is essential for proceeding with any plan or design; without principles to guide our behavior, all of our choices would be random and spontaneous. We assume certain things to be true until those assumptions are called into question or replaced by new assumptions that better explain our experiences and discoveries.

A community that functions within a paradigm defines important terms and subdivides areas of interest into categories, genres, subspecialties, fields and disciplines: boxes. Members share common values and objectives. Elected representatives who seek to advance their party’s agenda don’t evaluate each issue on its merits; they follow the course dictated by their party (but, presumably, they agree with the party’s overall philosophy concerning major issues, such as how much government should regulate business, how much freedom will be granted citizens, what percentage of the budget should be allotted to health care, education, etc.).

Occasionally, an individual may find that his views have changed and are no longer in accord with those of the group to which he belongs. Or, the group begins moving in a direction that conflicts with the individual’s goals and values. The individual may begin searching, both within and without, and prepare for a radical change in her life. Leaving one’s country or career or religion is not done on a whim, though some people welcome new opportunities and the chance to progress. They are willing to take risks and fight for change. Other people are more cautious and conservative; they appreciate predictability and will fight to preserve order.

We all need a mix of change and stability in our lives. Some projects take a long time to complete and require commitment; changing course midstream, especially if done repeatedly, can hinder progress and cause chaos. Parents may at times prefer to be free of duties and obligations and go off on an adventure, but they know that their children would suffer and they choose to stay for the good of the whole family. Whether you are investing in the stock market or your career, you don’t allow dips in performance to shatter your confidence in long-term objectives. You weather storms. You tolerate, accommodate, and adjust. Only when a pattern becomes evident do you acknowledge that a problem exists and requires attention. You cannot stretch any farther; you have reached the limits of your tolerance. Something has to change.

Like people, institutions vary in terms of how open they are to change. Some fields require rapid response to stay current and competitive; others adapt to change slowly and would risk bankruptcy if they had to completely overhaul or redesign manufacturing plants or procedural requirements on a regular basis. The willingness to embrace change, however, can mean the difference between thriving and being rendered obsolete.

Sometimes we feel an inner restlessness and dissatisfaction. Finding no joy or enthusiasm in our current circumstances, we begin to search for alternatives and ponder our options. We only embrace change after long deliberation. At other times change is thrust upon us, as when an accident ends our ability to continue practicing our chosen profession, or a persecuted minority group is driven from its homeland. Understanding the transformational process can help us accept important changes in those close to us as well as in our own lives, and is especially useful for those who work in the helping professions and for those who seek to facilitate positive change for the greater good.

The Role of Awareness

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,[1] Thomas Kuhn notes that anomalies (instances and outcomes that don’t conform to normal expectations) are initially overlooked, either because they are not perceived as anomalous (the discrepancy does not register in conscious awareness) or because they are dismissed as insignificant (we notice the discrepancy but make a conscious decision to ignore it). Theories are not expected to answer every question that might possibly be asked; through experience we learn the limits of a given paradigm.

Perhaps the plan you were following has fundamental flaws. Let’s say you are the architect of a building or the inventor of a new product. Will you acknowledge your error and make the necessary changes, or deny that a problem exists and refuse to alter anything? Do you blame others or accept responsibility?

Some people react and become defensive at the mere suggestion they might want or need to do something different; others will take advice to heart and make profound changes that lead to new discoveries and opportunities (or, at least, fix the immediate problems). Awareness is the first step. You might encounter good fortune and stumble upon a new idea by chance and successfully embrace it. More often, you will become aware of problems, divisions, and breakdowns. If the matter is important to you, you may experience the situation as a crisis.

Response to Crisis

We all encounter times of crisis, when the normal response is no longer adequate or effective and we must dig deeper, take a risk, make a change. Perhaps we are faced with life-threatening illness, or suddenly find ourselves unemployed. One person in a relationship may be eager for a change that another resists (wife wants to save her marriage; husband wants to marry his mistress). Each choice point provides an opportunity to examine our needs and values and options. How we meet the challenges presented to us determines the course our lives will follow; this is true in our personal lives and also our collective endeavors—politics, medicine, technology, religion, et cetera. Successfully navigating a crisis requires adaptability and willingness to “think outside the box.”

When a society experiences conflict and upheaval, people may separate into groups, joining with others who share their views and priorities. These groups often become polarized; one faction seeks to defend or maintain the status quo (dependence on petroleum products) while others seek a new path (development of new technologies that reduce reliance on oil). Sometimes, different interests are at stake (retaining slavery as an institution because of economic benefits to plantations; abolishing slavery on moral grounds). As systems become more complex, further subdivisions may occur (many people who consider themselves Christian disagree with other Christians about the tenets of their faith). When cooperation and compromise prove impossible, negotiations cease and conflict escalates (American Civil War).

Those with vested interests generally seek to maintain power and control and are likely to resist changes that threaten (or seem to threaten) their interests. Revolutionaries are committed to the overthrow of regimes they deem unjust, corrupt, or overly restrictive of their aims; they are willing to fight for a cause (Patrick Henry: “Give me liberty or give me death”). Governments are usually designed to continue in perpetuity; from the perspective of a nationalist, anyone who challenges stability is a traitor. The aims of the rebel are not necessarily evil, but they conflict with the aims of those in power. The same man will be considered a hero by some and a traitor by others.

In the U.S., rulings by the Supreme Court have sometimes hastened change in areas that encountered strong resistance (school desegregation, women’s rights to choose whether to terminate pregnancy). When there is no acknowledged authority to resolve the dispute (“Go ask your mother!”), other means must be found. Among them are force (invasion, hostile corporate takeover, and coup d’état), reason (persuasion based on facts, evidence, or convincing arguments that induce people to give the new course a chance), propaganda (one-sided messages designed to convince people of something on the basis of information that is incomplete or minimizes important details, so that people relying on the assertions are not fully informed), or, if one is powerful (or rich) enough, bribery, coercion and/or fraud (e.g., buying an election). (A society’s laws are created as part of a paradigm; an act is not a crime if it is not defined as such.)

When proponents of a new paradigm convincingly argue that they can solve problems that the prevailing model has filed to address, converts may be won. In its early stages of development, faith in the new approach is required among those who will abandon tradition to embrace largely untested theories. Something about the new ideas must resonate; the pioneers are those who see the promise and the potential.

The Seeds of Change 

Dissenting opinions and minority views have been around for as long as historical accounts have been kept. Think of the Biblical prophets like Jeremiah, who warned the Israelites to change their ways or risk the wrath of Yahweh. Often, these voices crying in the wilderness are not heeded—until a crisis brings people to their knees. When the old ways no longer work, people are more willing to embrace difficult or costly changes.

Innovation is more welcome in some areas than others. A government stimulus may be used as a way to encourage desired behavior (tax credits for using energy-saving appliances). Companies invest billions of dollars in research and development of new products and services. Education may be required to retrain workers when old skills become outdated, or a government may bail out a failing institution that is deemed vital to the economy until changes can be implemented that once again allow it to function profitably.

Revolutions can be large or small; sometimes, only a small group is affected, but if the group is an influential one, the effects can be far-reaching. Imagine the CEOs of the world’s largest financial institutions and corporations all embracing meditation, selflessness, and decision-making based on concern for the planet (and not just the trust funds) that their children and grandchildren will inherit. How quickly might we end world hunger and poverty (and the ills that accompany malnutrition and poor sanitation), or find lasting solutions to environmental and economic problems?

Ideas can be revolutionary: All men are created equal; gender equality; same-sex marriage; do unto others as you would have them do unto you. New ideas can inspire action and provoke hostilities. Advances in science, medicine, and technology sometimes alter our understanding about our nature, history, and role in the cosmos.

For the pioneering scientist, illumination sometimes occurs through a flash of intuition or during sleep. But that doesn’t mean these revelations come out of nowhere; the scientist has been studying particular phenomena for some time, directing his attention to solving some problem when he suddenly sees the assemblage of data in a new way, a way that suggests a different kind of approach or measurement, or that allows him to see from a wider perspective.

Only after several years of unsuccessful research was physicist Max Planck willing to consider—contrary to accepted theory at the time—that matter emits and absorbs radiation in discrete packets (quanta). This revolutionary idea was an essential step in the development of quantum mechanics. Planck later said that basing his mathematical equation on this concept was “an act of despair … I was ready to sacrifice any of my previous convictions about physics.” [2]

Shifting Perspective

Recently, while I was sitting in an outer office waiting for an appointment, I watched a dragonfly bumping up against a large picture window. It seemed to be trying to get outside and, though it could see its destination, it couldn’t get there—couldn’t comprehend the nature of “glass.” I, of course, saw the dragonfly’s predicament from the perspective of a being who understands that, try as it may, the dragonfly was never going to find a way through to the other side. Its way out must be through the door next to the window, if it hovered there and waited for an opportunity to escape when the door (seemingly) magically opened.

Our early attempts at problem-solving can seem primitive, even to us, when we are able to shift perspective and discover solutions. Like the dragonfly, we sometimes must stop focusing on the window and look for the door. Then, we look not only at the problems of a vulnerable child, we also consider the dynamics, roles, and patterns of interaction within the entire family; we address systemic flaws that are affecting all members of the system, albeit in different ways. The problem child creates the crisis and is initially the focus of attention. The focus may shift to examination of the child’s functioning in school and at home. The way the problem is framed affects the remedies that will be tried; if the child is the problem, he may be given medications, disciplined, or sent to a behavior modification program; if the child’s environment is part of the problem, other changes must be made to effectively resolve the crisis.

Sometimes the visionary who makes a new discovery or initiates a change is not the same person who carries the new ideas through to implementation. Moses glimpsed the Promised Land, but was not permitted to enter; most of his followers perished in the desert. The younger generation followed Joshua and started anew.

Max Planck accepted the necessity of assuming quanta of energy to explain experimental results but he was not, initially, prepared to abandon electrodynamics and the tradition within which he—and other physicists—operated. He attempted, unsuccessfully, to integrate quantum theory into classical physics. It was Albert Einstein who applied Plank’s idea of energy quanta to the photoelectric effect, which could not be explained by characterizing light as a wave (as in classical physics). Einstein theorized that light (visible electromagnetic radiation) itself is quantized and consists of discrete bundles of energy (photons). These revolutionary ideas challenged the accepted views of classical physicists and introduced a new direction for the next generation of physicists, including Niels Bohr and his model of the atom.

When new information surfaces about genetic findings (humans and Neanderthals may have mated in the far distant past) or new techniques permit exploration of the farther reaches of space, old theories and beliefs need reconsideration. As part of the reorientation process, we may reexamine old data and find new answers.

Consider a detective whose investigation centers on a particular suspect; I’ll call the suspect Joe. The detective may have interviewed other individuals but overlooked important clues, so convinced was he that Joe was the culprit. Only when new evidence comes to his attention does the detective realize that Henry had both motive and opportunity to commit the crime. He goes back and looks at all the evidence and information that has been gathered, and finds support for his new theory. Once the focus of his investigation shifts to Henry, the detective is able to uncover additional information that leads to Henry’s arrest and conviction. 

Practices change, too, as new understanding arises. Doctor who believe that babies don’t feel pain are going to handle them differently (without concern for their comfort) than doctors who believe that birth trauma can negatively affect an individual for many years. If research shows a correlation between consuming cholesterol-rich foods and high levels of serum cholesterol, that fact may not seem important—until another researcher links high levels of cholesterol with heart disease. As the news spreads, people with high cholesterol may stop eating butter, eggs, and other foods that contain cholesterol; doctors may recommend medications to help reduce the cholesterol already in the body. If later research suggests that cholesterol is not really a problem, or that it’s a problem for a narrow subset of the population, the suggestion challenges treatment protocols and dietary recommendations that are now considered standard.

Letting Go of Expectations

Sometimes, we hope that our efforts and actions will bring about a particular result and we proceed as if the desired outcome were assured, but are disappointed when things don’t work out the way we’d envisioned. We learn the hard way that our expectations were unrealistic.

The scientific method shows us that theories, hypotheses, and equations do not accurately represent reality; they approximate the laws of nature, to a greater or lesser degree. As our understanding increases, we are better able to refine our predictions and plan strategies that are more likely to be effective.

When we are working within a paradigm that is able to account for many of our findings, new discoveries support or validate widely held or previously accepted views. When new theories and phenomena conflict with our expectations, however, fundamental assumptions are challenged. As the gap between expectation and experience widens, we may find that it’s time to adopt a new perspective or approach.

According to Kuhn, scientific revolutions are “those non-cumulative developmental episodes in which an older paradigm is replaced in whole or in part by an incompatible new one.” In other words, if the old model cannot adequately explain or allow for an experience, it will be replaced by a new model that is radically different in important respects. (Otherwise, elements of the new model could simply be incorporated into the old.) Transition to a new paradigm is not the inevitable result of crisis. The scientist will not abandon tradition unless a superior model is available. The new model must gain supporters who are willing to invest in its development.

Great ideas are not enough; if we are going to transfer our allegiance—if we are going to fight a war to liberate our colonies from imperial control—we better be pretty sure that the alternative is viable, that the new nation we form can thrive on its own. For novelists as well as inventors, the development of an idea is as important as the initial inspiration. Does research validate the theory? Can the machine be produced in a timely and cost-effective manner? Does the story hold a reader’s attention throughout, or is a high-concept premise its only interesting feature?

Embracing Change

During revolutions, existing systems break down and are replaced by new ones that are better suited to solving the problems that followers of the old paradigm were unable—or unwilling—to address (they didn’t take the problems seriously or didn’t consider the problems to be within their field or discipline).

Kuhn posits that the transition to a new paradigm does not occur bit by bit. Accepting a new paradigm is a “conversion experience.” It’s all or nothing; you either accept the assumptions and interpretations of a model, or you do not. The medical doctor who adopts the use of acupuncture needles for the treatment of pain does not need to change her view of the human body in order to acknowledge beneficial results. “Normal science” might, through standard research methods, produce an explanation of “why” the insertion of needles is effective, in terms that do not present a challenge to accepted medical practice and understanding (perhaps the needles stimulate the release of measurable substances). The practitioner who uses acupuncture to balance chi follows a different model of the human body and energy system—a model that is not taught in most medical schools and probably will not be until Western researchers develop instrumentation for measuring the flow of chi and its role, if any, in disease and healing.

Revolutionary ideas may emerge in a moment of insight, but the adoption of new ideas and practices, system-wide, is a more gradual process. If the proponents of a new paradigm can attract followers who will invest in research and publication, ideas spread and new members join in increasing numbers. Often, members of the affected community decide which view wins out. The choice may or may not be the best of the available options, but it is the one that succeeds in attracting a following.

A New Normal

We sometimes forget that the status quo wasn’t always the status quo. Once we have adopted a practice or position, we become accustomed to things being a particular way and assume that way must be the right way. Often, we have not really examined our reasons for making the choice to begin with, yet we resist change. After we have overcome our resistance and implemented the necessary changes, we begin to adapt.

We may see the world with new eyes—even when the outer circumstances do not appear to have changed. Think of a marriage in crisis. A couple may discover new tools that enhance communication, intimacy, and the ability to work together to find solutions that satisfy both partners. With renewed commitment and greater understanding of each person’s needs, the marriage may be revitalized. For other marriages, the individuals may need to revise their expectations when confronted with life changes. The marriage may need to be redefined. Some couples will choose to accept a new normal and live with a certain amount of tension caused by circumstances that cannot be altered; others will divorce. Divorce may or may not be experienced as a crisis. One person may be shattered by the change while another is eager for a new start.

Visionaries see problem areas and potential remedies long before others but their recommendations may be ignored until a crisis results and people are ready to embrace changes that may be long overdue. Some die-hards will never abandon ship; they believe, rightly or wrongly, that steadfast adherence to the old paradigm is noble. They are not prepared to abandon all they have worked for and believed in over the course of a lifetime or throughout their career, or they lack the energy and commitment required to learn a whole new approach. Members of younger generations, raised with the ‘new ideas,’ eventually take their places throughout society; advances that previous generations struggled to obtain are commonplace  for them. They, in turn, will be challenged by new ideas as they age, and so it goes.

–Jilaine Tarisa

In A Moment of Time, Caitlin Rose encounters new ideas that challenge her views about her religion, her career, her family, and the nature of life itself. After experiencing a series of life-changing events, she emerges transformed, whole, and ready to embrace a new paradigm.

*Read Chapter One here


1.  Kuhn, Thomas S., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, © 1962 (Third edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996)

2., accessed May 23, 2013


Writer, Photographer

Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Transforming Ideas
One comment on “Paradigm Shift
  1. Russ Nelson says:

    What a wealth of thoughts to consider. The discussion of the discoveries and experiences of Kuhn, Planck, Einstein, Galileo and others, show not only the wealth of knowledge of the author, but also show the general applicability of these ideas to encompass all areas of knowledge. It is relevant to everything, religion, science, and philosophy. It is relevant to today and what is happening to the dogmas in religion and science. It is dangerous for a scientist to express any ideas that may be contrary to the accepted notions of established science, especially relativity. New ideas might threaten his career and brand him as a heretic. So what has been said above is broad and so true and applicable.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: