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Shifting the Paradigm

May 8, 2023

With his 1962 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Thomas Kuhn launched the concept of paradigm shift which could be applied to a variety of historical cultural changes as well as desired future ones.  Increasingly people are calling for a worldview shift to address our crises with climate, capitalism, social life and more.  Because the modern way of life is breaking down, and changing everything requires such a shift, we do well to revisit Kuhn’s analysis to aid us in achieving the transformation.

Although critics argued that he blurred the lines between a total scientific revolution, a paradigm shift in a single area and mere evolution of scientific understanding and practice, there is one unequivocal instance of a paradigm shift that amounted to a revolution.  This was the shift from Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the heavens to Copernicus’ heliocentric scheme that overturned the relation between normal human experience and the scientific account of the world.

The Copernican Revolution asserted that what we see isn’t the reality, for we see the sun moving across the sky, but the reality is that the sun is fixed, and it’s the earth that is moving.  Of course understanding observed motion as relative to the frame of reference is nothing new; as we walk we see the scenery pass by.  Yet of much greater consequence than the change in the map of the heavens was the method employed to produce it that measured phenomena and constructed a model to account for the data.

Newton subsequently created a model of the world composed entirely of elementary material bodies acting in accordance with his laws, again claiming that they are the reality and not the objects of our common experience.  According to his paradigm not only is what we see not the reality, but neither is our seeing itself what it appears to be, that is, a distinctly conscious function, but is rather some dance of material particles in our bodies which too are conglomerates of such material elements.

Enlightenment science monopolistically replaced the previous paradigm of Aristotelian science in which everything is a vital essence that we intuit as such, and the difference is illustrated by Kuhn’s comparison of the philosopher’s and Galileo’s approaches to falling bodies.  For Aristotle the stone has a particular nature that it seeks to fulfill, and its falling is aimed at coming to rest in its natural place which is on the ground.  Galileo redefined the falling stone as a material body having the measurable properties of mass and velocity and for the observed action of which he undertook to find a universal mathematical formula.

We do indeed perceive the weight and movement of objects and can measure them as Galileo did, but what we don’t directly experience are the natural laws that science tells us govern those things and our seeing itself.  The basic method of science is to redefine things in the world in such a way that natural laws can be derived from the appearances they present to our senses.  That method is epitomized by Emile Durkheim’s invention of the science of sociology in which he proclaimed the existence of “social facts” – previously unrecognized collective human phenomena that cannot be reduced to individual behavior and for which deterministic patterns or laws can be found.

The principal application of all science is to manipulate and thereby control nature, and using it humans have redirected natural things into an endless variety of products and processes including our society.  Edward Bernays developed the science of manipulating people with advertising which is akin to that of ideological indoctrination perfected by authoritarian regimes, while models created by theorists practicing the “dismal science” of economics have been imposed on nations and now global humanity.  Antonio Gramsci used the term “hegemony” to describe the total system of cultural control exercised by the power elite over people.  Such control is a product of science which also forms part of the hegemony.

Our view of the world in the scientific age is that of things whose sensory qualities we perceive but which ultimately consist of entities defined by science as objects in theoretical models that operate according to imperceptible deterministic or probabilistic laws.  The invisibility of the commanding forces is especially problematic in the areas of economic, social and conscious life where human control has superseded that of nature.

Kuhn avers that the largest role of theories is to direct scientific activity, and the same is evident in how they figure in culture as a whole: people act as if these things that they don’t see constitute the world, themselves included.  Another aspect of science that he brings up is the fundamental belief in its progress.  Although the potential for scientific research is endless, more knowledge is not necessarily better either for humanity or the world, yet part of the modern cultural paradigm is faith in scientific and technological progress.

According to him a scientific revolution comes about when applications of the prevailing paradigm encounter contradictions such as measurements at major variance from the geocentric model of the heavens.  This sets off a crisis in which scientists frantically search for a resolution of the contradictions and that ends with the development of a new model that satisfactorily accounts for the anomalous observations.

Comparing our culture’s worldview to a scientific paradigm it is clear that the former has run into grave contradiction in the undeniable fact that the age of human progress is over, and we have entered a period of regression with runaway environmental degradation, massive wealth inequality, increasing violent conflict and authoritarianism.  As in a scientific paradigm crisis people are now wildly searching for a replacement.  However there are these differences: first, science requires a firm model and second, it defines specific puzzles for that to solve.  In contrast, the quest for a new cultural worldview is wide open and lacks specific questions for which satisfactory answers might be found.  In addition, science seeks a single theory of everything – the goal of the total scientific project.  Human culture overall lacks such unity, even as an ideal, and its participants are divided into countless groups with different outlooks.

Nevertheless, because of the urgent existential threat of global environmental catastrophe, much of the search for a new worldview and culture is directed at nature, particularly bare naked nature rather than reductionist conceptions of it.  Increasingly people are focusing on experiences of unity with natural things and immediate awareness of their life, and such consciousness is precisely intuition of Aristotle’s essences.

One hundred and eighty-one years before Kuhn wrote a German philosopher used the phrase “Copernican Revolution” to describe how he transferred natural laws from the material world into the operation of human consciousness.  Immanuel Kant utterly destroyed human communion with external natural objects, declaring that our consciousness is confined to phenomena upon which we impose the structure.  All subsequent phenomenology is basically his scheme, while empirical science also denies direct conscious communion with natural things, explaining experience as mediated by stimuli in such forms as light and audible vibrations plus neurological processes.

For Kuhn a new paradigm serves the needs of scientists to resolve particular contradictions as well as to support and advance their enterprise.  With a shift back to Aristotle’s naturalism we reclaim nature as an object of direct experience and our selves as organic parts of it.  This is precisely what we want: to live in an integrated fashion within nature, to directly know that we are doing so and that this is the fulfillment of our purpose in life.  Making the shift does not exclude science, but rather accepts it for what it is – theoretical models for manipulating nature which we must utilize with care.

While certain Eastern and Indigenous spiritualities offer awareness of universal life Aristotelian essentialism directs attention to our intuitions of the lives of individual things and our unity with them.  Also defining people as essences it provides specific guidance for how we should live, especially insofar as human collectivities are also considered essences of which individuals form organic parts.  People are united with other people and things in spatially extended collective essences with respect to specific functions that include those of a community as well as consciousness.  Although our attention may be more focused on instrumental, material and sensible rather than essential aspects of things, there is no veil of perception: the world is exactly what we immediately experience it as being.  It consists of things and collectivities of them whose essences we immediately intuit and the sensible qualities of which we perceive as we are functionally conjoined as intuiting and sensing subjects with the intuitable and sensible natures of objects.  Our lives are extended into their lives, while theirs are extended into ours, and immediate awareness of such unity with things moves us to act for their good and our own.

The new worldview referred to here is fully presented in the free ebook Being Alive: A Guide for Human Action and the essay From Minimal to Maximal Self .


Phila Back

Phila Back is an issue and electoral campaign organizer and independent philosopher.  Issues that she has worked on include land use and preservation, water, air, energy, mining, endangered species, public lands, climate, education, fair trade, healthcare, campaign finance reform and voting rights.  She has participated in an anti-poverty commission, revitalization plan committee and community garden project in Reading, Pennsylvania. In 2015 and 2016 Back published a series of articles on neoliberalism in The Lehigh Valley Vanguard. This work is the product of decades of training, experience and thought about how to get large numbers of people engaged in the democratic process.  She was a candidate for delegate to the 2020 Democratic National Convention pledged to Bernie Sanders. Back has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Reed College.

Tags: paradigms, philosophy, social change