PURSUING THE PARADIGM
There are many factors that contribute to the change of paradigms that periodically disrupt human world-views. A paradigm is the model or pattern of the way we perceive reality, and it seems odd that it can change so profoundly as to utterly alter society, when all the time human beings were so certain that it could never change, that the way they looked at existence was the only possible way. They couldn't even conceive of something different because the truth was so utterly obvious. Then when the paradigm shifts, there is an equivalent amazement that anyone could ever have believed any other way. It doesn't happen often and it takes a long time for a complete shift to occur. In fact there are still people whose life is being organized under the rubric of the paradigm before last, and the new one is neither understood nor accepted, even by those who think they know what it is. There are even those who, thinking they are responding to the new, are preaching a return to the first one of which we have a record. Many, of course, are unaware that we are in the midst of such a shift. We recognize the confusion, the disorder, the fear, but we explain it in the terms that used to fit, terms that we still understand, and look for solutions from the past. If the shift is real, and I believe it is, retreat is impossible. We must go forward, "past the place where the light lifts and farther on than the relinquishment of leaves - farther even than the persistence in the east of the green color....What is required of us, Companions, is the recognition of the frontiers across this history, and to take heart: to cross over -." (Archibald MacLeish)
Let me say that I do not see myself as being one who understands and embraces the new paradigm. On the contrary, I dwell in confusion. I long for a time when I knew what was good, what was helpful, what could work to improve our society, our world, our own lives. I see in a glass darkly, and when I think that what I am seeing is glimpses of the new reality, I am afraid. All I can say for myself is that I know it is there, and I know that we must begin to try to live in the newness with wisdom and acceptance, if we are not to be destroyed by the disruptions that even now are taking place in the destruction of the old paradigm.
It is amazing what seemingly small, irrelevant things are the turning point, the beginning of a new model of being. They don't really happen in a vacuum. They are produced out of generations of thought and research and the sharing of wisdom, but one incident, one idea, seems to be the culmination, the codification of new thought, after which everything is different. I don't know what the cause was of the first shift that we know about. Primitive human beings seemed to see their universe as utterly random. This world was all they knew, and there was nothing to ensure that it would continue as they knew it. When things happened, they happened for no particular reason, and there was nothing to be done about them. The religious expression of this is animism - a belief in the willfulness of all things - which easily passes to a paganism in which the spirits of things can be propitiated as gods. These are not gods of unlimited power. They are chancy. They fight among themselves, and the randomness of things can be attributed to their imperfections and disagreements. I don't know what began the shift to the 3-tiered universe in which there was will and purpose concentrated in divine power separate from and above the earth, and if opposed at all, opposed by powers of darkness below. This was a universe of law. The laws might be arbitrary, but they had a reason for their existence, and obedience to them was the obvious answer to questions of purpose and meaning. Perhaps it was simply the beginning of civilization which caused this shift. When people began to live in one place and record their history, they began to see patterns and rhythms in their lives, living within which seemed to understand and control their environment to some extent.
Then along came Copernicus. He was by no means a product out of nowhere. There were the Greek geometers, the philosophy of Aristotle, the algebraic contributions from Islam, but it was the Copernican revolution. The world was no longer the center of the universe with stars painted on the backdrop of the heavens for our delight. We ourselves were no longer the center. We are close enough to those times to have some concept of the disruptions that so simple a culmination of scientific thought caused. Although the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries were between those who were not ready for the new paradigm, it was the context within which they were fought to produce the Enlightenment.
Recently I have seen a columnist on the op-ed page of the paper refer a couple of times (perhaps it was even a couple of columnists) to the "failure of the Enlightenment," a reference thrown in off-handedly as if everyone knew that the Enlightenment was an effort that had failed, and he was merely repeating common knowledge. It was a most amazing statement since the Enlightenment was the height of the new paradigm, and its consequences were enormous in ideas of freedom, of the scientific method, of cause and effect. It produced the Constitution and Bill of Rights of the United States; it ultimately ended the institution of slavery; it honored reason and the search for truth, and it honored as well the possibility of human creation of a world in which all of us could live abundantly. The paradigm has shifted again, but the power of its vision changed the world as we know it. Its central belief was in cause and effect, and its characteristic religion was that of deism which believed in a creation that ran itself with unbreakable natural laws. Knowledge of those laws would give humankind the ability to manipulate them in such a way that we could all attain peace and plenty in a world of justice. Although some of us may have begun to suspect that that is not true, it doesn't change the achievements - the success - of the Enlightenment.
And without the Enlightenment, without the commitment to a search for truth using scientific and mathematical techniques, there would have been no Heisenberg. There would have been no uncertainty principle to codify the onset of the new paradigm. Actually when you look at it at first, it seems no more revolutionary in scope than any other arcane physical theory. All it says is that, when you are looking at sub-atomic particles, the more you know about their velocity, the less you can know about their position. In addition, Heisenberg found that the act of observing these particles changed their position radically, so that merely by observation of phenomena less rather than more could be known about them. Big deal, right?
Yes, it's a very big deal. Suddenly the idea of cause and effect is called into question. We must now look at reality in terms of statistics and probability. What is more, it becomes clear that truth is unattainable. The more you learn, the less you know. We get Einstein and relativity, chaos theory and the greatest modern scientific mind writing mystical panegyrics to the fourth dimension. We also get societal upheavals and disruption and rumblings of a new round of religious wars. The old paradigm is gone and the new one seems only to lead us deeper and deeper into the mire. We have no truth to which we can cling, no certainty to establish a platform for our seeking feet, no right and wrong, no good and evil, no answers for our questions except that there are no answers. There are only probabilities.
Let me reiterate that the uncertainty principle didn't cause the paradigm shift any more than Copernicus mathematics caused the beginning of modern science. It merely epitomizes it. There are influences, aided and accelerated by technology but independent of it, and independent of science and mathematics as well, to lead us to this new understanding. Greater knowledge of other cultures has taught us that even the moral and ethical standards that we thought were absolute do not universally obtain, nor do the ways of organizing communities. The rules are gone. Even the guidelines are gone. This is scary stuff, because without at least mutually agreed upon rules there can be no cohesion, no community, no concerted effort. The Tower of Babel is back, but now even if we speak the same language we may not be able to find the way to be one communion because the framework within which we can work together is gone.
The natural response to this is retreat. This summer I received four requests for renewals of membership in various liberal organizations. Without exception they invoked the bogey of the religious right to persuade me of the necessity of renewal. A new enemy has arisen, and all of our energy and resources must go to fight it. I am no friend to the religious right. Not only do I disagree with them theologically, I think that they have chosen, in their fear, one of several badly mistaken ways to deal with the shift from certainty to doubt.
Nevertheless, although a retreat to a draconic authoritarianism and an embrace of anti-science is highly dangerous, we should look carefully at the reasons that so many people are choosing their solutions. Their concerns are legitimate and can't be addressed merely by reiterating the platitudes of the fading paradigm, or by encouraging the equally mistaken responses of those who think that they have understood and embraced the new by allowing us to descend into chaos.
Kenneth J. Gergen, in The Saturated Self, tries to solve the problem by suggesting his idea of serious play. In order for us to bring some order out of the chaos of conflicting values, conflicting standards, conflicting truths, conflicting identities, we need to decide to agree on some rules and play the game of life by those rules until we agree to change them in order to keep the game going and keep everyone playing it. That is probably better than some other options that people are choosing. There are those who would celebrate the demise of hope for truth by choosing to believe and teach out and out lies for the sake of some political or societal end, and teach them as if they were not a game but reality. There are those who would in theory, if never in fact, excuse any behavior because no one has the truth, so no one can judge right or wrong. There are those like the religious right who can argue that their version of reality is at least no worse than any other. All the evidence in the world, they argue, can't make evolution more than a theory, so creationism should have equal stature in the educated world.
As the world becomes more uncertain, people find certainty wherever they can. The only place to find it is, as Gergen argues, in relationship. However, I don't believe that everyone will accept a single game-plan on the basis that we need to have that single set of rules to live by. People need to think that they are living by more than arbitrary choice, that they have some clue to what life is really about, and some purpose beyond play, however serious that play may be. What they are doing instead is finding the relationship first, based on whatever can be descried, be it color, or ethnic origin, or economic class, or tribe, and accepting or rejecting ideas and other people on the basis of that defined relationship. Within the group, you do as the group does, believe as the group does, love and hate as the group does. Outsiders are rejected because their understandings may shake the truth that is accepted within the relationship. In a universe where truth is unavailable, any mutually accepted truth, however false it is, is better than none.
Perhaps the real problem is that we have seen only half of the new reality. We have said that we cannot discern the truth and have concluded that there is none, and therefore no belief is better than another. We have seen that cultural mores are not universal and have concluded that therefore we can't say that one is better than another. We have even defined the attempt to distinguish higher morality as being oppressive and ethno-centered. It often is. Nevertheless, if we wish to have a world worth living in, we will need to find ways to live together. Agreed-upon games won't work. People need to believe in something more than that.
What we have forgotten is that our inability to discover absolute truth doesn't mean that some ideas and beliefs are necessarily no nearer the truth than others. We have failed to realize that some probabilities are so high as to approach certainty. Because we can't know all the truth doesn't mean we can't sometimes recognize a lie when we see one. To live in the new paradigm it must not be necessary either to embrace chaos, nor to retreat to secure enclaves, nor to believe and act upon what we know to be untrue. Instead we can embrace probability, and seek to make it more probable. Instead of choosing what we decide to call truth based on cultural preferences, we can choose the integrity of the acceptance of the probable, while understanding that it is still tentative. That is the frontier that we must cross to live in the paradigm shift. It seems that we have learned too well that we can never discover truth. Now we must learn that we can and must commit to the probabilities which can be tested against what is unquantifiable: justice and compassion, beauty and wonder, joy and love.