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Paradigms

Way back in the day, I studied the philosophy of science. I also studied the sciences. I pretty much left it behind as an active study, but these things informed and inform and will continue to inform my engagement with the world. My youth was informed by scientific study and my childhood informed by the character Spock. You know, that counts for something, anyway. I do not now consider myself to be a scientist, though I feel that I continue to apply a scientific attitude in my engagement with the world. So, I sometimes find it a bit surreal when I’m accused of being otherwise.

In specific, I’ve come to understand that I engage the world informed by the science and scientific method I’ve learned, and an attitude of scientific philosophy, which is at odds with the deathly serious certainty held by defenders of a religious faith in science, or, more generally, anything at all, I suppose. Even more generally, I feel I’m an edge-seeking thinker, looking at and wondering about those places where anomalies demonstrate the vulnerability of paradigms to shift. (The particle to the wave of that is that this same thinking is also pattern-seeking.) I think that means that I hanker to have a, sadly twarted, healthy humour, in myself and others, about accuracy. One thing I do is experiment with how rules breakdown in interesting ways and what that means. You know, I’m a Munkchin. (Anyone interfering? 3 … 2 … 1 … Time’s up! I kill Medusa and gain a level.)

I suppose defenders of the faith tend to feel a paranoid kind of fear of anyone, so I shouldn’t take it personally, willing to look for anomalies, or who point out the difference between fanatic faith in one, true paradigm and the real method and philosophy of science. And, they are happy to externalize their feverish insecurity onto others by claiming they’ve got the truth of a thing and anyone that is even willing to question that thing is at some kind of fault. You know, that’s usually when the righteous accuse other people of being witches, of some kind or another. Sometimes those accusations are purely out of fear. Other times those are out of some measure of strategy and sociopathology. The former is merely sad, the later, however, is most scary and something to validly take personally and seriously since it is thwartsome of liberty of thought.

The predictable fiasco that follows this realization is that defenders of the faith, machiavellian or otherwise, in a pique of persecution complex, then preemptively, or at least with more melodrama and passive-aggressive forum shopping, breathlessly turn about and accuse those intolerant of intolerance of being intolerant instead, and thus the whole thing devolves into a recedingly bizarre and sinister farce from which the only escapes are taking names and tossing people to the lions. (See Crowley’s new comment on Liber AL II,57. Unfortunately, I’m all out of lions. Does a ginger tabby suffice? “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” I need to refill my hipster PDA, it’s getting full of names.)

I keep meaning to go back to my notes and figure out all the texts that were required in my philosophy of science course, but the only one I remember for certain is Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

The ideas introduced by Kuhn have been misused quite a bit, and the ubiquity and emptiness of most usage of the terms “paradigm” and “paradigm shift” has greatly damaged the utility of these term and the original ideas. Because of misuse, many valid and important points about and supported by these ideas made may be misheard or ignored.

Paradigms are internally coherent models which explain sets of observed phenomena. The knowledge, observation, of phenomena is understood within the context of a paradigm, and are made sense of through the coherence of a particular scientific model. A paradigm shift does not change the observed phenomena, but it does change the understanding, the meaning, derived from the phenomena.

This is the difference between knowledge and understanding. Understanding is changed through scientific revolutions when paradigms shift. Phenomena only change when the method of observation is improved, and then it is not really the phenomena that change but rather the observation of them.

There are those that legitimately toil within a paradigm, doing the day to day work that is involved with applying the implications of a particular paradigm in an almost mechanical way. They mainly and merely seek verification of their current paradigm, usually through application, and maybe occasionally the falsification of another. I know my personal bias is showing here; I’m sure it’s all quite rewarding to those that tautologically find it rewarding.

There are also edge-seekers willing and able to do new science. By a willingness to contemplate anomalies, and the possibility of falsifiability or inexplicability within a current paradigm, edge-seekers are able to approach with a real scientific attitude the interchangeability of paradigms. A paradigm is useful to the extent that it explains phenomena, and harmful when held onto in spite of or in the face of falsification or inexplication.

But, I’ve also noticed, you probably have too, that there are defenders of the faith. These are the ones that use the banner of science to champion a particular paradigm as truth instead of using the method and philosophy of science to become more accurate (see xkcd 701, including the hoverover, for one clue to discern the difference: as opposed to waving the banner of “science”, the use of actual science does not always give welcome answers to the wielder). These defenders are devoted to discovering nothing that upsets their existing paradigm and are so very often over-willing to do what it takes to prove that to others, with a fanatic’s frisson and fervor.

Defenders of the faith seem to be focused on purity of doctrine and sub-cultural identity maintenance. That’s not the method or philosophy of science. It’s definitely also not minding one’s own business. It’s being a busybody, both sneakily behind people’s backs and but also brazenly in the open, and then running as quickly as possible to touch the flag pole of “science” as a rhetorical convenience only when necessary to avoid being tagged “it”.

(I suppose to be fair there’s also, to fill out the obvious fourth frame, those that don’t use science at all, and so on. These might be called kooky, whereas the defenders of the faith are creepy; neither are Addamses [also], but I also suppose it’s no mystery that both are kind of ooky. But, I further suppose, as long as there’s Wednesdays around, I’m kinda cool with this fourth.)

The key to scientific revolutions here is the rough ashlar, the anomaly, the notion that all paradigms contain their own seeds of destruction, in that they cannot and do not explain everything. You know, say it with me: they are maps, not territories. But, that failure becomes a fulcrum for the builders. Paradigms are meanings derived from sets of observations, theories derived from observations. It is the anomaly that initiates change, and the power of the scientific attitude is an active spirit that is both able and willing to go to those edges and contemplate change by climbing to the top of the pyramid just to see from a different perspective, with all the other potential benefits that accrue therefrom as a bonus. And, the stone rejected by the defenders of the faith becomes the foundation of a new temple, levered into place on the fulcrum of change.

It’s important to also understand here the difference between function and form. Real scientific attitude does not prejudge or prejudice the form that is derived from the function of thought, but rather only the method by which the function of scientific thought is enacted. Rather, it is the religious faith of science which prejudges and prejudices the function of thought to condition the form derived therefrom. Mind, both are subject to the human condition, which could lead to a wide tangent discussing metaphysical concepts. But, since these metaphysical concerns are the same for both cases, I chose to make my calculus on the differential. Scientific method and attitude is a function that does not determine, aside from metaphysical concerns, form.

Eventually, people pushing one, true paradigm end up saying or doing ridiculous things to defend the privileged position they’ve given their pet. The example that springs to mind most strongly is the possibly apocryphal example, heard through reading Robert Anton Wilson (What book was that, anyway? Was it The Earth Will Shake or Cosmic Trigger?), of the committee which consistently dismissed evidence of meteors because the idea of a meteor did not fit the prevailing paradigm. This is an egregious example of the defenders of a faith rejecting observation in order to preserve a paradigm, but no doubt there are many other and other less egregious examples throughout history.

The notion that all paradigms have limited boundaries of applicability, that they contain their own sets of inexplicability, means that the activity of defending a paradigm as one true anything is inherently nonsensical and illogical and unscientific. And, vehement hatred of other paradigms, or those operating within different paradigms, is bogglingly, self-evidently, torturously backward to the very idea and philosophy of science. It seems to me, that kind of vehement hate is a failure of humanity to live up to the potential afforded by the idea and philosophy of science as a function which liberates them from tyranny of form determined for them by faith.

The implication of this structure of scientific revolutions suggests to me is that the people of the world need is not advocacy, violent or otherwise, of another one, true paradigm; but, rather to grow up and evolve to the point that they don’t have the maniacal need for there to be one, true paradigm. Like Herbert’s last book written in the Dune series, it’s the messianic impulse from which humanity ultimately needs to be and becomes free. We need to be free from the tyranny over ideas and thought and understanding that the notion of one paradigm to rule them all implies and requires.

Real science, science that is honest with and about itself, recognizes that understanding is always provisional, and susceptible to radical revision at any point not just when new, unexplained phenomenon are observed; but further that the same phenomena could at any point be explained simultaneously via radically different paradigms. And, that observation is dependent on methods and tools which can never be perfect or exact but rather are more or less accurate, always have a margin for error and have a mechanism of observation which can be questioned.

Real science is a fiery liberation of thought; not thought shackled to a rock, perpetually pecked at by birds. Whether out of revenge or not, being shackled for thinking is the ultimate reward for standing idle in the face of defenders of the faith victorious. Being pecked by birds is the constant conscious reminder of paradigmatic anomalies ignored. The only escape is escape. Either break those chains or refuse them in the first place; or be resigned to fate and hope for rescue, like some outmoded formula of the damsel in distress in a tattered prom dress.

And this, to me, is the difference between a real scientific attitude, the function of science, and the rigid form of religious faith in science. A religious faith in science conflates observed phenomena and the understanding that is derived from those phenomena. And, the religious faith in science approaches both phenomena and understanding with various levels of non-skeptical certainty. A real scientific attitude recognizes that the accuracy of observation is never exact, but is conditioned by the qualities of observation. A real scientific attitude recognizes that understanding derived from observation is always provisional in the face of additional or more accurate observations, including the possibility of a need for radical paradigm shift to explain new phenomena. A real scientific attitude generally seems always skeptical not certain. A religious faith in science generally seems always certain not skeptical. Real science seems to express itself in its followers through rigourous methods but flexible understanding. A religious faith in science seems to express itself in its followers through ruthless methods and rigid understanding. A real scientific attitude is adaptable and ecstatic, whereas a religious faith in science is as atrophied as any foolish lover of Medusa ever was.

I think I bring, as best as I am able, the ever-provisional understanding of this theoretical structure to the way that I engage the world, others and myself. While I generally feel it’s the best thing for me to do (except when it’s not), I’m also open to the possibility that can change for me. To the extent that I have my liberty of thought undiminished by another’s rigidity and faith, my attitude does not require others to do as I do or think as I think. However, I suspect I will continue to be vocally intolerant of intolerance to myself, or to those around me whether close to me or not, when I encounter it. At least, until I get more lions. Or, find a way to tolerantly chop off Medusa’s head.


2 Comments on “Paradigms”

  1. 1 John Griogair Bell Offers Insight Into Free Thinking « Darkline said at 7:49 am on March 13th, 2010:

    [...] full post is called “Paradigms”, and it is a delightful analysis on what it means to be an occulture critic. TAGS: Occulture :: [...]

  2. 2 John Griogair Bell’s Blog » Paradigms 2 said at 5:22 am on April 1st, 2010:

    [...] previously posted some initial thoughts about paradigms in, honestly, a kind of screed. From the content of that post, it may not be clear why I think the [...]