Philosopher Thomas Kuhn gave paradigm its modern definition in reference to the set of principles and practices that define a scientific discipline at a particular period of time. In his seminal book,”The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, Kuhn introduced the notion that most significant scientific progresses are made by quantum leaps which he called paradigm shifts.
Paradigm shifts are a challenge to former paradigms in the evolution of a scientific discipline, they are the vectors of science revolutions. The last major example of scientific paradigm shift was when Albert Einstein introduced the ground breaking notion of Relativity, which radically challenged the very simple rules laid down by Newtonian physic. The same can be said about the communication revolution of the information super-highway which happened two decades ago. Paradigm shifts of this magnitude are colossal “thinking outside the box” processes, and are a leap forward into a new reality.
The greatest barrier to a paradigm shift is the reality and incredible inertia of paradigm paralysis. A paradigm paralysis can be defined as the inability or refusal to see beyond current models of thinking. There are countless examples of paradigm paralysis in the history of man kind. In Europe, up until the XVII century, physicians used to draw out substantial amount of blood from their patients to “purify” their bodies from some imaginary “miasma”. It would, of course, make patients weaker and quicken their death. The first physicians to challenge this absurdity were dismissed and banned from the profession. A better known example of paradigm paralysis is the rejection of Galileo’s theory of a heliocentric universe which revolutionized the field of astronomy.
Stay in the loop
Never miss the news and analysis you care about.
If paradigm shifts are mega-phenomenon of “thinking outside the box”, paradigm paralysis are the enemy of progress and can be defined as the sclerosis of “thinking inside the box”. In today’s world of social turmoil, constant fast pace change, globalization, communication revolution, overpopulation, shrinking resources and growing ecological threats, paradigms are double edge swords. On one hand, they give us a structure and the illusion of permanence, which is a false sense of security. On the other hand, current paradigms, which often fall into the category of paradigm paralysis, prevent us from tackling challenges and major problems to keep life sustainable on this planet for future generations. In other words, we need to step out of the “illusion box”, both individually and collectively, of established thought paradigms, and jump courageously and resolutely into an uncharted and unknown reality unfolding each time a significant paradigm shift takes place.
Thomas Kuhn was on the fence about applying his concept of paradigm shifts as revolutions in the field of human sciences such as sociology, history, and psychology. But in retrospect, Kuhn’s ambiguity might have been very short sighted. In effect, just like science, history can move at an incredible brisk pace during social paradigm shifts. It was the case in France during the 1789 revolution, and again in Russia in 1917. Today, there are countless indications that we are going through a major global paradigm shift. The list of symptoms is extensive. People worldwide are incredibly anxious, insecure even of their immediate tomorrows. The global system of governance is broken or in advance state of decay. Our global “laissez faire”, and the lack of governance vision to address the critical issues of our time have already produced catastrophic consequences.
Climate change is still not treated as a key global priority, and vast area of land across the world are facing its dire consequences in the form of droughts and flood. The rise of sea levels will make coastal areas uninhabitable for 600 million people within two generations. Few months ago, Pakistan had its worse floods on record, and was in the “eye of the storm” of the deadly man-made disaster that is climate change. Last summer, fires were destroying Russia’s forest and wheat crop, and now it is the turn of Somalia to face a killer drought. Large section of America’s south west, such as Arizona and Nevada, could become uninhabitable in two or three decades due to a lack of water.
The stupidity of our respective governance, which is only a reflection of our own shortcomings, has put our world on a pass to an abyss. If we don’t go through a massive systemic change, a global social revolution, people could end up fighting for food and resources on a planet where less land will be habitable and available for agriculture. We already have a system of global corporate governance, but it is strictly profit oriented and it is only serving the interests of the few as opposed to the ones of the many. If we had a half way intelligent system of governance, the questions ahead of all others would be: How can we slow down climate change? How are we going to feed all these people? Are we going to have major migrations because of climate change and overpopulation?
Last spring a social paradigm shift took place in the Arab world, and it is still unfolding. While the repercussions of it are hard to put in a historical context yet, the geopolitical impact is already enormous. There are more questions than answers: Will the neo-colonialist West hijack and neuter the revolution? Will it fall instead under the control of some forms of religious ideology? Will the Arab revolution spread elsewhere? Many other times in history, the social paradigm shifts which are revolutions have taken a wrong turn. It was the case during the French revolution when the madness of Robespierre turned the street of Paris into rivers of blood. The same apply to Stalin’s murdering spree after he took over all apparatus of power in the aftermath of Russia’s communist revolution.
The set back, and in one case complete failure, in both paradigm shifts-the French and the Russian revolutions- is due to a deep rooted psychological problem most people have. We have allowed authoritarian forms of government because we identify governance with the unchallenged power of a father figure. It was the psychological makeup of France during centuries when absolute kings ruled, but it also became the case in the USSR where Stalin became the so called “father of the people”. In North-Korea Kim Jong-il projects a semi-god father figure image to his oppressed population. In 2008, newly elected President Obama was wrongly viewed globally as a providential man who could bring justice and peace to the world. This notion of an all powerful and unlighted father figure has to be challenged if we ever want to move away from the illusion that a providential man alone can “guide” a new pass for the multitude. Another notion which has to be radically challenged is the one of relying on obsolete ideologies. If Marxism appeared obsolete after the fall of the Soviet Union, now it is the turn of global capitalist neo-liberalism. Why would any ideologies of the XIX century based almost solely on the economic realities of the industrial revolution apply today? Will our current global paradigm shift redefine us psychologically and socially?