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John Taylor

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Paradigms Part I [Feb. 4th, 2010|03:57 am]
John Taylor
[Current Location |Drifting at sea by night]
[music |Josh Radin - Star Mile]

Thomas Kuhn wrote of paradigms in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, popularizing the term and introducing the concept into the mainstream. By attempting to chart the progress of scientific advancement, his studies led him to the development of the concept of the paradigm, the framework of ideas and concepts through which the world can be interpreted. A paradigm is depicted as being the lens through which ideas are formed and interpreted and filtered out. A thing that is both rigid and fluid, advancing, expanding, contracting, and ever-changing. There are cultural paradigms, moral paradigms, paradigms about beauty, about love, about science, about spirituality, about the senses and the human experience, and these exist in the micro and macro levels within the individual human mind and within the greater whole of the culture. Carlos Castaneda has good supplemental material to this core idea of a paradigm - to understand the wisdom and the teachings of Don Juan, he must literally journey outside the realm of things permitted by his beliefs, through a series of experiences beyond the explanation of his framework..

A broad definition of a paradigm would be the scope of ideas permitted by a particular set of assumptions. The formal and analyzed definition is:

    * what is to be observed and scrutinized
    * the kind of questions that are supposed to be asked and probed for answers in relation to this subject
    * how these questions are to be structured
    * how the results of scientific investigations should be interpreted

As a third-party example, let's use the writing on Castaneda. In his tutelage under Don Juan, a "Yaqui man of power", Carlos Castaneda encounters ideas that are so far-fetched that he cannot even comprehend them, cannot fit them into his mindset. As part of the effects of a ritual hallucinogenic, Don Juan speaks of being an animal, and Castaneda's initial reactions are to dismiss the idea as being foolish, impossible, that his mentor is suffering delusions because of the influence of the psychoactive properties of the plants they're using. He repeatedly asks if in the recurring visions anyone else would have seen him as an animal, or on other occasions when the visions he experienced turned him into a crow, he asks whether or not he was flying - from within the context of his question, no, he was not flying. An "objective" observer would unlikely have seen the physical body of Carlos Castaneda moving through the air. But from within the boundaries of a *different* way of thinking, the world-view permits shape-changing and flying in a way that is extraordinarily real but not in a way that is a total fiction based only in wishful thinking. 

What then is a paradigm? It can't truly be touched except through exploration of phenomena outside the currently accepted definition (be it personal or on a societal level) and then the options are either to bend the paradigm to accommodate the idea and to give some form of explanation to it based on existing evidence, or to revisit the existing structure to see if the entire framework needs revising, or to ignore the idea altogether (from which results many strange behaviors in an effort to block out the challenge to the supposed concreteness of the paradigm).  As a framework of ideas, the existence of a paradigm is usually only made known by bearing load of some kind or by calling attention to its particular shape or function. It is both the smaller circle of themes and ideas and is also the conglomerate measure of all possible merging and combination of all permissible ideas. It is a very difficult thing to recognize something as being outside of all possible understanding.   

The first interpretation of the view of a paradigm outside of our own is that of primitivity, a foolish assumption at best. Humans are remarkably complex beings, capable of such subtlety and nuance of spirit and nature that there is very little about a developed human that can be considered simplistic. White men ventured into the world and discovered the savage cultures around the world, engaged in the practice of whatever traditions their frameworks permitted, and thought them primitive for their dissimilarities. The Western approach to the world since the development of the Scientific Method has produced a framework capable of making use of the properties of nature, in a way that was materialistically very productive and reiterative in the sense that each new discovery could trigger new discoveries, and the paradigm then formed the world into something that could be understood in its entirety. Whether or not this is the case is something it is unlikely we will ever "know" for certain. Does objectivity exist? Does subjectivity exist? These are deep philosophical questions that ruffle the feathers of many cultures. The right or wrong behind the questions is less important for now than simply recognizing the nature of the framework through its assumptions and its projections.

It is not objectivity that I would speak to, but subjectivity.

What is a thought? Where does it stem from and how does it shape the way we experience the world? With this notion of a paradigm, one assumes that thoughts must be ranked and filed in a certain hierarchy, that one thought becomes the assumption from which other thoughts become possible. We create very foundational thoughts about the nature of the world and we build our sense of self upon these assumptions, which are sometimes decided upon very arbitrarily.

It's sobering to think just how limited we might be in our ways of thinking because our individual paradigms do an excellent job of filtering out interpretations that are genuinely alternative to our normal ones. The unexplainable phenomena gets rationalized, ignored, obfuscated, buried, and otherwise accounted for in a way that it does not occur to us that we are missing something outside our lens. Sometimes we can also come to a *very* valid interpretation about something that someone else might be able to draw completely different conclusions about, solely because of the difference in framework. The existence of one does not negate the other, nor does it necessarily imply that one be more *right*. Functionally, both interpretations are the products of their paradigms and might account for all of the variables reasonably well enough that any rational person could draw the same conclusions. How then do we measure the rightness or wrongness on two legitimate interpretations of the same data set, or the "usefulness" of the interpretations (or of the data)? Here is where the notion of a paradigm becomes tricky and even more abstract, because we have already incorporated ideas about ranking or organizing data into our paradigm. That structure might include many tools for looking at a situation - utilitarianism, objectivism, ideas about morality or about religion, habits, upbringing, etc. The tools are varied, but they are still pieces of the greater whole and broad though the scope may be, it can still ultimately only account for things in a certain way and the limit is to what is known. One must perpetually experience the world in a very reactionary way rather than truly make up the interpretation on the fly and from nothing. 

A paradigm is not just the sum of our ideas and beliefs, but the extent and potential and *capacity* for new ideas. It grows as we grow, but its very nature is to create a membrane through which the unknown can be filtered into the known.


My paradigm right now is growing to encompass the notion that I can see something and be completely unaware of its significance, that the very framework that makes the observation possible might also be a part of the same framework that destroys the actual thing in the creation of its abstraction. I've opened myself up to vastly greater confusion and I begin to doubt the interpretations of the things I experience and observe. Does that mean those interpretations are wrong? No! But they are often only particularly correct within the context of the framework I am operating under. Lately, if I ask a a question of someone, I then reflect on the nature and the phrasing and the intent of that question, to understand what sort of person I must be to frame things in just such a way. The level of detail here is extraordinary, and it has to pass through all kinds of stages of tinkering to get a useful answer out of it. By closely monitoring my communication and by stepping back to the bigger picture, I develop a better feel for what my own paradigm is and how it shapes my interactions with people. And with this awareness comes an increasing sensation of being very alien even to myself. 

This leads me to a very peculiar notion that our paradigms are unique to ourselves. They may take similar shapes to the paradigms of others, but they are unique. There is no objective paradigm we are working from, no master template. It is a combination of luck, planning, willpower, communication, effort, evolution, coincidence, and an infinite number of other factors that result in one paradigm being similar to another. Not just that we would both wear rose-colored glasses, but that we would each independently come up with lenses made of different materials that just so happened to have the same property that they more or less filter the world with a rose-ish kind of hue, and that we could understand the similar property, despite the difference in the substance actually shaping the lens.  

I do not understand how ideas transfer. I thought I did once, and exploration of it has led me to this current research into paradigms. My starting assumption right now is that people are isolated bubbles that are inherently unlinked to each other. Through communication and expenditure of will and effort, some small bridge is formed or a connection is made, and there is enough common ground found that the information can move from one person to another. Ideas are spread because many paradigms are more or less compatible with each other and can relate enough to each other to get the point across. If we both look with evolutionarily similar eyes and brains at the same horizon, we could probably come to a common conjecture that the sky is blue. We are willing to interpret the data in the same way, and in this case, we are *able* to interpret the data in the same way. This happens so naturally with a shared culture that we never even notice the process, and there is a certain tangibility that we are able to work with that we couldn't imagine it to be any other way. And that is one of the hearts of the problem - we cannot *imagine* it to be any other way. The sky is blue because we *know* it to be true. It could not possibly be any other way. 

With enough shared culture, a paradigm is commonly enough accepted that people can easily relate to each other and understand (or even predict) the ideas of another person.  Progress on a social and scientific level occurs as the fringe of a paradigm is explored and pushed, as though the weight of the rim of this wheel is the same force that keeps the wheel in motion. As individuals, we evolve and mature to embrace new ideas and discoveries and to incorporate them into our fluid sense of self. New avenues of communicating with other people open up and our paradigm expands to have just a little more common ground with someone else. But the deeper one explores the psyche of another person, the more evident it becomes that the person is fundamentally a radically different person. The shared culture is only one layer, the things to relate to are another layer, the greater contextual meaning is another, the nuance of a person's reaction is another, and deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole it goes. If one probes deeply enough, eventually there is a foundational assumption that becomes a barrier, and one seemingly rather arbitrarily assigned. It is a very foreign place and one very alien in nature. With as much difficulty as we have understanding our own inner workings, understanding what makes another person tick is an extremely tricky process.

I've had many conversations where I can be looking at the same situation as another person but wherein the conclusions drawn and the supporting data used between us are very different. Both interpretations can make perfect sense, but sometimes the context of the framework of the other person is so completely foreign that I literally cannot understand it, and vice versa. The more complex and the more intricate my ideas become, the greater the distance becomes for being understood by someone else, because my ideas are so completely tied to this unique paradigm I have. I work within a fairly broad framework, integrating many seemingly unrelated fields and piecing something together from it so that I have a wide range of things to relate to (on a surface level at least). But even with such a productive paradigm, it truly is a struggle quite often to genuinely know why someone feels the way they do or to see the world through their eyes. 

One might think that simply enlarging one's own paradigm is enough, but it isn't - it simply forms a broader personal paradigm, expands the circle a little wider to encompass a few new things. Our paradigms evolve with us, but it is very rare that we will abandon one altogether rapidly. It is an incremental progression from one into the next, as new ideas are introduced that our old perspective cannot account for, or as we encounter ideas that conflict with or are more efficient than our existing notions. Our capacity for ideas is bound to our imaginations, and our imaginations are constrained by what our view of the world permits us to conceive of.