Paradigm Shifts

Paradigms are things that people of a particular culture assume to be True.  That means they do not change easily, in individuals or in cultures as a whole.  However, when a person repeatedly encounters evidence that Reality is simply not as one had thought it was, it becomes increasingly important to respond to that evidence.  A person does this in a series of predictable steps that constitute a change called a paradigm shift.

The first thing is that something happens.  As Larry Dossey writes in the opening line of “Reinventing Medicine”, “During my first year of medical practice, I had a dream that shook my world.”  He goes on to describe a precognitive dream and the events that followed it, the bearing out of the dream being of course the real evidence that rattled his existing paradigm about Reality.  The first response of anyone to evidence that challenges an existing paradigm is to deny it.  We suspect we are over-tired, hallucinating, projecting our desires, or even crazy.  We accuse those who report such evidence to us of suffering from the same sorts of conditions.  It all boils down to the same conclusion:  we convince ourselves that the evidence that seems so contrary to reality as we know it simply does not exist.

Dossey (p. 85) records a perfect example of this type of response, from the writings of Marilyn Ferguson, editor-publisher of the Brain/Mind Bulletin, who “suddenly heard her name spoken aloud out of the blue.  She recounts:  ‘Naturally, I was jarred. . . Briefly I wondered if the voice meant that someone close to me was endangered or dying.  And then I chastised myself for an overactive imagination.'”  Ferguson’s conclusion that she had an overactive imagination permitted her to deny what she had heard as being real;  it had not happened and therefore needed no response from her.

Sometimes there are repeated incidences of experience, however, and evidence accumulates.  And sometimes this evidence is so strong that finally we can no longer dismiss it.  We must accept that something is going on that doesn’t seem possible according to our existing paradigm.  The second step of a paradigm shift happens at this point:  we bend our previous paradigm to fit the problematic evidence.  Oliver Sacks’ 2012 book “Hallucinations” describes the medical community’s struggle through this stage of paradigm shift when challenged by certain types of human sensory experience that seem to defy key paradigms of neurological function.

Sometimes the level of discomfort in such a situation is so great that people simply shut the door on the evidence and walk away.  In the introduction to “Reinventing Medicine,” Dossey explains that the dream that shook his world foretold an event in the life of the son of one of his colleagues.  He describes what happened (pps. 2-3), and says, “Then I told my colleague about my dream.  He realized in an instant that if my report was true, his orderly, predictable world had been suddenly rearranged. If one could know the future before it happened, our understanding of physical reality was seriously threatened.  He sensed my disturbance, and I sensed his.  Our conversation dissipated into silence as we contemplated the implications of these events.  I turned, left his office, and closed the door behind me.  I did not bring up the event with him again.”  Dossey himself went on to ultimately go through a paradigm shift of major proportions, but he could tell that his colleague was not willing to do so.

This is an important point.  Because paradigm shifts challenge long-held assumptions about the nature of Reality itself, we do feel precisely this way:  that if this evidence is true, then our orderly, predictable world has been suddenly rearranged.  That is a terrifying feeling, and one that most people will go to great lengths to avoid.  This is one reason that paradigm shifts that run through an entire culture often end up engaging the systems of political power.  As people encounter evidence that challenges the existing paradigm, they tend to react in one of two ways:  some begin the process of steps that leads to a paradigm shift and others balk completely.  This creates two factions, each believing the other to be “out of touch with Reality” — which often leads to a power struggle that turns political.

It must also be said that we all experience the initial steps of a paradigm shift many times in our lives, only to discover that the evidence really is faulty.  The human intellect is a powerful collector of data, and we have all had the experience of pursuing an odd sound or sight only to discover with relief that it was something quite normal.  Paradigm shifts are rare events that usually require powerful evidence to initiate and sustain them, and that have enormous impact on the lives of individuals and cultures.

The final step in a paradigm shift is that enough evidence accumulates to make it impossible to fit the old paradigm over it any more.  We have to release that previous view of Reality — before we really understand the new one.  This is the most difficult part of the passage, a step that essentially requires us to let go of one trapeze and swing through the air almost in free-fall before we grasp the next.  Yet humans do it and have been doing it for thousands of years.  Much of our greatest literature records the journey of people who have let go of a paradigm that no longer works as they search for an understanding of the new one. It is into this particular gap that a culture’s artists and storytellers venture, to explore a culture’s developing new paradigms through story.  Their task is crucial, for it is through their stories that a culture’s individuals explore, contemplate, and “try out” possible new views of Reality, as new paradigms form in the hot, vital furnace of humanity’s living heart.