Paradigm Shifts

Paradigms are assumptions or beliefs about Reality that people of a particular culture hold as True. That means paradigms do not change easily, in individuals or in cultures as a whole. However, when a person repeatedly encounters evidence that Reality is simply not the way they 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.

Obviously not all the steps described below happen in any given situation. In the most extreme cases, the first piece of “contrary” evidence is so incontrovertible that the paradigm shift is immediate. But even in those situations, the old paradigm is released before the new one is fully understood.

The existing paradigm we’ll use as our example in this discussion is:

“The only sentient life in the universe is on the planet Earth.”

First, please notice two important things:

1. This example is used only to clarify the steps of a paradigm shift in a way that can show how rare a major paradigm shift really is, and how much accumulating information is required to overturn a major existing paradigm. No implication about the validity or lack of validity to this particular paradigm is suggested at all, as that’s not the point of the exercise. The point is to understand paradigm shifts themselves, as a process. I chose an extreme example to help make the process of a paradigm shift easier to see.

2. Indigenous readers will notice this example is designed primarily for people in Western culture, who have a different view of “sentient life” than do many Indigenous people. The premise that sentient life is restricted to human beings is an unspoken, largely unrecognized, underlying assumption in Western culture’s endless debates about the presence of sentient extra-terrestrial life. Most Indigenous people see this entire issue in a rather different context, and would be happy if people of the dominant culture could begin to consider the possibility that there is non-human sentient life on this planet — but that is an exercise for another day.

Now we can explore the process of a paradigm shift, out of the paradigm that “The only sentient life in the universe is on the planet Earth.”

Step 1 of a possible paradigm shift. Something happens that can not happen according to the reality described by our existing paradigm. This experience or evidence exists outside of, and therefore challenges, our existing paradigm. The first response someone usually has to evidence that challenges an existing paradigm is to deny that evidence. We do this by claiming the observer who’s reported this evidence (ourselves if we’ve witnessed it) is mistaken, over-tired, hallucinating, projecting their desires, lying, or crazy. The point is that we convince ourselves that the evidence that seems so contrary to reality as we know it simply does not exist.

Example 1.

Evidence: A person sees photographs of strangely-shaped objects in the sky around an aircraft carrier, taken by a sailor and sent to his girlfriend Mary, who is this person’s sister.

Response – Denial of the evidence: The person who sees the photos says, “Mary’s boyfriend is a weird guy who likes to play practical jokes. I’ve met him. I’m sure he found some way to fake these pictures. They’re not real.”

Step 2 of a possible paradigm shift. One or more repeated incidences of experience violate the existing paradigm, so evidence accumulates that there’s a problem somewhere. Eventually this evidence becomes so strong that we can’t simply deny or dismiss it any longer. We have to accept that something is going on that doesn’t seem possible according to our existing paradigm. We respond by bending our previous paradigm to fit the problematic evidence (once we can no longer bend the evidence to fit the paradigm).

Example 2.

Evidence: The Pentagon releases many photographs and videos of a number of different airborne objects swarming around Navy vessels at sea. The report released with them states that the images released have all been investigated for authenticity and are not hoaxes, nor are they normal objects distorted by atmospheric conditions.

Response – Bending the paradigm to fit the evidence. The person who sees these new photos and videos says, “Well, it’s something real that we haven’t known about before, but it’s not anything from another planet. It’s advanced technology another country has, or it’s some strange natural phenomenon we don’t understand. But Earth is still the only place that has life.”

Please notice that the person’s conclusions bend other paradigms (about things like their own country’s military superiority and security) in uncomfortable ways, but they leave the most important paradigm intact. When paradigms come into conflict, we find out pretty quickly which ones have the deepest roots.

Step 3 of a possible paradigm shift. Sometimes as evidence continues to accumulate, the level of discomfort in the situation becomes so great that people simply shut the door on the evidence and walk away.

Example 3.

Evidence: The person’s family members go to sea on a cruise ship and see similar objects in the sky one evening. They come home very excited and talk about their experience at length, repeatedly saying these objects are not like anything they’ve ever seen.

Response – Shutdown. The person gets angry and finally refuses to discuss the matter with anyone. If pressed, they say, “I don’t know what’s going on, but I don’t care. What I know is that it can’t be aliens from another planet because that’s not possible. So no more discussion.”

Because paradigm shifts challenge long-held assumptions about the nature of Reality itself, we feel that if the evidence piling up is true then our orderly, predictable world has been suddenly rearranged. That’s 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 lead to a paradigm shift and others balk completely. That split 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 misperceived or misunderstood.  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.

Step 4 (final) step of a possible paradigm shift. Enough evidence accumulates to make it impossible for a person to fit the Reality they’re experiencing into the previous paradigm of Reality any more. They have to let go of what has now become the “old” paradigm.

Example 4.

Evidence: What kind of evidence would it take for you to change your view of Reality in regard to the presence of sentient life on other planets? If you think about it, you can see this will vary according to the individual. One person might accept a news report of radio contact with SETI as final evidence, whereas someone else might deny that same bit of evidence or information (step 1 or 2). For some people, only a science-fiction film type of personal encounter with living beings from another planet would be enough to cause a paradigm shift. The nature of the evidence required to move a person off their existing paradigm depends very much on how important that particular view of Reality is to the person involved. The more unsettling it would be for them to release that paradigm, the higher the bar will be on the evidence required to push them out of that paradigm.

Response – Paradigm Shift. The person who feels they finally have clear and unmistakable evidence that sentient living beings exist on planets other than Earth realizes their previous paradigm is no longer valid. But they have no idea what the consequences are. Just knowing that there is life elsewhere than Earth doesn’t tell us anything about the nature of that life. Is it common or rare? Is it friendly or dangerous? Do they look at us with curiosity or with an intention to mine our planet for their own benefit? What will happen next, and where, and to whom? The person in our example feels stunned, perhaps excited, disoriented, and afraid. These are normal emotions that accompany a major paradigm shift.

Notice that we have to release our previous view of Reality before we really understand the new one. This is the most difficult part of the paradigm shift 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.


Footnote: As the term paradigm, and the related term of “paradigm shift,” were originally used by Thomas Kuhn in his book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” the concept was much more ambiguous than it is here. The characterization of a paradigm shift you see here is one many natural scientists and philosophers of science have used in university classroom and other educational settings for a long time, and it has stood up well in practical application. The original text from which this one is derived was vetted and approved by Stuart Rosenbaum, Ph.D., a major scholar in philosophy of science and also the first Chair of Tapestry’s founding Board of Directors. This original explanation was first written for the Tapestry website in 1998 and adapted in 2021 to use a more recent example.