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Shifting Paradigms Part 1: The Relativity of Myth and Science

There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.” –Victor Hugo

I recently started reading Thomas Kuhn’s 50-year old classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions - a landmark study on the philosophy of science and the book that first introduced the world to the idea of a “paradigm shift”. A few pages into the book, there is a quote that prompted this week’s post. Regarding old “discredited” scientific ideas, Kuhn writes: “If these out-of-date beliefs are to be called myths, then myths can be produced by the same sorts of methods and held for the same sorts of reasons that now lead to scientific knowledge.” Basically, he’s saying that what we call science and consider “true” today can easily become myth tomorrow.

Science, at its most basic level, is simply a structured process of deriving conclusions from what we can observe and measure. This being said, the science of 500 years ago is no more or less scientifically valid than the research of today. The only difference is that today we can “see” and measure things in ways that were never possible before and, therefore, we believe that we are “more right” in our current understanding than past generations. However, the same logic applies to what will become of our current scientific knowledge 500 years from now, when we have even more sophisticated means of “seeing” our world; Today’s scientific knowledge may seem just as ridiculous, yet we seem so sure of ourselves. So the big questions that I wanted to explore is: At any point in time, what do we think we “know”, and what is needed to change that knowledge or belief?

Natural Sciences – “Seeing” with the Eyes

The natural sciences encompass what we “know” about the physical world, how it is organized, and the relationships between its components. New knowledge is only valid when it has gone through a structured process that is rational, observable, and repeatable. The major triggers for change in the natural sciences are either tools that allow us to see and measure phenomena in ways that were not possible before or individuals that begin looking for connections between things that were not contemplated before. As this evolution occurs, what used to be “known” or “fact” now becomes “myth” and “folklore”.

Social Sciences/Liberal Arts – “Seeing” with Consciousness

The social sciences and liberal arts (psychology, sociology, religious studies, politics, philosophy, etc.) are a bit different from the natural sciences. This is the realm of understanding that has to do with human thought, motivation, and behavior – it’s the study of why we do what we do and the consequences of those actions for oneself and others. In these areas of study, there are often several rational concepts woven together with strings of beliefs. The two triggers for change in these field are: 1) individuals that “see” new connections or cause/effect relationships that were not contemplated before, and 2) a change in the collective consciousness of a community so that they are ready to understand these new connections. The key here is that our beliefs influence how we interpret what we observe. For example, ideas such as sustainability and globalization cannot be understood by someone who looks at certain data and does not infer that they world is intricately interconnected and that what happens in one part of the world has implications that ripple throughout everything else.

In certain areas, such as religion, belief plays such a strong role that observable data almost doesn’t matter, but rather we selectively seek out experiences that rationalize our beliefs. For this reason, the triggers for change are almost totally consciousness based (and not necessarily rational). In these cases, people will only be open to new ideas when there are existential questions that are not satisfied by the currently available religious thinking – only then are they open to understand teachings of a visionary (otherwise that visionary may just seem crazy). At a subtle level our bodies/minds/spirits evolve over time and need new means of “invisible” support to realize their higher purpose. Just as the religions of the past are the myths of today, our current day religions may become myth if they cannot continue to be relevant and address the needs of the collective consciousness.

Fine Arts – “Seeing” with Feelings

In the fine arts (music, sculpture, painting, literature, etc.), we go beyond conscious thought. Sure there are pieces that are technically innovative, but there is also something about art that just “grabs you” – something that totally bypasses one’s brain and speaks to something more intuitive. Art is meant to elicit some emotional response such as perfection, harmony, tension, angst, seeking, confusion, etc. Whether a specific style of art takes hold depends on whether it resonates with the underlying emotions of a people and era. Masterpieces are those pieces of art that perfectly hit on the particular mix of psychology, perspective, experience, emotions, and beliefs – making people feel something that they can’t yet explain. Michelangelo’s, painting of The Last Judgment behind the altar of the Sistine Chapel was an early example of a style of art that would come to be known as Mannerism. During this time in the late 16th century, there was a feeling that the balance and perfection of High Renaissance could not be surpassed, so visionary artists such as Michelangelo began to create forms that demonstrated instability and tension. Gradually, those were the characteristics and feelings would dominate the post-Renaissance 17th century.

This whole discussion of what people can “see” and how that may change over time has significant implications for those of us that are visionaries, thought leader, or innovators. How do we articulate and share our ideas with people that may not be able or willing to see them? …more on this topic next week.

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