Paradigm Shifts, Scientific Revolutions And How You See The World

People are conditioned to see a certain way, believing it is the only way to look at things and don’t even consider the possibility of a different explanation for what they are seeing.

Plato illustrated how this works in in his work “The Republic” using an imaginary dialogue between Socrates and his pupil, Glaucon. This dialogue is called “The Allegory of the Cave”.

Imagine being a prisoner chained inside of a cave. You have been in this situation since you were born, and your chains prevent you from moving, so that even your head is in a fixed position.

There are others chained in the cave with you, but since you cannot move your head, you cannot see them directly. You can only see the wall in front of you.

Behind your back is a fire that is burning bright and between that fire and your back is a raised walkway and a wall. Hidden behind this wall are the puppet masters, who often hold up puppets above their heads.

The shadows of these puppets are projected on the walls of the cave, and so the only thing that you can see are these shadows.

Of course as a chained and immobile prisoner, you do not know this. You think that these shadows are real. They are your reality.

Since you have nothing to do, you would be bored often and to pass the time start playing games with the other prisoners.

You and the others would start trying to guess which shadow would appear on the wall next. Sometimes, some of the prisoners would predict (guess) correctly and all the other guys would praise them and think that they are so smart for being able to do this.

Imagine then, that one day somehow your chains get lose and you manage to free yourself. Now you are able to turn around, and even flee the cave.

The moment you turn your head for the first time, you would probably get a big shock. Your eyes would be hurt by the bright fire and things would be hazy.

You would see a big disconnect between what you thought was real and what was starting to emerge in front of you. You would probably not believe your eyes and instead turn back around to look at what was familiar to you, the shadows.

Then, as you are getting back to your reality, someone takes you and drags you out of the cave, outside into the real world. The sun is shining, the wind is blowing and the green of nature is all around you.

You would be angry at the guy who dragged you out and start feeling a lot of pain. Not being accustomed to light, the sun would temporarily blind you and cause you even more pain.

However, slowly, your eyes would start getting accustomed to the light. First you would only see hazy shadows everywhere, but little by little, the images would start getting clearer.

For the first time, you are able to see real people all around you. You realize how wrong you were about reality when you were in the cave, and start reasoning about all this in your head.

Armed with all this knowledge, you now want to return to the cave and free your fellow prisoners, not just physically, but also intellectually.

You go back to the cave, but as you enter, your eyes are now not used to seeing in such darkness and you are temporarily blinded again.

You try to explain to your fellow prisoners what you saw outside, but they don’t believe you, think that you are mad, and at last try to kill you. They feel much more comfortable in their version of reality, than in the real world.

The prisoners were living their entire lives believing in a certain way and thinking that what they see is what the world is really like. They came up with explanations of how this works and held them as truth.

They interpreted what they saw with their eyes and heard with their ears in one way and did not accept the view that it could be otherwise. They were focused on this one reality and way of seeing things, that they could not comprehend that there could be another way of seeing the world.

Have a look at the picture below. What do you see?

Have a look again. What do you see?

Is it a duck? Or a rabbit?

Most people at first only see only one of these things. They either see a duck or a rabbit. Which one of these was it for you?

Now go back to the picture. Can you see the other image? If you saw a duck, can you see the rabbit or vice versa?

Most people after a while, can refocus and reframe their thinking and see the other image. After a point, some can even see both images basically at the same time.

Yet at the beginning, they only saw one and not the other! It’s all a matter of perception.

Paradigm shifts

This type of reframe is what is called a paradigm shift.

A paradigm is a worldview, or a particular way of doing things, that encompasses different concepts and postulates about how a particular field works and why it works the way it does.

When a paradigm shift happens, things get turned upside down on their heads.

This is a fundamental change to how an individual person, or on a larger scale, the society they live in, changes their views on certain subjects. You have one idea of how and why things work, but with a paradigm shift, there is a complete change in the perception of the world and how it works.

The concept of paradigm shifts comes from the work of Thomas Kuhn, who described it in his book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”.

Kuhn was originally a physicist, who by chance started teaching a course on the history of science. While doing it, he began noticing some patterns on how scientific thought changes.

He saw that different periods of history viewed things differently. Prevalent scientific thought at different times was based on some fundamental notions and theories, which had their foundations in reasoning which was believed to be solid and state of the art at the time.

There are always some first principles which underlie every paradigm. When these principles are invalidated, the paradigm is invalidated as well.

Falsifiability is at the core of modern science. A statement is considered scientific if it can be proven false by just one simple observation. Falsifiability implies testability.

If you look around and only see white swans, then you can hypothesize that all swans are white. However this statement can be proven false just by one observation of a black swan.

This black swan would be an anomaly for your theory. It is these types of anomalies, things that depart from the general wisdom of the day, that start the process of paradigm change.

These anomalies start throwing seeds of doubt. Over time, more and more anomalies appear. The existing paradigm starts appearing shaky.

Some people recognize that the rules of the paradigm were broken and new explanations appear.

This leads to new theories and then new first principles. A new paradigm gets put in place, replacing the old.

However the old paradigm doesn’t disappear so easily.

You will understand why when you read this definition of a paradigm by Fritjof Capra:

A paradigm is a constellation of concepts, values, perceptions and practices shared by a community, which forms a particular vision of reality.

A paradigm isn’t just a theory, but oftentimes it is a particular perception of reality, a way of seeing and understanding the world.

That’s why it sometimes becomes intertwined with the self-identity of people.

When people have invested so much time into believing in a certain way of doing things or in a specific worldview, then it is a part of who they are.

Those type of people then perceive an attack on that paradigm as an attack on themselves. That is the reason why certain paradigms die hard.

As Max Planck states:

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

Many people when presented with statements that show that they have been living a lie, prefer to ignore the evidence.

Just like the prisoner in Plato’s cave who is freed for the first time and turns around to see the fire, but then immediately turns back and tries to pretend that it doesn’t exist and only his old reality is true.

That’s also why when the prisoner returns from the outside and tries to convince the other prisoners of how the world really is, they don’t believe him and instead even try to kill him.

This is basic human psychology unfortunately. Cognitive dissonance at its finest.

When some fact threatens many a person’s worldview, they will become hostile and even more adamant in their faith and in their old way of reasoning and looking at the world.

Many people when presented with evidence that they are wrong, will not abandon their beliefs, but instead their faith in them becomes even stronger.

They will usually turn the discussion away from the facts and into slogan shouting or just ignore everything and continue on repeating their talking points.

To quote Troy Campbell and Justin Friesen who conducted a study on this effect:

Our new research, recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, examined a slippery way by which people get away from facts that contradict their beliefs. Of course, sometimes people just dispute the validity of specific facts. But we find that people sometimes go one step further and, as in the opening example, they reframe an issue in untestable ways. This makes potential important facts and science ultimately irrelevant to the issue.

This sometimes reaches absurd levels. In a book “When Prophecy Fails”, Leon Festinger described what happened when he joined a UFO-cult.

The cult guru, a lady named Dorothy Martin, made a prophesy that the world would get destroyed on the 21st of December, 1954. She said that she was receiving messages from a group of aliens called “the Guardians” and that they would save the faithful.

In preparation for the end of the world, adherents of the cult quit their jobs and sold off all their belongings.

The day before the doomsday date, they gathered in a house and were waiting to be saved by these aliens.

They sat and sat, and the famous world-ending day came and passed. Incredibly, for most of them this did not shake their beliefs. Instead, their belief in the message of Dorothy Martin and “the Guardians” grew even stronger.

After that day, they started actively trying to convert more and more people to their cult.

This is just an extreme example of what types of things the human brain can fall for.

Most people don’t go to these extremes, but there are certain processes going on that shape your thinking.

One reason why it is hard to think in first principles is of the different cognitive biases like the Einstellung effect, which promulgate one way of doing things.

In the brain, this is done through the creation of more synapses and connections between the different neurons. When a paradigm goes so deep that it has intertwined itself with your identity, then it is incredibly hard to untangle it.

With most humans being inherently selfish, this can not only lead to denial and being deaf to evidence, but even to ego-thinking, the belief of being superior.

Samuel Prime has a good description of how this works:

Ego thinking is hyper-me. It is the perspective that because it is my thought, it is true; because it is my idea, it is the best; because it is my world view, yours is wrong. This is the era of hyper-individualism where everything mine is real while everything other is a misconception. Every religion says that their God is the one true God.

How to discover the truth?

You can see that being stubborn and under the influence of your ego often does not lead to you discovering the real first principles.

Instead, if you truly want to find out about how the world works, you need to keep an open mind. Stay humble. As Socrates said:

All I know is that I know nothing.

A healthy dose of scepticism doesn’t hurt. Question things, but don’t get big-headed.

Most of the time, if you are being contrarian, you will most likely be wrong. As Joel Shurkin writes:

Scientist and writer Isaac Asimov once said that scientific discovery does not start with someone running down the hall shouting “Eureka!” Rather, he said, advances go more like someone saying to himself, “Hmm, that’s odd.” Scientific revolutions, on the other hand, involve someone saying to himself, “Gee, I don’t think it really works that way.” That scientist, if he or she is challenging the conventional wisdom, is often ignored, vilified, and sometimes driven out of science. And usually he or she is wrong.

You cannot be contrarian for the sake of being contrarian.

Most of the times if you are going against the prevalent paradigm, you will be wrong. The brain likes to create pattern and many of those are likely to be false.

That’s why you need to adopt Bayesian thinking, which can shield you from jumping to outrageous conclusions. What is the likelihood of something being true based on all the evidence?

Closely examine different situations. There are some things that are most likely right. The evidence for global warming being caused by humans is overwhelming, so that is likely true.

On the other hand, there are many other things where the public consensus is not always right or will last forever. There are always areas where the prevailing paradigm can change, sometimes quite rapidly.

For example, look at how quickly the smartphone transformed the way people live. Not that long ago, it didn’t even exist. Now almost everyone has one.

If you train your mind to reframe, to guard against cognitive biases and to think critically, you are on your way to being able to discover something new and revolutionary.

Scientific Revolutions

Paradigm shifts are at the core of scientific revolutions. When the prevailing view on something changes, it opens up a whole new field of study, bringing with it new ways of doing things.

Whole new questions appear and old questions are no longer relevant. New explanations, and new possibilities emerge.

One such momentous occassion, in 1543, started off one of the greatest scientific revolutions of our times.

In that year, Nicholas Copernicus published his theory of the Earth orbitting the Sun. This caused a stir and contradicted the common view of that time that it was the Sun that revolved around the Earth.

With this single act, Copernicus put things on their heads. No longer was the Earth the center of the universe. The Earth was just another planet.

He was not the first person to propose this. Several Ancient Greeks, like Aristarchus, thought so as well, as did some medieval Arab scholars, but Copernicus was the man who finally succeeded in kicking the old geocentric paradigm to the curb.

It still took about 150 years for the old notions to disappear, but the path had been set. There were still many detractors, even among the prominent scientists of the day, but newer and newer discoveries kept on piling up the evidence.

When Galileo discovered moons orbiting the planet of Jupiter, this was the final evidence that was needed. Even though Galileo was persecuted and had to recant, his work stayed in the public sphere and influenced many others.

Little by little, people started uncovering how the universe really works.

Johannes Kepler, an astronomer who spent his most productive years at the court of Emperor Rudolf II. in Prague, modified the theories of Copernicus by proposing that the orbits of planets around the Sun were not circular, but rather elliptical.

Finally, it was Isaac Newton who proposed a force that was behind the movement of the planets. It was gravity.

This era has been dubbed “The Copernican Revolution”. Immanuel Kant, the 18th century German philosopher, used this scientific revolution as a metaphor for a shift from thinking based on blind faith and narratives to a thinking based on reason and scientific laws.

The lesson was not to fit the facts to the stories, but instead the stories to the facts.

For Kant, the way Copernicus proceeded should serve as an example on how to proceed when solving problems. He wrote:

We should then be proceeding precisely on the lines of Copernicus’ primary hypothesis. Failing of satisfactory progress in explaining the movements of the heavenly bodies on the supposition that they all revolved round the spectator, he tried whether he might not have better success if he made the spectator to revolve and the stars to remain at rest.

Read More: Elon Musk Problem Solving: Applications Of First Principles Thinking


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