A Paradigm for Social Transformation

Simon Dennis, 2008

We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humankind is to survive.”
-Albert Einstein

The Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri recently said, “If there's no action before 2012, that's too late.”  “Too late,” in this context, means the point at which elevated CO2 levels trigger natural carbon emissions that would destroy human society as we know it.  Not surprisingly, this level of CO2 concentration is the subject of great scrutiny. 

 An international group of leading climatologists, including James Hansen, have argued persuasively that the point of no return would be reached by a sustained carbon level greater than 350 parts per million: “if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm.” (Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?, The Open Atmospheric Science Journal) 

Reducing existing concentrations by 35 parts per million may at first seem a manageable task.  However, when the particulars are understood, it becomes clear that Hansen’s benchmark calls for an unprecedented transformation of the social structures within which we live.  Because social structures evolve with the belief and value systems that produce them, the goal of 350 ppm requires a shift in our fundamental assumptions about the world.  As has been seen throughout history, the shifting of an era calls for a shift in the prevailing paradigm.

 In 1970, Thomas Khun brought the words “paradigm shift” into common usage with his watershed book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  By studying the history of science, Kuhn saw the way succeeding scientific models replace their predecessors.  He explained paradigm shift in a way that dominated the philosophy of science for over a decade and today continues to influence fields as diverse as sociology and psychology.

 In the Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn refers to the Copernican Revolution as the classic example of a paradigm shift.  Copernicus recognized the sun as the center of the solar system.  The introduction of this idea into a community that believed that the heavens revolved around the Earth illustrates two features of a paradigm shift.  The first is the robustness of the prevailing view.  The assumption that the Earth is the center of the universe continued to prevail despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

 The Copernican Revolution also illustrates a second feature: those holding the prevailing view perceive the intervening view as nonsense or heresy.  By the time Galileo looked into the heavens and saw the Copernican solar system confirmed, he was not alone in holding this heretical view.  Some of his contemporaries advised him that publishing the heliocentric model would amount to professional suicide.  This famously turned out to be the case.

 Throughout the history of science, Kuhn noticed the same pattern in the way scientific theories supplant one another.  For example, he noticed the way that Newtonian Mechanics supplanted Aristotelian Mechanics only to be replaced by Einsteinian Mechanics and predicted that Einstein’s paradigm would someday be replaced as well.  Kuhn pointed out aspects of Einstein’s theory that resembled Aristotle’s more than Newton’s.  Following this, Kuhn argued that these paradigms do not represent closer and closer approximations of reality.  Rather, Kuhn argued that one paradigm is valued over another merely due to its usefulness in predicting certain results.

 By showing the mechanism through which paradigms govern the thinking that takes place within them, Kuhn reminded us of something we should all keep in mind, how easily paradigms are taken for granted.  According to Kuhn, even scientists are in the habit of mistaking a way of looking at reality for reality itself.

 Today, the dominant paradigm, so commonly accepted that it appears synonymous with reality itself, is philosophical materialism.  Materialism holds that physical entities are the fundamental building blocks of reality and the ultimate explanation of all phenomena.  From our current perspective, materialism may seem inseparable from rational thought.  As we look back through history, however, materialism too can be seen to be subject to the rise and fall of the paradigms it encompasses.
In the late 16th Century, Galileo conducted experiments on the physical world to verify the Aristotelian assumptions of his day.  In so doing, he was among the first to employ the scientific method.  These experiments easily showed beliefs that had been widely held for over two thousand years to be false.  In 1622, Galileo died and Sir Isaac Newton was born.  Newton went on to use Galileo’s method to articulate with mathematical precision a body of laws governing the material world.

As Newton’s laws were refined over the centuries that followed, the philosophy of materialism came to dominate every aspect of Western thought.  As fields such as biology, chemistry and physics matured, the hope that all phenomena could be explained in terms of the interactions of atoms was successively being realized.  The success of what came to be called Newtonian Mechanics was unquestioned until 1905 when Albert Einstein published his Special Theory of Relativity.  This paper showed that the predictions of Newton’s laws were not accurate in extreme cases.
Subsequent advances in 20th Century sub-atomic physics, most notably by Heisenberg, Bohm, Schrodinger, Clauson and Spector, further undermined the Newtonian Model.  To everyone’s surprise, they discovered particle behavior inconsistent not only with the predictions of Newtonian Mechanics but with the basic assumptions of the materialistic program as a whole.

 Werner Heisenberg, one of the founders of Quantum Mechanics, spoke of its birth in the following way: “The violent reaction on the recent development of modern physics can only be understood when one realizes that here the foundations of physics have started moving; and that this motion has caused the feeling that the ground would be cut from science.”  (Physics and Philosophy, pg. 167)  His own Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle was undermining the understanding of the existence of discrete entities that are separate from the minds that perceive them.  Beginning shortly after the turn of the 20th century, the frontiers of atomic physics had begun dismantling the materialist paradigm.

 The extraordinary ability of Earth-centrism and Aristotelian Mechanics to endure contradictory evidence has particular relevance today.  Despite almost a century of evidence to the contrary, the materialistic paradigm continues to be the basis of the modern worldview.  To this day, those who express in professional settings philosophies other than the materialism do so at the risk of their credibility.

 A coherent worldview more compatible with the findings of modern science, however, does not require inventing something new.  In the words of Robert Oppenheimer, another of Quantum Mechanics’ founding fathers,

 The general notions about human understanding . . . which are illustrated by discoveries in atomic physics are not in the nature of things wholly unheard of, or new.  Even in our own culture they have a history, and in Buddhist and Hindu thought a more considerable and central place.” (Science and the Common Understanding, pg 8-9)

 The philosophical tradition “in our culture” “illustrated by discoveries in atomic physics” that Oppenheimer refers to here is philosophical idealism.  Idealism is the view that consciousness (and not matter) is the fundamental substratum of reality, and that all phenomena are the result of the unfolding of consciousness.  Although, in the West, Idealism has never enjoyed the degree of common acceptance as has materialism, it has had many influential proponents.  Among others, these include Plato, Berkeley, Fichte, Hegel, and Emerson.  Each of these philosophers defines consciousness as the primary cause in the universe.  For this reason, they are identified with mystical traditions which hold that the ultimate cause of the universe can be directly experienced.  Oppenheimer goes on to say that “these notions of human understanding” have a more central role in Eastern traditions.

In 1945, Aldous Huxley developed an interpretation of mysticism as a philosophical tradition.  In The Perennial Philosophy, he makes the case for the philosophical consistency of mystical traditions worldwide.  Huxley defines the perennial philosophy as, “the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man's final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendentGround of all being . . .” (The Perennial Philosophy, p. vii)
Materialism and idealism have recently resurfaced in the social sciences in the search for solutions to intractable social problems.  If, as materialism implies, the ultimate causes of social problems dwell in the physical nature of things, long-term solutions must address physical forms.  Conversely, if, as idealism implies, the ultimate causes of social problems dwell in the interior conditions of people, long-term solutions must address these interior conditions.  Within the social change sector, these opposing assumptions are held by “structuralists,” and “transformationalists,” respectively.  Structuralists emphasize that the renewal of society results from changes to social structures.  Transformationalists emphasize that the renewal of society results from a change in the interior condition of individuals.

 In recent decades, transformationalist expressions have often been spoken by individuals emerging from wisdom traditions.  For example in 1990, Aung Sang Suu Kyi, a Buddhist Nobel Laureate from Burma, stated:

 “The quintessential revolution is that of the spirit, [. . .] A revolution which aims merely at changing official policies and institutions with a view to an improvement in material conditions has little chance of genuine success.  Without a revolution of the spirit the forces which produced the iniquities of the old order would continue to be operative, posing a constant threat to the process of reform and regeneration.”

(Freedom from Fear Address)

 Here, Suu Kyi cautions against an approach which forgets that the forces which produce iniquity emerge from within.  She claims that this sort of materialist approach will ultimately be ineffective.

 If we judge paradigms in terms of their usefulness, as Kuhn suggests, it is clear that the materialist program has been an effective foundation for the industrial revolution and for the production of mind-boggling technology.  The materialist program does not, however, provides an effective intellectual foundation for the healing of our planet and the creation of sustainable culture.  To accomplish these things, an idealistic/transformationalist approach would be beneficial.

 Transformationalism is more effective than structuralism at supporting social reform for the following reasons.  The transformationalist approach empowers activists by moving the roots of the problem within arms reach.  Whereas the structuralist approach sees the roots of social ills as existing out in social structures, the transformational approach sees the roots of social ills as existing within each of us where we can contact them directly.  Exemplifying this characteristic, Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron responded to the Second Gulf War with an explicitly transformationalist statement: “War and peace start in the hearts of individuals, [. . .] We can do everything in our power, but war is never going to end as long as our hearts are hardened against each other.” (2006,p.15)  In so saying, she empowered anti-war activists with a practical way they could engage with a war on foreign soil.

 The transformational approach also promotes collaboration in that it finds the roots of social ills in one central location as opposed to scattered into a web of interwoven social structures.  In so doing, the transformational approach brings together the efforts of seemingly disparate individuals and organizations around a common purpose.

 As Hansen et al’s report on target CO2 levels states, meeting the environmental challenges we now face is possible only if this country is as unified as it was readying itself for the Second World War.  The factory production that switched overnight from Chevy Coups to battleship engines must now switch from SUV’s to wind turbines.  70 years later, the stakes are much higher.  Without any doubt, our ability to rally behind this common cause will dictate our ability to continue to thrive as a species.

 And yet, as philanthropic dollars are becoming harder to come by, even social service agencies with very similar missions fall prey to turf wars.  So long as the roots of our problems are seen as separated into diverse societal structures, the ways in which different social entities are on the same team will remain hidden.  When the global crisis is defined not as a social justice crisis or as an environmental crisis, but rather as a spiritual crisis that encompasses both, the understanding of our common cause will emerge of its own accord.

 So, when we hear change agents saying that we are part of an era marked by a new definition of reality, it should not sound overly fanciful.  Or when activists say that social renewal emerges from within each of us, or that personal and social transformation go hand in hand, they should not be thought soft-headed.  Perhaps they can be recognized, as Galileo and Copernicus were not, as harbingers of a new paradigm desperately needed to meet the demands of this historical moment.