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Paradox and Paradigm

Quick definitions: Paradox is something that seems inherently self-contradictory. Paradigm is a kind of world-view, a set of assumptions on which everything else depends, but so basic as to be almost invisible.

I’ve been reading an analysis by Alexander Bird of the ideas of Thomas Kuhn, a scientist-philosopher who presented an earth-shaking idea: that the bedrock of "science" is dependent upon historical assumptions even more than upon "hard facts." Now, I grew up believing that science had (or ultimately would have) answers for all questions regarding "reality." Where did the universe come from? When would it end? Is there a God? What is Its nature? What happens when I die? When I see "blue," what color do you see?

Revolutions in thinking, Kuhn said, are usually founded upon the very assumptions that they bring into question. For example, Copernicus gave us a new way to look at the physical universe, questioning the assumptions of those who had previously declared "how it is." The earth, he said, is not the center of the universe, with the sun and stars revolving around it, even if it seems that way. But Copernicus explained things in terms of "things revolving around things," the way most people understood, instead of going deeper into the relationships among matter that might have been more revealing in the long run. Another example is the Communist revolution in Russia. The Bolsheviks took political power away from the Czarist government, but they held it "in the name of the people" without actually giving it to the people. Both regimes used force and repression to maintain their own power. Neither trusted the people to govern themselves. As someone put it, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

That’s a paradox.

When I see "blue," what color do you see? The paradigm that this question is based upon assumes that "color" is real, something having an objective existence independent of our seeing. I am asking if you see what I see, and if they correspond in some sense that both of us find satisfying. A physiologist, using a different paradigm, could say only that the reactions in the retina, and neurological signals passed to our respective brains seem similar. But "color" is not part of what she could describe. A physicist could measure the wavelength of light reflected from the surface we are looking at and confirm that it is, indeed, what we call "blue." But where does the "blue" go when it is no longer a light wave but a neurological signal—a passing of chemicals across synapses?

"Reality" depends upon the angle from which one considers it. A rainbow is "real" only if one happens to be in a particular place relative to the sun and to a shower of rain. A tabletop appears solid only to eyes unable to distinguish the separate atoms of which it is composed. In fact, the "solidity" is not a thing but a collection of forces emanating from the atoms.

Awareness of a paradox can be useful in making us "see" something familiar in a different way—or at least cause us to question what we’ve always considered "real." That’s why the Zen master poses the familiar question to his student: "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" The easy answers, based upon "ordinary experience" are nonsensical, and so the student must "see" with different eyes. The common corporate expression, "thinking outside the box," suggests this reach. Paradox often results from thinking inside the box.

As I continue to age, I find myself resisting more and more the different ways of thinking about things. My grandmother used to call it "getting set in my ways." When I was twenty, I didn’t even know what the cultural paradigm was. When I was thirty, I was pushing for change, keenly aware of the drawbacks in the way our culture viewed things like sex, religion and race. By the time I was fifty, the culture had, indeed, gone through some pretty remarkable changes, mostly in the directions I had hoped for. Another twenty years, and the paradigm pendulum seems to have swung wildly back in the other direction.

But I think that’s an illusion. In some important ways, our society sees life in pretty much the same terms that it did two hundred years ago—indeed, two thousand years ago. Because we, collectively, know more today about other people around the world, we have enlarged the scope of our concerns. Yet we still hold onto the same basic assumptions about what is real. Many of us have wondered, "What does it all mean?" exactly as the ancient Greeks, and even the more ancient Egyptians. The Buddha saw our problems as arising from grasping and aversion and ignorance—and the inability to see things as they are. Modern psychologists would agree.

The old paradigm of science—the mechanistic certainty of Newton and Descartes—had kept us in a box, and that made us see paradoxes as unanswerable questions. The developing paradigm that began in physics with relativity and quantum mechanics now whirls us in the heady atmosphere of systems and chaos theories. Certainty is no longer absolute. The best we can determine in many fields is the probability that an event will occur. Paradox simply comes from a limited point of view.

Seventy years of making up my mind about things suddenly seems fruitless. What I once thought to be "true" is again conjecture, a semi-educated guess. The edges of my world-view, my paradigm, are already fuzzy. My ability to, as the Buddha put it, "see things as they are," to awaken, in fact, seems woefully inadequate. I’m likely to go out of this world as innocent as I came in. Another paradox.

And maybe that’s exactly what he meant.

 

Donald Skiff, August 10, 2001   

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