Map #45: Are We Stuck or Liberated?

Chris Kutarna
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I received an unexpected gift this week: a meteorite. It’s a rare and valuable, 4.6 billion-year-old piece of space metal that, way out there, was protected from the forces of erosion and tectonics that constantly recycle earthbound rocks.It’s a piece of the infinite. Toying with it in my fingers, it’s hard not to look at life from a different perspective. Humanity is something temporary, and vulnerable to forces utterly beyond our control — things like earthquakes, and hurricanes, and solar flares and meteor strikes.

Is that perspective paralyzing—or liberating? As my father is fond of saying, “Don’t sweat the small stuff. And it’s all small stuff.”

My hunch is that it would be healthy for us to look at many big, immediate challenges in the same light. Climate change, deepening inequality (along a widening set of dimensions), political upheaval… We can view the big challenges of our time in one of two ways.

They are crushing problems. We must but cannot solve them, and that paradox causes anxiety, fear, guilt, division, paralysis and despair.

or

They are the wellspring of humanity’s renewal. Their scale, scope and urgency liberate us from past patterns and compromises, and demand that we come together in new ways to explore fresh configurations for human flourishing.

The meteorite in my hand practically screams at me: anyone who denies the possibility of the latter is in denial about the human condition.

How, practically, are we reborn?

I find myself using the language of “paradigm shift” a lot these past few months, as I struggle to put into words how, practically, a rebirth happens. And what, concretely, a rebirth even means.

Each time I use the phrase I cringe a bit on the inside. I remember writing about paradigm shifts in Chapter 5 of Age of Discovery (“Ch 5 Copernican Revolutions: Why Big Shifts Are Happening Now”). I described how many paradigm shifts across human knowledge systems—astronomy, medicine, chemistry, navigation, politics, philosophy—together shifted medieval Europe into early modernity. I used the phrase a dozen times in three pages. It’s one of those phrases that seems to capture what I mean to say, while sidestepping the problem that I don’t fully know what I mean when I say it.

So this weekend I went back to Thomas Kuhn’s classic 1962 work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, to understand better the context in which he coined the phrase.

Kuhn’s project was to look at science, and scientists, as a sociologist might, to examine what they thought they were doing, versus what they were really doing, when they did science.

What they thought they were doing was accumulating knowledge about the universe.  Matter, space and time exist in single cosmos. A hierarchy of reasons (i.e., causes or laws or mechanisms) exist for why the cosmos is what it is. By observing matter, space and time, humans gain true knowledge of the reasons why things are what they are.

Philosophers call this set of beliefs “scientific realism”. It’s a very old and widespread set of beliefs, and might seem obvious to most of us. The thing—it—is out there, and by observing it, we understand it better.

But if that’s all that science really is doing, how do we explain scientific revolutions, Kuhn asked? For thousands of years scientists (and before there were scientists, “natural historians”) gathered evidence about an earth-centered cosmos. Then Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo demonstrated that the cosmos made more sense if the sun were at its center instead. And suddenly that cosmos became the new it of observation.

So belief systems and biases play an important role in science. They stand between us and our world everywhere. A lens filter. Or, in Kuhn’s language, a paradigm. Because we are social animals. But not only that. We are historical, biological, cognitive and cultural animals (as other thinkers—Hume, Kant, Freud, Durkheim and many others—have helped us to see). e.g., We think of ourselves as individual beings, but our bodies contain three times as many micro-organisms as they do human cells. Our senses, our conceptualizing and our languages are biased toward our social and cultural upbringing, toward our biology, and toward our human senses and cognitive abilities.

Hmm… “Lens filter” is a bad metaphor. It suggests something with discrete edges that can easily be perceived, grasped, removed and swapped. A paradigm is a worldview. How do you swap that?

What science and scientists really do, Kuhn argued, is accumulate evidence within a shared worldview. A sudden, massive paradigm shift happens whenever that worldview is exposed as the thing that limits our understanding.

How, practically, does a worldview transform?

Again, I toy with the meteorite in my hand. The worldview that mediates my present-day understanding of reality—with all its economic, managerial, political, and technological aspects—seems all-encompassing. But it really is only temporary…even if it proves to be permanent over my lifespan.

Medieval Europe held firmly to a worldview that humanity’s place in the Great Chain of Being was somewhere above Beasts and below Angels, and that life’s purpose was to understand, accept and obey the responsibilities of our station in Creation. During the Renaissance, that worldview was slowly, but utterly, overturned by the ideal of Progress—of glorifying God by striving to rise above our present levels of knowledge and understanding.

The societal changes we’re living through nowadays are far greater than those that Europe experienced during the exhaustion and replacement of the medieval worldview. So the safe assumption is that our modern worldview is likewise due for renewal or replacement. (Alternatively, we could choose to believe that we are special, that we are living at a privileged moment in human history, within systems of belief and bias that have reached their final, finished form. My meteorite argues otherwise.)

Assuming that we’re not special, massive shifts in worldview will occur. How will they happen? How are they happening?

Will the future simply arrive?…

The scientific experience with paradigm shifts suggests that they might happen automatically, more or less, without much deliberate doing on our part. The accumulation of evidence in favor of a Copernican model eventually forced everyone’s view of the Universe to flip. In the same way, the accumulating evidence of environmental catastrophe will eventually tip us all into a new economic paradigm that can cope with, adapt to, or avoid such catastrophes. Lengthening lines of unemployed workers will eventually generate sufficient public support for a new deal to rebalance the resources made available to the rich and poor. And so on.

It will be painful transition, but at least the transition will happen. And maybe that’s the best that humanity can hope for, given the limits of our capacities to organize ourselves, to perceive our own self-interest across distant cause-and-effect relationships, to care for strangers, and so on.

…Or will we need to achieve it?

Setting aside our preference for a less painful transition, we should also be worried that evidence-based paradigm shifts don’t always happen. Not for everyone.

The Copernican revolution, and the follow-on work by Kepler, Galileo, Newton and others, created a new worldview—classical physics—that became universally known and accepted. The Laws of Motion became a part of what we now consider to be common knowledge. Everyone understands the billiard-ball universe.

But the 20th-century revolutions in physics didn’t change the popular worldview much at all—except for making Einstein the most famous scientist ever and inspiring us to replace “New Age” with “quantum” in popular culture. The failure of more recent paradigm shifts in physics to change the worldview of everyone outside physics labs isn’t because the implications are any less revolutionary than the Copernican revolution. The main reason is the fact that the new theories can only be understood mathematically. Most of us lack the background in mathematics required to speak or hear that language. And so we are deaf to the difference.

Well then, surely the solution is to get a good communicator from the physics world to stop what they’re doing and translate their new math into new language for the rest of us. But it’s not that simple. The pioneers of relativity and quantum physics—famous names like Einstein, Heisenberg, Schrödinger—disagreed on what the math meant about reality. For over a century since, experts have been debating this problem. In popular culture, we occasionally see sentences like, “The particle is in many places at once.” For most of us, this is plain nonsense. How can a thing be in many places at once? But even physicists will read it with a slight uneasiness. Such statements are both correct and slightly incorrect at the same time. Yet they remain the best way of translating the strange math of the quantum world into ordinary speech.

How, practically, do we get unstuck?

Again, I twirl a piece of meteorite between my fingers. I think: all that we know about the human condition, and all that we know about the time we’re living in, should be liberating. But we are stuck. It should be exhilarating. But the world sucks. For a lot of us, a lot of the time.

Those harsh truths defy passive optimism about the future. They defy the comfortable myth that humanity is blown forward by scientific, economic and social winds—zigging and zagging, surely, but always progressing toward a better, New World. A decade ago, that’s how many of us viewed our present circumstances. We thought we were passengers on a ship at sea, with little control over the weather, yet lulled into complacency by our general heading and the apparent competence of our captains. Now, we are wise to our true predicament. There is no inevitable path of progress, and there are no passengers. We all need to learn how to pilot the ship.

Yes, but how? How do we liberate ourselves from the prison of our own worldview and the paradoxes of modern life? Without good answers to that question, we cannot get unstuck.

I don’t know the answer; this is the conversation I want to have with you. Let me seed it with a few of my own brief ideas and observations:

  1. New language. As the case of quantum physics suggests, without new language, there can be no new worldview. Language both enables and limits our sense-making, in ways that philosophers explore endlessly but that none of us fully appreciates. Logic, reasoning, description and understanding are heavily language-dependent.
Two quick thoughts here. First, as Wittgenstein once pointed out, nonsense is far from meaningless. In cases like quantum physics, even if the attempts to render math into speech are nonsense, they can be helpful. Why is the idea that “a particle is in many places at once” nonsensical? If I can answer that question, I’ll reveal a lot the hidden assumptions behind how I make sense of the world. Here’s another nonsensical phrase: “Children are older than their parents.” Obviously false. And yet, curiously true: Children today have expected lifespans stretching into a 22nd century that their parents will never see, which informs how they might look differently at the present. I digress. My point: we should experiment with new language; it helps us surface the hidden structure of how we make sense of things.
  2. New metaphor. I think that metaphor is a powerful agent of paradigm shifting. Of birthing new worldviews. In the face of global challenges, are we “finding solutions” and “fixing systems”? Or are we “responding”, “adapting”, “evolving”? The former invokes a mechanistic metaphor of society; the latter, an ecological one. Recognizing and shifting our metaphors helps us to make many subtle and subconscious changes in our relationship to the world all at once, it seems to me. 
It can also open new gateways of understanding. Metaphor…analogy…I’m not sure which word is better. I think of an analogy as something that allows us to gain understanding of a poorly understood territory by applying lessons learned from a better understood territory. (e.g., my letter a couple weeks ago, suggesting a role for A.I. in society akin to the role of evolution in biology.)
  3. New dialogue. Another giant avenue of liberation, and a fruitful one I’m sure. How do we become more aware of our own paradigms? Of our own built-in assumptions? A well-constructed dialogue across differences seems an obvious place to start. 
Obvious, and daunting. The question that convenes the dialogue cannot simply be “Who is right or wrong?” That, I think, would be a debate. The question has to be, “How can our distinct insights, from our different perspectives, together weave a deeper understanding of the complex and multiple realities of life? And how we do we act from there?” (These are some of the questions that 100 of us will embrace together at basecamp:London on November 3-4.)
  4. New, personal experiences. I had a call with Michael Garfield a couple days ago. He is a paleoanthropologist at the Santa Fe Institute. One of the things we talked about is how knowledge is lossy. We have been cultured to respect the codification of knowledge. The book. The thesis. The documentary. The news report. We believe that the knowledge is contained in the product, in the output. That belief is way too strong. The majority of the knowledge remains trapped in the journey toward its production. It remains bound to the context of its creation. We who consume only the outputs are eating the scraps left over from the banquet. 
The journey to a new worldview demands so much more than reading the right book, or mastering what others have learned, or adopting best practice. It is a conversion. How do conversions happen? I’d love to hear your thoughts on that…

Next steps in this conversation

I’d love to get your fireside wisdom on these questions (discussion board). Do you feel stuck, or liberated, by the pace and scale of change? What will it take to create a culture of the latter? What does it take to bring into the world a new worldview, a new paradigm, a new culture of belief and behavior? What have your attempts and experiences been? 
Because whether out of terrible necessity or exhilarating possibility, it seems that this is the opportunity that lies before us.Scott and I rambled through these questions in our latest episode of the Atlas Project. You’re always welcome to listen in.

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