Home > Uncategorized > We all use glasses to see the world.

We all use glasses to see the world.

from Asad Zaman and the current issue of RWER

The outcome of all this discussion can be summarized metaphorically by saying that we all use glasses to see the world. The direct world out there is a jumble of sensations – a matrix of points – which makes no sense by itself, and must be interpreted using our own frameworks, represented by the glasses. This means that ALL observations are tinged with subjectivity, and interpreted within the frameworks created by our past experiences, successes and failures, in viewing the world.

A paradigm shift occurs if we remove the glasses we use to view the world, and instead put on a different pair of glasses. A famous experiment  conducted by Professor Theodor Erismann, of the University of Innsbruck put reversing glasses on his student and assistant Ivo Kohler. It caused extreme disorientation and discomfort at first, but after about a week of stumbling around, he adapted to this new way of seeing the world. His subjective interpretative equipment learned to interpret the reversed image by performing an additional reversal within the brain to arrive at a correct image of the world. Now, when the glasses were removed, the world appeared to be upside down to Ivo.  On a much larger scale, this is what happened in Europe due to the Great Transformation[1] which transformed traditional society to a market society, where everything is viewed a commodity for sale.  Later, these ways of thinking were spread throughout the world by colonization and Western education. We learned to value everything according to its market price, and forgot that the most precious things cannot be purchased. Then it became easy to kill a million children, and destroy entire nations, for corporate profits. 

We can now understand the extreme difficulty of creating a paradigm shift. For those who have spent lifetimes learning to see the world with a specific pair of glasses, these glasses become melded into the flesh, and are impossible to remove. After failing to convince his contemporaries about his Quantum theory, Max Planck disappointedly realized that science progresses one funeral at a time. Thomas Kuhn also noted that paradigm shifts do not occur by converting those faithful to the old paradigm, but by inducting the young into the new worldview. Unlike the older generation, for younger and more flexible minds, it is possible to take off glasses manufactured in the Euclidean factory, and put on non-Euclidean glasses. Nonetheless, it is still a disconcerting and uncomfortable experience, which will not be undertaken unless there is some expectation of a great reward for this struggle and sacrifice. The costs of paradigm shift must be paid upfront – one loses the ability to talk to the mainstream when one describes the world using an alien framework. The rewards are in the future, and highly speculative and uncertain. Nonetheless, for reasons explained elsewhere,[2] it seems essential to make the effort – the survival of humanity is at stake.    read more

[1] See my “Summary of The Great Transformation by Polanyi

[2] See Evaluating the Costs of Growth or Ecological Suicide.

  1. James Beckman
    November 28, 2018 at 5:23 pm

    Asad, you’ve got it nailed. People who remember the “good old days” often can’t accept that their glasses from yore just don’t seem to work now, while those who embrace change or have bad memories of those days can’t wait to put on a new pair: from former economic & social relations to new ones.

  2. December 12, 2018 at 10:56 am

    Asad, I want to add some clarifications. First what points does Kuhn make? According to Kuhn, a scientific paradigm includes the practices that define a scientific discipline at a certain point in time. Paradigms contain all the distinct, established patterns, theories, common methods, and standards that allow us to recognize an experimental result as belonging to a field or not. Per Kuhn, science proceeds by accumulating support for hypotheses which in time become models and theories. But those models and theories themselves exist within a larger theoretical framework, the paradigm. The paradigm in some instances is even a nascent culture, which scientists seek to extend. Kuhn is not wrong. Some sciences and portions of some sciences work this way. But others do not. This is what we learn when we study the actual practice of science. Scientists in their work draw distinctions and establish associations or alignments between different paradigms. Scientists, particularly those who study science don’t like the public to know about such things, as they tend to threaten the public’s belief in and acceptance of science’s objectivity and certainty. It also makes those who support realism as the foundation of science nervous. If paradigm shifts change everything, bringing in an entirely new scientific culture, the theories of the last paradigm are wholly incommensurate with those of the new. This means what’s real changes, if you believe science is in touch with reality. Traditional views of scientific objectivity and rationality are wrecked as well. Thankfully, Kuhn’s notions on paradigms have been challenged successfully. Scientific practice, as opposed to Kuhn’s theory of it shows a multiplicity of paradigms, characterized by disunity, patchiness, and scrappiness. That’s why not everything and everyone adapts to a new paradigm.

    Second, we need to draw a distinction between the terms paradigm and culture. Essentially culture is identified as sets of human ways of life (institutions) that are passed down from one generation to the next. This includes social structure, language, law, politics, religion, magic, art, and technology, and many institutions that don’t fit neatly into any of these categories, or cross from one part of life to another and sometimes back again. Culture is everything humans take for granted, seldom examine, and use in every part of human existence. Mostly culture is purposeful. Intended to serve certain needs. Science is one such institution. Often humans become aware of culture when it fails. Then humans must adapt by changing their culture. It is unusual for a paradigm to become a culture, but it does happen. More often culture is the gatekeeper. Allowing some paradigms to develop while stopping others. Historian Richard Hofstadter points out that the early US was the “land of opportunity.” This means, he says culture in some parts of the US had an inherent capitalist impulse. This part of America embraces the new physical and behavioral sciences, as ways to achieve these opportunities. But other parts of America are suspicious of anything that challenges the absolute freedom of the individual to take any actions they choose. Thus, people living within this culture are often suspicious of all the sciences, particularly the newest ones. This is culture performing its gatekeeper role for science.

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