What is a paradigm?
on Friday, February 11, 2011
Last Updated: Monday, May 14, 2012
When one speaks about a topic which is controversial to many, such as parapsychology, it is crucial to understand the concept of a paradigm. A paradigm is an underlying worldview. It can be thought of as a framework of beliefs which are so taken for granted that most folks are not even aware they have made any assumptions. A paradigm helps us to make sense of the world around us. But perhaps more importantly, in terms of science, it not only determines what is true, but how truth itself can be determined. There is an obvious catch to this. If one does not recognize the underlying assumptions one makes with a paradigm, it has the potential to limit our perception of the world, what we can discover, and how we can determine that knowledge.
The old paradigm, which many have held since the days of Descartes, states that the subjective and objective worlds are completely distinct, with no overlap. Subjective is "here, in the head," and objective is "there, out in the world." The Cartesian paradigm presupposes that there are objective ways to define and measure the fixed external world--which the proponents of this paradigm would say is the only world that matters. The classical paradigm favors experimental research design, which presumes to measure the world in an objective way.
Quantum theory triggered a fundamental shift in how we understand the world. Physicists suddenly realized that there is always some indeterminacy in our measurements. This is because the act of measurement itself can define and change that which is being measured. Because of this, the experimenter may always be part of the experiment, and all our "objective" facts are, in fact, potentially flawed (with ESP making it impossible to ever have a truly "blind" experiment). This insight led to the idea of a paradigm based on nonlocality. And while not all physicists agree, the new paradigm that is emerging is one in which the universe is a single whole, within which every part is connected on some level to every other part. This new paradigm does not "prove" psi exists. However, it is compatible with the possible existence of psi, and may lead to a better understanding the phenomena.
It should be noted that the conflict between these two paradigms is ongoing. Because these belief systems are both widespread and deeply ingrained, topics that touch on these fundamentally different worldviews may give rise to bitter and violent debate, with little or no room for compromise. The lack of common ground between paradigms means that the question cannot be solved by discussion. Ultimately, the answer will have to be determined by which paradigm does the best job of answering the questions raised by research.
Understanding the role that paradigms play makes it easier for advocates of competing worldviews to agree to disagree with mutual respect. If you wish to read more about this topic, you may wish to pick up a copy of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.