Wednesday, May 1, 2013

New paradigm novels

My  guest today is author Jilaine Tarisa, who kindly gave me her permission to reprint her reflections on what is meant by a new paradigm novel. Her new paradigm novel, A Moment of Time, is available as an e-book. I got to know Jilaine because we were both writing about revolutionary ideas and ways of understanding old themes; she approaching it in the form of a novel and I in the form of memoir.

What Is a New Paradigm Novel? (Part Two)

Part Two: What Is a Paradigm?

Many people would consider his opinions extreme, Kimo knew, so he mostly kept them to himself. He could afford to view unsustainable lifestyles and practices with disdain, for he had never benefited from the prevailing model; he had no vested interest.
(from Chapter 24, A Moment of Time)

In Part One, I noted some of the characteristics of the conceptual box that has become known as the novel. In Part Two, I describe some of the features of paradigms.

In 1962, historian of science Thomas S. Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (hereafter “SSR”), a controversial work that challenged cherished notions about the nature of scientific development. Kuhn proposed that science does not progress in a linear fashion, as many had supposed, but encounters revolutionary periods during which the paradigm that has governed scientific inquiry and methodology is replaced with a new and incommensurate paradigm. In other words, the new view is incompatible with the old view and cannot simply be incorporated into the existing model. The new paradigm may be superior to the old one because its theories provide better explanations for questions the old paradigm could not answer; using the new paradigm’s methodologies, scientists may be able to solve problems that adherents of the old paradigm were unable or unwilling to address. New discoveries or inventions can precipitate a paradigm shift, allowing approaches to emerge that previously were not possible or feasible. (Study of the behavior of minute particles awaited the availability of instruments that made observation possible, for example.)

Kuhn’s early training was in physics and his primary interest was in articulating his views about the beliefs and practices unique to the natural sciences. (Science is a self-governing community; scientists themselves decide upon the rules and review each other’s work. Though researchers must adhere to ethical standards imposed by the larger community in which they exist (and practitioners of professions like medicine must comply with licensing requirements), no external authority defines the scope of scientific activity or determines whether a theory is plausible.) Nonetheless, in developing his theses Kuhn turned to the social sciences as well as philosophy. (He reviewed studies about the nature of human perception, for example, and refers in his work to Gestalt and Wittgenstein.) As a result, many of Kuhn’s observations apply to human endeavors outside of the scientific tradition. Since the 1960s, use of the term paradigm has spread to psychology, theology, and economics and is popular beyond the world of academia.

In SSR, Kuhn used the term “paradigm” in two ways. The first use refers to “the entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques, and so on shared by the members of a given community.” (1969 Postscript to the third edition) (The second use, paradigms as exemplary past achievements, is less relevant to the discussion that follows.)

Despite individual differences, members of a community accept the particular views that the model they follow prescribes. Beliefs and assumptions can be explicit or unexpressed, but the adherence to the model is what defines the community. Different schools of thought within a discipline or profession may use similar terminology, share basic assumptions, and even study the same kinds of phenomena, but they will interpret the data according to the model, or paradigm, that guides their inquiry and determines the value of the results obtained. Ideas that run contrary to expectations predicted by the model are dismissed—the continued existence of the paradigm requires the elimination of extraneous matters so that the matters that are explained by the paradigm can be articulated in depth and detail. Problems that the paradigm cannot resolve are rejected as “metaphysical” or the concern of another discipline. (E.g., science cannot prove or disprove the continuation of consciousness after death; it remains, therefore, a matter of “faith.”)

The Importance of The Box

Kuhn says that “normal science” (i.e., “the activity in which most scientists inevitably spend almost all their time”) is an attempt to force nature “into the conceptual boxes supplied by professional education.” In other words, our training—in science or in other areas—tells us which items in the world of stimuli, experience, data, and sensation we should notice and pay attention to and which pieces are irrelevant or unimportant and can be ignored. Normal science strives “to bring theory and fact into closer agreement.” The paradigm’s raison d’être is to provide a framework for research that applies theory; the paradigm dictates what will be studied and how it will be studied. It also determines which results are valued and which are considered worthless (e.g., “mere” facts that do not advance understanding of the matters being studied). The placebo effect may merit investigation by some other discipline, but bears no relation to the question of a drug’s effectiveness in treating a particular disorder.

Commitment to a paradigm is essential; we must believe in what we are doing, or how could we invest the time, energy, and resources necessary to succeed in our endeavors? The firefighter must believe he (or she) has the necessary training and ability to rescue trapped inhabitants of a burning building before entering; the cult followers must believe they are on their way to a better life when they follow their leader’s instructions to drink cyanide-laced punch. Many of our choices in life are influenced by our beliefs and assumptions—and the stakes can be high.

If you are an astronomer and you believe that all the planets in our solar system have been discovered, you will initially attempt to identify an unknown celestial body as a comet or a star—which is exactly what happened for a century, until Sir William Herschel identified the planet Uranus after studying its orbit. (Of course, the community of astronomers decides what qualifies as a “planet”–a term that had no official definition until 2006, when the International
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