Blog, Science

A Small Change in Perspective Can Change The World

If you look back on history, you can basically read it as a series of worldviews or perspectives.

This is what Thomas Kuhn did in his important work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions [free.pdf.]— a short book who’s concepts heavily shaped my own worldview and the worldview of the broader scientific community.

Kuhn suggests that each era of scientific thinking is defined by the perspective of those that live within it.

He called each of these eras a paradigm.

Each paradigm is defined by its overarching worldview or perspective.

Occasionally a new scientist comes along who’s research challenges the popular worldview and they influence subsequent scientific revolution.

Kuhn writes:

the major turning points in scientific development associated with the names of Copernicus, Newton, Lavoisier, and Einstein… each transformed the scientific imagination in ways that we shall ultimately need to describe as a transformation of the world within which scientific work was done. Such changes, together with the controversies that almost always accompany them, are the defining characteristics of scientific revolutions.

Before Copernicus suggested otherwise in 1543, the overarching global worldview was that the Sun orbited the Earth. But, after Copernicus published his Heliocentric solar system model, the overarching worldview changed and began to agree with him.

Today it’s well understood that the Earth actually orbits the Sun, not the other way around. We are now in a post-Copernicus paradigm.

Kuhn called this kind of mass change in perspective a paradigm shift. 

It’s important to note that there cannot be a shift in perspective if there wasn’t already a paradigm that existed before. Change only happens if something is being changed, it cannot happen in a vacuum.

Advancing any new perspective or idea must occur on top of the older idea. The old model is changed to favor of the new model.

If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

— Isaac Newton

In this way, we see that without the older paradigm we would have nothing to base our new paradigms upon.

In this way, perspectives or paradigms can be seen as a compounded effort, constantly growing on-top of itself…

the blind giant Orion carries his servant Cedalion on his shoulders to act as the giant’s eyes.

But this effect does not only happen in the big moments of scientific history!

It’s happening all the time.

Our collective worldviews, ideas, and perspectives are always contributing to the current paradigm. If the paradigm shifts then it’s because someone has suggested a fresh perspective that cuts through the shortcomings of the previous model.

This is why constantly obtaining new perspectives is of such vital importance.

Perspectives define the world and our relationship to it.

This is an important concept to understand because it applies to almost every area discipline if you stop to consider it.

Changes in worldview are almost impossible to comprehend while looking forward into the future, but when looking back to the past, paradigm shifts become entirely obvious and they can often define an entire era of human understanding.

The British £2 Coin

Take a modern example.

Today I would consider us to generally be in a paradigm of environmental understanding. Even though we don’t all do our part in this area, it is still well understood that humans are damaging the environment in some capacity.

This worldview is something we are constantly discussing in one way or another. But for a moment, consider that this wasn’t always the case.

It wasn’t until the 1960’s that we collectively realized we were significant enough to alter/harm the natural world. Prior to this realization, the general paradigm was that the world was enormous and that humanity only played a small part in it… The mantra was: “how could we ever effect an Earth so big if we are so small?”

Obviously, today the paradigm is much different than it was back then.

This means that some kind of paradigm shift happened in this area and today we are free to obsess over all the different ways humanity is influencing the environment.

The players who really feel the full weight of this paradigm shift are the large oil and gas companies.

These companies began their ventures with ambitions of supplying energy and prosperity to people. They were (for the most part) morally correct by just about every standard. Providing jobs, innovations in energy, transport, infrastructure, plastics, products; supplying the world with massive economy and wealth.

In the middle of their quest to supply the world with their amazing oil, a paradigm shift occurred and with it came a shift in the way the world perceived them.

Companies, founded on seemingly holistic values, quickly became immoral, villainous, and environmentally detrimental.

To this day oil companies and the like, argue in favor of the older paradigm.

Even though they are incorrect by today’s standards, they are correct by the historical standard they were founded upon.

These companies are fighting tooth and nail in favor of the old way of thinking.

Take this as an example of the way paradigm shifts can alter the state of the world. It’s been less than 100 years since we all collectively understood our capacity to influence the environment.

Today we are on track to changing our culture and our economy in favor of the new paradigm. All this despite the powerful pushback from the benefactors of the old way of thinking…

Paradigms are an integral part of how we come to understand the world and a small shift in perspective is all it takes to remodel the way we think about everything.

Keep seeking out new perspectives and you will forever be on the forefront of human understanding. However if you fall into a fixed mindset and hold onto a single perspective for too long, you are bound to eventually find yourself on the wrong side of history.