The Paradigm Shoppe

“Paradigm Shift” Fractal by Stephen Smith.

Jun 18, 2019

Electric Universe theory illustrates what has been called the “incommensurability” of paradigms, a scholarly term for what is actually a rather mundane occurrence: the difficulties-and benefits-of communication when words have more than one meaning.

The difficulties arise from the listener’s assumption that the speaker means what the listener has always meant. What the listener hears will sound nonsensical. The benefits arise from the listener’s assumption that the speaker has in mind a different meaning engendered by a different viewpoint. By making an effort to understand the meaning, the listener can discover the new viewpoint.

From the viewpoint of established theory, the term “sun” refers to a set of observations understood as effects of the ideal gas law, gravity/radiation-pressure equilibrium, and thermonuclear reactions.  Discrepancies between observations and the predictions of theory are accounted for by adjusting the theory to fit the facts (by more detailed articulation or by ad hoc amendment) or by discounting-even ignoring-facts that don’t fit, that make no sense. 

From the viewpoint of plasma physics, the term “sun” refers to a set of observations (not quite the same set as for established theory, and certainly with different degrees of importance attached) understood as effects of Birkeland currents, anode discharge characteristics, and driven circuits. While not denying the existence of gravity and gasses and fusion, it dismisses them as being of secondary importance, as not being the center of attention (just as established theory dismisses plasma phenomena as secondary and uninteresting).

Because the universe of facts is much larger and more complex than the universe of our imaginations and theories, this selection and valuation of facts is an inherent aspect of building theories. Furthermore, the process of building theories is itself a tool of intellect that is directed toward and constrained by purposiveness: survival, comfort, curiosity, play. This restores to science the evolutionary, developmental, or just plain learning aspect that orthodoxy tends to ossify. (Science works best when it avoids the pretense of righteousness about the ideas and facts held in human hands, when it develops possibilities rather than proclaiming impossibilities and certainties.) The cumulative growth of knowledge represented by the articulation of a theory is occasionally interrupted by a jump to a more inclusive or more appropriate viewpoint, much as plateaus in a learning curve are separated by episodes of sudden insight into a larger understanding.

This trait of human cognition that erects the successive edifices of theory is a common ground underlying their linguistic incommensurability. Knowledge is not “just the facts” nor “just theory” but a judgement about the relationship between facts and theory. And theories compete on this level of judgement: The criterion is not “which theory best fits the facts” but “which combination of facts and theory is most appropriate and promising for which purposes, in contexts of available resources, level of understanding, focus of curiosity, etc.” My favorite example is the use of geocentric theory by architects to place a building on a site and of heliocentric theory by astronauts to place a robot on Mars. And if you insist that heliocentrism is “the real truth”, what will you tell the little green men who ask directions to cross the galaxy?)

Nor are these aspects known in advance, but, as Hayek pointed out in the field of economics, the competition is itself a process of discovery. That the acceptance of a paradigm takes place in the extrascientific arena of politics is simply the manifestation on a statistical or population level of the judgements of the individuals involved with the issue: how many judge which paradigm to be most appropriate.  Communication occurs not so much at the level of formal debates as at the level of “market share”.

Mel Acheson

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