Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Paradigm Shifts: I

This interesting phrase originated with Thomas S. Kuhn in a book titled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) available here. I came across it in the Econ Division’s library at one of my alma matris, Midwest Research Institute, early during my time there. I had no idea lounging there and reading the book over a number of lunch hours that its publication was a landmark event: a genuine cultural approach to science had been born. The piously accepted view until Kuhn was that science changed incrementally as theories were falsified. He proposed shifts of mood more profound and basic in which a theoretical framework grown too overburdened by bad results and clever workarounds is finally thrown over, replaced by a competing view. This notion seemed natural to me because I’d grown up with ideas about culture gathered from my cyclic historians. Thus cultural views cycle radically when the benefits of a dominant world view have been exhausted. In the case of cultural forms, “inwardly” oriented cultures give way to those “outwardly” oriented. The shifts between eras are marked by “renaissances.” It took me most of my life to realize? suspect? that nineteenth century Romanticism was actually a renaissance-like period—but one of those that stand between an “outward” and an “inward” era: those tend to be less splendid than the reawakenings that follow the “dark ages” of inwardness.

Paradigm shifts in science have some of the same flavor and are themselves powerfully influenced by cultural tendencies, but scientists themselves, at least in our times, have tended not to notice that, which is not really surprising in that science is supposed to be concerned with the “real” rather than the slippery, fuzzy, ambiguous, and maddening aspects of the typically human. The great sweep of contemporary science, now effectively visible to an energetic surveyor in some detail, reveals what must be disconcerting to the scientific mind—namely that physical reality itself is at least as maddeningly murky as the human.

It seems to me that we’re likely to see several very major shifts in paradigm in the course of the current century. The century itself appears to be the first or second step into the dark woods of an inward age—with all the chaos and trauma of transition still largely ahead. Thus the shifts in science will reflect the flavor of the age to come. Transformations are signaled in all major sciences: In biology Darwinism will be revised; in physics Einstein’s theories will be honorably retired; in quantum physics the Copenhagen interpretation will be jettisoned; in cosmology the big bang will fizz out; and in psychology the Freudian consensus, which began to quaver almost as soon as formulated, will be entirely replaced. Brave words—but only to the historically challenged; to others almost self-evident.

Such predictions are rather easier to make at certain times in history. All systems decay slowly over time. Falsifications, which are supposed to cause science to react rapidly, do not actually have that consequence because institutionalized priesthoods resist the piecemeal overturn of systems; but falsifications take place steadily and cumulate—and this accumulation is observable. More dramatically, heretics appear quite early in the process. They do not succeed initially but serve to synthesize and dramatize the conflict. They lead small groups to the fault lines of modern theories and stand there pointing at the strange vapors that rise up from the ground. Heretics are derided, marginalized, and suffer a range of ignominies. Nevertheless they do their job.

Not surprisingly many of these phenomena are also closely linked—so that weaknesses in physics show up in astronomy, in geology, in biology, and, once in biology, also in psychology.


* * *

The current paradigm is progressive in flavor. Roughly 14 billion years ago the universe burst into being in a grand explosion from a peapod-sized but almost immeasurably concentrated quantity of matter. The explosion created space and time as the matter expanded at colossal speed, spread, and settled into clouds, suns, and galaxies. The expansion is still going on. Space and time are functions of matter. The universe is ruled by four forces: gravity, electromagnetism, the strong force (it holds the atomic nucleus together), and the weak force (it explains nuclear decay and hence radiation). We’ve managed to integrate all but gravity into models, but a “unified theory” that integrates gravity still eludes us. In addition to these forces and the motions they produce or inhibit, chance rules the universe. Life is a complex interaction of matter in its two forms of matter and energy (which are fundamentally equivalent). Once life emerges it evolves driven by a survival urge aided by changes brought on by chance, but since life appears to aim for greater complexity, matter may have a tropism toward complexity on the one hand and toward entropy on the other. Consciousness is a secondary phenomenon, a shadow of the underlying neuronal activity not important in itself (an epiphenomenon); in other words, consciously or not, we would still do the same things. The universe may continue to expand until it achieves energy death or, all depending on how much matter is present, it may begin contracting again and end again, as it began, in a singularity.

Under this paradigm we cannot explain: (1) how the big bang ignited, (2) how galaxies formed without the presence of immense quantities of dark matter and dark energy that we cannot find, (3) how life originated, (4) why it tenaciously clings to forms defined by genetics, and (5) what any of this means.

The dominant cosmological paradigm is justified by Einstein’s theory that gravity is the deformation of space-time by the mass of matter and by observations that light from very distant galaxies is shifted to the red end of the spectrum; this shift is interpreted to mean that every galaxy is moving farther away from every other. If we imagine this explosion in reverse, it appears as if the big bang took place 14 billion years in the past. Interestingly enough, the theory assumes that space itself expands rather than that the galaxies are flying apart in a preexistent space—because the theories of Einstein teach that mass itself somehow “creates” space and time. A few have offered alternative explanations for the red shift, but the big bang theory has become fiercely-defended orthodoxy; alternatives need not apply.

Just to make a distinction, I note here that in the Newtonian cosmology both space and time had absolute meanings and were thus not functions of matter. In that time only one of the four “forces,” gravity, was even recognized to exist. Newton didn’t know what it was and said “I do not frame hypotheses.” His cosmology was strictly descriptive.

[To be continued.]

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