Friday 1 March 2002

Rivers of Change (2002)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXX No. 1 Spring 2002


By Henk Tuten 

A famous remark of Jean-Paul Sartre characterises this article:
Man is not the sum of what he has, but the totality of what he does not yet have, of what he might have. 
I take this as my starting point to show that in philosophy of science, nature really is change. Karl Popper believed in a steadily growing scientific tradition (linear growth), and Thomas Kuhn furthered Popper's view on science, by introducing the idea of 'Scientific Revolutions' that put everything upside down once in a while (discontinuity). Several philosophers have since tried to find something new, but Kuhn's idea of 'paradigm shifts' has managed to remain standing upright against waves of alternative ideas.

In this article I don't add anything new, but only join two very valuable ideas. In short: I pose a new view on nature. To do so I only need to extend and refresh a forgotten major philosophical idea dating from the mid-20th century. I revive the words paradigm shift. Opening a debate that was in my opinion closed far too early. At the same time I pose that capitalism is just such a paradigm shift.

I invite anybody to join the debate.

Getting started: Karl Popper, born around 1900, stressed continuity in change. One of his students, Thomas Kuhn, stressed its discontinuity, and forgot about continuity. Instead, I want to mix both ideas into one total view.

Kuhn defined science as only one of many traditions, in one of his most famous and most controversial statements as a philosopher. Humans can handle the smooth flow and calm waters of continuous and linear aspects of change, but, as Kuhn pointed out, often have problems with rapids and waterfalls.

Like most people, I consider nature as far more difficult. To keep with the picture of flowing water I represent nature as a twisting river. My main assumption is that you can imagine change during relaxed moments, just by staring at the water. Then you observe little or big wrinkles on the surface. Maybe, sometimes even killer waves, but then afterwards you're seldom fit enough to tell a first hand story. The wind, waterfleas, even the breath of the fish or the shifting of small falling stones continuously cause movement in natural waters. In other words: change happens continuously, even in muddy motionless pools, where, as we all know, it's mostly linear. It also appears in the rapids of turbulent white waters (clearly non-linear), and sometimes in big splashing waterfalls (discontinuous change).

Incidental change often looks like a twisting river fighting a dry desert. Ways of change may look twisted to us ordinary people, but its goal is . . . progress and that object is always reached. This may be achieved through temporary retreat, and may take ages, but time doesn't matter in the eyes of nature.

Each day, we all meet and observe linear change around us, we observe it by seeing, hearing or smelling - or whatever. We're only able to 'see' the totality of change afterwards. Expressed in our scientific language: integrate the change function. That's why Kuhn is convinced that we need shocks to make real change.

Some more starters. Another famous quote from Kuhn:
The man who is striving to solve a problem defined by existing knowledge and technique is not just looking around. He knows what he wants to achieve, and he designs his instruments and directs his thoughts accordingly. 
Chew on this thought to find out that Kuhn indicates: (formal western) science is conservative. 'Flower Power' may be off the wall but some thoughts of their house-philosopher, Herbert Marcuse, remain valid. Marcuse was a special case. This philosopher splendidly analysed many parts of Capitalism. However, he tended to point too much at the bad sides of Capitalism, instead of regarding it as only a twist of nature. Everybody hates being bad, so this resulted in conflict. Furthermore Capitalism remained still very strong, and Flower Power pushed the balance far towards feeling. At least the name 'One Dimensional Man' he invented was brilliant.

During Flower Power, Marcuse made two ingenious observations that later became emblematic:
1) Many people are afraid of freedom, they are conditioned to be afraid of it

2) Law and order are always and everywhere the law and order that protect the establishment. Over time, the white water, like force of change, must destroy formal western science and anything rigid. Even in the rigid world of science, progress is speeding up, but this is not enough to outrun change. Try to imagine traditional science like a glorious sandcastle on the beach under attack by ever growing waves of water. The collapse of these castles is inevitable and only takes time.
These thoughts lead to the following two assumptions: 
First assumption. Nature is like a twisting river that flows steadily (linear change) and change in nature, other than linear, is like rapids and waterfalls. Every major change begins like a stone falling in streaming water and causes wrinkles in the form of ever expanding 'circles'. That's still understandable but, unexpectedly, the result may also be rapids or waterfalls.
Nobody will deny the statement that nature is like a twisting river that flows steadily. Still a lot of scientists act like everything can be made linear. So the second part of this assumption is the essence. Stones thrown by scientists ,or mudslips or avalanches disturb flowing water. Those concerned may not dwell at remote rivers and thus stay blissfully unaware of the consequences of such rolling stones. In the years to follow though, anything can totally alter this situation. Although, of course, they cannot influence the waves they caused before.

New means of communication can considerably accelerate change. The Iron Curtain was certainly not meant to stop radio waves, but only humans. But radio and television demolished the Wall as an example of the power of change.
Second assumption. The happenings around the Spanish Civil War caused a tidal wave in the water (paradigm shift), and on top of it rode Capitalism or 'One Dimensional Thinking' (I make a tribute to Critical Theory and its founder Marcuse.) Seeing capitalism as a paradigm shift is a worthwhile assumption. At the same time it is an example of my first assumption. It gives an impression of the extreme power of the river of change. I myself experienced how easy it is to drown during white water canoeing.
No doubt but Galileo, Descartes, Newton and Darwin caused many contemporaries a headache. After Galileo, the world was suddenly round, after René Descartes, romantic thinking had been turned into rational. Isaac Newton introduced gravity like a magician, and since Charles Darwin humans were reduced to being just apes.

Of course science continued, but in a totally different direction than before. All of these men produced paradigm shifts or paradigm shifts, or had revolutionary thoughts. More important was that like Galileo's thoughts, like those of Darwin, were serious non-religious views. Out of this small group, only Descartes is today counted as a philosopher, the others are seen as scientists. Yet Descartes was one of the early French philosophers that most influenced the western world. France lost the influence that was gained by the United States. Different major wrinkles used to follow each other a couple of ages.

Human influence seemed to speed up change. For cosmic lookers-on it remained the flash of an eye. Capitalism is not seen as a paradigm shift, but I humbly pose that it certainly is one and that the key change started around 1930. Unlike better known ones, it produced a slow but real revolution. We tend to think of revolutions as being fast, but most volcanos rumble for hundreds of years before erupting.

Capitalism is (most likely) not caused solely by the afore-mentioned Spanish Civil War, but this war serves as a nice anchor point. During it, romantic old-fashioned knights like Hemmingway fought together with communist diehards. It was a last big but unconscious spasm of irrational feeling to stop the ruthless rational power of money.

Once Capitalism got on its way, feelings were repressed and on the surface remained mainly rational (economic) thinking. In fact one went from the two truths feeling and rationality to mainly rationality. The present longing for feeling shows that this trait wasn't all that bad. Capitalism could be called 'Economic Rationalism' but, as I say, I prefer 'One Dimensional Thinking'. Capitalism is a perfect form of rationalism, only in a stealthier disguise. So, in less perfect forms, were Nazism and Communism. Feeling went into guerilla mode, hiding inside art, music, children's literature, anarchism and street culture. Feeling tends to get ever weaker but is still needed for balance.
Debates about nuclear science and DNA research show the obvious imbalance in feelings and rational thought. Practical experience conflicts with rationality, emotion faces and competes with scientific views.

The medieval, rational logic of Descartes can serve as an example. The dominance of nature seems obvious but, on second thoughts, it's painfully clear too that removing Cartesian maths would mean the collapse of the building of formal western science. That leaves the choice between adapting the building to earthquakes - or flying for the shakes. The third choice is fighting but that is both arrogant and ignorant. An old Zen wisdom says that bending yields more result with less energy than trying to stay upright. The same Zen philosophy would say: There are as many truths as dimensions, and per dimension there are many possible sciences. That there are more truths than only (a fundamental) one should be crystal clear to anybody. Anyway it still causes a lot of useless discussion.

In a fundamentalist religious law system (like that in Iran) any writer may be executed because of criticism towards the state-religion. Many laws still deny freedom of speech (even more the freedom of 'speed'). For proof, I repeat that general acceptance of Darwinism took more than 60 years. So a doctrine in power can postpone important ideas for a long time. Accepting Darwinism as a part of fundamental science even took longer, and yet still, in 1998, I found an article on the Internet by some religious group mocking comparisons between humans and apes. Change may be slow but is anything but rigid.

Human influence seemed to speed up change. For cosmic lookers-on, it remains the flash of an eye.

Note 1.

A reaction on the Weinberg criticism in 1998 of Kuhn's paradigms

In the eyes of Nobel Prize winner, Steven Weinberg, Kuhn's modesty about science is just scepticism and (in his words) wormwood. Like Popper, forty years earlier, Weinberg takes a continuous viewpoint. By criticising everything in Kuhn's theory that neglects continuity he makes the whole theory seem ridiculous. Weinberg acts exactly as predicted by Kuhn. A continuous view sees only the advantages of science.

Weinberg asks why question science if such criticisms can't be explained anyway? In this way, he denies intuition and suggests there exists only one true view. Choosing only one theory seems wrong to me and possibly to you too. Try the procedure described here and you will conclude that both fighters are right:
(1) decide the truth or falseness of both theories ONLY against their own presumptions;
(2) accept that having more truths is better than having just one. So both are right. Weinberg in stating that science continuously offers the best of human imagination, and Kuhn in saying that to find new ways such a science incidentally needs shock treatment.

Don't miss the fractal philosophy of:

Address for correspondence: Email: Henk Tuten: htuten@daxis. nl

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