Mike Arnautov
Newsgroups: rec.arts.sf.written
From: mla1...@ggr.co.uk (Mike Arnautov)
Date: Mon, 11 Jul 1994 17:21:19 GMT
Subject: Alleged paradigm clash and SF (an interrupted discussion resumed)

This discussion got interrupted by circumstances beyond our control a few weeks ago, so just as a quick reminder, here's the story so far. (Readers with long memories should make some allowances for poetic licence; after all, it's me writing this summary – you can always write your own :-).

While publicly musing on the kind of SF I enjoy, I attempted to distinguish techno-centric SF (don't like) and "other", noting that all SF I liked appeared to lie in the "other" category. (I suppose I should have also eliminated "techno-avoiding" SF, but there you are – nobody's perfect.) Non-controversial stuff I thought, but my description of the techno-centric category as "the gernsbeckian blind alley" arose the ire of the elder denizen of this newsgroup. After a spot of thundering, Ahasuerus (for it was He) decreed that it would have been more interesting to draw a similar line on a much more elevated level of paradigm clash – the old pre-scientific one versus the new scientific one – and to consider to what extent SF does or could integrate the two.

This led to a disagreement whether it was in fact appropriate to talk about clashing paradigms, it being my contention that the clash was apparent rather than real (and hyped up by vested interests on both sides). It would follow that rather than attempting to fix what wasn't broke, SF could/should demonstrate the hollowness of the "warring paradigms" view.

Much loose discussion followed, throwing about words like "truths" and "verities", producing (truth to be told) more heat than light. In his final posting before the break, Ahasuerus made the sensible suggestion that perhaps the word "paradigm" was causing terminological trouble. Hence this attempt to see whether we understand what we really mean.

First of all, drawing on my experience of terminology clarification in another discussion (dealing with the question of whether established formal scientific theories are ever proved wrong [they aren't, BTW]) I think we need to establish a classification similar to the one evolved in that discussion. There it was found useful to make the following distinct categories: (a) what we know, (b) how we interpret what we know and (c) what we extrapolate from what we know and from the way we interpret it. In the present case I would tentatively propose the following classification:

  1. Paradigmic truths (e.g. "In the beginning was the Word").
  2. Observational truths (e.g. "The World is flat and lies in the centre of the Universe").
  3. Cultural truths (e.g. "The cost of raw materials always exceeds the cost of labour required to conserve raw materials").
  4. Deductions and extrapolations from any of the above (e.g. "The waters of Oceanos eternally cascade over the edges of the World").

I submit that the categories (2), (3) and (4) are of no consequence to the current discussion. Some of their "truths" were simply models of the universe less complete than our present one (yes, the Earth is just as flat as it ever was – ignoring topographic features, flatter than your desk – but it does not follow that it is planar or that it has an edge). Some were perfectly objectively valid at the time – e.g. labour was cheap and many raw materials weren't. None of them actually flowed from the prevailing paradigm, even though the category (a) truths were sometimes invoked in fairly spurious attempts to give the lesser "truths" a paradigmic underpinning.

I think it unlikely that we'll have much disagreement about the categories (2) and (3). Separating (1) from (4) may be a much harder (and possibly a fairly subjective) task.

Let's turn our attention to the category (1). A "paradigm" is really just a "pattern", a framework of reference describing the prevailing view of life, universe and everything. I think it is this prevailing view we are really arguing about – so let's use a nice foreign word for it: weltanschauung, which means "philosophical view of the world as a whole". Let's set side by side a few things about the two weltanschauungs:

  Old New
Underlying assumption: The world is shaped by
The world is shaped by

NB, contrary to the popular belief, these two assumptions are not mutually contradictory. The old world view does not preclude the possibility – explicitly discussed by theologians – of the Will expressing itself through a self-imposed Law. Similarly, the new world view limits itself to the Law as it exists and rejects as metaphysical the questions of its ultimate origins.

Aspiration: Attunement to the Will Understanding of the Law

Again, there is no clash, as long as metaphysics is kept out of matters physical and v.v., as many rational believers do.

Ambition: Control of the world Control of the world
Methodology: Insight into and manipulation of Will
(prayer, meditation, contemplation)
Insight into and manipulation of Law
(cogitation, formalisation, active verification)

Here the differences appear vast and fundamental, but are they? Insofar as the new methodology was appropriate for a subject matter of the old world-view, modern science resulted (e.g. chemistry out of alchemy). Where it turned out to be inappropriate (practically the complete sphere of human psychology, ethics and culture), the old methods still rule supreme (albeit sometimes disguised as pseudo-science). Essentially, the previously small area of Law (previously exemplified by applied geometry and mathematics) expanded to include areas originally believed to be directly subject to the Will. I.e. what we have is a shift in emphasis and a change in scope.

Analytical tool: Classification Classification

Classification has always been at the root of all knowledge regardless of the dominant world view. The extraordinary attempts at magical summaries during the Renaissance form a clear bridge between the magical and the scientific mindsets (resulting, e.g. in the delightful appropriation of the Magus Extraordinare Giordano Bruno by the scientific camp as a patron saint).

Synthetic tool: Analogy & contagion Analogy

Until recently, I would have classed the contagion principle as one of the few real casualties of the transition from the old to the new, but some experiments confirming the more bizarre aspects of the Quantum Theory suggest that even that might be premature. This is most likely a coincidence and I do not propose to push speculative interpretations of QM in support of my arguments. I would however like to point out that mathematisation of science is an example of the use of analogy: on the basis of experience we believe our mathematical models to have the capacity to be analogues of the real thing, even though we have no proof that this is necessarily so.

Nature of main truths: Subjective Objective

This is a crucial one and is often used to dismiss the old world-view as obsolete. The truth is that the dividing line between the objective and the subjective is just as fuzzy as it has always been. The acolytes of the new world-view find this fact acutely uncomfortable, because it gives a lie to the notion the world-view revolution they proclaim, but personally I find archetypal arguments advanced by Jung and elaborated by Hillman (in his "polytheistic psychology") quite compelling. This is one area where SF could play a significant exploratory role, but very rarely does. When the subject is touched upon at all (other than in a straight fantasy setting), it is done in a would be humorous manner – the author apologetically making clear that he is only joking. There are honourable exceptions, of course, some of Lem's works clearly leading the pack ("Investigation", "Chain of Chance", "Golem XIV", "Fiasco" and some of the Pirx and Ion Tichy stories – others probably touch on the subject too).

To make one of my customary bold and over-simplistic summaries, it's like this. We model the world we perceive. The way we perceive the world is inextricably bound with the structure of human intelligence. This structure (or at least its blueprint) is to a considerable extent inborn, just like the structure of our bodies, and shared by all humans. (Lest I get the customary flame here, this no more denies the astonishing breadth of human individuality than the two-ears-two-eyes- one-nose-with-two-nostrils-and-one-mouth-etc blueprint for our faces eliminates the unique individuality of our faces.)

Please note that none of this denies the truths of the new world-view. What happens here is that the new world-view is expanded to include within it the objective reality of the structure of human mind – such objectivity (or even existence) of our minds having been too often denied in misguided attempts to cut off the new from the old. E.g. the whole of positivist and behaviourist movements in this century were futile attempts to deny our primary experience of subjectivity, because this experience did not fit into the pseudo-objective stance science was misguidedly attempting to adopt. Just how anybody could try to do so after Husserl's "Phenomenology" (a heroic philosophical attempt to get at "the thing in itself" uncontaminated by our perception) is beyond me. We don't even need to refer to the uncertainties of interpretation of Quantum Mechanics (beloved by the reactionaries who'd rather reduce all of the new world-view to a version of the old!), to see that subjectivity is inextricably bound with the objective world "out there" – if for no other reason than because we do not and cannot stand apart from the world "out there".

Origins: Creation Evolution

Much heat gets generated here for no good reason. Creation and evolution are not mutually exclusive. Many believers are happy to concede that having created the Universe and the Law, God may have let all subsequent development to the Law, of which evolution is the chief tool. Similarly the scientific camp is happily contemplating the creation of the Universe and the Law in the singular event of the Big Bang.

Moral code: "Thou shalt not kill" etc...
(Divinely decreed)
"Thou shalt not kill" etc...
(Outcome of cultural evolution)

It is possibly the most common fallacy amongst adherents of the old world-view that the new world-view precludes the existence of a moral code. (the panicky notion that if there is no God, then everything is allowed is notorious, but its silliness is rarely appreciated.) The difference between the two veiwpoints once again boils down to the question whether the effects of the (hypothetical) Will need to be direct or whether they can be entirely mediated by the Law. E.g. Shopenhauer derived ethics and morality from our (to him transcendent) capacity for compassion. As an atheist I am equally happy with this derivation, because to me human capacity for compassion is a fact of life, as real as, say, a fibula – the difference being that I ascribe its existence to evolution (including cultural evolution) rather than to a direct divine act of creation.

And so on, and so on... The list is hard to exhaust, because a paradigm can only really be ever described by circumlocation, but I believe that arguments similar to the above apply to any other really paradigmic differences you may wish to throw at me.

How does all this relate to SF? I've already mentioned Lem's philosophical explorations of the subject, but there's precious little else. I suppose "Childhood's End" by Clarke and Stapledon's "The First and the Last Men" sort of qualify. As noted above there are also some apologetic jokey treatments by authors I've forgotten.

Curiously enough, there are a few notable contributors from the fantasy end of the spectrum. Specifically Blish with "Black Easter" and "The Days after Judgement" (in the former Theron Ware actually expands on the continuity of the two paradigms!) and Moorcock's "The War Hound and the World's Pain". Any others?

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Mike Arnautov (23 December 2016)