The dominating paradigm in science is important because it permeates every aspect of society. It is not a technical detail of interest only to universities and research labs. For example, the dominating paradigm of our time in Western society is the Newtonian, mechanistic model which emphasizes reductionism and separatism, the separation of mind and matter, and postulates the existence of an objective universe outside of us. This has been a very successful paradigm in that it has been the driving force in bringing about the tremendous advances in our material well-being over the last three centuries. It is no coincidence that Western society is materialistic, consumption-oriented, and spiritually barren. These are all direct consequences of the Newtonian paradigm. The great majority of our citizens take these values as obvious and natural, but in the larger picture of civilizations, they are not. They are quite subjective. Many other types of society are possible.
Ironically, many of the basic tenets of the mechanical Newtonian world have already being shown to be incorrect by modern quantum theory – in particular the version known as the “Copenhagen School” developed by Niels Bohr and his followers. But these newer concepts have not yet had societal consequences. Their importance has not yet been recognized by the mainstream. We are in the middle of that process of change right now. It will take many years to complete. The most important of the differences from Newtonianism is the evidence that we cannot separate the observer from the observed. We know now that all things are interconnected, but in ways that we do not yet understand.
At some time in the future, when the history of our time is rewritten (as it always is from the perspective of the new age), I would not be surprised to see Niels Bohr cast in the role of the scientist who, more than anyone else, instigated the new paradigm of the twenty first century – a paradigm of synthesis and holism that is still being formulated.
And this brings me back to 1972 and why I felt that Kuhn’s book with its new concept – the paradigm shift – was so important. It now became clear to me that what we were observing in the environmental crisis, in the population explosion, in the contrast between the absurdly rich of the West and the Third World elites on the one hand, and the poverty stricken homeless of the West and the starving poor of the Third World on the other – was a direct consequence of the very effective mechanical paradigm running its course. One could say that the seeds of its destruction were built into its very success.
In essence I saw the current crisis as a problem of scale more than anything else. The strategy of exploiting natural resources for the benefit of Mankind using reductionist science was quite appropriate when the population was relatively small and the environmental impact was limited, but became disastrous when continued on a fully populated planet with an advanced technology. It would have been absurd to introduce environmental protection in the early days of the industrial revolution. However today, the population is enormous. There are no new frontiers to move into like in the good old days. We have discovered that we live on a finite planet.