8 minutes

When paradigms shift, the world changes.

The annual conference organized by the Humanities Institute, entitled “Human Leadership and Technology”, is approaching rapidly. It is always a source of inspiration for me, as evidenced by the texts that have been written following previous conferences. This year, I will not only have the pleasure of listening to distinguished speakers but also of sharing my thoughts in the panel entitled “Can we save the world within the old paradigm?”

The panel is an excellent opportunity to organize thoughts about paradigms, and this text serves as an introduction that may encourage someone to participate in the conference. Paradigms are a crucial issue for understanding the logic of the changes occurring in the world. Contrary to what may sometimes appear, what is happening is based on very logical and repeatable processes.

Paradigms are so obvious to us that we usually do not notice them. They consist of a set of assumptions that we use to interpret the reality around us. In other words, paradigms are a widely accepted “truth”. Importantly, this truth does not have to correspond to reality (and usually does not), but it is crucial for how we function as humanity on Earth. For example, for millennia, the paradigm that the Earth is flat was accepted as truth. Therefore, anyone traveling from Europe to India knew that they had to go east. Only a paradigm shift – recognizing that the Earth is a sphere – created the conditions for considering the possibility of traveling from Europe to India by sailing west. As we know, this led to numerous consequences, reshaped our (European) knowledge of life on Earth, led to many new discoveries (such as the potato that migrated to Europe from the Americas), the creation of new states, and the reconstruction of socio-economic systems.

The above example illustrates the functioning of paradigms, dozens (if not hundreds) of which each of us uses every day. The influence of paradigms is enormous, and at the same time, it is rarely fully realized. However, various experiences indicate that our paradigms act as filters on reality; in practice, we never see the world directly but through the filters of the paradigms we use. Moreover, our mental frameworks (determined by paradigms) naturally incline us towards seeing only the part of the world that supports our paradigms. We feel comfortable in it, and what is inconsistent with our paradigms is often perceived as a threat.

Paradigms can have different scopes. Some have a personal character, while others apply only to members of a particular family (because they arise from their history and experiences). Still, others may refer to specific groups, such as religious ones. There are also those with broad impact. It is on these last ones that I would like to focus now.

Where do paradigms come from? The example of perceiving the Earth first as flat and then as a sphere is a good indication of where to look for answers to the question of where paradigms come from. Their shape is usually a derivative of knowledge about the world and the scale of the spread of this knowledge (the latter reservation is important because new ideas do not always penetrate immediately; sometimes it takes decades for them to gain a sufficiently wide range of influence). In turn, regarding matters to which science does not provide clear answers, the approach to transcendence plays an important role in defining paradigms – those who believe that “there is something more beyond the material world” find answers in religions.

Scientific discoveries and the accompanying technological progress are usually the starting point for paradigm shifts. Changes in science lead to the development of technological and economic paradigms, which, in turn, determine socially class and institutional solutions (formal and informal institutions, norms, etc.).

It is worth noting here that the connection between paradigms and knowledge/science means that their “durability” depends on the pace of acquiring new knowledge. For this reason, in the past – when acquiring new knowledge was relatively slow – paradigm shifts were much rarer. Today, we are facing a significant acceleration.

In what paradigm(s) do we live?

As I have mentioned before, there are many paradigms that relate to different spheres. Today, I would like to focus on the more “systemic” ones, once again concentrating on the West. I deliberately narrow the perspective to the West, because this is where we function on a daily basis, while at the same time I am aware that the perception of the world in other parts of the globe is – at least in relation to some elements – different.

In the case of the West:

  • The paradigm of technological-economic mass production (providing economies of scale) based on the use of automation/machining and fossil fuels as the main source of energy (in the EU, for example, around 70% of energy still comes from fossil fuels) is still in force, although gradually being replaced.
  • The basis of socio-economic systems is the assumption of rationality at the individual level; individuals maximize well-being by making optimal choices based on their own rationality (especially in terms of how much and where to work, how much time to spend on rest and other activities).
  • In practice (particularly with regard to the economic models used), well-being is defined rather narrowly, in terms of owning material goods and the ability to maximize consumption.
  • The key to choices made by entities operating in the economy is the concept of “value” based on the market price of all kinds of goods and labor.
  • This market price is determined by various markets (hence the capitalist system). They are also used in relation to the distribution of money (money creation is done by the banking sector, which is mostly privately owned in most countries) and technological progress (the main driver of progress is the desire for commercialization).
  • At the socio-political level, the paradigm prevailing in the West includes a belief in the superiority of liberal democracy, which on the one hand provides protection for individual freedoms and on the other hand provides relatively efficient mechanisms for functioning at the level of whole societies (nations).
  • Globalization (although faith in it is diminishing) can be a vehicle for spreading liberalism and democracy, and can also link individual countries in such a way as to raise the costs of potential conflicts and wars to the point where they are no longer worthwhile.

The troublesome affliction of paradigms.

The fact that paradigms are not the “truth about the world”, but only a “model of the world” that is valid at a given moment (the difference is roughly the same as between a map depicting a given area and the area itself) means that they have a certain affliction. Sooner or later, the use of a particular set of paradigms leads us to the “limits of the system” that these paradigms define. In such places, there are more and more indications that “something is wrong,” that existing solutions – those that have often worked well, provided stability, and development – are beginning to crack at the seams. This cracking is usually referred to as…crises.

If we take the West into consideration, today we can already identify at least several serious features that have appeared in the paradigms that have been in force there in recent decades:

  • markets have proven to be inefficient in terms of taking into account the external effects of development, especially those related to environmental degradation. As a result, as indicated by the latest research, we are globally using 60% more resources than are regenerated each year, while causing mass extinction of species and impoverishing individual ecosystems. In other words, we are living on the savings of previous epochs, but how long can this last?,
  • the allocative efficiency of the current money (credit) distribution system has significantly decreased, resulting in repeated crises in the financial sector and constant growth – at the global level – of the debt-to-GDP ratio (money less often creates productive assets that would allow the repayment of debts and more often serves some form of speculation),
  • uncontrolled technological development has led us to undesirable phenomena, and the current capabilities of technology increasingly raise the question of whether we are creating a world in which humans will serve technology,
  • the development of Russia and China resulting from globalization has led to the economic and military strengthening of these countries, leading to increasingly significant geopolitical disturbances,
  • technological changes and globalization have led to class changes in many Western countries, erosion of the traditional middle class, and the emergence of new classes; on the one hand, the creative class (high income, luxurious lifestyle), and on the other, the precariat (low income, job insecurity). This poses a challenge to democratic processes and threatens the takeover (control) of power by economic elites,
  • growing volatility and uncertainty (fear) provide a breeding ground for leaders with authoritarian tendencies.

For me personally, the answer to the question of whether a paradigm shift will occur is obvious: whether we want it or not, it is already happening, as it is the nature of processes that govern development. In my opinion, the questions for today concern something else. Firstly, how many more crises (and of what kind) do we need to recognize the need for new solutions? Secondly, will we recognize the opportunity to actively shape new paradigms, rather than passively observe (as in the past) what will emerge from the process of their creation?

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