Paradigm Shifts and the Role of Faith

Faith - "1.  Confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, an idea, or a thing.  2.  Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence."  (The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition)

Faith - "1.  Complete trust or confidence in someone or something.  2.  strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof ." (Compact Oxford English Dictionary - Online)

Faith - "1.  A high degree of trust or confidence in something or someone.  2.  a particular religion, or belief in God." (Cambridge Dictionary of American English - Online) 

Faith - "2.  The assent of the mind to the truth of a proposition advanced by another; belief, or probable evidence of any kind.  3.  In theology, the assent of the mind or understanding to the truth of what God has revealed."  (Webster's 1928 Dictionary - Online)

The Two Meanings of "Faith"

Notice that the two meanings of "Faith" (provided in the different dictionary entries cited above) are quite different, both in their connotations and in their consequences.  The first meaning involves confidence, and when contrasted with the second meaning, implies a justified confidence.  The second meaning specifically excludes the notion of a Realist concept of justification by excluding both logical proof and material evidence.  The only justification that would be admissible within the second definition of "Faith" is the Idealist concept of non-material evidence - intuition, innate (a priori) knowledge, or Divine Revelation.

The second meaning of faith is epitomized by the quote: "Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to." - Fred Gailey, Miracle on 34th Street.  Or by the quote: "Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase." - Martin Luther King Jr. 

The first meaning of faith is epitomized by the quote: "There is a very, very important difference between feeling strongly, even passionately, about something because we have thought about and examined the evidence for it on the one hand, and feeling strongly about something because it has been internally revealed to us, or internally revealed to somebody else in history and subsequently hallowed by tradition. There's all the difference in the world between a belief that one is prepared to defend by quoting evidence and logic and a belief that is supported by nothing more than tradition, authority, or revelation." - Richard Dawkins.  Or by the quote: "the word faith doesn't mean 'belief without good evidence,' but 'confidence derived from scientific tests and repeated, documented experience.'   You have faith (i.e., confidence) that the sun will rise tomorrow because it always has, and there's no evidence that the Earth has stopped rotating or the sun has burnt out. You have faith in your doctor because, presumably, she has treated you and others successfully, and you know that what she prescribes is tested scientifically. You wouldn't go to a shaman or a spiritual healer for strep throat -- unless you want to waste your money." - Jerry Coyne

That this word "faith" has two such completely different meanings has caused a lot of rancorous debate between Theist and Non-Theist philosophers  -  both amateur and professional.  Approaching the world from an Idealist metaphysics, the Theist philosophers proclaim that religious "faith" involves a confident belief in the truth of religious fundamentals.  Approaching the world from a Realist metaphysics, Non-Theist philosophers proclaim that "faith" involves a confident belief in the truth of scientific fundamentals.  It sounds as if both sides are proclaiming that "faith" is the foundation of their respective philosophical beliefs.  But of course, this is not at all the case.  Theists and Idealists are proclaiming that a confident belief in the truth of their fundamental principles does not rest on logical proof or material evidence, but instead rests on one or more of the three Idealist sources of truth - Intuition, Authority, or the Coherence of beliefs.  Non-Theists and Realists are proclaiming that a confident belief in the truth of their fundamental principles does rest on logical proof or material evidence, and the correspondence of beliefs to the facts of reality.  More particularly, a Realist based Scientific Method relies on one premise, and one premise only: the Universe obeys a set of rules.  There is one corollary: if the Universe follows a set of rules, then those rules can be deduced by observing the way Universe behaves.  If it obeys the rules, then the rules must be revealed by that behavior.

Axiom Systems and Faith

All axiom systems demand a degree of faith.  Because of their very nature, axioms cannot be logically proved.  They are the basic statements upon which all other proofs rest.  Within the foundations of Evolutionary Pragmatism, for example, I cannot prove that my Realist concept of Reality is, in fact, the "Truth".  Any proof I might offer, would be based on the assumption that Reality is, in fact, as I have assumed it to be.  The proof of the axiom is dependent on the assumption of the axiom.  The same characteristic is common to all axiom systems, and Philosophy is no exception.  To believe in, or have faith in, any particular philosophy, is to have confidence and trust in that philosophy, without any logical proof that it is, in fact, "Truth".

There is only one guideline that can be employed in such a situation.  And that is to appeal to the usefulness of the axioms, and the conclusions founded on them.  To develop confidence and trust in a system of philosophy, the system must "work".  Again, we find ourselves in a circular argument.  Whether the system of philosophy can be said to "work" or not, must usually depend on that very system's definition of what "Successful" means.  The discussion is not open to logical proof.  It demands a very basic act of faith.

But to build trust and confidence, a system of philosophy must make its adherents "comfortable" that its principles and conclusions are useful in day to day living.  If nothing else, a system of philosophy must lend a sense of emotional confidence that it is properly "Successful", according to whatever definition of "Success" is appropriate.  The human intellect, although possessed of some surprising limitations, is far more discerning than is generally credited.  And it reacts far faster than the genetically based processes of evolution discussed elsewhere in these essays.  As a result, if a system of philosophy were to promote as "Good" behaviours that resulted in consequences that the same philosophy labels as "Bad", then the philosophy would not be one to build trust and confidence.  For this reason, any moderately successful philosophical system has to be, at the very least, somewhat internally consistent.

The major consequence of this key role of faith in philosophical systems, is the impossibility (for believers in two different systems of philosophy) of using rational argument to win each other over to their own points of view.  Different systems of philosophy are founded on differing axiom systems (that is what makes them different).  And, as we discussed in the chapter on An Introduction to Axiom Systems, axioms are not open to logical proof.  To convert from one basic set of axioms to another, therefore, requires a leap of faith.  Rational argument simply cannot be successful, because the very basics of one line of argument does not admit the rationality of the other line of argument.

Paradigm Shifts

Paradigm - (1) "example or pattern; a set of all inflected forms based on a single set or theme.   (2) An archetypical example or pattern that provides a model for a process or system."

It might appear, from the preceding discussion, that no one would ever change their philosophical beliefs.  Once the first act of faith is taken, to believe in one system of philosophical axioms, there would appear to be nothing that could convince someone to make another leap of faith to a new philosophy.  Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), the human intellect does not seem to be so cast in stone as the foregoing might suggest.  For one thing, many systems of axioms (philosophical systems included) are not as internally consistent, or as demonstrably useful (by their own internal definitions of "useful") as others.  The result is a build-up of mistrust and a lack of confidence in the structures built on such axiom systems.  It sometimes takes only a single or final striking example of the internal inconsistency, or practical difficulty, to make believers in one set of axioms jump to a new set of axioms.

The human mind turns out to be extraordinarily flexible when it comes to changing axiom systems.  It actually happens all the time.  Most people are probably more familiar with the change known as "religious conversion" than with any other, probably because religious organisations make quite a todo about it, and no one else does.  But it is only one example of people changing their axiom systems when they decide that their "old" axiom system is no longer suitable, useful, or appropriate.

Psychologists have a term for this jump from one set of axioms to another, and that is "Paradigm Shift".  The cognitive act of perception (that portion of the process of perception that can be classified as "non-contradictory identification") is one part sense reception, and nine parts conceptual pattern matching.  For this reason, we often "See" what we expect to see.  There are a number of optical illusions that exemplify this principle.  Among them are the "Old Hag - Young Maiden", "Table/Vase - Two Faces", and the "Necker Cube".  

Illusion1       Illusion2       Illusion3

Each of these illusions consists of a picture or drawing that has two alternative interpretations.  The mind initially chooses one interpretation, and cannot "see" the other.  Even though the eyes receive the signals, the conceptual pattern matching process selects one of two alternative concepts within which to identify and understand the perception.  It takes a basic shift in the core concept, or pattern, for the mind to "see" the alternative interpretation.

This kind of shift happens frequently in day-to-day life.  Your sense perceptions are interpreted and given understanding because they fit into a pattern, or paradigm, that the mind expects them to fit into.  Sensory evidence that does not clearly fit into the expected pattern is frequently rejected, or "minimised" away.  How often have you read a sentence that contains a spelling or grammar error, and not seen the error.  Your mind expects to see the words spelt properly, and used properly.  When an anomaly appears, the mind rejects the data, and you do not "see" the error.  Only when forced to re-examine the way you have classified your sensory inputs, can the mind make the necessary shift to a new concept that admits the existence of the error.  And now you can "see" the error.

Here is another example.  The same arguments can be applied to such grammatical "paradoxes" as -

"This sentence is false."

Because your cognitive processes are pre-positioned to expect that grammatically correct sentences (appearing amongst other sentences that have sense) will make "sense" (have meaning), you are drawn into the error of assuming that there is a way to make sense of this concatenation of words.  But contrast the above sentence with -

"The yellow fragrance of my maiden grandmother's backhand was clearly heard."

If you are stuck in the paradigm of assuming that grammatically correct sentences will make sense, then you will spend considerable time trying to invent a "poetic" interpretation of this whimsy that grants it a certain degree of "sense".  But if I suggest to you that it is nothing but a computer generated random concatenation of proper sentence parts, you might shift your paradigm and realize that it in fact makes no sense at all.  The same conclusion can be equally applied to the "paradox" above.  It may be grammatically correct, but it need not make any sense.

Frequently, all it takes to get the mind to make the paradigm shift, is a single piece of new data that clearly does not fit with the old paradigm.  In the case of optical illusions and grammatical nonsense, you might never see the alternative interpretation until I suggest that there is one.  In the case of the spelling error, you might read the same sentence many times without seeing the error, until I suggest that there might be a mistake there.  Suddenly, with this new piece of data, your basic axioms shift, and you can now see the alternative interpretation.

Through-out history, the development of our understanding of Reality is full of these sudden paradigm shifts.  The world was flat, until Columbus sailed across the Atlantic and added data that did not fit with the old understanding of a flat world.  (I know - its poetic not historic.) The Sun revolved around the Earth, until Copernicus came up with a simpler explanation that did away with the "cycles within cycles" complexities of the old understanding.  Heavier than air flight was impossible, until the Wright brothers actually did it.  Time was a universal constant, until Einstein came up with a more elegant understanding of Reality that allowed it to be variable.  And so forth.  In each of these paradigm shifts, an old understanding of Reality is replaced with a new understanding of Reality.  In each case, the old understanding adequately explained all of the then known, or admitted, evidence about Reality.

When presented with sensory input that does not fit the expected pattern, the mind goes through a number of clearly definable steps.  Psychologists have demonstrated the existence of these steps in numerous ways.  And you can demonstrate them to yourself easily.  Much of what is humour, for example, is a punch-line that does not fit with the pattern established by the rest of the story.  The punch-line forces a paradigm shift.  In each case, when presented with "anomalous" data, the mind will first not "see" the data.  If forced (it does not matter how) to "see" the raw data, the mind will attempt to force-fit the data into the current pattern or paradigm of understanding.  Next, if the fit is "obviously" poor, the effort is focused on "tweaking", or making minor adjustments to, the old understanding to account for the new data.  During all of these stages, the mind is focused on retaining the viability of the current paradigm, the current set of axioms.  (Consider the reams of text and logical back-flips that linguistically focussed philosophers have generated to "explain" how that paradoxical sentence above can make "sense".)

In the final stage, a new understanding is developed that more simply explains all of the known data.  A new set of basic axioms, a new paradigm, is constructed that includes the "anomalous" data and simplifies the understanding of reality.  But adopting this new understanding as the "Truth", always requires a very basic leap of faith.  The old understanding still adequately explains all known (or admitted) evidence.  It has been suitable "tweaked" to do so.  And it has a proven track record of past successes.  The new axiom system has nothing but simplicity and elegance, terms of vague significance, that would make it more reasonable than the old system.  The "Paradigm-Shift" that takes place cannot be justified on any logical grounds.  Only the principle of Ockham's Razor can be used to persuade people that the "new understanding" is a better understanding of Reality.

And so it is with Philosophical systems as well.  Only by a basic act of faith can one jump from one understanding of Reality to another.  No concrete irrefutable evidence can be presented to demonstrate that one understanding of Reality is "better" than another.  Because the very definition of "better", especially in philosophical systems, is contained within the basic axioms of each different "concept" of Reality.

Rational discussions between adherents to two different understandings of Reality have to be conducted very carefully.  It must constantly be kept in mind that the paradigms of each point of view are going to influence what each side of the discussion "sees" - the way each side of the discussion identifies and understands what they perceive, and the kinds of perceptions that are dismissed as "noise".  As an example of how significant this difference of view-point can be, let us consider one of the issues common to many religions.

The "Managing Mind" Paradigm

It is one of the common characteristics of most western religions, that they define some form of Managing Mind (God) that interferes to a greater or lesser degree, in the day to day functioning of Reality.  The existence of this Managing Mind, is one of the basic axioms of these religions.  As such, the existence or non-existence of the managing mind in question, is not open to proof or refutation.

In the Judeo-Christian religions, to cite a specific example, the existence or non-existence of God can be neither proved nor refuted.  Any attempt to provide evidence for the existence of God must begin with the assumption that there is a God.  And any attempt to provide evidence that there is no God, must begin with the absence of the assumption that there is a God.  Being an Evolutionary Pragmatist (and therefore not assuming that there is a God), I would not be able to prove the hypothesis that there is a God.  There is no evidence, within the concepts of Reality used by an Evolutionary Pragmatist, that would suggest that there is a God.  The idea of "God" is not a useful hypothesis for understanding a Realist conception of reality.

If you, on the other hand, were a follower of one of the Judeo-Christian religions, you would be starting with the assumption that there is a God.  With that as a starting point, there is all kinds of evidence that can be cited to "prove" that God exists.  But none of this evidence would be acceptable as evidence to an Evolutionary Pragmatist.  That is because the basic understanding of Reality held by an Evolutionary Pragmatist adequately explains all such evidence without the assumption of the existence of God.  My paradigm of Reality readily accepts the evidence, and fits it neatly into place in a pattern without a God.  Your paradigm of Reality readily accepts the same evidence, and fits it neatly into place in a pattern that includes a God.

The two alternative view-points cannot hold a rational discussion on the existence of God.  The existence of God, to the Judeo-Christian religions, is a basic axiom.  The existence of a god is not a basic axiom of Evolutionary Pragmatism (or any other form of realist metaphysics).  Therefore, an Evolutionary Pragmatist will see no evidence in Reality that justifies confidence in the idea of God.  And the Judeo-Christian religions will find all kinds of evidence within their Idealist concepts of Reality, to justify their confidence in their idea of God.  On either side of the discussion, an act of faith is involved.  Any discussion between the two points of view, must constantly remember the differing basic axioms upon which the two understandings of Reality are based.

Continuing the Discussion

The key consequence of the foregoing diversion, is that you, as the reader of this work, must decide whether or not it is worth your while to continue reading. If you cannot accept the basic starting axioms upon which Evolutionary Pragmatism is built, even if simply for the sake of curiosity and interest in what follows, then further efforts at understanding Evolutionary Pragmatism on your part will be a waste of your time. If you determine that you cannot accept the Basic Axioms for whatever reason, then the rest of this work will be meaningless. You will not even be able to argue with me about my conclusions, deductions, or hypotheses. We will have no common ground upon which to base further understanding or discussion. I would be sorry to loose a reader, but your thought processes would be sufficiently alien to me, and my logical development of Evolutionary Pragmatism sufficiently alien to you, that we would probably not be able to discuss anything more relevant than the weather. And probably not even that.

If, on the other hand, you can accept the Basic Axioms of Evolutionary Pragmatism, (even if only for the sake of further discussion and argument), then you may find the rest of this work interesting. I do hope so. For now, with the foregoing introductory discussions out of the way, and everybody now on the same 'wave length', I will proceed to lay out for you the development of Evolutionary Pragmatism.

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