Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Visualizing a New Paradigm

I continue to be fascinated with the Scientific Revolution in general and with the transition from the medieval cosmological world-view to the Newtonian cosmological world-view, in particular. So much had to change in men's minds in order for this transformation to be achieved. There were medieval human beings who looked up into the sky and saw small fires in crystalline spheres. Three hundred years later, Newton could look at the very same sky and see earth-like planets and sun-like stars moving in accordance with the same mechanical laws of physics that he observed on earth.

No one scientist, no one piece of evidence, no one argument was adequate to complete this transformation. Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, and Newton were all crucial to this transformation of vision, as were dozens of lesser-known figures. Each saw just a bit farther. Many entered blind alleys. Finally, the old medieval way of seeing the heavens was no longer possible.

The transition from terracentric to heliocentric astronomy played a significant role in this transformation. It is important to remember that one of the clearest, most certain, most pervasively observed, and most indubitable of all physical phenomena is that the earth is stationary and the sun moves. This is perfectly obvious to all who open their eyes. One of the achievements of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton was to take one of the most obvious and certain of observations and show, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that it was false. We, who have been trained since elementary school in the heliocentric hypothesis, can no longer even imagine how outrageous and absurd it is. Our most basic intuitions should shout out to us: The earth does not move, the sun does.

There are many observers of social and economic life for whom the harms of capitalism are so self-evident, it seems certain that no one in good faith could conceded to such a harmful system. Although such people are now fewer and less vocal than they were 20 years ago, many still exist. The popularity of Michael Moore testifies, in part, to the ongoing vitality of this view of the world. Such people seem to believe that if they "expose" the system, if they shout loud enough and long enough, eventually people will wake up, lose their false consciousness, and revolt.

Having once viewed the world in this manner, and having now completed a shift in perspective, I view such people now, sympathetically, as I would a terracentrist around 1680 or so. The terracentrist finds the heliocentrist doctrine to be a gross violation of his most fundamental and most certain beliefs. The empirical proof that the sun moves and the earth does not is utterly obvious. The frustration and outrage at someone who calls black white, and white black, is extreme.

To someone who has visualized the new paradigm, the frustration experienced by someone on the other side is understandable. Yet the "proof" offered is utterly ineffectual. Someone could point to a stationary horizon and a setting sun as much as he pleased, shout about it as much as he pleased, and you or I, or Galileo or Newton, would not find our heliocentric beliefs altered one iota. The evidence presented is simply not addressing the key issues.

Likewise, while I certainly want to help the poor and the unemployed, and to prevent government corruption, when someone becomes animated about these problems and then concludes that capitalism is the problem, I view them much as one would a terracentrist. With compassion, I wonder how I can explain to them that they are not seeing the world as it really is.

My efforts at explaining this paradigm shift in a compassionate way are not helped by the history of political enmity between the Right and the Left. The newer intellectual understanding has been undermined by violent political antagonisms. In order to see the world anew, people need to forget the language of capitalism, communism, and socialism. They need to learn the ideas, if not the language, of "catallaxy" and "spontaneous order."

We need to de-politicize these concepts so that more people can understand them. I seek to show how an authentic idealism is not only possible, but will be far more effective, with an ever-deepening understanding of Hayekian spontaneous order than without.