The world is full of explanatory paradigms. A paradigm is a way of thinking. In science and philosophy, it is a set of concepts or thought patterns that bring legitimacy to an explanation. It is a world view.
Descartes is noted for saying Cogito ergo sum or “I think, therefore I am”. There are also expanded forms of Descartes’ proposition such as “Since I doubt, I think; since I think I exist.” But plants and dogs also think. We need to take this further.
I have come up with a twist to this proposition that more fully describes humans versus other forms of life: Expono sum – “I explain so I am”. The key to being a human goes beyond thinking to explaining. Pick any of the synonyms or related words for “explain” and you will get a pretty good description of human behavior: clarify, demonstrate, interpret, simplify, analyze, define, solve, comment, convince and so on.
Expono Sum – Explanatory Paradigms at Work
A large part of explaining is meant to simplify the complexity of the universe in a manner that is shared with others. Most of our explanatory paradigms arose long before our modern understanding of complexity. And they are still dominant. Here are a few examples.
- Religion, if viewed as an extension of spirits, myths and rituals, is our longest held explanatory paradigm – many thousands of years. Narrow this down if you wish to the more formal church and scholasticism, and you are still dating back a thousand years.
- Philosophy as a paradigm is a precursor of science, shifting explanations at least in part away from belief and towards reason. Either formal philosophy or “folk wisdom”, together with religion and ideologies, have been the dominant forms of explanatory paradigms for most of human existence.
- Science is a relative newcomer as an explanatory paradigm. It adds the element that explanations must be testable in a reproducible fashion. There are many explanatory paradigms within science, however most dominant is that based on determinism and reductionism.
There is a huge difference as to how explanatory paradigms evolve between religion, philosophy and science. In science, paradigms tend to get replaced when new evidence arrives. Few contemporary doctors would treat patients using solely the medical knowledge of previous eras. In philosophy, paradigms tend to compete for social acceptance. There is not much concept of evidence in philosophy, just argument and preference. In religion, paradigms don’t change, although they might be reinterpreted. It has often been said that if an ancient human walked into a science class today, she would be totally lost. If she walked into a philosophy class, she would be amazed that we were still struggling with the same arguments. And if she walked into a modern church service, she might not see much difference at all.
Both generally and specifically: religion, philosophy and most of science were constructed as explanatory paradigms prior to our modern (and admittedly limited) understanding of complexity. I define complexity as uncertainty about order and explanation. Religion and classical science were created to eliminate uncertainty. Philosophy was created to argue about uncertainty. None of these is good enough any longer.
My hope is that we will one day create new explanatory paradigms that help better understand and manage the effects of uncertainty about order and explanation. Life is getting too complex not to have these.