THE PARADIGM SHIFT AS META-COGNITION
June 17, 2008
In the last few decades people have begun more frequently to speak
about the paradigm shift or the changing world-view, radical
differences in basic assumptions about life, existence, reality. I’m
not aware of any consensus yet about what this consists of, but it
occurs to me that we are in the midst of one that most people don’t yet
We are thinking of mind as an object upon which we can reflect, and as
operating within cultural fields again subject to reflection. We have
moved from thinking about things to thinking about the way we think
about things—i.e., “meta-cognition,”—, and going one or two steps
beyond that: We are thinking about how our world-view, our culture, our
habits of mind constrain us even in the way we think about the way we
think. Perhaps this might be called meta-meta-cognition, or
meta(n)-cognition. Some examples of this follow:
Evolution was first imagined as a kind of mechanistic-ecological
explanation for species variation, a biological dynamic. It slipped
into the religious-political sphere in considering that humans are also
part of this—quite controversial still in some quarters. As the term
and idea became mainstream, it also generalized beyond its earlier
The history of various fields, to the extent that they underwent some
qualitatively significant shifts, has been framed not as mere linear
development, but as evolution. We hear about the evolution of writing
systems, of medicine, of warfare, of computers, and so forth.
Several decades ago people began to write about consciousness itself as
evolving, as becoming qualitatively different from what it used to be
in the olden days. Julian Jaynes’ book in the mid-1970s suggested that
the gradual accumulation of writing, vocabulary, and concepts as
metaphors that build on many levels of earlier metaphors, all has led
to ways of thinking in significant parts of the developed world that
are qualitatively different from how people experience life in more
under-developed areas. In the arena of cultures and tribes that haven’t
integrated writing as a technology, there is research suggesting that
the thinking of people in these cultures is different in several ways,
less complex and logical in certain aspects—though capable of more
memory and certain other kinds of complexities.
More recently, the logical implications of the evolution of
consciousness has emerged: If consciousness can evolve, can
consciousness about the way consciousness operates help us to take more
responsibility in determining how it evolves? Can we begin to determine
our own mental-cultural-species destiny to any degree more than in the
past? The idea that we can, in fact, become more aware of what
awareness is about, and what is required for cultural and species
progress may be part of the present paradigm shift. Is it mere hubris
or plausibly worthy of pursuit?
A Psychology of Self-Deception
Freud claimed a revolutionary status equal to Columbus, Darwin, or
Copernicus—each of whom had challenged the species- and world-centric
view of the cosmos. All took humanity down a peg, Freud doing it by
proposing that human behavior was significantly influenced by
non-rational forces usually operating out of awareness—i.e., the
“unconscious.” While some of Freud’s associated theories are more
dubious, and his method particularly cost-inefficient, this basic
challenge to rationality has held up and been validated in numerous
ways by psychological research that owed no loyalty to psychoanalysis.
We fool ourselves and are tempted to do so in many different ways. The
best we can do is to become acquainted with the ways we fool ourselves
and, understanding these temptations and mental maneuvers, take steps
to promote a variety of more rational and critical-thinking strategies.
Actually, this idea of deception had been recognized for millennia,
beginning with the teaching of rhetoric in ancient Greece. Certainly we
fool each other in ways that are far more subtle than merely lying—and
these ways are prevalent in advertising and many kinds of political
propaganda and campaigns. Again, programs of looking at language more
carefully, studying semantics, the manipulations of image (i.e.,
semiotics), and many other aspects of media studies have now become
part of academia.
Alas, other than in these classes, in the general educational system
and in most college courses, in spite of many giving lip service to the
ideal of fostering critical thinking, hardly anyone actually teaches
specifically about this subject.
What must be recognized more sharply, now that we have the beginning of
an alternative, is that there is a great deal of naive
self-righteousness in not only the general discourse, but also fairly
apparently in the minds of most people. The idea that their cherished
convictions, beliefs, and opinions might be flat wrong, partially
wrong, incomplete, misleading, overgeneralized, or laced with bias is,
well, unthinkable to them. This lack of a modest active function of
intellectual humility, of weaving in the habit of calling one’s
thoughts into question, is sheer arrogance, a moral flaw.
Interestingly, this flaw has been a dominant quality up until recently.
People who were given the rank of authority, treated as authorities,
came to believe they knew what they were talking about. They dared to
make pronouncements about things. This was and continues to be
mainstream. From that habit of mind, intellectual humility seems to be
mental indecisiveness, weakness, dithering, a lack of conviction. The
truth is that there is a middle ground: People can have moderate
convictions and provisional constructs and at the same time know that
these idea systems may be mistaken.
Going further, part of the contemporary paradigm shift is that wise
people know that many of their ideas are bound to be superseded in the
unfolding of new technologies, new cultural developments, the opening
of new horizons. It is becoming morally appropriate (morality dealing
with what “should” be done) to practice open-mindedness. (This doesn’t
mean becoming overly- credulous or letting your brains spill out.) It
is a pro-active form of what modern businesses call “quality
assurance,” applied also not just in the management of complex business
or organizational systems, but in personal and political life.
Looking at Bias
Part of the postmodernist critique is that bias is operating at all
levels of thinking. The illusion of objectivity is obsolete. While I
think that there are many aspects of postmodernism that may be mistaken
or otherwise deserving of criticism, this basic openness to questioning
the way we think is part of this contemporary paradigm shift. We need
to raise young people to not only think more rationally, but to go
further and question assumptions. We need to question even the ways we
question assumptions, and by that I mean that ordinary scientific
evidence may not be the appropriate way to evaluate certain ethical,
moral, spiritual, psychological, aesthetic, and other dimensions of
The dominance of pure rationality linked with sense- or
instrument-based evidence has many values and deserves respect.
However, the term “scient-ism” is a criticism, implying that people are
so enamored of the cultural status and allure of science that it is
imagined to be the only way to address many of life’s more imponderable
issues. There are many arguments against the subtly totalitarian
presumption of those with a scientistic orientation. It should be
noted, also, that many scientists do not have this view, knowing well
the limitations not only of knowledge, but also of the approach to or
way of knowing that science offers.
The Wisdom of Moderation
This phrase, also the title of a book of essays by a major philosopher,
Charles Hartshorne, refers to part of this paradigm shift. Our culture
has drifted into a phase of thinking in which defining differences and
contrasting them has been a major theme. The idea that many phenomena
are not either this or that, the pulling away from really thinking in
terms of “you’re either for us or against us,” requires the
introduction of relativistic thinking. That many phenomena are best
understood as a mixture of elements, both-and rather than either-or,
and that this mixture may not be able to be defined because of not just
its complexity, but its multi-dimensional status—well, that requires an
expansion of mind to something more flexible than it used to be.
As I mentioned before, from the world-view of the inflexibility,
flexibility seems like weakness. It’s barely comprehensible as a
rational much less actually wiser approach. This variance in
fundamental assumptions has been addressed by a variety of cultural
philosophers such as Ken Wilber or Don Beck who recognize a number of
different worldviews or levels of consciousness as operating in
This is that branch of philosophy that considers the nature of reality.
For a while in professional philosophy (an oxymoron?), metaphysics fell
out of fashion, but for reasons to be described, it has once again
emerged as having great relevance.
The scientistic world-view became dominant in the realms of not only
science but also many aspects of philosophy, not that there haven’t
been a continuous stream of contrary philosophers. Still, the
mainstream of Western thought became somewhat materialist and
reductionistic. It was a workable philosophical support for the
expansion of industrialism, both capitalism and communism,
science and technology, and because of the power of these dimensions of
life, the general culture. I grew up thinking these were fine
Later I learned other viewpoints. Phenomenology and related views
remind us that mind is an inextricable part of the equation. Some have
sought to make mind an epi-phenomenon, a derivative of complex
neurology, and this means “just” or “only” an epiphenomenon, not worthy
of serious consideration. Brain sweat. A source of self-deceptive
illusion and elaborate structures of conceptualizing, but ultimately,
nonsense. Others have critiqued this narrowing of experience and assert
that mind is (for some) even more real than matter, or at least equally
real. This is a big metaphysical problem!
A renewed trend towards mysticism has flourished since the 1960s, fed
in part by the psychedelic experience, and then the inflow and
fashionability of Swamis, Rishis, Gurus, Shamans, and other spiritual
sages traveling from Asia, South America, and elsewhere. Looking back,
this world-view is far from “new,”—it has been around as long as the
more presently prevalent, more materialistic world view.
As scientists begin to detect and accumulate evidence for types of mind
over matter, from biofeedback and stress management to psychosomatic
healing, and from types of psychic experience etc., that whole
marginalized (thrown into a wastebasket of that which merits no serious
consideration) category of phenomena is now being respectably
reconsidered. I consider this reconsideration to be part of the
paradigm shift of meta-meta-cognition.
Europe and America had gunpowder and thus a divine right to impose its
enlightened ways upon those who are more benighted, mainly people with
darker skin. There was an unholy alliance of world-view, prevalent
religion, and sheer political-military power that led to not only
colonialism, but worse, a colonialist mentality that still is
surprisingly pervasive today. Racism is part of this, and it overlaps
with patriarchal anti-feminism.
Much of that has lost dominant status, though, as increasing numbers of
countries attained independence in the second third of the 20th century
and colonialism as a policy became viewed less as a virtue and more as
a sin. Along with that there has been a rising up of those who were
oppressed. Feminism began to gain strength in the later previous
century, has become mainstream, but in many parts of the world,
continues to be weak. Civil rights for minorities continues to be a
struggle, but at least the idea has begun to gain traction—at least for
religious sub-groups, peoples of other races and national or ethnic
origins, and more recently for people of different sexual orientations.
As part of that, the entitlement of the dominant religious group to
unquestioned continuation of its political dominance has begun to be
challenged. The idea of not just tolerance, but interfaith spirituality
has emerged—and this itself partakes of the paradigm shift. How could
truth be other than what it is? The idea that there might be different
kinds of truth operating at different levels requires a more complex
As the political domination of certain kinds of Christianity in some
countries, Islam in others, Judaism (in one nation), and so forth has
declined, the claims of other religions and spiritual paths have
emerged. We even began to hear about the idea that one can be spiritual
without being affiliated with any mainstream or alternative specific
religion. There have been international conferences about
inter-spirituality—a step beyond ecumenicism, one that invites people
to open their minds to not just tolerating but even learning from the
wisdom of other faith traditions.
One of the major discoveries not yet realized by people in the West is
that many parts of Buddhism and Yoga should be recognized not just as
an ethnicity-based religion, but rather as a psychology and
metaphysical philosophy, requiring little in the way of specific dogma.
This shifts the ground about the psycho-social functions of religion.
We begin to ask not which religions are “right” but rather how is
religion itself evolving in the course of history and human evolution.
(Philosophers such as Alfred North Whitehead wrote about this idea in
the 1920s in his book, Religion in the Making.)
The meta-meta-cognition in the realm of religion and spirituality bring
up conundrums about what the various dynamics are regarding such
categories as faith, belief, illusion, symbol, insight, mystical
experience and its validity, spiritual authority, and so forth. This
questioning of underlying principles—not just agreement or
disagreement, not just debate, but reaching for the appreciation of the
human mode of cognition beyond the content, is part of the paradigm
Art has come to play a different function in culture—several, in fact.
Other than its crass commercialization, which reflects vagaries of
fashion more than actual intrinsic quality, another function has been
to challenge thinking. Part of the modernist enterprise has been to be
provocative to bourgeois or conventional thought, and we see that in
movements of modern art, modern theatre, and the like.
The postmodernist thread, though, confronts many modernist ideas and
the general cultural world-view at a more fundamental level. (Some of
these roots go back centuries.) In theatre, one of the conventions was
that of the “fourth wall,” the invisible barrier between actors and
audience. The story operates as if there were no audience. Occasionally
an actor might break that “proscenium arch” or fourth wall and turn to
the audience to make a comment; or even step out to the front of the
stage to ask its indulgence, as characters in Shakespeare’s plays
Now we’re seeing that breaking more frequently. In comic strips,
characters might talk about the cartoonist, or in other ways highlight
the realization that they are in fact just drawn characters. There was
a Muppet scene a few decades back in which Fozzie Bear called to the
attention of Kermit-the-Frog the realization that there was something
going on “beneath” them. “Oh, yeah, Fozzie,” Kermit replied, “Those are
the puppeteers. They put their hands in us and make us come alive.”
Fozzie grabbed his head and replied, “I can’t understand that
The implication, of course, is that we, too, may be the puppets of
cosmic forces, guardian angels, Divine Providence, karma, past lives,
the psychological unconscious, the mind-body with its own
memories—whatever—the point being the shattering of the illusion that
we are the “Captains of our Souls.” We may be the expression of our
soul which is the expression of an oversoul which is the expression of
Prime Spirit. Our individual selves might be more like cells in a
Cosmic Super-Organism. Such outlandish ideas have been seriously
proposed by deep thinkers as well as mystics and others.
Other examples of the postmodernist turn in art: Disney’s 1980s movie,
Who Framed Roger Rabbit carried forward the beginning process of mixing
cartoon characters and real people begun in the 1940s with Disney’s
“Fantasia.” Now Disneyland has a “Toon Town,” treating cartoon
characters as if they were a sub-tribe worthy of equal respect to
humanity. What’s next, animal rights? Plant rights? (Well, now that you
mention it, yes....)
When Einstein suggested that time might be a fourth dimension, he
stretched the word. (Remember, words like “evolution” can drift from
their earlier meaning.) A dimension used to be a quality of
space—height, width, breadth, three dimensions; it morphed into a
category that interpenetrates other categories. Having done this, he
stimulated thinking about the dimensions we live in. Could there
conceivably be other dimensions of being, higher dimensions that
include our world just as our three-dimensional world can imagine
within it a two-dimensional world of beings who live in “Flat-land” on
the equivalent of a piece of paper? (There were some books about
Flatland and Sphereland written in the late 19th and early 20th
Well, modern cosmologists, astro-physicists and sub-atomic physicists
are speculating about this hard-to-imagine idea, and doing so with a
good deal of energy. One might even say that they have advanced from
speculation to hypothesis, though the degrees of evidence accumulated
might fall short of anyone having an adequate claim to a “theory”—much
less a postulate, axiom, or law.
These categories, though—I learned them in beginning geometry and also
in basic science—deal with another branch of philosophy—epistemology.
How do we know what we know? What kinds of evidence is relevant or
sufficient? What if some of the criteria for what constitutes evidence
is itself being challenged, at least for certain domains of human
concern. For ordinary engineering, for example, Newton’s concept of the
physics of space-time are adequate. For engineering that begins to deal
with particles operating near the speed of light (or even imagined to
transcend that limit, should that be conceivable), Einstein’s rather
than Newton’s notions are needed, or perhaps other thinkers from the
realms of “Quantum Mechanics.” So, there is ferment in science today,
and some of it tempts us to rethink very basic assumptions about the
workings of body, things, mind, everything. Is the paradigm shifting
What about mystical experiences? What status should they have? How
shall we evaluate the claims of some of them that there is another
(perhaps "more true" or "more real") level---or just different level---
of existence beyond our own, and that who we are and the world we live
in is an extension or more specific manefestation of a "deeper" reality?
Shall we dismiss the claims of those “channel” such as the late Jane
Roberts’ informing entity, “Seth,” and the many thoughts about
“oversouls” and other ways the world works?
Shall we dismiss with equal casualness the speculations of respectable
physicists and cosmologists who propose the existence of other
universes, other dimensions, since these, too, while seeming to solve
some mathematical conundrums, also fall short of actual proof?
(For example, the eminent late physicist David Bohm suggested that
there may be an “implicate reality” lying beyond or intrinsic to our
own more familiar “explicate reality.”) And what shall be made of the
idea that this concept of levels of reality fits well with various
mystic systems ranging from the Jewish tradition of Kabbalah (about
which few Jews know much, interestingly), the Hindu Yogic tradition of
Kundalini Energy in the body and the world, and so forth?
Part of the problem lies with our having hardly graduated from thinking
that we relate to the world through five senses. It is obvious, though,
that one of those senses, touch, really consists of a number of other
senses—temperature, pressure, position in space, joint position, pain,
etc. Another sense, olfactory, may include a not-accessible to
consciousness receptive power of pheromones. We know that butterflies
and moths respond to such subtle and minute chemical signals dissolved
in air, but people? Well, there’s growing evidence of just that.
Can the mind feel? Science, not knowing how to pin down or reliably
measure emotions and other mental phenomena except in rather gross
ways, hasn’t really been able to address this meaningfully. Yet it is
fairly apparent (to me, at least) that there are “sensations” or deep
feelings of more or less-ness of various phenomena: belonging, the
self-as-coherent, self-as-valued, the feeling of reality of the present
moment, the reality of a memory, the accuracy of one’s memory or
perception, intuition, psychic phenomena, meaningfulness, beauty,
attractiveness, presence of another, and so forth. They can’t be pinned
down because they are delicate and subject to modification both by
fluctuations in other feelings and moods and the very process of paying
attention to them and trying to understand them.
There’s that related theme that when you really begin to recognize that
a dream situation is part of a dream you tend to awaken from that
dream. Part of the game in this mystery—and it really remains a
mystery, for all that we have so far been able to learn—is that the
dream deeply hypnotizes us into believing in the plausibility of the
situations that are created, and the weirdness is in part not just that
those situations are weird, but that it doesn’t register in our minds
how weird they are until we awaken!
What are we to make of the growing literature about people who are not
particularly religious, nor are they desperate and have “hit bottom,”
but rather have somewhat spontaneously come to realize what mystics
strive for—that they are part of a seamless Wholeness? This fits with
what some mature mystics report. These folks also say that the
experience feels “more real” to them than the ordinary state of
And what to make of William James writing a century ago about his
conviction that there are other valid states of consciousness. That’s
hard to comprehend, but I suspect this is indeed part of the paradigm
shift we live in.
Summary: What Is To Be?
For one thing, I wouldn’t be surprised if our grandchildren come to
take for granted certain ideas, and come to experience certain
phenomena, that we feel to be extraordinary and perhaps outrageous.
What these are I cannot say for sure. Some might be derivative of what
we’ve been describing, and some might be new and inconceivable even for
one who thinks of himself as relatively open-mindedness.
Indeed, I vaguely perceive there to be a thousand weird and outrageous
ideas going around even now. I suspect that maybe fifty of them—these
are general numbers to give a sense of proportionality, not exact or
provable quantities—may be valid and if so, some may lead to radical
shifts in the conception of disease and healing. The problem is to
discern how they are valid and the other 950 are not. I thought of this
idea regarding the realms of alternative medicine, but in a sense it
might apply to the proliferation of new ideas in many related
fields—new age philosophy, techniques, theories, products, and so forth.
The process of experimentation, social experimentation, sales,
gradually shifting the tastes of the “market,” infiltrating what passes
for common sense—what the comedienne Lily Tomlin called a “collective
hunch”—these are all part of the shifting world-view that accompanies
the shift in paradigm. It’s a social process, an accumulation of
“memes,” that hypothesized abstract category of ideas that catch on.
This essay partakes of the postmodernist and new-paradigm shift in
recognizing that new truths emerge as a product of a complex dialectic,
with lots of folks chiming in with their ideas. This thesis needs to be
built upon, extended, and perhaps also revised, corrected, challenged.
For starters, I welcome your comments. These can be noted below along
with my comments on your comments. Web-pages can do this kind of thing.
Wanna play? Email firstname.lastname@example.org