We look at ourselves as humans and are perhaps too self-congratulatory. At lightning speed on an evolutionary time scale, we’ve progressed from Neanderthals to cooperating Neanderthals to city and civilization builders to developers of Windows 10. We’ve faltered along the way, losing sometimes centuries of potential progress to false paradigms and mass delusion. Some who recognize this would say that this faltering is due to the mandated religiosity of the Dark Ages, while others would point immediately to the squelching of free thought under totalitarian regimes. But today, we’re far from having evolved beyond false paradigms, and mass delusion seems as likely an affliction for the modern urban sophisticate as for the insular hut-dweller of the 16th century. We celebrate our enlightened rejection of primitive fallacies even as we rush headlong into the shiny new ones.
A few simple definitions will serve our purposes for the discussion ahead. Paradigms, in the modern sense, are the great overarching conceptual frameworks that encompass our understanding of something, such as all of science or all of philosophy. False paradigms are those that are antiquated, having been replaced by more reasonable sets of presumptions based on new evidence. Mass delusion describes the state of large groups or of society itself when infected by a false paradigm.
I don’t think I really need to make the case that either false paradigms or mass delusion are common; the very fact of civilization’s stuttering progress shows that there were false paradigms to be conquered. Yet, I’ll offer here a few examples across time and societies to demonstrate the prevalence of these very human foibles.
Most civilizations have progressed from autocracies to some form of democracy. This happened in the Western world not long after leaving behind the centuries-old notion of the divine right of Kings.
For centuries we placed Earth at the center of the universe, with the heavenly bodies revolving around it. It’s probably now safe to say that the majority of us have been persuaded otherwise and have even accepted the spherical Earth model in place of a plane.
A myriad of commonly known mass delusions involve race, most notoriously the justification for slavery itself.
Most nations moved beyond feudalism long ago, accepting that this is an economic and social system that works in favor of only governors and land owners. Still, it took centuries of pauperism and wasted lives and potential.
Around the time of our country’s founding, learning by rote seemed the only way even for advanced learning. Even institutions such as an emergent Harvard afflicted their students with overwhelming syllabi of reading and memorization.
The conquest of the American wilderness to the last buffalo, tree, and unfenced acre quickly began to reverse after 1890.
In the previous century, Nazi ideology swept through one of Europe’s most advanced and ingenious peoples, the consequences of which are well known.
Lest we relegate the zeitgeist of false but appealing notions to far-off people and places, remember that there was a largely American dot-com bubble that burst in 2000. Who needed a robust revenue model for such incredibly popular and helpful sites?
Having learned little, this was followed by the bursting housing bubble of 2007. With the exception of a few outliers like Robert Schiller, everyone believed that the American housing marketplace was too good an investment not to last. Why would we care whether borrowers had substandard credit (by 1980’s standards)? The U.S. government had everyone’s back.
The few surviving North Korean defectors speak of the millions within that nation praising the Kim family as deities, the same family that controls all of the media. A similar though utterly secular situation occurs today in China.
You could probably create your own list, at least as long. False paradigms and mass delusion span the breadth of humanity, of time, and of space.
The point is that very smart, sophisticated people—the intelligentsia and literati of a nation—seem at least as likely to embrace a fallacious perspective on a large scale, and then to do a better job of defending their viewpoint than simpletons ever could. Read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind for insight into this, wherein the author seeks to demonstrate that we all act instinctively and that the role of the more advanced parts of our human mind is to rationalize the position we’d already decided, in a split second, to embrace. Remember, too, how often false paradigms arrived as “the voice of science.” They certainly did so in the cases of Nazism and the Soviet Union, places wherein the intelligentsia led the way in the plunge into darkness. Remember that Plato himself embraced the Earth-centric model of the universe and was followed in this for centuries (see Timeaus).
One unerring mark of the love of truth is not entertaining any proposition with greater assurance than the proofs it is built upon will warrant. – John Locke, “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding”
If we give all of this some thought, two of the first questions likely to arise are: How can I tell if I’m caught up in a false paradigm? And if so, how can I escape? These are big questions, no doubt, and I’m hesitant to direct anyone as to how to proceed. What follows is a process I might apply myself; for anyone else, take it as a conversation starter.
Are all perspectives being countenanced or is there a rush to dismiss anything but the accepted narrative?
Similarly, is everyone around you agreeing when, clearly, another potentially legitimate perspective exists?
Are the people most vociferously pushing the message in question empowered or enriched by its acceptance?
Will acceptance of this paradigm require you to forgo other fundamental human values, such as the value of human life, liberty, honesty, or free speech?
As to extracting yourself, well, I think you’re on your own there. As a starting point, you might try broadening your reading, your media, and your associations.
It’s terrible to think of generations past, ranging into our pre-history, languishing in false paradigms when free thinkers could have had something better. I’m so glad we’ve progressed beyond all that.