The Power of Metaphor and the Limits of Paradigm Shifts

Given that we seem to be living int he age of the paradigm shift, I thought I would mention some thoughts about paradigm shifts, and relate these to creativity, innovation and design thinking. The reason is that sometimes we do not quite see the nature of metaphor in the act of creativity, as well as not noticing the limits within what we feel are authentic paradigm shifts.

We can explore this by going back to one of the most iconic moments in the history of science, from one of the greatest scientists, Sir Isaac Newton.

Credit: LadyofHats, Wikipedia

Credit: LadyofHats, Wikipedia

From an early age Newton was fascinated by the sun, and built devices for telling the time from shadows. By charting the daily and yearly passages of shadows, Newton experienced in a tangible way the regularity and patterning of the great celestial mechanism, an intimate awareness of the cosmic order.

Newton studied at Cambridge, but the dons were still entrenched in an Aristotelian curriculum and not in touch with the revolution in natural science happening in continental Europe. Aristotle’s notion was that the Earth and Moon were of two different natures. A great deal of evidence began to accumulate after the Middle Ages which suggested there was no fundamental difference. However, scientists never asked why the moon doesn’t fall because it seemed evident, as a result of its celestial nature, that it naturally remains in the sky where it belongs.

Credit: Arthur Marris, Wikipedia

Credit: Arthur Marris, Wikipedia

When Newton went back to his childhood home, and experienced the apple falling from the apple tree, he had to be free of the habitual compartmentalisation of earth and celestial matter. His insight into universal gravity can be seen as a metaphor “the moon is an apple”. This can be extended to “the moon is an earth”.

As Bohm and Peat put it:

Metaphors take the form A = B such as in Shakespeare “All the world’s a stage”. This notion of a metaphor can serve to illuminate the nature of scientific creativity by equating, in a metaphoric sense, a scientific discovery with a poetic metaphor. In science it is essential to unfold the metaphor in even greater and more ‘literal’ detail, while in poetry the metaphor can remain relatively implicit.

Source: David Bohm and F. David Peat (1987) Science, Order and Creativity

Newton did not believe that gravity was an innate property of matter. It was either the spirit of nature or directly the agency of God.  Newton argued that space must be absolute because it was synonymous with the presence of an absolute God. Thus the conception of space and time are theologically inspired:

Newton wanted his science not only to be compatible with religion, but to reinforce it. While Descartes had appeared to write God entirely out of the universe, Newton’s natural philosophy was grounded in the belief that God was both the providential designer of the universe and its active and beneficent overseer.

Source: Margaret Wertheim (1997) Pythagoras’ Trousers: God, Physics and the Gender Wars

In this world view, God is seen as a cosmic watchmaker, stepping in every now and then to make small adjustments to stabilise the system again, using comets for this purpose.

When Newton introduced the world to his discoveries, very few people had the ability to follow his thinking and mathematics. While certainly revolutionary, and quite certainly a new paradigm in equating the matter of the moon with the matter of an earthly apple, we still see elements of the old order remaining, i.e. that time and space are absolute.

Bohm and PeatBohm and Peat offer a very interest critique of Thomas Kuhn’s concept of paradigm shifts in science, suggesting that new paradigm shifts do in fact contain much of the prior order’s concepts, and also that science evolves not just in revolutionary shifts, but also that science does also make progressive steps in between the paradigm shifts as well.

What I have learnt from studying the history of science is the way in which metaphors play a central role in the act of creative insight. Bohm and Peat offer an extremely interesting way of describing this, but talking about the way in which at that moment when the mind equates two very different things “the mind enters a very perceptive state of great energy and passion, in which some of the excessively rigid aspects of the tacit infrastructure are bypassed or dissolved.”

The implications of this are that in order to develop creative environments, we have to be able to enter a state of free play, allowing ourselves to explore metaphors creatively. This is very different to brainstorming, and it is an art that has to be nurtured and developed.

In addition, new theories, ideas and creative acts of perception sometimes need time to evolve and be nurtured before they are ready to see the light of day. How can we therefore design our organisations to facilitate this free play? For me I think design thinkers can really begin to explore the notion of metaphor more deeply, and begin to think about what activities and methods can help inspire these deeper insights in those involved not only in scientific breakthroughs, but in innovative developments as well.




One response to “The Power of Metaphor and the Limits of Paradigm Shifts

  1. Pingback: Changing the Metaphor of Money | Transition Consciousness·

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