At the beginning of the 20th century a radical shift in thinking began. There started to emerge a ‘paradigm shift’ in science from the old ‘mechanistic’ way of thinking about the world to an ecological worldview.
The mechanistic worldview held that the world and living systems are like a machine. Science, through analysis, broke things up into parts, believing that by understanding the parts of a system we can begin to understand the whole. This view held that the world is made up of separate objects and that human beings are in some way separate from the world.
Thomas Kuhn describe a ‘scientific paradigm’ as a set of values and concepts held by the scientific community which informs how that community practices. This mechanistic worldview saw the world made up of elementary building blocks. The world was understood to be made of parts that together create the whole that is the world. This way of thinking saw the human body as a machine, life and society as being competitive and oriented towards unlimited economic and technological growth.
But this paradigm slowly began to ‘shift’ to a more ecological worldview. This way of thinking can also be called holistic, organismic, or systemic. This is because instead of focusing on the parts in a system it focuses on the system as whole. Systems thinking studies objects in their context, observing the relationship between parts and how parts relate to the whole.
This worldview sees a system, whether it is a human body, a society, or the earth, as being based on the interconnection and interdependence of all parts. Nature is not just valuable in terms of how we can use it, but every living thing is inherently valuable in itself. When we experience ourselves as being part of a larger web of life, we feel a sense of belonging and connection to the cosmos as a whole – all living beings, the earth, as well as past and future generations. Thinking ecologically sees humans, and human systems, not as separate from nature but intricately part of nature. When we feel part of this larger web of life, when we see that self and nature are the same, we feel happier and more whole.
Most of us still think according to the old mechanistic (also called atomistic or reductionistic) model because it is part of the cultural worldview into which we were born. In order to shift into a more ecological or holistic view, we need to expand our perceptions and thinking, and transform our values.
The old paradigm sees values and science as being separate. With the scientific revolution in the 17th century there was an assumption that facts and values could be kept separate. But science is based on values – what we decide to investigate, the assumptions we bring to experimenting and inquiring. Science comes out of human perceptions – the values and beliefs that underlie how we think and act.
The values that emerge out of the new paradigm can pave the way for a new ethics. These ethics would be earth-centred rather than human-centred. Fritjof Capra argues that there needs to be a shift from self-assertion to integration. Both of these capacities are important in our functioning but when one or the other comes out of balance it leads to unhealthy ways of being.
Self-assertion in the form of power has been over-used at the expense of the integrating tendency. The new values, within a paradigm that views networks and relationship as the basis of reality, would favour the use of influence, rather than hierarchical or coercive power, as the most appropriate way to operate in the world.
The old paradigm has its roots over three hundred years ago in the cartesian split between mind and matter. The new paradigm that began in physics a century ago and spread to the other sciences, might now pave the way for a shift in the social paradigm. The social paradigm is comprised of the values, concepts, beliefs, perceptions and practices that form the basis of that society’s view of reality and how the community lives and organises itself.
All action precedes from perceptions; therefore, in order to change our practices we first need to change our perceptions that are grounded in our understanding of how the world works.