As a brief stop on the way from ancient information technologies to the problem of paradigm shifts, I have to share this video my son pointed me to. The video is a clip of a televised debate from Iraq on whether the Koran permits belief in the round earth theory. The content is disturbing, but maybe not for the reasons you think. If you're reading this via email, click here to see the video.
This poor man is mistaken, but not because he is a Muslim. Muslim scholars --in Baghdad, no less-- began to reason out a methodology for empirical observation a thousand years ago. Islamic astronomers proposed earth's heliocentric orbit starting from the 8th century, and earth's rotation by the 11th century. Muslim scholars of that period built upon the knowledge of the ancient Greeks, who already had theories about a spherical earth; in the 9th century Arab astronomers even calculated the earth's circumference (they missed it by a few thousand miles), and developed spherical trigonometry to calculate the direction of Mecca from any point on the globe.
Non-critical thinking is not the intent of any religion. All of the monotheist faiths see the intellect and the ability to reason as divine gifts. So what has happened to our poor man with the thick glasses and the anesthetized mind? Why does he hold his beliefs so tenaciously? Does he build arguments upon arguments to protect some hidden, vulnerable thought? Is this part of the famous clash of civilizations?
No, this is a clash of epistemologies. The poor man is mistaken because his paradigm leads him to believe that most knowledge necessary for a good life has already been "revealed" and we should not be worried too much about creating new knowledge. Observe how his feeble empiricism is affected by this grid: he believes a distant ship's narrow masts are easier to see in a blur than the bulky hull, and the eye sees the world with half of the iris at a time (when in fact he is describing very well how the world looks through bifocals).
The scientist, on the other hand, demonstrates an attitude that knowledge continues to be created as we observe and reason. I think he could have made some better arguments, but at least he showed --without attacking one's faith-- that although we still don't know it all, we have the divine gifts of intellect and reason to help us along.
I love maps, (here's one of my faves) and I enjoy the paradox that maps, in order to represent certain features of the terrain, must distort or omit the representation of other features. Paradigms are like that: they only work when they block extraneous chunks from your view of the whole. Just as "the map is not the territory", so a single paradigm does not encompass the whole of our knowledge and experience. Your world is flat only if you ignore the spiky parts; my problem (actually, it's your problem) is that the spiky parts are what I notice most. Even contemporary, Western scientists have impeded the advance of science because certain things just "couldn't be true."
Some time ago I wrote about dolphins swimming through the center of Istanbul, and the total indifference of those around me to this marvel. I still wonder about that, and about us. What do we fail to see because we are unaware of our own biases and have already made up our minds?