When he was eight or nine, my middle son asked me one of those questions that make a mother’s head hurt. "I say the sky is blue, and you say the sky is blue. But how do we know we are seeing the same color? What if what I call blue is really what you call orange, and we just both call it blue because that is the color we say the sky is?"
When he was eight or nine, my middle son asked me one of those questions that make a mother’s head hurt. “I say the sky is blue, and you say the sky is blue. But how do we know we are seeing the same color? What if what I call blue is really what you call orange, and we just both call it blue because that is the color we say the sky is?”
How do you answer a question like that? Especially when you are herding several small children through the grocery checkout?
I’ve been thinking about that—unanswerable—question in the context of the impassioned, vitriolic opinions being vented over withdrawal of artificial nutrition from Terri Schaivo. It would not be accurate to characterize these opposing public utterances as a “debate.” In order to debate, we need a common language and frame of reference. We need to share a paradigm.
A “paradigm” is a pattern of received beliefs that we use to make sense of the world. The term was popularized by Thomas Kuhn, a physicist who—in the course of research for his dissertation—picked up Aristotle’s Physics and found that it made no sense to him. Reasonably enough, Kuhn assumed that neither he nor Aristotle was stupid, so he concluded that they were operating from such different realities that communication was not possible. He subsequently wrote a book about the way science adapts to new discoveries, or “shifts” its paradigms.
It has been suggested that “anomalies”—facts falling outside one’s paradigm—are simply unseen; that is, if a fact is encountered for which there is no place in one’s conceptual framework, that fact will not be willfully “disregarded,” it honestly won’t be seen.
People who applauded Congressional efforts to decide Terri Shaivo’s fate truly do not see betrayal of the rule of law, abuse of power, or even rampant hypocrisy. And try as I might, I am unable to comprehend a perspective that finds Congress’ actions noble or life-affirming.
When Americans argue about the relationship of church and state, we may have dramatically different opinions about what that relationship should be. But at least we all understand a “state” to be an institution that exercises public authority and has a monopoly on legitimate use of coercive force. That is no small thing, because the state so defined is a recent development. Such a discussion would have made no sense to someone living in medieval times.
The issue is, how much of a common worldview do citizens have to share to make government possible? It is one thing to disagree with each other; increasingly, however, Americans occupy such different realities that disagreement would be an improvement.
If men are from Mars and women from Venus, are red states from Mercury and blue states from Pluto? Is what I call “blue” what you call “blue”?
Are our worldviews so different that all we can do is engage in culture wars until one side overpowers the other?