It is my belief that the social sciences are currently undergoing a paradigm shift. It is becoming increasingly apparent to the public and scientific community that postmodernism is not effective at creating positive social changes, let alone accurately describing reality. It may only be a matter of time before postmodernism is abandoned altogether.
While this painful self-reflection is a necessary first step in reforming the social sciences, it also raises a difficult question: what should postmodernism be replaced with? This article does not provide a definitive answer to this question, instead it provides an overview for what a potential replacement may look like and how its use could be implemented.
Postmodernism forms such an integral part of the social sciences that abandoning it may mean eliminating much of the existing social science infrastructure. Journals, careers and even entire fields of study may need to be abolished if they cannot adapt to the new paradigm. Given the high opportunity cost of instituting this paradigm shift, proponents of the new paradigm will need to demonstrate both its scientific validity and public utility in order to justify its implementation.
I am proposing that a potential candidate for this new paradigm is a version of the social sciences which builds off the physical sciences. This will help address the issue of falsifiability (which has long plagued the social sciences) by introducing a theoretical element that is based off the more easily falsifiable physical sciences. It will also increase their public utility by giving them the flexibility to examine emerging social issues for which the current paradigm is ill-equipped to address.
Defining a Paradigm Shift
At its most basic level, a scientific paradigm is a way of simplifying an overly complex system so that meaningful information can be extracted from it. A scientific paradigm is defined just as much by the information it excludes as it is by the information it analyzes.
For example, postmodernism is a paradigm that analyzes human interactions almost exclusively in terms of privilege and oppression. Human interactions are too complex to describe purely in these terms, however postmodernism gained favor during the 1960’s since people saw it as a useful way of analyzing the key social issues of the time (i.e. civil rights). Whether or not it was successful in this purpose is another topic of discussion, but the important point is that it was adopted by the scientific community due to its perceived value.
This brings us to our current situation wherein society’s needs are changing and civil rights is no longer a key priority. New social issues are arising that cannot be properly analyzed purely in terms of privilege and oppression. Postmodernism is falling out of favor as a result and the scientific community is now scrambling to find a new paradigm that is more suitable for examining today’s issues. This abandonment of an old paradigm in favor of a newer, more useable one is a process known as a “paradigm shift.”
The New Paradigm: Unifying the Physical and Social Sciences
Before I can explain why my proposed paradigm should replace postmodernism, I need to explain how it works. My paradigm is based on the principle that all scientific fields are ultimately abstractions of physics.
Physics is the ideal science for studying the behavior of subatomic particles (quarks, leptons and bosons), the smallest units of matter. Physics is also ideal for studying the behavior of atomic particles (protons, electrons and neutrons), the larger units of matter that subatomic particles have a tendency to aggregate into. However there is a point when the utility of physics begins to break down.
Atomic particles have a tendency to aggregate into larger units of matter known as atoms. If one wants to perform any meaningful study on the behavior of atoms, it becomes too cumbersome to account for the behavior of every subatomic particle they are made of. Instead it is more productive to treat atoms as if they are single units of matter. If one studies atoms in this manner, they are no longer using physics and instead they are using chemistry. One can therefore define chemistry as an abstraction of physics.
There is a hierarchy of abstractions in the sciences beginning with physics and leading up to political science. The pattern that is consistently seen in this hierarchy is that each science is dedicated to studying the behavior of specific physical units of matter. All of these units have a tendency to aggregate into larger units, which in turn need to be treated as single units if any useful information is to be gained about their behavior.
This hierarchy of sciences (with their corresponding unit of matter listed in parentheses) is as follows: physics (quarks, leptons, bosons, protons, electrons and neutrons), chemistry (atoms), organic chemistry (organic molecules), biochemistry (proteins, lipids, carbohydrates and nucleic acids), cell biology (cells), biology (organisms), psychology (humans), sociology (groups of humans) and political science (nations and civilizations). For the sake of brevity I have omitted several levels of this hierarchy, but it still serves to illustrate my point.
This hierarchy in itself is not particularly remarkable as I think that many people have an intuitive understanding that it exists. However it is remarkable when you realize that the units of matter at each level of abstraction are governed by the same basic physical principles. The laws of thermodynamics are the basic principles that most readily come to mind for many people, however they tend to show less utility the higher one travels on the hierarchy. Luckily a newer, more useful physical principle is emerging which is currently gaining mainstream acceptance within the scientific community: the constructal law.
The Constructal Law
The constructal law was originally defined by Adrian Bejan, a J. A. Jones Distinguished Professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University. Bejan, who continues to be the main proponent of the constructal law, defines it as the following:1
For a finite-size flow system to persist in time (to live), its configuration must evolve in such a way that provides easier access to the currents that flow through it.
To those who are new to the constructal law, it is normal to be confused by this definition. In fact, I like to tell people that the constructal law sounds like total nonsense up until the point when it makes sense. However, the great thing about the constructal law is that once you understand it, it becomes a natural and intuitive part of your worldview.
You begin to notice that the constructal law dictates the behavior of all forms of matter at every level of the scientific hierarchy of abstractions. This causes you to reevaluate everything you thought you knew about the nature of reality. Ultimately it leaves you in awe when you realize that reality is simpler, more orderly and more elegant than you previously thought.
The constructal law has already demonstrated its potential to redefine the way we interpret reality, despite still being in its infancy. Undoubtedly scientific peer review will have to work out the glitches that inevitably accompany this new paradigm, so it is difficult to say what the scientific community will do with it if and when it is implemented. Despite this uncertainty, there is one pattern consistently seen throughout reality that can be explained by the constructal law: hierarchies.
Figure 1: Examples of hierarchies in nature. (Clockwise from top) trees, aerial view of a river delta, a leaf.
A hierarchy is a pattern wherein a flow system branches into smaller flow systems, with the smaller flow systems branching into even smaller flow systems, and so on. Note that hierarchies can also operate in the reverse order, with small flow systems coalescing to form a larger flow system, which in turn combine with other large flow systems to form even larger flow systems, and so on.
The reason hierarchies are so persistent in nature is because they are an efficient way of satisfying the constructal law. Remember, the constructal law dictates that in order for a flow system to persist, its configuration must evolve in a way that most efficiently facilitates the currents that flow through it.
Trees illustrate this concept perfectly. Through evolution, trees have converged upon a design that efficiently concentrates the energy obtained from photosynthesis. In this case, the current is the photosynthetic energy which is traveling to a central location. Photosynthesis initially occurs in the leaves, but this energy must be transferred to a central location (i.e. the tree trunk) if it is to be used towards any meaningful purpose. Leaves initially transfer this energy through veins, which feed into a hierarchy of increasingly larger veins that eventually feed into the branches. The branches in turn feed into a hierarchy of increasingly larger branches that eventually feed into the trunk.
Rivers also illustrate this concept since they begin as a series of small streams which feed into a hierarchy of increasingly large streams, which eventually get big enough to form the actual river. In this case, the flow system is the flowing water.
Figure 2: Lightning bolts transfer electrical energy from the ground to the sky via a hierarchy of increasingly large electrical currents.
Rivers and trees are just two of numerous examples of hierarchies being displayed in nature. An important point to note is that hierarchies are prevalent in both the physical and biological sciences, even when you include more advanced forms of life. Some more examples of hierarchical flow systems include lightning bolts, a mammal’s cardiopulmonary system, or even more abstract concepts like an organism’s lineage of offspring.
While it is interesting to view nature in this manner, the revolutionary aspect of the constructal law does not reveal itself until you apply it to human societies, as human societies make extensive use of hierarchies. In fact, they are so omnipresent that I now find it difficult to have meaningful conversations about something like politics or religion without referencing the constructal law.
The most digestible example of a human hierarchy can be found in militaries, since they constitute some of the most rigid hierarchies found in human societies. Think of a military as a flow system which facilitates the flow of information from a leader at the top to a much larger number of soldiers at the bottom. The leader rarely gives direct orders to the soldiers, instead he gives orders to his subordinates, who in turn pass the orders to their subordinates, and so on, until it finally reaches the soldiers. If one were to draw a chart of this chain of command, it would bear much resemblance to a tree (or a river, lightning bolt, etc.).
It is important to bear in mind that information not only flows from the top down, but also from the bottom up (or at least it does in a functioning military). The soldiers at the bottom provide valuable information to the leaders at the top which in turn influences their decision making. The way the soldiers report this information is not by directly addressing the top leaders, but rather by reporting it to their immediate superior, who in turn reports it to their immediate superior, and so on, until it eventually reaches the top.
Note that most human chains of command follow this general structure, even if they may not be as rigid as that seen in a military, wherein the information flows throughout the hierarchy in both directions.
To those who are new to the constructal law, it may seem farfetched to view information as something that flows in this manner. However, consider that this terminology is already starting to be used within social science debates, even if it is not explicitly attributed to the constructal law. The most notable and recent example of this was demonstrated in a now famous interview wherein University of Toronto professor of psychology Jordan Peterson made the following statement about hierarchies:
There’s this idea that hierarchical structures are a sociological construct of the Western patriarchy, and that is so untrue that it’s almost unbelievable. And I use the lobster as an example because the lobster, we divulged from lobsters in evolutionary history about 350 million years ago, common ancestor. And lobsters exist in hierarchies. And they have a nervous system attuned to the hierarchy. And that nervous system runs on serotonin just like our nervous systems do. And the nervous system of the lobster and the human being is so similar that anti-depressants work on lobsters. And it’s part of my attempt to demonstrate that the idea of hierarchy has absolutely nothing to do with sociocultural construction, which it doesn’t.
The Public Utility of the New Paradigm
Like I said earlier, there is a large opportunity cost associated with implementing a new scientific paradigm. Even if the constructal law demonstrates that it can provide a more accurate description of reality than postmodernism, this in itself may not be enough to justify to the public that it should be implemented.
Many readers of this site are well aware that there is a growing public demand to abolish postmodernism. Many will also see the obvious utility of the constructal law in this endeavor, as it counters postmodernism’s anti-hierarchical ideology with principles that are grounded in physical reality. However, I question if this in itself will be enough to justify the implementation of the new paradigm.
Issues are in the process of emerging that the social sciences are ill-equipped to deal with, primarily transhumanism and the technological singularity. There is a growing resistance to postmodernism headed by academics such as Christina Hoff Sommers, Jonathan Haidt, Jordan Peterson, Bret Weinstein, Michael Rectenwald, Clay Routledge, Heterodox Academy, etc. However, if they cannot demonstrate why their ideas are better suited than postmodernism at dealing with these emerging issues, than the public may abandon the resistance altogether and stick with what they are most familiar with (i.e. postmodernism).
To those who are unaware, transhumanism and the technological singularity are two closely linked concepts that are based on the idea that technological progress is going to radically alter the human condition. Transhumanism is the belief that technology can and should be used to alter the human species to the point where it is no longer biologically human. The technological singularity is a quasi-prophecy that artificial intelligence will inevitably advance to the point where it radically exceeds that which is possessed by humans.
It is outside the scope of this article for me to thoroughly discuss the history and breadth of these ideas. However, if you would like to know more about them the de facto leader of these movements is Google’s Director of Engineering Ray Kurzweil. His 2009 documentary Transcendent Man provides the best introduction that I know of to these concepts.2
The social sciences are ill-equipped to discuss transhumanism because ultimately they are based on the study of humans, and transhumanism will change what it means to be human. Likewise, social scientists are cognizant of the relationship between humans and technology, but so far they have never had to study an event like the technological singularity wherein technology has made humans totally obsolete. The constructal law may give social scientists an edge in confronting these issues since its validity will not be eroded by human evolution.
Note that historically, implementing scientific paradigm shifts has been a difficult process. One reason for this is that proponents of the old paradigm perceive the new paradigm as a threat to their reputations and livelihoods. As such, they oftentimes resort to political attacks as a way of discrediting the new paradigm. Another problem is that there are few qualified professionals who can accurately assess the validity of the new paradigm. If they do have the necessary qualifications, they still need to see enough value in the new paradigm to justify spending their scarce resources on this endeavor.
I have run into all of these problems myself as I have been trying for several years to introduce this paradigm to the scientific community. I have seen a minimal amount of success along the way, however I am still uncertain of whether or not it will be deemed scientifically valid, let alone if it will demonstrate the necessary public utility to justify its implementation.
As such I will suggest that you do not take this article at face value. Instead, think of it as just one of many iterations. Read it, reflect on it, and then put it away for a while and come back to it later. Paradigm shifts are messy, and my proposed paradigm is no exception, so there is no clear path moving forward.
1Bejan, A.J., Zane, J.P. 2012. Design in Nature: How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology, and Social Organizations. Doubleday.
2 Ptolemy, R. B. (Director). 2009. Transcendent Man [Motion picture on DVD]. Los Angeles, CA: Ptolemaic Productions.