How Stubborn Is Your Paradigm?

How willing are you to consider beyond what you know or believe to be true or possible?
Earning my undergraduate and graduate degrees, I often ran into theories about how we, as humans, develop (cognitively socio-emotionally, morally, physically, etc.).  Something has always struck me about two of these major theories.  According to both Kohlberg’s theory of moral development* and Piaget’s theory of cognitive development*, many (if not most) people do not reach the “highest” levels of development in their lifetime (and/or people who reach these levels do not show evidence of these levels in all aspects of their lives).  These final levels of moral and cognitive development involve an ability to reason abstractly, to think beyond what is right in front of you, and to consider multiple aspects and perspectives.  There are all kind of possibilities as to why some people don’t possess or exhibit these cognitive and moral decision-making abilities, but I’d like to suggest and describe only one:  Maybe we don’t think beyond what we know or believe because we simply don’t want to.

Before you stop reading because I’ve already lost your interest, let me assure you this post isn’t going to go over your head (and hopefully won’t bore you).  After all, the rest of this post is about shapes!  You can handle that.


There’s a scene from Flatland: The Movie that, for lack of a better phrase, blows my mind.  The short film is one of several based on Edwin A. Abbott’s 1880 story, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions.  The trailer below gives you the basic idea.  It’s about a world of two-dimensional (“flat”) shapes where the idea of the existence of more than two dimensions is laughed at (it’s also an idea that can get you in big trouble with the ruling shapes).

As the trailer explains, the main character, a square, literally sees his world expand when a sphere comes to show him the existence of a third dimension.  In the process, the square also meets two characters who have less dimensions than he, and is both shocked and amused at their inability to conceptualize more dimensions.  The clip below shows Tony Hale’s humorous voice-over for one of these characters, a point, with no dimensions:

The point is unable (and unwilling) to consider the possibility of anything existing besides itself.

The square next encounters a line (no clip for this one, sorry!).  The line, a character of two dimensions, has no conception of above or below.

Stay with me here… this is where the point (no pun intended) really comes home: The square, inspired and excited by all that the sphere has shown him, asks the sphere about the possibility of a fourth dimension.  If the sphere knew a dimension more than the square (and the square than the line), then wouldn’t there be another figure who knows a dimension more than the sphere?

The sphere laughs, and rejects the idea as impossible.  Even the sphere–who ridiculed the two-dimensional inhabitants of Flatland for not recognizing the third dimension–cannot (or will not) consider the possibility that there is more beyond what he has always known.

Our paradigms–our models by which we approach and structure life–are so comfortable.  They give us a sense of security and the sense that we are right.  Questioning those paradigms is scary, disconcerting…. and humbling.

I ask, again:  How stubborn is your paradigm?  How willing are you to consider beyond what you know or believe to be true or possible?



Related Posts: Careful, Your Limited Perspective Is Showing, Can’t Relate? Use Your ImaginationWe Are All Unreliable Narrators

*Of course, both of these theories have been challenged and expanded upon (with varying degrees of success/recognition).  However, based on their prominence and endurance, let’s assume for the moment there’s something to them.

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When Every Fiber of Your Being Tells You Otherwise
"So Long, Status Quo..."

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