As we (members of the world) travel through history, groups of us come up with systems of belief and activity which keep things more or less going, sometimes in a progressive way, sometimes regressively, sometimes just kind of treading water. Sometimes all at the same time. Historians and others can discern patterns in this ebb and flow of human activity and belief.
I believe the sun will rise tomorrow and the next day and the next. Virtually all of us believe this. Or should I say, know it. Or, rather, are accustomed to saying one thing while meaning another.
As most of us know, the earth in fact goes around the sun, the sun doesn't rise, the earth turns on its axis, rotating so that the part facing the sun shifts away.
We probably also remember that it was Copernicus who first outlined the theory that the earth went around the sun, not the other way around, and further said that it was the sun that was at the center of the universe.
This discovery, and his and Galileo's and other famous contemporaries' discoveries and their developing inquisitiveness was upending the European view of the order of things, the common wisdom of the time. As you may remember, the Church took action against Galileo. Among other things, the notion that the earth moves around the sun contradicts what is written in the bible in such places as Psalms 93, 96, and 104, in 1 Chronicles, and Ecclesiastes. (I wonder if Biblical literalists today believe the sun goes around the earth. Dare we ask Sarah Palin?)
Other cultures also took for granted that the sun rose and set every day. But we are wrong to assume that these Renaissance Europeans were the originators of the idea. In fact there were some cultures and people who guessed the solar system was heliocentric long before Copernicus and Galileo.
Challenging the belief that the sun rotated around the earth was a challenge to the fiber of authority in Catholic Europe. It loosened the glue that bound people at that time because it challenged assumptions on which its identity was based. Scientific inquiry such as that of Copernicus and Galileo led to dramatic changes of all sorts, including discovery of the rest of the planet. Over time, the official church itself learned to incorporate much scientific learning into its world view, more at some moments than at others. Some people still haven't managed to: it is too much of a threat to the ties that bind them together and give them purpose and meaning and identity. Because of their insistence on their correctness and their rigidity, they attempt to deny and sometimes succeed in denying others access to knowledge, tolerance and compassion. Other people, while fully cognizant of the validity of evolution, for instance, recognize that at least some scientific discoveries have presented us with a very mixed bag of good, bad and indifferent.
We're always coming up against new paradigms that break the old. Often they sneak up on us and modify our views without our even noticing. We come to believe things without knowing why. Big changes from one paradigm to another are generally called paradigm shifts a term most commonly used in science. The shift from a geocentric to a heliocentric view of the solar system is a paradigm shift. However, I would argue we can use the term for any substantial shift in our world view.
Americans view history as progressive: that is, we are always moving towards a better place. This is in part our heritage from the Enlightenment and in part our Christian heritage: we are waiting for the coming of Christ. We don't think about this very often, but it informs our beliefs in our specialness.
Today, the dominant beliefs are that our democracy and the capitalist economy which it rests on are examples of this progress. The capitalism we have come to believe in has as some of its basic beliefs the notion that profit should drive businesses pretty much exclusively, that efficiency in the name of profit seeking is good, that individuals should be and can be completely responsible for themselves, that we act as rational beings in the marketplace, that a government that regulates business is a bad government, that taxes are evil, that private enterprise can do most if not all things better and that we have every right to keep what we earn. In other words, what's good for the economy is good for the country even to the extent that in the face of global warming, we see the most viable approaches as economic. In opposition to capitalism most of us see nothing but socialism or, worse, communism: two poles: one good, one bad. Most of us would acknowledge this is awfully simplistic, but still, these are organizing principles of our society.
I think we are due for a paradigm shift. The current meltdown in our economy is the catalyst. What I hope we start to notice is that in fact the world is much more than the economy, and that in fact the global economy as it is currently constituted is riding roughshod over not just poor rural people, but social structures and the environment. I hope we incorporate as a guiding principle that sharing the wealth is a very good idea.