One of my pupils recently asked me to list my ten favourite books. It is an unfair question to ask an English teacher. I have read literally thousands of books and to ask me to narrow the list down to a mere ten seems a tad cruel. And what criteria should I use to make the evaluation? Most entertaining? Best written? The ones that moved me most deeply? After some reflection, I have settled on this: which books have had the most profound impact on who I am and how I think? The list is still insurmountable, but at least the task is now more clearly defined.
I have already talked at length about The Lord of the Rings, which I first read at thirteen and have reread several times since. It remains the story to have shaped my outlook most profoundly, but I have written enough about it lately. So allow me to talk about a book I doubt has been as widely read as it deserves to have been. During my undergraduate studies, taking a course on the philosophy of science, I read something I believe all academics would be better for reading: Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
It was a controversial book when it was released because it threatened many scientists’ belief in the objectivity of the scientific enterprise by stating what should be – but sadly is not always – a self-evident truth: knowledge construction is not a neutral pursuit. We see the world through the frameworks of various paradigms; not as the world is, but as we are. Normal scientific practice does not aim to explore the unknown, but conducts experiments that help develop deeper insight into, or which validate existing theories. Generally science does not aim to discover but to endorse. In this regard, the paradigms through which we operate have a profound impact on what we are able to see, because we more readily see only what we look for, or what we expect to see. The human mind is capable of ignoring startling amounts of evidence that contradicts existing paradigms, and dismissing it as anomalous. Kuhn argues that only when a critical mass of contradictory evidence has accumulated, and can no longer be ignored, do the paradigms shift. To complicate matters, knowledge construction is too often undergirded by commercial interests. Universities fund only that research they believe will improve their status or attract the most promising students. It is not always about furthering understanding.
It is certainly not a phenomenon unique to science. It is the very basis of human interaction with the world. There is always a currency – not always money – that determines the types of questions we ask. It applies in any area of personal growth, too – intellectual and psychological. If, for example, we believe all men cheat or that we are fat, we see only evidence that supports this, and are blind to facts that might speak to the contrary. Sometimes we need to make a sincere attempt to understand ideas with which we do not agree. Only then, very often, are we able to judge our own beliefs in a more sobering light. The alternative is stagnation.
I am known at my school to be a staunch flat earth advocate. My pupils always ask in utter disbelief whether I am serious, and I provide a fairly lengthy justification for a flat earth. I never answer their question and I won’t answer it for you. A man who pours his heart out onto a cyberpage for all to read needs to have some mystery, after all. But something that always astounds me is how few pupils manage to muster a reasonable defence of a round earth that does not resort to “I saw pictures”. Paradigms become so deeply entrenched that we start to see them as absolute truth. We forget to question them. And by refusing to question, we refuse to grow.
It was this principle that was instrumental in helping me beat a bout of severe depression many years ago. I made a conscious effort to look for evidence that did not support the self-loathing and loneliness that had come to characterise so much of my internal dialogue. And it was difficult, but I conquered it. The enemy, as far as depression is concerned, is not adverse circumstances, I came to discover, but the accusing voice in my head. Circumstances are merely triggers. Problematic paradigms perpetuate problems.
I don’t know why it has taken me so long, but I have started to apply it to my faith too. Please don’t misunderstand me. I have done enough academic reading to have complete confidence in the person of Jesus and to believe that the gospels are a reliable representation of his life and teachings. It is existing Western church doctrine I am starting to question. I have had niggling doubts for a while, but have ignored them. I guess I was able to overlook so much for so long because it was so deeply ingrained in my normal Christian experience. But we are reaching critical mass. I will share my concerns with you in future posts: I am wary of making this post too long. A warning: I may end up making some seemingly heretical hypotheses. I don’t say ‘claims’; I am not certain enough for that yet. Certainty will require more research. But I will outline my hypotheses as I go, and trust that the journey helps others find a face for their own doubts and possibly even initiate a paradigm shift that will lead to a richer understanding and deeper obedience to a God who is far beyond our wildest imaginings.