Wikipedia – Epistemology – Euler Diagram

Who among us hasn’t witnessed a fierce discussion, whether banal or incomparably important, lasting hours and ending with no resolution. I assume we all have. Why does that happen? Why can’t secular and religious people bridge their belief and lifestyle gap? Why are feminists and chauvinists in a constant power struggle? Why can’t democrats and republicans agree on a common political theory? Why do most western doctors belittle alternative medicine? Why do vegetarians clash with omnivores? And why do vegans argue with both?

In order to understand the origins of these disagreements — and many disagreements we’ll discuss in the future — we ought to define two basic concepts used by historians and philosophers of science:

Paradigm: “A world view underlying the theories and methodology of a particular scientific subject”.[1] The concept was first used in its modern terminology by Thomas Kuhn in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.[2]

Episteme: Kuhn used the word paradigm in reference to scientific theories, but the concept can apply to any subject of inquiry. Michel Foucault used the word episteme to mean a paradigm of general knowledge. In his words, “episteme… [is] the strategic apparatus which permits of separating out from among all the statements which are possible those that will be acceptable within, I won’t say a scientific theory, but a field of scientificity, and which it is possible to say are true or false”.[3]

In other words, Kuhn and Foucault argued that our thinking is influenced by our underlying assumptions or theories (i.e., paradigms and epistemes) as well as by the various standards we use to validate them. Thus, everything we have opinions about, from the particular — medicine, architecture, romantic relationships, food, etc. — to our general worldview, rests on our prior, and often unknown, assumptions. In this context, paradigms and epistemes function as the standards by which people of a particular time period judge the validity, certainty and adherence to a certain code of conduct and accepted knowledge.

Take, for example, the different approach to metaphysics and ethics held by orthodox religious people vs. secular people. The Judeo-Christian system believes in a god that manipulates the rules of nature, defines moral laws, and ultimately judges us to eternal life in heaven or hell. Consequently, this approach demands that we accept god’s moral creed without hesitation, even if it clashes with facts derived from our senses. Moreover, according to religious dogma, our senses and our desires are regarded as possible evils, fooling and corrupting our soul, that should be kept strictly limited in order to adhere to the divine moral code portrayed in scripture and taken as the pure form of truth and good. In contrast, secular paradigms contend that the notion of a god contradicts the rules of logic and factual science, leading them to dismiss god’s existence entirely, and certainly his status as creator, director and judge. For secular people, God is an empty concept,[4] and therefore the supposedly divine religious moral creed is also empty. Secularism bases its theoretical foundation and moral code on objective standards, such as scientific observations, the use of reason, and consistency between theory and reality. Therefore, theories that do not adhere to these standards are discarded as non-scientific in the blink of an eye.

These two paradigmatic systems — atheism and belief in God — are so different that no meaningful communication regarding daily moral issues — such as abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage and nutrition habits — can be achieved between their proponents until one side agrees to change its fundamental principles. And the same can be said about other disagreements that rely on divergent paradigms, such as: feminists vs. chauvinists, democrats vs. republicans, western vs. alternative doctors, vegetarians vs. omnivores vs. vegans, and so on. Each group holds its own fundamental worldview defined by a unique system of thought, hierarchy of values and rigid boundaries. The result is an inevitable clash between holders of different theories. 

“The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again.” — Robert Jordan  


Paradigm Shift Theory - Department of History University of California, Irvine
Paradigm Shift Theory – Department of History
University of California, Irvine

At this point, you might be holding your head in despair. Is there any hope left for humanity if holders of different epistemes are destined to clash? Fortunately, as Kuhn illustrates in his wonderful book, paradigmatic shifts do occur, typically, in times of crisis. The question is then, what is a crisis and how do we resolve it?

To begin with, we can start by embracing the existence of paradigms. Kuhn points out that the adoption of certain arguments as self-evident is essential to all scientific and nonscientific efforts to gain knowledge. In order to progress and discover new knowledge one must first accept some prior axioms (otherwise everyone would have to reexamine everything “from scratch” all the time, delimiting our ability to focus on new innovations). The problem starts when this method of “scientific short-cutting” is not coupled with an adequate dose of objective self-criticism and skepticism, which may lead to recklessly adopting unwarranted arguments and blindly dismissing better ones.

Newly accumulated knowledge is judged by the standards of existing theories, which means any variation from the accepted status quo will generally be discarded as false. That’s why a broad paradigmatic change usually occurs when “normal science” collects enough substantial evidence of the failure of the currently prevalent theory’s predictive and problem-solving power. Widespread realization of this failure causes a theoretical crisis that leads honest and inquisitive scientists in search of alternate, more consistent, theories. And if none can be found within the prevalent paradigmatic system, scientists will eventually start searching for a completely new paradigm that better explains the new evidence. The crisis then becomes an open “war” between competing paradigms, resolved only when the majority of the scientific community decides on the paradigm with the greater predictive power.

A tragic and well known example of a long and bloody paradigmatic feud in science took place in the Middle Ages, between proponents of heliocentrism (the theory that the planets in our solar system orbit the sun) and defenders of geocentrism (the belief that the planets orbit the earth).

It took almost two hundred years for this paradigmatic conflict to be resolved, and to our misfortune, it left humanity with substantial injuries: many ingenious scientists were executed for heresy, which meant our ability to understand the universe and to produce life-promoting technologies were gravely hindered until the Renaissance.

So how can we settle conflicting paradigms? According to Kuhn, a presentation of the competing paradigms needs to be made as objectively and openly as possible. The paradigm that best describes reality and that solves more scientific puzzles will replace the prevalent paradigm or retain its prevalent position while the other is all but forgotten.

[For a more indepth explanation I strongly suggest watching Dr. Garret Merriam’s (Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern Indiana) two-part lecture on Kuhn’s theory of Scientific Revolutions]


Millet is soooo tasty and healthy! (said the parrot)

After understanding the basics of Paradigm Shift theory we can now return to our discussion of proper nutrition. And from our new perspective, it seems that the best way to avoid the adoption of erroneous nutritional systems is to familiarize ourselves with the paradigmatic theories that guided nutrition research in the past and present, and to seek the most consistent theory.

Many diets promote just one menu for any and all human beings. Such “universalist” dietary systems are based on the fundamental principle that: all humans share most of their dietary needs because they are nearly identical biologically. This assumption lead many nutrition scientists to search for a universally “true” diet that fits all humans — a sort of “holy grail,” if you wish. For example, proponents of low fat low cholesterol diets claim that their suggestions are the best for everyone, while proponents of low carb diets argue for theirs. Or consider proponents of vegan diets vs. those promoting diets rich in animal based nutrients, such as Paleo and Atkins. Each system claims its own superiority and universality. The kosher diet is another example, and even the Blood Type Diet (BTD) suffers from over-generalization. Proponents of the BTD may not adhere to only one universal menu for all humans, but they still think all humans of a certain blood type should universally eat similarly.[5]

This never-ending struggle between so many supposedly “universal” dietary systems should lead the skeptic scientist to reevaluate his fundamental principles. Do all humans really hold similar dietary requirements? Could it be said that universal dietary systems are problematic precisely because they aspire to an impossible one-size-fits-all diet that, in practice, fits hardly anyone? And how do universal dietary systems explain metabolic irregularities that affect one’s ability to fulfill these, supposedly, universal ideal goals?

In reference to the sarcastic title of this section, yes, millet can be beneficial to certain people, the question is to whom? when? how much? in what form? and for what reason?

By now, I hope I managed to clarify the following point: paradigms also govern our perception of good nutrition.

Based on this observation, our next task will be to review a few of the more popular paradigms that affect nutritional science: Platonic, Aristotelian, Hedonistic, Epicurean, Stoic, Pythagorean, Judeo-Christian, modern-mechanistic, functional-sociological and marxist-economical, among others. Hopefully, by familiarizing ourselves with many paradigmatic systems and their accompanying nutritional theories we might find a solution to the clashes we currently face.

What about you, can you already identify any paradigms directing your nutritional choices? 

[1] Oxford dictionary.
[2] Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolution, 3rd edition (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1996).
[3] Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge Selected Interviews And Other Writings. Ed. Colin Gordon (Pantheon Books, New York, 1980). p. 197.
[4] In philosophy, Empty Concepts are terms denoting nothing in reality. They are deprived of any sensical meaning and therefore cannot be rationally and consistently verified or falsified. They are, as Foucault would say, outside the realm of scientificity.
[5] D’Adamo, Peter J. Eat Right For Your Type (Riverhead Books, New York, 2002).

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