Paradigm Shifts

Paradigm Shifts

We live under the sheltering umbrellas of our worldviews.  To the point where we would feel naked if we were caught in the street without them.

That being the case (that we run around conceptually clothed, whether we know it or not) – I’m always fascinated to learn of instances where an individual changed his or her conceptual garments.  How does anyone dare to do that?

Since I have worn a fair number of different worldviews, I keep track of when and why I changed any one of them.  For example, the other day Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, made an appearance in the Doylestown Bookshop to talk about his new book, The Gift of Anger.  I coaxed Jerry to lay down his many burdens and come out with me to hear Gandhi’s grandson.  As it turned out, Arun had known his grandfather well and taken a major influence from him during the formative years of early adolescence.  Arun has a presence of enormous sweetness.  It brought vividly back my days as a  pacifist, when Gandhi was my first love (for someone I did not know personally).

When did I change this lovely garment for the more everyday one I’ve worn since?  Well, it was in Paris.  I was out for a solitary stroll on the beautiful Isle Saint Louis.  Where I was accosted by three or four young Parisian thugs bent on taking liberties.  Without a second’s hesitation I said,

Voulez-vous que j’appelle la police?

and they faded away like the relatively well-behaved young thugs they were.

It’s possible that your average conscientious objector would’ve found a way to rationalize the inconsistency of appealing to armed gendarmerie while professing nonviolence.  But I hadn’t been a pacifist long enough to know how to do that.  So I stopped dead in my tracks, took in the plain fact that I didn’t believe, in practice, what I professed to believe in words, and stopped calling myself a pacifist.  Then and there.  Voila!  Paradigm shift!

Since I was also a young philosophy student, trained to follow the argument where it led, this complete change of conceptual clothes rocked my world but didn’t threaten my identity.

Right now, I’m reading a book by a philosophically sophisticated former Muslim who tells how he was led, by the same Socratic principle of following the argument, to abandon his former faith and turn Christian.  Since I’m neither a Muslim nor a Christian, the book offers me a fascinating case study of a person whose change of paradigm did affect and threaten his deep sense of who he is.

The author, Nabeel Qureshi, is of Pakistani origin.  When this happened, he was a young med student, living here in the States with his devout family and he considered himself a missionary for Islam.  As the story begins, he has a good friend and study partner who is a dedicated Christian.  Each is convinced he is right and neither is afraid of no-holds-barred argument.  I’ll just give one example of the claims on which their disagreements turn.

The Qur’an states that Jesus was crucified but didn’t die on the cross.  The Christian claim that the disciples found his tomb empty is crucial to the Christian creed.  If he never died, then, of course, he never rose from the dead.

The argument between the two friends gets down to blood and gore.  The Christian friend points out that “the Romans used what’s called a flagrum, a whip that was designed to rip the skin off the body and cause excessive bleeding.”  Apparently, if the Romans wanted you dead, you were going to end up dead.  The condemned were half dead by the time they were nailed to the cross.  Then the gospels report blood and water gushing out when the Romans pierced Jesus’ side with a spear.  The Muslim friend argued that this shows that Jesus was still alive since his blood was still circulating.  The Christian rejoins,

“What was the water?  What the author of the gospel calls ‘water’ is either the serum after it has separated [which only happens after death] or it was fluid from around the heart.  Either way, Jesus had to be dead in order for there to be ‘blood and water.’”

I won’t go into more of the argument between the two friends, which ranges over many more particulars recorded in the gospels.  What is striking is that, in this instance, the Christian side appears to both participants to have made the stronger case!

What gripped me about this Muslim/Christian argument was its total freedom from the usual muffled, muted condescension that is so often a feature of interfaith occasions.  In the more frequently found cases, either nobody believes anything much, so they actually share the same faith – in natural science and being nonjudgmental.  Or, each has a real religious commitment based on conviction, which – if the one is true would make the other false – and they’re each too nice to say so!

What would interfaith dialogue be like if the dialoguers said all that they really thought and then sat down to argue it out, each resolved to follow the argument where it led?

Suppose we loved truth more than our worldview?

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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