Gestalt Switch: Changing the Way You Think

Derek Ouellette —  July 21, 2010

I recenlty came across the concept of the “gestalt switch” when I was reading a great book called The Making of an Atheist by James Spiegel. The concept of a “paradigm” was famously introduced by a physicist and historian named Thomas Samuel Kuhn. Kuhn defined a paradigm as a “set of assumptions, definitions, laws and techniques that are shared by the members of a scientific community” (p.93). Since then, the concept of a “paradigm” has been expanded to included every imaginable subject. So the difinition can be stated as such: A set of assumptions, definitions, laws and techniques that are shared by members of any particular community.

“Paradigms” do not come into existance on their own, they are always invented by human beings and as such either consciously or subconsciously, are open to constant revision (and sometimes dramatic revision). When this happens it is called a “Paradigm Shift“. No two paradigms are identical. Each paradigm has its own set of assumptions, definitions, laws and techniques. In sum, any two given paradigms are as different as “apples and oranges”. “So according to Kuhn, paradigm shifts constitute a ‘gestalt switch'” (p.94).

In order for a gestalt switch to take place, a change of the mind must be of the whole (complete) or not at all. For example, consider this image below:

Do you see a chalice or two faces facing each other? You may say “both” and that may be true. But according to psychologist, the mind is unable to see both the chalice and the faces simultanously. You can see the chalice and you can see the faces but you cannot see both at the same time. In order to see the one and then the other your mind needs to switch from the one to the other. This is called a “Gestalt Switch“.

Implications of the Gestalt Switch

I think there is something powerful here. The explanatory power of the gestalt switch is very helpful when considering an opposing view of someone which you are in discussion with. The scriptures place a significant amount of emphasis on the need to have a renewed mind.

From Ephesians 4:23 (“be renewed in the spirit of your mind”), to Colossians 3:10 with the emphasis on the “new man”, to the exhortation in Romans 12:2 to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind”; Philippians 4:8 (“whatever is true… think on these things”); Philippians 2:5 (“have the same mind that is in Christ”); 2 Corinthians 10:5 (“take every thought captive to obey Christ”); et cetera. Clearly there is a divine paradigm, a way in which God wants his people to think.

There is also a paradigm which establishes itself against God. It is a humanistic paradigm (“a set of assumptions, definitions, laws and techniques”) which is informed by a reprobate mind. Romans 8:6-7 “the sinful mind is hostile to God”; Romans 1:28 “since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind”; 1 Timothy 6:5 “their minds are corrupt, and they have turned their backs on the truth” (these people have had a “gestalt switch” in the wrong direction); Philippians 3:19 “their destiny is destruction… their mind is on earthly things”.

For a person to convert from Atheism to Christianity (for example) requires nothing less then a gestalt switch, a complete renewal of the mind which will require the converted person to re-examine and re-interpret his past and his entire world. Nothing less then a complete paradigm shift is required!

I also think paradigms and the gestalt switch help to explain the impasses faced within Christianity iteself by, for example, the Calvinist/Arminian debate. At some point the debate becomes no longer dependant on “evidence” but on “paradigms”. Both views claim the evidance supports their beliefs the most, and the debates have raged for centuries. The reason for the impass is because when a Calvinist looks at the evidence his “paradigm” interprets the evidence as “apples”, whereas for the Arminian, his paradigm interprets the same evidence as “oranges”.

The same is true for other subjects. Take for example the recent Justification debate within the Reformed tradition. At some point the debate becomes less about “evidence” and more about “paradigms”. Same goes for many of the Catholic/Protestant debates; the Bible/Tradition debates; the Evolution/Creation debates; the Atheist/Theist debates; etc.

All of this is not to say that the evidance does not matter, it is only to acknowledge that one of the biggest impasses which people face is the impass of the mind. We need to acknowledge (at the very least) that when we approach a subject to defend it that we are doing so under a certain established paradigm in our minds (assumptions, interpretive techniques, et cetera). Maybe the evidence is not as certain as someone would like it to be, but because of ones paradigm, one will often see what one wants to see.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.