Why does the way you see the world matter? by Martin Sandbook

“Systems Thinking begins when you first see the world through the eyes of another” – Churchman

When Copernicus announced, just about 500 years ago, that the sun does not go round the earth, can you imagine how big a challenge it was for people to accept his new perspective? It took generations of disbelief before this new truth became established. Could this have been because a sub-text of Copernicus’s discovery was that “You can’t believe your own eyes”, that objective or expert evidence is the only basis for knowledge, that reality is separate from my own ways of knowing, which I can no longer trust? For many, the enormity of this inside-out idea was too difficult to take in – just as the idea that humanity can affect the earth’s climate seems to be now.

There is me, my subjective experience of the world, and there is not me, that which exists regardless of my experience. Over the centuries since Copernicus, the ‘not me’ part, rooted in scientific expertise, has come to dominate what we understand ‘knowing’ to be. We have created the notion of ‘objective reality’, where truth is only truth if it can be independently verified. Of course, this way of knowing is immensely useful and has brought us extraordinary benefits. But a side-effect of this separation between me and not-me, is that every aspect of life seems to have assumed this ‘either-or’ duality. Have we lost the possibility of things being ‘both one thing and another at the same time’?

If we return to the example of the sun, we can say, “alright, experts with greater knowledge than me tell me the earth is spinning round the sun, and this accounts for what I see as sunrise and sunset – or, more accurately, earth-down and earth-up….”

But, hold on right there! We still say sunrise and sunset, do we not? We still hold to the idea (500 years later) that the sun is coming up in the morning – even while we also know the sun isn’t going round us at all.

And herein lies an important truth, at least as I see it. We understand our relationship with the sun in both ways at once. The objective way lives happily alongside the subjective way. Both-and, co-exists with either-or.

By living it, we know that life does not take place ‘over there’, bounded, like a machine. Life flows through me, (you, me, us) through my senses, and I flow through life. I and it are, at the same time, both complex and simple, both shifting and static, both unbounded and bounded. My experience of it determines how I know it, while it also has some objective reality.

Take a diesel engine. How does your sense of it change when it’s part of a tank, or a camper van or a boat? In relation to each version, I am part of knowing it. Its sense of what it is comes through me. It will be different, even if only slightly, from the same sense going through another person. This was Copernicus’ other great threat, that he introduced a radically new way of seeing the world – or rather, the solar system.

As Churchman, an early Systems Thinker, said “Systems Thinking begins when you first see the world through the eyes of another”. So, how do we each of us see the world? And how does the way I see the world affect how I act in it? Where do I fit into anything I look at? Is my idea of it the same as yours?

What would change if I let go of my view, (especially of my need to be right about this), if I opened myself to seeing things differently, shifting to both-and, to learning afresh about the interconnectedness of it all, including where I am in relation to it?

Might I even be open to experimenting with some different ways of being, seeing and acting? In other words, would it help if I tried a bit of Systems Thinking?

Martin Sandbrook is a Director of the Schumacher Institute and Programme Leader for Systems Thinking for Effective Action and Pale Blue Dot