The world we think we live in is the world we live in.
That is how important worldviews are.
The Reinvention of Work
Patterns of thinking hold us in their grip. . . . If then,
we want to change society, we must begin by changing
the way that we think.
The Quantum Society
Before about 10,000 years ago, most people lived by herding, hunting, foraging, and gathering. Life centered on the community, and they lived in relationship with the earth and its inhabitants.
Ted Perry captured their worldview:
The earth does not belong to the white man, the white man belongs to the earth. This we know. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth, befalls the sons and daughters of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.
I love the worldview of the ancient people, but I do not want to romanticize their lives. When I visited the Maasai of East Africa, I became aware of the dark side of their existence: disease, deprivation, and early death are a part of their lives as is a balanced life lived in concert with nature and relationship with one another.
The worldview of indigenous people worked for them for thousands of years. Most of those cultures were destroyed by people who spread disease and had powerful weapons–not more creative or intelligent people. We can learn much about life from the cultures our ancestors conquered.
Life on earth changed with the agricultural revolution that began around 8000 B.C. and rolled over the planet unencumbered until approximately 1650-1750 A.D. Farming became a way of life with land at its center. For the first time in human history, large populations could be fed indefinitely. While life changed, people continued to see the world as a living whole, with all of its elements dependent on one another.
The holistic worldview changed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with the philosophical and scientific revolution that changed the way people looked at themselves and their relationship with nature. The world as a machine became the dominant metaphor of the modern era.
Who led this radical transformation in worldview? Galileo Galilei, the father of modern science, quantified the tangible world. He believed only the quantifiable was real; the non-quantifiable was outside the scope of science. Scientists ignored, denied, or discounted nonlinearity. Galileo’s empirical approach and his use of mathematics to describe nature became paramount aspects of science.
Francis Bacon established the scientific method: carefully controlled and documented experiments from which scientists could make general conclusions. For Bacon, the goal of science was to accumulate knowledge that could be used to control and dominate nature, which he referred to as a “common harlot.”
The founder of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes, believed the world was a vast machine that obeyed mathematical laws and extended that belief to human beings, “I consider the human body as a machine.”
Isaac Newton took Descartes’ philosophy and developed the mathematical formulation of the mechanistic worldview. The Newtonian universe was a mechanical system put in motion by God and operated by exact mathematical laws. This universe was deterministic. If scientists knew the rules and first conditions of the system, they could predict accurately what the system would do and where it would go.
The universe of the scientific revolution was a vast, cold, clockwork machine. Its mathematical and mechanical laws governed every movement and aspect of matter, including people, plants, and animals. God created the material particles, the forces between them, and the laws of motion. After that, the machine ran on its own–purposeless, meaningless, and soulless.
The five senses no longer mattered, and ethics, spirit, values, quality, and consciousness were marginalized because they were unquantifiable. The only things real in this universe were measurable, and the knowledge of science was specific and absolute. People used scientific expertise to seek truth and to dominate and control nature. This worldview offered an emotionless world of rule books and impermeable boundaries–a black and white world–an either/or world with human beings–the pinnacle of evolution–dominating the natural world.
This science fit with the beginning of industrialization, which Gregory Bateson wrote in Steps to an ecology of Mind had the following underlying beliefs:
-It’s us against the environment.
-It’s us against other men.
-It’s the individual (or the individual community, or the individual nation) that matters.
-We can have unilateral control over the environment and must strive for that control.
-We live within an infinitely expanding “frontier.”
-Economic determinism is common sense.
-Technology will do it for us.
Metaphors of the mechanistic worldview justified the exploitation of nature that materialism, industrialization, and unchecked appetite and greed demanded.
The benefits derived from the scientific and industrial revolutions are clear: longer lives, technological advances, and previously unknown comfort and prosperity for tens of millions of people. Organizations became more efficient and provided undreamed of goods and services to people. With so much surface success, we can be blind to the devastating unintended consequences of the mechanistic worldview on people, nature, and our interconnected planet.
The industrial revolution changed life to fit the machine worldview: Managers designed jobs, machines, factories, and management systems as machines. Machines became the principal agent of change, and factories and workers adapted themselves to the efficient working of mechanical things. Creativity and “aliveness” were exchanged for routine and control. People who saw their traditional lives destroyed by the creation of dehumanizing jobs in factories were traumatized.
We know the impact the mechanistic worldview has on human beings in organizations. We feel the alienation of being treated like a machine, although we don’t talk about it–machines don’t feel. When we think of corporations as machines, management is equated with control; employees are treated like children; managers motivate by fear; change is synonymous with pain; and many people feel bored, afraid, confused, alienated, and angry. Many experience those emotions as “numbness.”
The mechanistic worldview changed nature dramatically. Former Vice President, Al Gore wrote in 1993:
The mechanistic worldview generated the arms race, the population explosion, the greenhouse effect, and the extinction of species of animals and plants at a rate 1,000 times faster than at any time in the past 65 million years. This philosophy of life pollutes the air and the water, destroys the rain forest at the rate of 1 1/2 acres a second, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and floats waste-filled barges in the ocean seeking a home. The destruction of forests endangers almost half of the 235 species of primates. Another 20 percent are approaching threatened status. This worldview produced spreading deserts, drying seas, and topsoil loss. These beliefs have alienated human beings from themselves, from each other, and nature and have fostered addiction to substances and processes. These beliefs have destroyed and homogenized thousands of diverse cultures. This thinking threatens the sustainability of the planet.
Mr. Gore had it right.
A metaphor helps us understand something compared to something else. During the industrial revolution, people took the metaphor of the universe as a machine and applied this comparison to factories and then to people. How absurd! People began to think mechanically and tried to make the thinking real by acting like machines and by treating one another as machines. Then they taught this metaphor to new generations who had no awareness of this lunacy.
People forgot the organic worldview of the ancients that was sustainable for thousands of years. Most of us never knew that another worldview existed before the mechanical worldview, which has had devastating impacts on our lives and planet in only 300 years.
Science has discovered new sciences that invite us to change how we live, work, and lead if we want a sustainable planet and more conscious and fulfilled lives. The five senses again matter and ethics, spirit, values, purpose, and quality return to our lives. A new worldview brings back the feeling of aliveness to those who see new ways to live.
We change our mechanistic worldview by becoming aware of our mechanical, black and white, either/or beliefs, and our disconnections from others, nature, and ourselves. We learn that the above underlying tenets of the mechanistic worldview are wrong.
Daniel Quinn wrote about our growing awareness in Ishmael:
Once you learn to discern the voice of Mother Culture humming in the background, telling her story over and over again to the people of your culture, you’ll never stop being conscious of it. Wherever you go for the rest of your life, you’ll be tempted to say to the people around you, “How can you listen to this stuff and not recognize it for what it is?
William Least Heat-Moon in Blue Highways wrote, “Ghost dances, desperate resurrection rituals, were the dying rattles of people whose last defense was delusion—about all that remained to them in their futility.” A significant percentage of our citizens do not think straight when guided by their own false beliefs. To live by their delusions will destroy our democracy, the natural world, and life as we’ve known it.
The mechanistic worldview still works for machines, space travel, and accounting systems. But this worldview has been eclipsed by a more encompassing worldview. We must change our dominant and exhausted mechanistic worldview to a more real living system worldview that sees the cosmos as alive and interconnected if we want to evolve our humanity and create a sustainable planet.
My next blog will be about living systems.