Open Thinkering


TB872: Emerging worldview commonalities and clashes

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category.

This abstract image reflects a vision of a flourishing society, where balance and harmony are paramount. It features soft, flowing forms and tranquil colors, interspersed with dynamic elements symbolizing social change. The image includes subtle representations of feedback loops, emergence, and systemic interventions, symbolizing the complex interactions and simple actions that lead to societal transformation.

Most people don’t like having their worldview challenged. But as someone who has changed their mind about quite a few things in their life, I’ve come to, if not enjoy it, certainly find the process exhilarating. In this module, we’re asked to reflect on our ‘tradition of understanding’, what some might call a ‘worldview’:

A worldview or a world-view or Weltanschauung is the fundamental cognitive orientation of an individual or society encompassing the whole of the individual’s or society’s knowledge, culture, and point of view. A worldview can include natural philosophy; fundamental, existential, and normative postulates; or themes, values, emotions, and ethics.


The course materials give us the following seven questions to answer to help probe this a bit more:

  1. What is the nature of human beings?
  2. What are the nature and sources of power?
  3. What are the nature and sources of truth and authority?
  4. What is your analysis of the causes of social problems?
  5. What is the role of individuals, organisations and institutions in social change?
  6. What is your vision of the way it can or should be?
  7. What do you consider as mechanisms of change?

We’re encouraged to describe commonalities and clashes in worldview that we see emerging, either in terms of the module, or in media reporting of current events. I could spend all day doing this, so I’ll have to rein myself in a bit. Let’s start with the questions…

1. What is the nature of human beings?

I see humans as fundamentally social and cooperative. That is to say that while we compete with one another, we do so within a larger frame of collaboration. Our nature is therefore to help one another, understanding that by doing so, we help ourselves.

While this is not at odds with how we bring up small children, it is at odds with the dominant narratives with which we are presented as adults. This affects everything from the idea of ‘climbing the career ladder’ at work, to the kind of attention the media give to billionaires and other sociopathic individuals who put other things (mainly profit and power) before cooperation.

2. What are the nature and sources of power?

I guess religious people, of which I am no longer one, would say that all power comes from a divine being. Sources of natural power on Earth ultimately come from the Sun, our nearest star. But here I think we are concerned with metaphysical power.

We live in a world where we do not get a choice in terms of the society we are born into, and also a world where state monopoly on violence is normalised. I have always seen this as problematic, that we do not get to choose to be part of a state, but rather have it forced upon us. This has become even more of a problem for me since Brexit, given that I have little choice but to live on an island which Frankie Boyle describes as “that isosceles triangle of wind and racism”.

While I might tell my own kids that “people can only treat you the way you let them”, this is not true on a macro scale. In reality, states (and people acting on behalf of states) can legitimately coerce you physically and mentally. Nevertheless, most power comes from the mental models we have of the world. I’m reading Roots at the moment and am fascinated at the change in worldview of the main protagonist as he comes to, if not accept, somewhat normalise the situation of slavery in the 18th century.

There are people around me who possess a strong sense of duty and are so deferential to traditional forms of power, which include the monarchy and whoever is currently in government. I confess that I find it very difficult to understand this approach to life.

3. What are the nature and sources of truth and authority?

Again, some people would appeal to divine beings to answer this question. However, I’m a Pragmatist and so look to a form of coherentism which understands beliefs in ‘sets’. One way of understanding this is that a belief only makes sense in relation to other beliefs, in what W.V. Quine called a ‘web of beliefs’. Challenging a core belief affects many other beliefs, whereas challenging one at the periphery can have a negligible effect.

In terms of ‘truth’ I think that this consists in statements which are, to quote William James, “good in the way of belief” and which a community of inquirers would settle on at the end of debate. In this sense, truth never has a capital ‘T’ because it can only ever be represented by an asymptotic line. There can be many communities of inquirers, and therefore many ‘truths’.

To my mind, an ‘authority’ is someone or some thing that has some form of legitimacy, and this legitimacy bestows some form of power. This could be ‘hard’ power in terms of the state (they can throw you in prison) but more often ‘soft’ power as in being a legitimate source of trusted information.

Who becomes a legitimate source of information or power, and therefore who becomes an ‘authority’ is something that should depend on the community of which one is part. However, increasingly these days we have a media-fuelled celebrity culture in which people who show talent in one area (e.g. sports) are seen to have some kind of authority in other areas (e.g. politics). It makes no sense to me, but it seemingly does to other people.

4. What is your analysis of the causes of social problems?

Media representations of crime often begin and end with explanations from human nature. That is to say that some people are either born or made evil/deviant and therefore need to be punished for their actions. This is on the other side of the spectrum from the belief that society creates the crime and the criminal commits it.

While I don’t think you can completely rule out nature and nurture, when it comes to crime, I do think a lot of it comes from the way that we conceptualise ‘social problems’. For example, so-called ‘spontaneous’ riots and looting often have not only a trigger (e.g. police violence) but underlying causes (e.g. increasing inequality and segregation).

Social problems can therefore be seen as emergent properties of complex systems, with many different factors interacting over time. Instead of attributing social issues to single causes, I think we need to consider societal structures, patterns of behaviour, and feedback loops that contribute to the problem. This can be considered through different lenses (e.g. economic, political, cultural) with only holistic approaches likely to make any different in the long-term.

5. What is the role of individuals, organisations and institutions in social change?

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead

As an historian, I know Mead’s words to be true. However, it often does not feel like this, at all. Things such as the climate emergency feel far too big for individuals and small groups of people to address. As does the current political turmoil across the world.

For me, organisations are collections of individuals who, by virtue of their cooperation, have greater leverage. Institutions are organisations with some form of authority (legitimate power). As individuals, we can share our thinking and take action in a way that influences others. Think of Greta Thunberg, for example.

To truly change a system, though, we need to formalise the rules, norms, and values which guide behaviour (either explicitly or implicitly). Therefore, I suppose that my theory change here is that individuals decide to stand up for something, form organisations with others who feel similarly, and therefore influence institutions who have the power to transform the entire system.

6. What is your vision of the way it can or should be?

I’m not sure how to answer this question as it’s so broad. But, generally speaking, my version of utopia is people living their lives in ways that can be considered flourishing, and which do not affect the ability for other human beings to live flourishing lives. In some ways, I think this involves an understanding of Eudaimonia, and therefore knowing what constitutes balance, harmony, and flourishing for you, personally.

I think that many of the world’s problems, especially currently, involve taking a good impulse too far. That is to say that we can and should speak up on behalf of others. But when we are living a life of perpetual outrage on behalf of others, when newspaper headlines involve emotional trigger words telling us how to think, and when our lives become constrained by how social media influencers think we should act, then we are in trouble.

So, I think we should be aiming for peaceful lives, ones that allow us space to reflect on our place in the world and how we want to interact with it and others. I genuinely believe that we would all be happier and get along with fellow human beings if we showed greater tolerance and gave each other more space. (I’m imagining my children laughing at my hypocrisy as they read these lines.)

7. What do you consider as mechanisms of change?

Part of my reason for doing this MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice is to figure this out, because I’m not very sure. I guess part of my answer is in the one above about the relationship between individuals, organisations, and institutions.

However, that only tells part of the story. We can amplify ideas and voices through feedback loops. I’m thinking of Marcus Rashford’s campaign around food poverty which made it impossible for the government not to act. We can intervene in specific ‘leverage points’ within a system. Identifying these produces larger changes that if we intervened elsewhere. For example, spending money on early years education can lead to a bigger impact that spending the same amount of money when children are older.

There are other things that I’m learning about as well, including the idea of ’emergence’ which is the process where complex systems and patterns emerge out of many relatively simple interactions. For example, if I think about our small cooperative, it would take me a very long time to talk about “how we do things” given the number of relatively-straightforward interactions we have with one another and our clients.

The more I understand about mechanisms of change, the more likely I am to move from ‘systemic thinking’ to ‘doing Systems’, to use Ray Ison’s language. I think this is mainly because I don’t want to waste my time doing pointless stuff. Life is short.

I don’t think my way of viewing the world is unusual but is certainly uncommon. Thankfully, I’ve come across plenty of people who at least share enough of my worldview for us to work and take action together. What makes me despair is the number of people who seemingly take their worldview from what other people think, with those other people being the media, or those incentivised to sow discord and division.

I’d be interested in reading other people’s responses to these seven questions. If you do take the time to write down your thoughts, please share a link in the comments below.

Image: DALL-E 3

2 thoughts on “TB872: Emerging worldview commonalities and clashes

  1. I liked the way you expressed your views here, especially on Truth. They help clarify feelings I have had, especially beliefs as sets. I’m reminded of a Sept 2020 article in The Atlantic on Opportunity Wisconsin’s efforts to defeat Trump wherein they achieved success chipping away at the economic views of certain Trump voters, and so I think effective persuasion rests on this view of beliefs in sets and their inherent connections, finding the right margin and then pulling the right thread. I digress but that insight has been resonating with me.

    The links you’ve shared on Pragmatism have sent me down a weeks long rabbit hole so much appreciated. I came here via Stephen Downes and am enjoying that you share so much about your studies, it helps me orient in my situation, is enjoyable to wonder about, and I appreciate the time you put in.

    1. Thanks so much for this comment, Matthew! Some days, like today, it’s hard to muster up the motivation to study and then share what I’ve learned with the world. So you saying it’s useful is really helpful 🙂

      (the cohost website looks interesting that you linked to added a link to from your user name in comment)

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