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How do we see the world?
Is there a prevailing worldview?


Machines and technology dominate our lives, but do they also dominate our ways of thinking and acting in the world?

In brief

Since Copernicus fundamentally shifted the way we see the sun, we have enjoyed 300 years of scientific advance - but what are the implications?

We use images, stories and metaphors to communicate, borrowing these from the world around us. Has the scientific, machine-based way of thinking – rational, reductionist, empirical, dualist – so invaded our way of thinking that we have lost touch with other ways of learning and knowing?

This video argues that there is a prevailing, predominant, pervasive way of seeing the world; the mechanistic. This is understandable based on the beneficial technological developments of the past 300 years, but is none-the-less incomplete and increasingly damaging.

In practice

How do you know what you know?

We are asked to rely on experts, on research and science. But are there other ways by which we know things – intuition, feelings, expression, practical know-how?

Try noticing how you know what you know, or asking others how they know. What do you rely on for certainty? How is this certainty affected by assumptions and beliefs?


Fritjof Capra (1997) The Web of Life Flamingo

Stephan Harding (2006) Animate Earth Green Books, UK

Heron and Reason (2006)The Practice of Co-operative Inquiry, Chapter 12, Handbook of Action Research

In depth (bullet point summary from the video above)

(With thanks to Stephan Harding of Schumacher College, and others)

The prevailing worldview, the dominant way of thinking, can be understood and justified by looking at its origins in the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries:

Before Copernicus and Gallileo 

The earth was seen as animate, with a soul - Anima mundi - earth as mother, provider of bounty. (This is still common to aboriginal peoples and pantheism.)

Background: Middle ages in Europe

Humans subject to the overwhelming forces of nature

Black Death and Hundred Years war - Decimated population

Cold weather - Short growing season, Poor harvests

Challenge to church by Galileo shifting the relationship between the earth and the heavens

Enlightenment - 16th and 17th Century

Trade and prosperity – growing confidence in the face of nature

Extraordinary explosion of European thinkers

  • Newton: Thermodynamics, Gravity, Calculus (and Leibnitz in Germany)
  • Bacon (the architect of the empirical method), said ‘Constrain nature using mechanical inventions so that she can be forced out of her natural state and squeezed and moulded'
  • Locke - experience through feelings is 'secondary' to thought
  • Descartes – famously stated that thought is the defining and unique characteristic of human beings. "Cogito, ergo sum": “I think - therefore I am.” This gives rise to dualism, the existence of an objective, separate reality, as in mind and body or human and nature
  • Galileo - the universe is a mechanism - clock analogy. We should ignore subjective sensory experience.
  • Leonardo da Vinci - Nature is made up of mechanisms

Also developing at this time – powerful, life-changing, labour saving machines:

  • Steam power and the Industrial Revolution,
  • Inventors such as Newcombe and Watt   

This technological, machine revolution engendered our current, prevailing way of seeing the world.

Elements of this include:

  • Dualism: mind and body are separate, human and nature are separate
  • Control of nature: human is dominant, nature is servant, nature red in tooth and claw - to be defeated
  • Nature as machine: to be analysed and understood, to be controlled
  • Mathematics: the language of rationalism - at least before sub-atomic physics
  • The mechanical view of the universe: like a clock - wheels within wheels and cogs. Predictable and programmed
  • Human is the hero, chosen by God to have dominion over all: But is this a masculine world-view, rooted in masculine thinking and rationalism, rather than in feminine intuition and feeling

The Machine Metaphor is very pervasive, dominating many aspects of life:

Biology: Microscope, Reductionist approaches, the genome as ‘machine code’ for life

Physics (at least, above the level of the atom):

  • Electromagnetism
  • Mechanical laws
  • Fudging the inconsistencies
  • Dominance of mathematics

Chemistry: Elements and molecules

Medicine: Surgery - the body seen in the same way as a machine - taking it apart and servicing its separate parts, experts specialise in different aspects. Who looks at the whole body to see the inter-relationship of the parts?

Economics: Universal heroic laws (perhaps trying to imitate physics)

  • All else being equal
  • 'Utilitarianism' - note the metaphor in the word
  • Externalisation of costs - someone else carries the cost to nature in terms of depletion of resources, wastes, pollution etc
  • Works with theories and laws, ignoring the experience of real people living and acting in the world


  • The brain is often described as being like a computer
  • Taking the brain apart to search for consciousness destroys the very thing that gives rise to this emergent property


  • Triumph of technology over people
  • Labour saving devices – machinery, products - replace people
  • The concept on incorporation creates an amoral legal entity, sometimes compared to a psychopath – maximizing returns to one stakeholder, the shareholder, with no responsibility to other stakeholders such as people or the environment
  • Plundering attitude to resource use:
    • A form of imperialism over nature
    • An attitude of slavery toward workers

Legal – land can be owned, giving rights to enjoyment of property that supersedes all others


  • Dominance of the conscious over the unconscious
  • Distrust of intuition, feelings and the artistic/poetic
  • Reductionist: the 'religion' of science and positivism
  • Masculine ethics: rights, duties


  • Monoculture - inherently unstable, vulnerable to collapse
  • Centralising (monopoly control of seeds, for example)
  • Inputs: Oil fertilisers, chemical control, depleted nutrition, poor soil
  • Technological solutions: labour, chemicals, genetic 'engineering' - note the metaphorical word. (Yes, we can take the genome apart to understand how it is constructed, but can we predict what will emerge if we try to rearrange it?)
  • Ignores interdependencies: system services (but beware dualism here), e.g. bees, rain, earthworms, bacteria, fungi

Relation of man to nature

  • To be dominated, feared, existing for our purpose
  • Value of nature to us not counted: deal with waste at the end of the pipe rather than preventing it coming out of the pipe, externalizing costs away from polluters and resource consumers to be carried by states and taxpayers
  • Nature is seen as a form of machine
  • Biodiversity not seen as important
  • Gaia theory (the earth as a living self-balancing system) widely disregarded
  • Assumption that Mother Nature will provide: sinks for wastes and pollutants, unlimited resources
  • Other species with no rights to their own undisturbed existence
  • There is a need to make nature predictable, controllable

We have enjoyed immense benefits, which we honour

The machine metaphor, or way of seeing the world, has brought us many benefits

  • Technology: machines, nutrition, health and life expectancy, physical comfort, control     
  • Positivist science and the empirical method
  • Rationalism

The side effects did not matter while nature could absorb our wastes, and resources were plentiful

It is important to be careful about judgement or blame

  • We all arise from the working of a system
  • Nature invented the aeroplane!