Why we don’t understand how we fit into reality


Science has been more successful at making life easier for us than any other system of thinking so far.

We have learned to control and adapt the material world to ourselves.

As George Bernard Shaw said, The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

That’s worked for a few hundred years because of a particular way of thinking.

The positivist approach looks at reality and sees it as something that is independent of anything in it, including ourselves.

If we drop a stone, it falls the same way it will when dropped by anyone else.

That means we can look at objects, measure their properties and build concepts and ideas that exist independently of us.

Gravity would exist whether there was life or not. Once a building is constructed, the designer is no longer needed for people to live and use the building.

In the positivist’s world, there are things and other fuzzy things like people that don’t really compute.

We get into trouble when we try and apply positivist thinking to social structures like organisations and companies.

These structures exist because humans.

We can argue that if people didn’t exist, then there would still be moon rocks.

If people didn’t exist, there would be no companies to work for or carbon emissions to reduce.

Interpretivists see people as inseparable from reality. They are part of the world.

What we see around is constructed from what we see and the ideas we have – and how we interpret that.

This is why the assembly line organisation constructed by Ford and the lean manufacturing system constructed by Toyota both, on the surface, make cars – but have fundamentally different organisational philosophies.

Positivists run into trouble when they try and apply principles that work very well for things in the real world to organisations.

It’s easy to fix a problem in a machine – apply grease to a stuck part and it gets going.

An organisation’s equivalent of grease is harder to grasp – is it a meeting, a study, a team that works on a problem?

The extreme positivist approach says that everything can be fixed with a hammer and a spanner.

The extreme interpretive approach says everything is in our minds so nothing really matters.

A pragmatic view is somewhere in between.

There are technical solutions to some problems.

In many other situations, however, we need to have a model for how people fit in as well.

Without that, we can fool ourselves that we understand reality more than we actually do.

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