On Understanding

Convenience of conceptual analogies is no substitute for usefulness or rigour. —R. Brennan & S. Henneberg

One understands a phenomenon only when one has a holistic view of [it], a view that integrates all of its known components and all of its known manifestations. —T. Bouldin & L. Odell

Image of atom | via Citra's Chemistry

Image of atom | via Citra’s Chemistry

Pulling a mechanical thing apart to see how it works is easy. Observing a living system in progress is not. Humans have predictable biological components, but we are more than the sum of parts and so are the living systems we create. We can miss worlds by only examining predictable bio-molecules and chemical interactions for insights into the world around us. 

One of the programs that I work with teaches students and educators how to recognize and navigate ten levels of reality:

  1. the bio-atom
  2. the bio-molecule
  3. the cell
  4. the organ
  5. the organism
  6. the family
  7. the neighborhood
  8. the profession
  9. the nation
  10. Earth

Each level has fixed laws, and at increasing levels there’s both increasing complexity and increasing fluidity. Earth: What people think I am (covered in flags); What I really am (no borders)
Research that fails to account for anything other than linear laws won’t adequately represent reality beyond level 4. Humans (Level 5) are not reducible to biochemicals, and neither are their cultural networks or systems.

What people think is real also becomes “real” by mutual consent, because our consciousness gives us the capacity to build rules and structures on delusions as well as on sound premises. So a study of What’s Really Going On has to include the individual and community mental maps we generate in our relationships, with families, neighborhoods, professions, nations, and as a species.

If you were to design a study of people’s mental maps, what would you be looking for? What would you ignore? What would you compare? How would you assess what you noticed?

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