Beyond Newton

Many of the methodologies we use in science are grounded on a Newtonian view of the world. We assume that if we can measure and quantify cause and effect, gather enough data, and analyze our observations in a rational and systematic way, we’ll get at this ‘thing’ we call the truth. In many pursuits for knowledge, this strategy works beautifully.

However, there are some other latent assumptions in the Newtonian worldview. First, it assumes that everything can be taken apart and dissected. It sees everything as made of discreet parts. If the world was a giant piece of machinery, like a combustion engine or a clock, this would be a valid assumption, but you can’t necessarily explain the architecture or floor plan of an anthill by dissecting a bunch of ants and taking each molecule apart under a microscope. What ants — and humans — do together cannot be described by sheer reductionism. Brenda Zimmerman describes this distinction as the difference ‘clockware’ and complexity.1

Traditional methods of seeing the world compare its workings to a machine. We say “things are working like clockwork” or “like a well-oiled machine,” and people are seen as “human resources” who use management “tools.” By using a machine metaphor, of unconsciously, we ignore the living aspects of our world and our work.2

The psychologist Kurt Koffka said:

our reality is not a mere collocation of elemental facts, but consists of units in which no part exists by itself, where each part points beyond itself and implies a larger whole. Facts and significance cease to be two concepts belonging to different realms, since a fact is always a fact in an intrinsically coherent whole. We could solve no problem of organization by solving it for each point separately, one after the other; the solution had to come for the whole. Thus we see how the problem of significance is closely bound up with the problem of the relation between the whole and its parts. It has been said: The whole is more than the sum of its parts. It is more correct to say that the whole is something else than the sum of its parts, because summing is a meaningless procedure, whereas the whole-part relationship is meaningful.3


  1. Zimmerman, Brenda. Lindberg, Curt. Plsek, Paul. (1998). Edgeware: Lessons From Complexity Science for Health Care Leaders. Dallas, TX: VHA Inc. See https://uwaterloo.ca/waterloo-institute-for-social-innovation-and-resilience/sites/ca.waterloo-institute-for-social-innovation-and-resilience/files/uploads/files/4._primer_on_complexity-from_edgeware-adapted_for_website.pdf 

  2. Westley, Frances. Zimmerman, Brenda. & Patton, Michael. (2006). Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed. Random House Canada. p. 7 

  3. Koffka, Kurt. (1935). Principles of Gestalt Psychology. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. p. 176 


Cite this page:
Shelley, James. (2020). 'Beyond Newton' (in System Thinker Notebook). Originally published on August 5, 2020. Accessed on September 25, 2020. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permalink: https://jamesshelley.com?p=17056
Additional reference and meta data:
This page a subsection of 'Ant Colonies vs Combustion Engines' in the System Thinker Notebook manuscript.

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