Copernican Revolution – Systems Thinking:

In today’s post, I am looking at “Copernican Revolution”, a phrase used by the great German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Immanuel Kant is one of the greatest names in philosophy. I am an Engineer by profession, and I started learning philosophy after I left school. As an Engineer, I am trained to think about causality in nature – if I do this, then that happens. This is often viewed as the mechanistic view of nature and it is reliant on empiricism. Empiricism is the idea that knowledge comes from experience. In contrast, at the other end of knowledge spectrum lies rationalism. Rationalism is the idea that knowledge comes from reason (internal). An empiricist can quickly fall into the trap of induction, where you believe that there is uniformity in nature. For example, if I clapped my hand twenty times, and the light flickered each time, I can then (falsely) conclude that the next time I clap my hand the light will flicker. My mind created a causal connection to my hand clapping and the light flickering.

David Hume, another great philosopher, challenged this and identified this approach as the problem of induction. He suggested that we, humans, are creatures of habit that we assign causality to things based on repeat experience. His view was that causality is assigned by us simply by habit. His famous example of challenging whether the sun will rise tomorrow exemplifies this:

That the sun will not rise tomorrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction, than the affirmation, that it will rise.

Hume came up with two main categories for human reason, often called Hume’s fork:

  1. Matters of fact – this represents knowledge that we gain from experience (synthetic), and this happens after the fact of experience (denoted by posteriori). An example is – the ball is heavy. Thinking cannot provide the knowledge that the ball is heavy. One has to interact with the ball to learn that the ball is heavy.
  2. Relation of ideas – this represents knowledge that does not rely on experience. This knowledge can be obtained simply through reason (analytic). This was identified as a priori or from before. For example – all bachelors are unmarried. No experience is needed for this knowledge. The meaning of unmarried is predicated in the term “bachelor”.

All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, relations of ideas, and matters of fact. Of the first kind are the sciences of Geometry, Algebra, and Arithmetic … [which are] discoverable by the mere operation of thought … Matters of fact, which are the second object of human reason, are not ascertained in the same manner; nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing.

Hume’s fork stipulates that all necessary truths are analytical, the meaning is predicated in the statement. Similarly, knowledge regarding matters of fact indicate that the knowledge is contingent on the experience gotten from the interaction. This leads to further ideas such as – there is a separation between the external world and the knowledge about the world. The knowledge about the world would come only from the world through empiricism. One can view this as the human mind revolving around the world.

Immanuel Kant challenged the idea of Hume’s fork and came up with the idea of a priori synthetic knowledge. Kant proposed that we, humans, are bestowed with a framework for reasoning that is a priori and yet synthetic. Kant synthesized ideas from rationalism and empiricism, and added a third tine to Hume’s fork. Kant famously stated – That all our knowledge begins with experience there can be no doubt. Kant clarified that it does not follow that knowledge arises out of experience. What we come to know is based on our mental faculty. The mind plays an important role in our knowledge of the world. The synthetic a priori propositions say something about the world, and yet at the same time they say something about our mind.

How the world is to us depends on how we experience it, and thus the knowledge of the external world is dependent on the structure of our mind. This idea is often described as a pair of spectacles that we are born with. We see the world through this pair of spectacles that we cannot take off. What we see forms our knowledge of the world, but it is dependent on the pair of spectacles that is a part of us. Kant’s great idea is that our knowledge of the world does not conform to the world. Our knowledge of the world conforms not to the nature of the world, but to the nature of our internal faculties. To paraphrase Heinz von Foerster, we do not see the world as is, it is as we see it.

Nicholas Copernicus, the Polish astronomer, came up with a heliocentric view of the world. The prevalent idea at the time was that the celestial bodies, including the sun, revolved around the earth. Copernicus challenged this, and showed that the earth actually revolves around the sun. Kant, in a similar fashion, suggested that the human minds do not revolve around the world with the meanings coming into our minds. Instead, the world revolves around our minds, and we assign meanings to the objects in the world. This is explained wonderfully by Julie. E. Maybee:

Naïve science assumes that our knowledge revolves around what the world is like, but, Hume’s criticism argued, this view entails that we cannot then have knowledge of scientific causes through reason. We can reestablish a connection between reason and knowledge, however, Kant suggested, if we say—not that knowledge revolves around what the world is like—but that knowledge revolves around what we are like. For the purposes of our knowledge, Kant said, we do not revolve around the world—the world revolves around us. Because we are rational creatures, we share a cognitive structure with one another that regularizes our experiences of the world. This intersubjectively shared structure of rationality—and not the world itself—grounds our knowledge.


We have assumed that the knowledge of the world, our cognition, conforms to the world. Kant proposes that all we have access to is the phenomena, and not the actual world. What we are learning is dependent on us. We use an as-if model to generate meaning based on our interaction with the external world. In this viewpoint, the systems are not real things in the world. The systems are concepts that we construct, and they are as-if models that we use to make sense of the phenomena. What we view as systems are the constructions we make and depends on our need for understanding.  

Alan Stewart uses a similar idea to explain his views on constructivism:

The fundamental premise of constructivism is that we humans are self-regulating organisms who live from the inside out. As a philosophical counterpoint to naive realism, constructivism suggests that we are proactive co-creators of the reality to which we respond. Underlying this concept is that perception is an active process in which we ‘bring forth distinctions’. It is our idiosyncratic distinctions which form the structure of the world(s) which each of us inhabits.”

I will finish with a great lesson from Alan Watts:

“Everything in the world is gloriously meaningless.”

To further elaborate, I will add that all meaning comes from us. From a Hume-ian sense, we are creatures of habit in that we cannot stop assigning meaning. From a Kant-ian sense we are law-makers, not law-discoverers.

From a Systems Thinking perspective, we have unique perspectives and we assign meanings based on this. We construct “systems” “as-if” the different parts work together in a way to have a purpose and a meaning, both of which are assigned by us. The meaning comes inside out, not the other way around. To further this idea, as a human collective, we cocreate an emergent phenomenal world. In this aspect, “reality” is multidimensional, and each one of us has a version that is unique to us.  

Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Hegel, Dialectics and POSIWID:

3 thoughts on “Copernican Revolution – Systems Thinking:

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