Icebergs Don't Model Reality

Icebergs are lousy metaphors for mental models

The iceberg metaphor is a very popular one in parts of the Systems Thinking world and quite prevalent in general.

The basic logic is that we sense very little of what is actually going on— which is certainly true.

In this metaphor we see a “small iceberg,” while in actuality there is something far larger lurking deep in the ocean hidden from us by the glare of the water's surface and the fact that we live our lives on the surface.

The iceberg metaphor does not stop there; it is usually broken down into a model of ever deeper levels that determine the more surface levels.

It moves from surface level events to deeper patterns to the even deeper structures, and if we keep going down we come at the base to “mental models”. The mental determines the structure which determines the patterns and so on until we are back at the surface.

This is a Newtonian early Industrial Age model with a fixed, self-enclosed, and static object (the iceberg) trying hard to represent what is in fact an open, highly dynamic, networked, context responsive and emergent reality.

Additionally, the iceberg hides an almost theological and mechanistic model of a structure that produces patterned events that is governed by an all encompassing but invisible mind.

While this metaphor does help us sense that much of reality is invisible to us and does happen roughly in ways where we could talk about patterns at various scales — but it gets far too much wrong to be helpful.

Perhaps one of the biggest problems is the model of causality it suggests: the lowest levels determine the upper levels. Which gives one a false sense that if we can change this one thing everything else will also change.

Our reality is one of dynamic irreducibly relational emergent fields and processes where there is no fixed base level that determines all other levels.

Why? Emergent processes which do arise out of fields are:

  • Irreducible to what they emerge from
  • Have a global to local influence: what emerges shapes the “parts” that made it.

Whatever we place in the base level of the iceberg it is in actuality shaped by what has emerged from the system — and that is irreducible to it…

But then when we begin to explore the further ramifications of emergence — realizing how it plays a significant role in the shape of our reality such that there is no base level — the iceberg metaphor becomes profoundly debilitating…

Icebergs, nesting dolls, onions — this category of metaphors is not helpful.

What are more useful ways to conceptualize and perhaps visualize agency in our dynamic and surprising reality?

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