Exploring Worldviews/Aligning worldviews

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It is wise to align our worldviews with the real world.

The age of enlightenment arose from a clash of worldviews.[1] The Pope insisted the earth was the center of the universe, while Galileo examined the evidence and concluded that the earth revolves around the sun. The Pope’s power prevailed over Galileo’s evidence for many years. Clashing worldviews continue to provoke conflict as the world turns!

Each of us creates and maintains a collection of mental models we use as our conception of the world. This is called our worldview and we use this worldview to interpret observations, make decisions, and plan for the future. We may be unaware of the nature, extent, and influences of our particular worldview. Many people are not consciously aware of their worldview, and they may struggle to describe or explain their worldview.

Our worldviews are formed as we strive to understand the vast and complex world we live in. Throughout our lives we accumulate a collection of rules, assumptions, aphorisms, folklore, old wives’ tales, analogies, conjectures, generalizations, stereotypes, biases, taboos, misconceptions, myths, dogma, ideologies, and other stories. Each of these mental models provides a simplified shortcut for making decisions, interpreting observations, and predicting what will happen next. Together these form our worldview — our deeply held assumptions and schema we rely on for making sense of the world.

Evidence that is available to us is filtered through our confirmation biases — our tendency to select information that confirms our beliefs — and interpreted through our worldview. A recursive or positive feedback loop exists between our current beliefs and our confirmation biases that creates and sustains our worldview. In the absence of a worldview and confirmation bias, our current beliefs would be based heavily, if not entirely, on the most recent, relevant, and reliable evidence we have been exposed to. However, our beliefs accumulate over time to form our worldview. At the same time our worldview is influencing how we interpret each new piece of evidence. Our beliefs and worldviews inform our confirmation bias, which selects, ignores, emphasizes, discounts, and interprets each new piece of evidence in ways that tend to confirm our existing beliefs.

Our worldviews are deeply embedded within us. They are mental habits that form an important part of our identity. We are typically unaware of our worldviews, and they resist change. In the same way fish are unaware of the water they live in, we are often unaware of the worldview we live in. Our worldviews influence our emotional responses, habits, addictions, fears, and phobias as well as our beliefs about descriptive knowledge.

Stated in probabilistic terms, our worldview establishes a Bayesian prior probability that is activated whenever we encounter new information. Depending on our epistemic humility, firmness, and open-mindedness, encountering new information may influence and update our prior probability and change our worldview, or we may avoid, discount, or dismiss the new evidence.

Because we rely on mental models to represent our world, we can be misled if those models are not accurate. As George Box tells us, “All models are wrong, some are useful”. Because our mental maps are not the territory, our worldview — our mental maps of the world — often misrepresent the world to us. Travelers know that when the map disagrees with the terrain, it is wise to follow the terrain and correct the map so that it represents the terrain more accurately. Beware the treachery of images, regardless of how vivid, comfortable, influential, or popular the images are. To improve our thinking, we can continuously realign our worldview with reality.

Perhaps when she noticed we often follow the map rather than the terrain poet Anaïs Nin was inspired to observe, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” It seems wise to align our maps with the terrain, so we are not misled as we travel through life.

Any number of worldviews is possible. It is likely that each of us hold a worldview that is somewhat different from others. Of all the possible worldviews, one particular worldview is especially important. That is the worldview that corresponds to reality as closely as our best current understanding of reality allows. Because reality exists, we can examine reality, and we can align our worldview with reality. Because we all live in one world, reality is our common ground.

It is wise to align how you think the world is with how it actually is. Seek true beliefs to align your worldview with reality.

As our understanding of reality becomes more accurate, we can update and improve the accuracy of our worldview based on reliable new information. As John Maynard Keynes quipped “When the facts change, I change my mind — what do you do, sir?” Whenever you encounter reliable information that is outside your worldview and contradicts your beliefs, we face an important choice. You can investigate the new information, reevaluate your beliefs, assimilate the new information and change your beliefs to become more accurate. Or you can ignore, dismiss, discount, or explain away the contradictory information.

If we can stand in the gap between observation and interpretation, we can watch our worldview at work. Create a pause to consider what you directly observed, experienced, or learned and what the various interpretations are that can be assigned to that observation. Why did that driver cut in front of me in traffic? Was he carless? Perhaps it was an emergency. What evidence is there that he is out to get me? He never met me. It could be any of these reasons and because you have no way of knowing it is senseless to become angry. When you notice the eastern sky brighten at dawn, is it because the sun is rising or is it because the earth turning? How do you know?

Each of us is propelled by hope and constrained by reality. We can escape ideology. We can stand in the gap and separate observation from interpretation. We can see beyond illusion. Aligning our worldview with reality is the essential task of enlightenment. Get real. We can create a real good future for all of us.

  1. This learning resource is adapted from the previously-published essay The Essential Task of Enlightenment, and is used here by permission of the author.