Not even falsifiable: Worldviews as fashion


Three seemingly unrelated cases: 1) When Kissinger allegedly asked the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai about the impacts of the French Revolution, he replied it was “too early” to tell; 2) Popper claimed in the Open Society and its Enemies that we are still “living the impact of leaving the closer (tribal) society [of hunter-gatherers into civilisation]”; 3)the feelings expressed here. (The [contemporary] author reads (19th Century) Jules Vernes and  summarizes the experience as such “The perusal of this book left me repeatedly struck not just with a case of -am-not-buying-into-this-improbable-event-in-your-plot, but with actual discomfort”. This discomfort is caused by the perceived imorality or amorality of the authors assumptions.)

These three share some characteristics: They are amusing, and curious; and difficult to engage with. Are these statements right or wrong, true or false? Is it true that is was too early to tell about the French Revolution’s impact? Is it true we are still, as a society, suffering the growing pains from leaving the hunter-gatherer life? Was Jules Vernes wrong in describing gigantic octopi as“monstrosities of nature”?

It almost feels like a category error to apply these terms to these cases.

It seems like a category error to apply these terms because it is: the ideas are very real in a sense, but not pinned down enough for truth/false or right/wrong to even apply. (In contrast “All men are mortal”  seems pinned down enough to be truth-apt and trolley problems are examples of thought experiments that are precise enough that their rightness/wrongness can be talked about.)

Even if, in fact, the statements cited are not pinned down enough to be talked about in those terms they must be important – it seems that people operate from that level, think at that level in everyday discourse.

So the question insinuates itself: what is this level?

I suspect each of those statements to be reflections of worldviews. That is why the first answer became famous: it is very alien to our (Western) worldview to imagine the events of the French Revolution are not settled after 200 years. It is unclear how long it would take to have them be settled, but certainly less than 200 years. The second one is significant in the way of its time largess as well – it makes a claim that says the same about 10,000 years ago. The third one is also a clash of worldviews, but at the level of what is and isn’t right.

A worldview is “(…) a way of describing the universe and life within it, both in terms of what is and what ought to be. A given worldview is a set of beliefs that includes limiting statements and assumptions regarding what exists and what does not (either in actuality, or in principle), what objects or experiences are good or bad, and what objectives, behaviors, and relationships are desirable or undesirable. A worldview defines what can be known or done in the world, and how it can be known or done. In addition to defining what goals can be sought in life, a worldview defines what goals should be pursued. Worldviews include assumptions that may be unproven, and even unprovable, but these assumptions are superordinate, in that they provide the epistemic and ontological foundations for other beliefs within a belief system.” (1)

Zhou’s quote is enticing because of how alien it is: it subtly clashes against the “assumptions that may be unproven, and even unprovable (…) that provide the epistemic and ontological foundations for other beliefs” within our belief system.

It is enticing because it allows us to see into something that our worldview leaves hidden. It suggest something that could never have been considered from the standpoint of the existing worldview because it violates it.


Mechanism of selection

Let us assume that the sentences cited do reflect worldviews. Worldviews have unprovable, unfalsifiable assumptions. How would one go about figuring out if it is or is not too early to tell about the effects of the French Revolution? Or whether it is wrong to declare gigantic octopi to be “monstrosities of nature”?

So how do worldviews change? Why is animism not in vogue anymore?

Evolutionary processes

Let us also take evolution as a model. Evolution is a process that changes the characteristics in a population over generations. It does so through three mechanisms: Variation, Selection, and Retention.

Firstly, the elements of the population have to differ in some form. Secondly, there must be some criteria to select some elements over the others, and thirdly, selected elements must reproduce elements that are similar to them. Once these three are in place, evolution by natural selection follows.


Science as an evolutionary process

Applying the model above (and falsifiability as the criteria of what is scientific) we can posit that if theories are falsifiable, and selected for surviving falsification attempts then one can expect this mechanism to retain theories that are more encompassing and more precise. (As a virtue of having survived falsification attempts that weeded out less encompassing, less precise theories.)

This is what happens going from Classical mechanics to Modern Physics. The criteria was falsifiability and Classical Mechanics failed to account for very small objects and very high velocities. Modern Physics was developed to account for this, turning Classical Mechanics into a special case of itself.

If worldviews are unfalsifiable, then what are they being selected for? What is originating world view evolution?


A brief interlude on how fashion works

Here is a parsimonious explanation of fashion as an instance of a counter-signalling hierarchy by Scott Alexander : “Consider a group of people separated by some ranked attribute. Let’s call it “class”. There are four classes: the upper class, the middle class, the lower class, and, uh, the underclass.

Everyone wants to look like they are a member of a higher class than they actually are. But everyone also wants to avoid getting mistaken for a member of a poorer class. So for example, the middle-class wants to look upper-class, but also wants to make sure no one accidentally mistakes them for lower-class.

But there is a limit both to people’s ambition and to their fear. No one has any hopes of getting mistaken for a class two levels higher than their own: a lower-class person may hope to appear middle-class, but their mannerisms, accent, appearance, peer group, and whatever make it permanently impossible for them to appear upper-class. Likewise, a member of the upper-class may worry about being mistaken for middle-class, but there is no way they will ever get mistaken for lower-class, let alone underclass.

So suppose we start off with a country in which everyone wears identical white togas. One day the upper-class is at one of their fancy upper-class parties, and one of them suggests that they all wear black togas instead, so everyone can recognize them and know that they’re better than everyone else. This idea goes over well, and the upper class starts wearing black.

After a year, the middle class notices what’s going on. They want to pass for upper-class, and they expect to be able to pull it off, so they start wearing black too. The lower- and underclasses have no hope of passing for upper-class, so they don’t bother.

After two years, the lower-class notices the middle-class is mostly wearing black now, and they start wearing black to pass as middle-class. But the upper-class is very upset, because their gambit of wearing black to differentiate themselves from the middle-class has failed – both uppers and middles now wear identical black togas. So they conceive an ingenious plan to switch back to white togas. They don’t worry about being confused with the white-togaed underclass – no one could ever confuse an upper with a lower or under – but they will successfully differentiate themselves from the middles. Now the upper-class and underclass wear white, and the middle and lower classes wear black.”

Fashion as an evolutionary process

Fashion is (in the model above) an example of a counter-signalling hierarchy. Human artifacts (clothing) are being selected to distinguish between classes in the interest of displaying status.

The generalized claim is that humans artifacts (like theories, worldviews, ideas, art, clothing, technology) that do not have a significant selection mechanism (like science has falsifiability) will fall into the domain of a more primal selection mechanism. (Thus there is always a selection mechanism at work by default. Institutions can override a particular selection mechanism.)

These more mundane mechanism involve all the things that humans are selected and select for: resource acquisition, status, protection, and so on.


What the model explains

According to this model you would explain several changes in fields which are not aimed anywhere, not better than the previous one in any significant way, but just different and taking it into account. This is the case for Art movements and their evolution, Cultural movements and their evolution (Are “emos” better than “surfers” better than “hipsters”? Is “Cubism” better than “Dadaism”?), worldviews and their evolution (The emerge of postmodernism and of new movements fighting to substitute it, and after that, whichever movement wins out we can expect new fighting for substitution.)

It also explains Kuhn’s description of scientific revolutions (“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”) which, applies beautifully to massive scale memetic changes (end of acceptance slavery, end of communism, generalised contemporary pro-democracy, everyone knowing that Freud and Descartes are wrong about everything without ever having read them.) (2)

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  1. Koltko-Rivera, M. E. (2004). The Psychology of Worldviews. Review of General Psychology, 8(1), 3.
  2. Necessary disclaimer: “This historical fact about the origin of anger confuses all too many people.  They say, “Wait, are you saying that when I’m angry, I’m subconsciously trying to have children?  That’s not what I’m thinking after someone punches me in the nose.” No.  No.  No.  NO! Individual organisms are best thought of as adaptation-executers, not fitness-maximizers.  The cause of an adaptation, the shape of an adaptation, and the consequence of an adaptation, are all separate things.  If you built a toaster, you wouldn’t expect the toaster to reshape itself when you tried to cram in a whole loaf of bread; yes, you intended it to make toast, but that intention is a fact about you, not a fact about the toaster.  The toaster has no sense of its own purpose.”

  • What are the forces that change the cultural matrix of society? What forms the zeitgeist? Where do the reigning cultural grand narratives, or cultural myths [or ideologies, frames, cultural narratives, the unseen, world views, social imaginary) come from?
  • How do worldviews develop and propagate through society? (People say stuff like “You have your opinion and I have mine, it’s all opinions”, “it’s all relative”, “truth is relative”, etc. These ideas did not originate in them but in postmodernism  How do these ideas propagate?)
  • How does this analysis relate to Chapman’s stances and systems?
  • Identity/need for affiliation as the force behind all shared worldviews.
  • These are probably part of the solution of how to interact with such statements

4 thoughts on “Not even falsifiable: Worldviews as fashion

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