Starving for Worldviews

I have before talked about how to use monsters to advance worldviews and have suggested using ancient worldviews as scaffold for modern ones. I have also made attempts to figure out how worldviews evolve (although I think the previous analysis missed some crucial points).

In this essay I redefined worldview, and explain the modern problem of being starved for worldviews and propose how to solve it.

 

What is a Worldview?

A Worldview, is a “coherent collection of concepts allowing us to construct a global image of the world, and in this way to understand as many elements of our experience as possible.” (1)

Philosophy is – under this view – an attempt to answer the questions of worldview, that is, philosophy is the method to answer the problems posed by Worldviews.

Question Philosophical Discipline
1. What is? Ontology (model of reality as a whole)
2. Where does it all come from? Explanation (model of the past)
3. Where are we going? Prediction (model of the future)
4. What is good and what is evil? Axiology (theory of values)
5. How should we act? Praxeology (theory of actions)
6. What is true and what is false? Epistemology (theory of knowledge)

 

The Need for a worldview

Firstly, we “(…) all need a certain worldview, even if it is not made fully explicit, to interact with our world. There is a practical need to have at least an implicit, pre-ontological and for that reason “naive” answer for each of the worldview questions.” (1)

Further, in our modern times, we face a particular problem of meaningness. Here is David Chapman on it: “The atomized mode takes incoherence for granted. It does not seem a problem, in this mode; we don’t need systems. Meanings do not hang together. They are delivered as bite-sized morsels in a jumbled stream, like sushi flowing past on a conveyer belt, or brilliant shards of colored glass in a kaleidoscope. Or—to use the thing itself as a metaphor for itself—like Twitter.

The problems we have now: Throughout the twentieth century, from the beginning of the breakdown of the mainstream systems until the breakdown of subcultures, the underlying worry was “not enough meaning.” The atomized mode delivers, for the first time, way too much meaning. It is overwhelming, like trying to drink from a firehose.

Because the shards of meaning do not relate with each other, it’s impossible to compare them. There is no standard of value, so everything seems equally trivial. The collapse of subcultural community has atomized society, and we find it impossible to construct satisfactory selves from the jagged fragments of meaning we’re bombarded with.”

Modernisation and increasing specialisation led to fragmentation, distillation and diffusion of meaning and experiences. This diffusion lead to clashes.

As our world becomes further modernised and globalised the types of experiences available become incredibly diverse. This is a really short list of possible subcultures one can belong to (each reflecting a inchoate worldview). Then there is the different worldview tidbits one gets bombed with using any sort of media or under any sort of conversation. And finally, through social media, the need to present a coherent self-image to others, and thus to oneself.

 

Attempted Solutions

Traditional worldviews, which offered an integrated view of the world have failed:

“The religious worldview has no rational mechanism to resolve issues or disagreements; it gives no answer to contemporary developments, and thus is non-adaptive. There is a fundamentalism aspect in them. The traditional reductionist scientific worldview maintain determinism, claim that there is no goal- directedness, and thus no meaning. Holistic worldviews (e.g. “New Age”) are too fuzzy, irrational and impractical.

A humanistic worldview is too anthropocentric; it should consider seriously man in its broader context (evolutionary, ecological, cosmological, etc…). It can’t deal with problems such as the so-called singularity. What about a humanistic worldview if man had to disappear to let place to intelligent machines? Individualism is a value so widespread that it could be interpreted as a worldview. It is often viewed as the main problem of our society. On one side, it can mean one different worldview per person, and thus, no shared worldview. This lead to the claim that no worldview is better than another . To its extreme, this implies no common values and thus no common goals (relativism).”

Philosophy has failed as well to provide us with a worldview. Continental philosophy builds castles on moving sands, and analytic philosophy sets forests on fire. One has the virtue of a broad outlook, the other the virtue of clarity and precision. Yet a broad outlook without precision leads you to being not-even-wrong and clear destruction without any building effort leads you to blindness.

Traditional worldviews and philosophy have failed to live up to the challenge. In response, there have been two answers: trying to hold on to dead worldviews or trying to build new ones piece-meal.

Consumerism and Fundamentalism are the main choices for holding on to macro-shared wolrdviews. At the micro-level you have buffet like offer from rational AI focused, to reactionaries, to secular appropriations of religion.

I choose these examples because they are so different and yet are all an answer this same very modern problem: the jaggedness of meaning and the lack of a worldview that makes sense of our more-diverse-than-ever experience.

Fundamentally, there is problem of a mismatch between our worldview needs – given our drowning in meaning shards – and our worldview offers – given the the impact of modernisation and specialisation, and the failure of traditional worldviews and philosophy to live up to the challenge.

I call this mismatch between our need for worldviews, given our drowning in meaning, and the lack of encompassing, broad, responsible solutions that answer the problem our being starved for worldviews. We cannot make sense of incredibly diverse experiences.

 

Proposed solution: Worldview Building

I think that the ones building worldviews are taking the right step. We need not only continental and analytic philosophy, we need – more than ever – synthetic philosophy. This was what I called for with Modern(ised) philosophies for living.

Vidal (1) takes an interesting approach to worlview building.  He starts with a toy problem: building a scientific worldview – a worldview that unifies the finding from the various sciences. To do so he proposes a language, a stance and a guiding idea. The language is that of systems theory, the stance is that of problem-solving, and the guiding idea is evolution.

I don’t want to go into detail on his views just yet, but I do want to discuss some of his desiderata for a worldview.


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Desiderata of a worldview

 

One vs Many

Should one hold one worldview or have various and trigger conditions for shifting between worldviews? On the one hand singular worldviews have been dangerous in the past, on the other our problem is drowning in meaning shards.

My intuition is that many is best. Information will have to compressed and any particular worldview will either leave something out or be incoherent. Which leads to the second desiderata.

 

Completeness vs coherence

Should we aim for completeness or for coherence first? Here I side with Eugine:

“Also keep in mind that it’s more important to make your beliefs as correct as possible then to make them as consistent as possible. Of course the ultimate truth is both correct and consistent; however, it’s perfectly possible to make your beliefs less correct by trying to make them more consistent. If you have two beliefs that do a decent job of modeling separate aspects of reality, it’s probably a good idea to keep both around, even if they seem to contradict each other. For example, both General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics do a good job modeling (parts of) reality despite being inconsistent and we want to keep both of them. Now think about what happens when a similar situation arises in a field, e.g., biology, psychology, your personal life, where evidence is messier then it is in physics.”

 

No single man

This may be the toughest point for intellectuals to come to terms with. Ever since the knowledge explosion that one cannot know everything. This means that one has to rely on others for his worldview building efforts.

Having said that, there are high leverage concepts that illuminate whole areas of knowledge – like the theory of evolution by natural selection, or the idea of legibility and non-predictive control – and yes, the details are messy, but one can check it for coherence against other areas, then.

Secondly, there are various forms of intelligence augmentation in the form of cognitive tools, and this trend can be expected to continue.

Thirdly, one can craft heuristics to figure out how to get knowledge faster. (What I’ve been doing in my analysis of map-making)

 

Conclusion

We have analysed the origin of our drowning in meaning and our corresponding starvation for worldviews. We have seen how contemporary approaches have mainly failed at answering this problem. We have also sketched some desiderata for worldview building that will guide further attempts.

 

(1) Vidal, Clément (2008) What is a worldview? [Book Chapter] (In Press)

(2) Vidal, C. (2007). An enduring philosophical agenda. Worldview construction as a philosophical method.


 

 

 

 

Future:

Modern(ised) Philosophies for Living

I have a love-hate relationship with contemporary philosophy. I’m in the love with the need for it, the idea of it, the concept of it. But contemporary philosophy mostly annoys me.

Life is for living, and I want a practical philosophy of life, not reinterpretations of what Husserl thought that Kant thought about noema. I once read a description of modern philosophy and it went something like “Nature has cursed them with feeble bodies, and they take revenge by creating artificial systems.” And I think this is somewhat unfair, but not totally unfair.

Yes, thought, yes considerations, yes thinking, yes reflecting. But not to the exception of all else.

Plato means “broad shoulders” – Plato was, besides a philosopher, a champion wrestler.

Sure, we got through scholasticism in which we wasted our best philosophical minds to the study of theology.

And yes, sometimes ontology and metaphysics seem to be too far from real life to be of any use and I think they matter a bunch, and yes we need philosophy to examine our presuppositions. Sure. But not to the exclusion of all else.

And maybe I’m strawmanning all the way to Hell, but maybe not.

Modernised Philosophies for Living

On the difference between analytical and Continental philosophy:

“The heart of the analytic/Continental opposition is most evident in methodology, that is, in a focus on analysis or on synthesis. Analytic philosophers typically try to solve fairly delineated philosophical problems by reducing them to their parts and to the relations in which these parts stand. Continental philosophers typically address large questions in a synthetic or integrative way, and consider particular issues to be ‘parts of the larger unities’ and as properly understood and dealt with only when fitted into those unities.” (p.10.)

So analytic philosophy is concerned with analysis – analysis of thought, language, logic, knowledge, mind, etc; whereas continental philosophy is concerned with synthesis – synthesis of modernity with history, individuals with society, and speculation with application.

Neil Levy sees this methodological difference as well; in Metaphilosophy, Vol. 34, No 3, he describes analytic philosophy as a “problem-solving activity,” and continental philosophy as closer “to the humanistic traditions and to literature and art… it tends to be more ‘politically engaged.” Hans-Johann Glock remarks in  The Rise of Analytic Philosophy that “analytic philosophy is a respectable science or skill; it uses specific techniques to tackle discrete problems with definite results.”

So maybe philosophies for living would not be found in philosophy anymore and I’m just looking in the wrong place (1). It seems like therapy might be a place where to find them.

Scott talks about his field view on CBT: “I was taught the following foundation myth of my field: in the beginning, psychiatry was a confused amalgam of Freud and Jung and Adler and anyone else who could afford an armchair to speculate in. People would say things like that neurosis was caused by wanting to have sex with your mother, or by secretly wanting a penis, or goodness only knows what else. Then someone had the bright idea that beliefs ought to be based on evidence! Study after study proved the psychoanalysts’ bizarre castles were built on air, and the Freudians were banished to the outer darkness. Their niche was filled by newer scientific psychotherapies with a robust evidence base, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and [mumble]. And thus was the empire forged.”

CBT seems to be all the rage in rationalist circles because it is evidence-based. (It certainly is not because of how it appeals to the idea of “Change your thought patterns, change your life”, which of course is what debiasing appeals to.)

And CBT is mostly a rebranding and refashioning of Roman Stoic Philosophy.

Stoicism being, obviously, a philosophy for living:

  • If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this that disturbs thee, but thy own judgment about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgment now. (VIII. 47, trans. George Long)
  • Never regard something as doing you good if it makes you betray a trust or lose your sense of shame or makes you show hatred, suspicion, ill-will or hypocrisy or a desire for things best done behind closed doors. (III. 7, trans. Gregory Hays)
  • Not to feel exasperated or defeated or despondent because your days aren’t packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human—however imperfectly—and fully embrace the pursuit you’ve embarked on. (V. 9, trans. Gregory Hays)
  • […] As for others whose lives are not so ordered, he reminds himself constantly of the characters they exhibit daily and nightly at home and abroad, and of the sort of society they frequent; and the approval of such men, who do not even stand well in their own eyes has no value for him. (III. 4, trans. Maxwell Staniforth)
  • Take away your opinion, and there is taken away the complaint, […] Take away the complaint, […] and the hurt is gone (IV. 7, trans. George Long)
  • Do not act as if thou wert going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over thee. While thou livest, while it is in thy power, be good. (IV. 17, trans. George Long)
  • Of the life of man the duration is but a point. (II. 17, trans. C.R. Haines)

So maybe the least resistance path is to modernise old philosophies for living? Paint them in the modern color and use those as scaffolds to build off? (As this attempt at painting a rational, scientific, naturalistic take on Daoism)

Modernising Philosophies for Living

As far as I can see this idea of “philosophy of life” is reduced to a profile detail in dating websites. I also understand that to question worldview in such a way you need to reach a certain ego level. But I think this is very much a necessary project.

Religion has provided guidelines for years, and with the death of god fast approaching this project will be increasingly needed. (Most people that stop being deistic keep up remnants of Christianity – the case I know – once they leave it. Belief propagation isn’t automatic, it is a painfully long process. European society is built on Christianity. I don’t know what will happen when this particular Schelling point for morality and social behaviour is gone. Maybe just fundamentalism and consumerism. Hopefully.)

And I think the thesis above is great and that it needs to get out of paper and be acted upon and distributed. And I think CBT is great, but that the barrier of having to seek out therapy and find it is too high for it to be distributed.

But there is something that is not too high, in fact, that has a low barrier to entry, given the way humans are built: religion.

And this is why I’m so excited about Chapman’s effort to naturalise Buddhist Tantra. Tantra is for living, and life is to be lived.

Tantra is “an attitude; a stance; a way of being. It is the attitude of passionate and spacious engagement with this world. It is an ecstatic and agonizing love-affair with everyday reality.” “The excitement starts when you realize there is a whole religion built on this attitude. There is a system for putting the vision into practice, for intensifying and developing it, for making everything you do consistent with it.”

Yes, please.


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Future:

  • Philosophy can’t deal with these earthly concerns because the sociology of intellectuals is such that you gain attention by being more abstract and reflexive, and lose it by being less
  • Why was there an explosion of schools go philosophy for living in ancient Greece, China?
  • http://kevinsimler.quora.com/ on post-atheism
  • secular solstice