World Views, Belief Systems & Shifting Paradigms

"Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one." — Albert Einstein

This is Water—David Foster Wallace (Commencement Speech, 2005)

BulletBrain.jpgBullet to the Brain—Tobias Wolff

The meaning of the term worldview (also world-view, world view, and German Weltanschauung) seems self-evident: an intellectual perspective on the world or universe. Indeed, the 1989 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary defines world-view as a "... contemplation of the world, [a] view of life ..." The OED defines Weltanschauung (literally, a perception of the world) as "... [a] particular philosophy of life; a concept of the world held by an individual or a group ..." In Types and Problems of Philosophy, Hunter Mead defines Weltanschauung as [a]n all-inclusive world-view or outlook. A somewhat poetic term to indicate either an articulated system of philosophy or a more or less unconscious attitude toward life and the world ... In his article on the philosopher Wilhelm Dilthy in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, H.P. Rickman writes [t]here is in mankind a persistent tendency to achieve a comprehensive interpretation, a Weltanschauung, or philosophy, in which a picture of reality is combined with a sense of its meaning and value and with principles of action ... In "The Question of a Weltanschauung" from his New Introductory Lectures in Psycho-Analysis, Sigmund Freud describes Weltanschauung as ... an intellectual construction which solves all the problems of our existence uniformly on the basis of one overriding hypothesis, which, accordingly, leaves no question unanswered and in which everything that interests us finds its fixed place. James W. Sire, in Discipleship of the Mind, defines world view as ... a set of presuppositions ... which we hold ... about the makeup of our world.
—Taken from a 2001 paper by Ken Funk, Oregon State University



What is a World View?


The term worldview is used to refer to the common concept of reality shared by a particular group of people, usually referred to as a culture, or an ethnic group. Worldview is an individual as well as a group phenomenon.

worldview1.jpgHow Does Your World Work?
Worldview is a term for the mental organization in each individual's mind used to explain how the world works.

Expressions of commonality in individual worldviews make up the cultural worldview of the group. This leads to the social culture, the way people relate to one another in daily activities, and how they cooperate together for the good of the group as a whole—that is to say, society.

The Culture in Your Head
Essentially, every person has a culture in their head. This is their worldview. There is a bit of difference with each individual. The culture in their head, however, includes the areas allowed to be different and those required to be the same or similar. The rigidness or flexibility of the social culture will be a part of that worldview in each member's head and part of the general worldview.

Where do we get our World View?
How do we learn it? It appears that the human brain has innate powers of observation, analysis, and generalization. The human mind tries to make sense out of what it observes.

Patterns are generalized from the experiences and the bits of information and observations a child gathers in the early years. This is inductive learning and is largely subconscious. There is some commonality in our basic experience of the world, of other people and of life-events we share in common. There is also that variation of individual experience, of interpretation of that experience and of behavior based on knowledge gained from that experience.

An Ordered Sense of Reality
We view the world from the inside out, from within ourselves. We see it through an organizational "grid" developed by our own minds. That grid is made up of the points of contact and particular experiences we have with other components—human and non-human—of the world of which we are a part.

The attempt to develop an ordered sense of reality is determined, or at least guided by our earliest experiences and then altered by conscious and unconscious processes as we broaden our range of experiences. The earliest and most significant experiences of life appear to shape our basic concepts of reality. This process leads to what we call the worldview.

Because this sense of reality determines how an individual relates to other individuals, the way we express ourselves in behavior and language enables us to learn about someone's worldview. Language, for example, can give insights into the cultural worldview of the host culture.

Each culture's worldview is self-contained. It is adequate in the sense that it provides a coherent view of reality as perceived and experienced by the cultural group under consideration. Worldview denotes the complex of beliefs, concepts, sense of order and social constructs, role-models, and moral precepts that are unique and peculiar in comparison to other such complexes of other such socio-cultural groupings.
Thus – allowing for the principles of modification in each culture, and varying degrees of openness to change — each culture's worldview is adequate for that culture and thus valid in its own terms.

Adapted from:
Orville Boyd Jenkins
Copyright © Orville Boyd Jenkins 1999, 2004
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.

The Parable of the Elephant in the Dark

If six blindfolded people are asked to determine what an elephant looks like by feeling different parts of the elephant's body, they will each come up with something different. The one who feels a leg will think the elephant is like a tree; the one who feels the tail will think the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk will think the elephant is like a snake; the one who feels the ear will think the elephant is like a fan; the one who feels the belly will think the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk will think the elephant is like a spear.

The point is, they are all correct. The reason everyone explains the elephant differently is because each one touches a different part of the elephant. The elephant has all those different parts, and together those explanations begin to give a picture of what the whole elephant looks like. In fact, the elephant is more than the sum of its parts.

In the Sufi version of this ancient parable, the elephant is in a dark room. The 13th century Sufi poet and teacher Rumi tell us:

"If each had a candle and they went in together, the differences would disappear."

What Changes a Worldview?

What is Your World View?

The following material is taken from Thinking Critically by John Chaffee, pgs 50-51

"As we grow up, we learn how to think, feel, and behave in various situations. In addition to our parents, our "teachers" include brothers and sisters, friends, religious leaders, school-teachers, books, television and the Internet. Most of what we learn we absorb without even being aware of the process."

Answer the following questions, yes, no, or not sure, based on what you believe to be true.
  1. Is the Earth flat?
  2. Is there a God?
  3. Have alien life forms visited the planet?
  4. Should abortion be legal?
  5. Should same-sex marriage be allowed?

Slide19.jpgHow do you arrive at your answers? What influenced your thinking? How many of your ideas about these issues arose during childhood? How many were influenced by family and friends, or by teachers, by reading or media, or by your religious beliefs? Are any of your convictions in flux? Do any of these issues demand more than a yes or no answer?

Go through each question again and ask yourself, are there good reasons for your answers, reliable evidence for what you believe to be true? Can you explain why you believe the way you do? Can you offer the reasoning behind your answers?

EXAMPLE: Is the earth flat?
EXPLANATION: I was taught by my parents and in school that the earth is round.
  1. Authorities: My parents and teachers taught me this.
  2. References: I read about this in science text books and saw it in shows about the planet and the solar system.
  3. Factual Evidence: I have seen photographs taken from outer space that show that the earth is round.
  4. Personal Experience: I have flown across country and seen the curved horizon line moving.

Not all reasons and evidence are equally strong or accurate.
Until sometime near the close of the 15th century (Columbus sailed in 1492), the vast majority of commoners believed the earth was flat. This idea formed a common world view and was supported by reasoning and evidence. We can see otherwise. On the other hand, we don’t believe in the existence of other life in the universe, because we have found no evidence. 50 or 100 years from now that may seem as small-minded and ignorant as thinking the world is flat seems to us now. World Views, tend to be shared in common.

  1. Authorities: Educational and religious teachers taught that the world was flat.
  2. References: Some scientific experts wrote opinions supporting the belief that the world was flat, others, like Galileo opposed the belief, but were silenced by the Church.
  3. Factual Evidence: No one had circumnavigated the earth. (Ferdinand Magellan sailed around the world between 1519-1522.)
  4. Personal Experience: From a normal vantage point, the earth looks flat.

When did science learn that the earth was round and how did they learn it? Were there prejudices against this knowledge that kept it from becoming common knowledge? The following clip is from a TV show that aired in the 1980s, featuring cosmologist, Carl Sagan.

The Earth is Round

(from website Darwin vs Intelligent Design)
Ancient Egyptians had long known the earth was round. By stationing observers along hundreds of miles through the Nile valley, they were able to observe the angle to the sun at high noon on the same day. They determined that the earth was not only not flat, but that it had a curved surface, one that if logically extended, could also measure the circumference of the earth.

Aristotle (about 350BC) noted the shape of the earth by observing its shadow on the face of the moon during a lunar eclipse. But the Christian church held firm in its belief that the earth was flat. Not only did they hold that it was flat, they judged as criminal all who held a different view. Almost 1500 years after Aristotle, they jailed Roger Bacon (1214-1294) for 10 years for his views about the round earth. The Catholic Encyclopedia of the period says about Roger Bacon: "He was an author full of heresies and suspected views." The Christian Church held its flat earth views into the 16th century, and no one dared dispute it.

But then the telescope was invented, and it became increasingly apparent the earth was round. It wasn't long before reasonable people had to believe in a round earth, although definitive proof was yet to be available. Isaac Newton (1643-1727) provided the mathematical mechanism and physical reasoning that put the last nail in the flat earth coffin. Only the very ignorant or the very stupid continued to believe in a flat earth after Newton's time. Gradually, it became clear that scientifically determined facts were not necessarily detrimental to the Church, they could be incorporated and understood differently.


Russia Under Communism

Slide22.jpgOur world view often holds hidden implications. I traveled to Russia in the late 1980s, when it was still the Soviet Union. I was a delegate to a women's congress on peace and justice and thought of myself as having a very liberal attitude about the Soviet Union, especially because Mikhail Gorbachev was in power. He made many changes that brought greater freedom to the Russian populace. Still, I’d been taught by teachers and other authority figures to believe in the brutality of communist repression, so much so that I could not believe it when I saw people doing ordinary things like walking their dogs. I did not realize I carried this prejudice until I looked out of my hotel window in Moscow and saw joggers in the park below and people with dogs. I was so surprised I cried out "dogs!" to my roommate, as if it were an amazing thing. Only after spending time in the Soviet Union, did I began to gather a clearer understanding of what life was like for people living under a communist regime. I stopped seeing the situation in broad, general, black and white strokes, and was able to have a more nuanced understanding of the culture. —molly dwyer

Paradigm Shift

In 1962, Thomas Kuhn wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolution, and fathered, defined and popularized the concept of "paradigm shift." Kuhn argues that scientific advancement is not evolutionary, but rather is a "series of peaceful interludes punctuated by intellectually violent revolutions", and in those revolutions "one conceptual world view is replaced by another." Think of a Paradigm Shift as a change from one way of thinking to another. It's a revolution, a transformation, a sort of metamorphosis.

It doesn't "just" happen, rather it is driven by agents of change. For example, agriculture changed early primitive society. Indigenous societies existed for centuries, roaming the land constantly hunting and gathering for seasonal foods and water. However, by 2000 BC, landscapes of very small villages were developing, each surrounded by patchy fields of vegetables.

Another example is the paradigm-shift that moved scientific theory from the Ptolemaic system (the earth at the center of the universe) to the Copernican system (the sun at the center of the universe). And again from Newtonian physics to Relativity and Quantum Physics. Each of these movements eventually changed the world view. These transformations were gradual. Old beliefs were replaced by new paradigms.

Likewise, the printing press, the making of books and the use of vernacular language inevitably changed culture, and had a direct affect on the scientific revolution. Johann Gutenberg's invention in the 1440's of movable type was an agent of change. Books became readily available, smaller and easier to handle, and cheaper to purchase. Masses of people acquired direct access to the scriptures. Attitudes began to change as people were relieved from church domination. Similarly, agents of change are driving a new paradigm shift today. The signs are all around us. For example, the introduction of the personal computer and the Internet have impacted both personal and business environments, and is a catalyst for a Paradigm Shift. Newspaper publishing has been reshaped into Web sites, blogging, and web feeds. The Internet has enabled or accelerated the creation of new forms of human interactions through instant messaging, Internet forums, and social networking sites. We are shifting from a mechanistic, manufacturing, industrial society, to an organic, service based, information centered society, and increases in technology will continue to impact us globally.

Change is inevitable. It's the only true constant. For millions of years we have been evolving and will continue to do so. Change is difficult. Human Beings resist change; however, the process has been set in motion long ago and we will continue to co-create our own experience. Kuhn states that "awareness is prerequisite to all acceptable changes of theory." It all begins in the mind of the person. What we perceive, whether normal or not, conscious or unconscious, is subject to the limitations and distortions produced by our inherited and socially conditional nature. Still, we can and do change. We are moving at an accelerated rate of speed, and our state of consciousness is transforming.

—Quoted from Take a Leap

Point of View

Self Reflection

World View Quiz:
Belief System Quiz

A Few Resources

Thomas Kuhn & the Origin of the Paradigm Shift
20th Century View of 21st Century
21at Century View of 21st Century
Discussion of “truth
Discussion of “paradigm
Definitions of “world view
Definition of world view
Discussion of “belief systems
Chinese Artist & Activist Ai Weiwei

TED Talks

More Ted Talks
TED is a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out in 1984 as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design.