Worldviews and the World
Our worldview is, quite literally, the way we view the world. It is the manner in which we interpret the events of our lives and the world around us. In philosophy this is known as an epistemology, the way we know what we know. All philosophies are an attempt to explain and define their author’s worldview. Whether they utilize mythology, occult interpretation, philosophical rationalization, scientific empiricism, or direct interior observation, they are all attempts at explaining at least some small portion, if not the whole, of the universe.
Interestingly, not only do our philosophies describe the world, they change the world as well. Our understanding of the world determines how we behave in it, and our behavior inevitably alters the world. This eventually becomes a feedback loop, whereby the changes we make in the world evoke changes in our epistemology. Much of the epistemological crisis experienced by people from the Renaissance onward is due to the internal conflict this feedback loop generates. This is because, while it seems to be clear that we all move through various stages with ever-deeper worldviews, or frames of consciousness, we do not all move through them at the same pace, or in the same manner.
In his book, Quantum Jump, Canadian policy analyst W. R. Clement notes that the world, especially the Western world, is entering what he refers to as a second Renaissance. Clement explains that the first Renaissance was so strikingly different from the Middle Ages that preceded it because it manifested an entirely new epistemology. This new worldview then began to reinforce itself, spreading among a larger portion of the population until the feedback loop between internal and external change was unstoppable.
Clement points to several things driving this shift in viewpoint, from the development of perspective painting and the rise of humanistic philosophy to the spread of the use of clocks, which changed how we envisioned time. He also points out many of the developments he feels are driving the changes we see in the world around us today. These include Einstein’s theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, computer and Internet technology, and shifts in global political and economic structures. Clement believes that our world is not only changing due to global shifts in perspective, but that some places are lagging behind in these shifts to the detriment of themselves and everyone else.
Moreover, he feels that a new epistemology is necessary to cope with the changes being wrought by the current worldview. However, as he points out, “New eras tend to be turbulent and messy. There is little that can be done to guide new eras because they have all the subtlety of a bull elephant surrounded by a herd of cow elephants in heat. But, it is argued, new eras can be understood in their own terms. Before we can understand a new era we have to acknowledge that one is happening … and that is usually difficult to do. The reason for the difficulty is that new eras require new ways of perceiving the world.”[i]
It is true that the shift between worldviews can be a frightening transition, especially when the world around us is going through enormous changes as well. Shifts in worldview, however, are only likely to occur when change is present, whether it is internal or external. In New World New Mind, psychologist Robert Ornstein and biologist Paul Ehrlich point out that our human brains have evolved over several hundred thousand years to cope with a particular environment, namely the natural world. The world that we have created in the last five thousand years of civilization is extremely different from what our brains have evolved to comprehend. Moreover, the world we are creating in this new century widens the gap between our brain’s natural levels of perception and our manufactured environment to an extraordinary distance.
Cumulatively, this makes it difficult for us to properly determine threats within that environment. Contrasting the difference in perceived levels of threat between auto accidents and terrorist attacks, Ornstein and Ehrlich write, “Every month, hundreds of Americans are severely injured or killed because of underinflated tires or other results of poor maintenance of their cars. This is far more important for us to recognize than is a single terrorist murder. It does not register much in the caricatured mind, since tire inflation is scarcely as exciting as the exploits of the Symbionese Liberation Army…”[ii] This statement is still true even in the wake of September 11, 2001, and subsequent terrorist attacks around the world. While nearly three thousand people lost their lives in that horrible act of violence, we are not similarly horrified by the fact that some 30,000 people will die this year in automobile accidents. Our brains are naturally inclined toward large threats and have difficulty recognizing those that appear slowly or in abstract ways. This is exactly the problem not only with the world we are creating, but also with much of the technology we have invented and are in the process of producing.
Ornstein later collaborated with science historian James Burke on the book, The Axemaker’s Gift, exploring how technology has helped to define and alter our conscious perception of the world. Discussing the difficulties in rectifying the schism between our frames of consciousness and technology they make it clear that, “we are mentally so separated from the natural world around us by the axemaker gifts [technology] which have, over millennia, shaped every aspect of our lives, that both the gifts themselves as well as a change of consciousness need to be parts of the resolution.”[iii] It is only by shifting the way our minds perceive the world that we can resolve the conflicts that science and technology give birth to.
Some of the most interesting and informative research on worldviews has been done by psychologists Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson. In their book, The Cultural Creatives, they define three primary worldviews dominating North American culture. Questioning some 100,000 respondents over the course of a decade, Ray and Anderson discovered that roughly 25 percent of people would identify themselves as having a Traditional worldview, while 50 percent felt they had a Modern worldview, and the remaining 25 percent were trying to define a new worldview. Ray and Anderson label this third group Cultural Creatives, because they believe this group will be driving the cultural changes that occur in the coming century as we shift from a society dominated by a Modern perspective to one dominated by something else.
Ray and Anderson describe the Traditional worldview as “…a culture of memory. Traditionals remember a vanished America and long for its restoration. They place their hopes in the recovery of small-town, religious America, a hazy nostalgic image corresponding to the years from 1890 to 1903. This mythic world was cleaner, more principled, and less conflicted than the one that impinges on us every day today.”[iv]
In contrast, those with a Modern worldview “…are the people who accept the commercialized urban-industrial world as the obvious right way to live. They’re not looking for alternatives. They’re adapting to the contemporary world by assuming, rather than reasoning about, what’s important, especially those values linked to economic and public life.”[v]
Breaking with both of these worldviews, Cultural Creatives, or Postmoderns as I will refer to them, “like to get a synoptic view — they want to see all the parts spread out side-by-side and trace the interconnections. Whenever they read a book, get information on-line, or watch TV, they want the big picture, and they are powerfully attuned to the importance of whole systems.”[vi]
Encompassing and even wider perspective is the Integral worldview which, as Integral philosopher Ken Wilber describes in A Theory of Everything, sees “Life is a kaleidoscope of natural hierarchies (holarchies), systems, and forms. Flexibility, spontaneity, and functionality have highest priority. Differences and pluralities can be integrated into interdependent, natural flows.”[vii]
Changes in worldview bring new discoveries in science, which foster new technologies, which change the environment, changing the way we inhabit the environment and altering our culture, augmenting our minds, and changing our worldview. The process repeats infinitely, but, as we can see when we look out the window, the pace of this cycle seems to be accelerating. Most importantly, if our worldview fails to shift to one that is more encompassing, we can find ourselves behaving in a manner that is completely inappropriate for our new environment. Global warming is a perfect example of this, and a perfect example of clashing worldviews. Our use of technology has so altered the world that we cannot continue to live in it the way we have for the last century without severe consequences. Only by changing our perspective, and eventually changing our science, our technology, and the way we use them, can we escape this crisis.
The importance of recognizing that societies move through stages of cultural development lies in the fact that the world can best solve the problems it is creating by expanding its current worldviews for one that is eventually Integral — transcending and incorporating the valid insights of the Traditional, Modern, and Postmodern worldviews to view the world and its people holistically. This becomes increasingly imperative with the passing of each day. Unlike the situations our species has encountered in the past, we do not have the leisure of time on our side. When the Traditional worldview created problems, it did not tend to threaten the existence of the whole planet. Even the perilous world of nuclear proliferation that dominated the last half of the previous century gave us time to respond. While the science of nuclear power is Postmodern, its optimistic implementation as a defensive weapon and source of energy are completely Modern responses to a new technology. Fortunately for humanity and the planet, this technology remained in the hands of relatively Modern societies for much of its existence.
Now, with the dawn of a new century, nuclear proliferation is entering an even more dangerous stage as this technology increasingly falls into the hands of societies that are dominated by Traditional worldviews. Complicating matters further is the fact that the technologies we are implementing today, and those that we will be creating as this new century progresses, are often just as dangerous, if not more so, than nuclear power. Both genetic engineering and nanotechnology offer alarming potential for misuse, abuse, and accidental calamity.
Only by embracing the need for, and the desire to acquire, a wider, more Integral worldview will we be able to solve the problems we have created with our Traditional, Modern, and Postmodern perspectives. Moreover, because the rate of technological change continues to increase with every passing decade, we only have a limited window of time available to us for action. As powerful technologies become more widely available, we must strive to ensure that the most dangerous of them do not fall into the hands of those who would misuse them, due to their limited worldviews. We must also work to see that societies at every stage have available to them the technologies that will help them fully develop their potentials while wisely managing these new technologies to eliminate potentially dangerous circumstances.
Of course, an Integral worldview will inevitably create problems that can only be solved by transcending it as well. This Herculean journey we must embark on is only the first of many such journeys we need to take for the sake of the planet and our species. Fortunately, there is evidence to suggest there are several further stages of development available to us as individuals and as societies beyond those already discussed. These stages, to steal a phrase from psychologist Abraham Maslow, are the further reaches of human nature — the Spiritual stages of development. Ultimately, we must embrace a Spiritual worldview if we are to realize the full potential of the human species and avoid the destructive tendencies that so often cripple our best intentions and better natures.
[i] W. R. Clement, Quantum Jump, p. 103
[ii] Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich, New World New Mind, p. 117
[iii] James Burke and Robert Ornstein, The Axemaker’s Gift, p. 281
[iv] Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson, The Cultural Creatives, p. 80
[v] Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson, The Cultural Creatives, p. 27
[vi] Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson, The Cultural Creatives, p. 11
[vii] Ken Wilber, A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science and Spirituality, p.12-13. Note: Wilber is specifically referring to the Yellow stage of consciousness, the first of two stages of Second Tier thinking as described in the Spiral Dynamics model. For the purposes of simplicity, I am referring here to that stage alone as Integral, although elsewhere in the book it is clear that what I am calling an Integral worldview encompasses two separate stages in the Spiral Dynamics model.
The Alchemy of World and Soul is available at: