WORLDVIEWS, CONSCIOUSNESS, AND DEVELOPMENT An Essay by Paul Von Ward, MPA & MSc Stimulated by the purposes of the Spanda Foundation in November 2008 This NGO is dedicated to Peace, Knowledge, and Understanding through voolunteer and collective efforts.
Human consciousness is still very immature. We appear to have a psychological need to deceive ourselves. We pretend to have answers about the most fundamental issues - the nature of reality - when we have only more questions. We emotionally depend on such delusions. David Brooks, in an August 11, 2005 New York Times op-ed piece, wrote "while global economies are converging, cultures are diverging, and widening cultural differences are leading us into [an unprecedented] period of conflict, inequality and segmentation." I would call this deteriorating situation an "increasing fragmentation of species consciousness," where self-segregating cultures become more isolated using modern media technologies to further circumscribe their own members' minds. Obvious examples are the virulent religious antagonisms fueling 21st century terrorism and the disruptive divergences, often leading to violence, in most societies. Wealthy elites and sectarian cults have gone beyond traditional class barriers to separate themselves from many forms of "The Other." They build fortress neighborhoods and use divisive social policies to insure they are not "contaminated" by those who are different. Something more than superficial lifestyle choices are at work here. I submit there is an existential basis for this phenomenon. The human species appears to be engaged in a profound "re-tribalization" process, at a time when weapons for defending one's culture and territory far exceed the destructive power of rocks and clubs. The inability of a fragmented species to reach consensus impedes economic, political, and social progress, and may threaten its very survival. At a 2005 meeting of psychologists in California, several presenters gave talks that either explicitly or implicitly dealt with the role of worldviews with regard to individual development or societal trends. While no one attempted to give a "one-serves-all" definition of worldview, a number of participants stressed the need for a better understanding of the role of personal worldviews in shaping programs designed to support constructive social developments. That worldviews might be studied and used in broad social interventions leaves us dealing with something like the U.S. Supreme Court's definition of pornography: "You know it when you see it." While a working definition of a psychologically-based worldview is illusive, an attempt to understand and deal with unquestioned assumptions that color our view of reality is crucial in confronting the profound breakdown of comity threatening the global society. Let's pose the question "Why is it so difficult to get agreement on important global issues?" If two reasonable people have the same facts about an issue, should they not draw the same conclusions? The answer is "No." When two humans discuss any issue, they are likely to do so through two different - even mutually exclusive - a priori sets of assumptions or beliefs about the nature of reality and the human place in it. For all perceptual, emotional, and behavioral purposes, they live in two different realities. With such species dissociation, different groups are psychologically unable to draw compatible conclusions from the same fact. The worldview is central to individual consciousness, and imposes a personal order on the data perceived by both physical and intuitive senses. Such a mechanism is essential to human functioning. Without this core set of assumptions, the psyche would break up from the centrifugal forces of conflicting perceptions. Worldviews deal with the most basic questions in life. What is the design and purpose of nature? Why do things work as they do? One's worldview serves as his or her "lens" for interpreting self, others, and external events. It asserts answers like the following to the most fundamental of questions:
Yahweh created me. Mind rules. God/Allah decides all. Nature is neutral. Allah/God is just. Humans have free will. The universe is an accident. Life is governed by specific laws.
Because worldview assumptions derive from history and cultural practices, they are mutable through experience or new learning. We can change them through a rational transformation of specific beliefs. Sometimes such transformations can also be stimulated by powerful subjective experiences. In either case the person considers and tests alternatives (based on new inner or external evidence) to his or her ingrained worldview. However, such change is not easy and requires several steps of conscious reevaluation and change. The first step is the most simple, yet the most difficult: Recognition that my perception of reality is based on assumptions that may be true or may not be true. If this first step does not stir up strong emotional reactions in the individual, it is likely that one is not yet dealing with worldviews as defined in here. An intellectual discussion of worldviews that does not touch on the deeper and most strongly held beliefs remains a superficial exercise. When a person cannot find empirical evidence which someone who does not share his or her worldview will accept, he or she must conclude that they are taking something on faith. It is this "taking on faith of one's group's assumptions" as absolute truth that leads to fragmentation of societal consciousness. For instance, in the context of religious and spiritual worldviews, the United States of America is in effect a "polytheistic" society. Let me explain. An individual is not thought of as polytheistic, i.e., worships more than one god, but a nation can be. However, most Americans do not perceive their country as polytheistic. However, the evidence suggests America's aggregate worldview is actually "polytheistic." All people do not believe in or worship the same deity. They actually worship their own worldview's assumptions about that so-called deity. Since many of these assumptions are mutually incompatible, groups really believe and behave in a "polytheistic" way. Although they may use the same words their definitions are so widely different that they, for all practical purposes, live under and worship different gods. Thus, the citizens of the United States (and most large nations) are deluding themselves by thinking they understand each other. The reality is that they live in widely divergent realities. To the extent groups believe their concept of "god," by whatever name, and their "god's word" (as interpreted by them) is The Truth, they set themselves apart from all others with no less certainty than Babylonians who worshiped Ba'al and Hebrews who worshiped Yahweh 3,000 years ago. No wonder the Muslim Quran, from the third and newest of Western religions after Judaism and Christianity, describes polytheism as a path to Hell. Because each group's assumptions are shaped by faith, based on a priest/rabbi/imam's inspirations (likely to be infinite in number), over time the diverging worldviews result in deeper fragmentation of human consciousness. The resulting psychological and behavioral sects or cults increase the potential for political and physical conflicts. Similar unquestioned assumptions exist in the secular world and among spiritual groups outside the three Western supernatural traditions. Even scientists who have taken the latest discovery about nature as the Final Answer are as fixated in unquestioned faith as the religious. Consequently, to understand the depth and complexity, and the threat to human survival, of the current maelstrom of worldviews that socially and politically rend today's world, we must look deeper than the traditional labels. Such an analysis is necessary to understand how to cope with members of any group that would impose their fixed views on development issues. We must keep in mind that this problem is not limited to religious worldviews. Scientific theories and philosophical schools are also based on assumptions and beliefs founded on partial evidence, always subject to revision based on new evidence and experience. When such secular groups holding them also consider their worldviews as The Truth, and dismiss other ways of knowing, they are in effect worshiping their own divergent "reality-gods." Until we find a way to transcend the hardened worldviews that now divide the species, we will not be able to "put Humpty Dumpty (the fragmentation of human consciousness) back together again." To help pierce the defensive shields of the superficial labels and symbols described here, we as individuals, NGO groups, and political activists must look honestly at the non-self-evident assumptions that underlie our own conflicting worldviews. The first and essential step requires each of us to honestly admit to which of our own worldview assumptions are based on faith and partial evidence, a faith that we cannot expect some one else to accept just because we believe it. The second step requires a recognition that when it comes to blind faith in any set of beliefs, one person's sight is as good as another.
[Paul Von Ward, MPA & MSc, with graduate degrees from Harvard and Florida State University, is an independent scholar. His decades of public service included roles as Christian minister, U.S. naval officer, U.S. diplomat and State Department official. For 15 years he led the cross-cultural NGO Delphi International as Founder and CEO. Email: Paul.Von-Ward@post.Harvard.edu. Website: www.vonward.com.)