Thursday, December 17, 2015

When World Views Clash (and when don’t they?)

The former prime minister of Australia, Tony Abbott, recently stated in an article in an Australia newspaper: ‘Cultures are not all equal. We should be ready to proclaim the clear superiority of our culture to one that justifies killing people in the name of God.’

Where to begin with the issues raised by a comment like this?

First of all, I want to make some obvious points, which nevertheless are rarely made. What we believe, we believe to be true. A tautology? Possibly. The point is that we believe ‘facts’, accept ideas, adopt values because we think they reflect reality at one level or another. Our world view is precisely that, an understanding of the world, because we think—at least at some level—that the world is really like that. (It is tempting to put so many of these words in quotation marks, because their meaning is so slippery and elusive.) We may not always be fully conscious or aware of our own basic world view, but it is there if we dig deeply enough.

So, if I believe that the world is created by a supreme, divine being who has some purpose for this world and for me personally, it is an inevitable corollary of this that I think those who don’t believe in such a being are mistaken. Their view of the world is inaccurate, inappropriate—in some way ‘inferior’ to mine—if the superiority of a belief system is measured in terms of how accurately it reflects ‘reality’. (Here come those damn quotation marks again!)

If we hold to a particular view of the world (and who doesn’t?) it is, therefore, somewhat disingenuous to claim, for example, that all belief systems are ‘equally valid’. It is, of course, entirely possible to hold such a view, but it must, paradoxically, exclude those belief systems (most of them, I suspect) which don’t share it. We may acknowledge someone’s right to hold a view that is different to our own, but we nevertheless believe our own world view to be correct. At least provisionally correct; the best we can do at the moment. There remains here, at least, the acknowledgement that no world view is actually complete or perfect; that additional information may require us to modify that point of view; and that perhaps, on some issues at least, the jury is currently out. The more one is convinced of the truth (read ‘superiority’) of our own world view—some might say, the stronger our ‘faith’—the less room there is for such tolerance, ambiguity and uncertainty.

The second point I want to make I will pose as a question: what criteria can we use to evaluate a culture or world view? The difficulty here is that we can only do so from within our own. I know of no way to elevate ourselves above all cultures and adopt some entirely objective perspective. Consider the points I made in the previous paragraph. They reflect my world view. I believe that a certain humility vis à vis questions of truth is a good thing. I believe that some ambiguity and uncertainty about the nature of reality is inevitable. This is not true of all things. Some issues I believe to be settled. For me, the jury is not out on everything. With respect to those things about which my mind is firmly made up, I will be less tolerant of divergent opinions. I will acknowledge a person’s right to a different point of view, which is actually code for acknowledging their right to be wrong. But this acceptance of ambiguity and this (limited) tolerance of other points of view are not shared by everyone. There are plenty of belief systems in which doubt is anathema, in which truth is absolute and unambiguous. People hold to those views as firmly as I hold to mine, probably more so. Am I right, or are they right? Of course I think I am right. But is there some higher, objective position from which I can claim this with certainty? I don’t believe so. They probably do, and they call it god (by whatever name). So even the question of whether there is some higher, more objective perspective from which to determine ‘truth’ may or may not constitute part of someone’s world view. Herein lies the path to infinite regress.

I heard the new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau say the other day, with regard to diversity: ‘The elements on which we are similar are far greater than the elements on which we are diverse.’ I don’t doubt that this is true, in simple, quantitative terms. Nevertheless, it is always the differences that loom largest in our minds. We may agree about 99% of things, but it is the 1% about which we disagree that occupies our time and attention. Qualitatively, the one per cent comes to matter much more than the ninety-nine per cent. Is this something deeply ingrained in our psyche over the course of evolution? After all, it is precisely the differences between organisms that drive the process of evolution. Psychologically, I think it is very difficult to focus on the ninety-nine per cent and not be constantly drawn back to the one percent.

I always fall back on this position: while I cannot give definitive answers to questions such as these, I think it is important that they be raised. We need to bring questions like these to the forefront of our minds whenever we are considering the important issues with which the current social and political state of the world confronts us. We need to be aware of our own world view and its limitations. We need to acknowledge our own areas of doubt and uncertainty. At the same time, we need to be aware of the issues that are, in our mind, unambiguous and non-negotiable. We need to be aware of what constitute, for us, absolutes, while at the same time acknowledging our inability to justify their absolute status. In doing this we acknowledge the limits of our certitude without necessarily abandoning it. We need to be aware that we cannot transcend our own perspective. No matter how many steps we take along the infinite regress towards objectivity, we always remain securely ensconced within our own limited point of view.

Life is always much simpler for those who live in certainty and are guided by absolutes. Unfortunately, the world is also made more dangerous by them. As long as they live exclusively within a culture which shares their world view—they imagine such exists—everything is just peachy. When they come up against a world view that is different from theirs, war is inevitable.

If for no other reason than that it may help to avoid war and promote the survival of our species, I will advocate for uncertainty and ambiguity every time. This means, of course, that uncertainty and ambiguity are among my absolute non-negotiables. What happens when my belief system clashes with one in which these very things are totally anathema? Let’s just say that I wouldn’t want to be at a dinner party with Tony Abbott and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. At such a dinner party they might find themselves surprising allies against me.


  1. Interesting... very interesting. Yes, we, as humans always seem to be looking at difference - bigger, brighter, better, better God, better philosophy, to find what distinguishes each one of us from 'the other'... look in the mirror ... we are 'the other'. If we are the smartest animal on the planet, mmmm poor planet. I believe that last statement to be true.

  2. A thoughtful piece, Philip. I think I agree with the general thrust: there is too much certainty, not enough readiness to question one's own world view. Thanks for posting this.