In response to a comment on my blog, I issued a snarky tweet (and repeated it on Facebook) to the effect that if your argument involves the phrase “World View” you might be wrong. This led to a number of light hearted but snarky, and often helpful, responses on Facebook and Twitter indicating that the term “World View” could mean a lot of different things, such as opinion, paradigm, or point of view. So I thought I’d expand on the concept a bit. In short, “World View” does not mean any of those things, and is in fact a term with a very weighty and rather specific meaning.
The term is an English translation of the German “Weltanschauung.” I’ll leave it to the philosophers reading this to discuss the meaning of that term and its history. When I refer to the term I am talking about the way it is used today in arguments about evolution, creationism, and possibly matters related to religion. In this area of discussion, World View (or Worldview, if you like) is a lot like Steven Gould’s “Magisteria” but mostly it is a simple dog whistle.
Paradigms are general ways of approaching a related set of problems, with a number of agreed upon assumptions, accepted facts, and widely accepted models for how things work. People with different paradigms recognize, or should recognize, that their differences are resolvable with more information. Or, everyone may have the same paradigm and then over time the ruling paradigm is challenged from various sources, and finally overturned in the famous Kuhnian Paradigm Shift. Which has probably happened very few times the way Kuhn described it, leading us to consider the possibility that the Kuhnian paradigm of paradigm shifting has … shifted. Anyway, that’s paradigm.
Point of view is a bit different. Multiple points of view may exist at the same time even with a commonly held set of assumptions and a common knowledge base. But people can have different points of view because of the way they prioritize various parts of the problem. For instance, we can all have and hold the same basic facts about nature and human-nature interactions, but some will see nature as a source of human usable resources while others will see humans as an invasive and damaging species that needs to be controlled for the benefit of nature. Different points of view.
I first grappled with the concept of World View while working with my friend Mischa Penn in developing courses on race and racism for high school teachers. Like Gould’s non-overlapping Magisteria, World Views are different sets of assumptions that are a) not resolvable and b) lack possible resolution because everyone agrees you can’t and don’t need to. This is an important distinction. Two different religions may have two different savior-messiah entities, each purported to be the messiah to the exclusion of others. But that can’t be true. The belief in each messiah excludes belief in the others. People living together in a single society with these two messiahs can not resolve this difference. I won’t go into the World View issue in relation to race and racism as that would involve too much work for a mere blog post, and a careful reading of a great deal of literature in Spanish. But in the area of evolution vs. creationism the meaning is obvious. Science is a world view. Evangelical fundamentalist Christianity is a different world view. Individuals can have both sets of beliefs mixed up in their brains, but really, the two are in fact utterly irreconcilable.
When an argument is advanced that “I’m OK, and You’re OK” but we have different world views, or even “I hate you” and we have different World Views, the interlocutor is saying that it is possible to describe the world around us in two different but irresolvable ways. When I hear that from creationists, what I really hear is “I’ve run out of way to argue that the science is wrong, please don’t hurt me.” When I hear this from scientists, what I really hear is “your religion is wrong, science rules, but I can’t say that out loud and also go to Thanksgiving Dinner with my family.”
There are no valid alternate World Views. If there are two World Views competing in a certain conversation, one is wrong. They could both be wrong, of course, but not if one of them is science.
“World View” … the dog whistle that says “I know you’re right, please don’t hurt me.”