Worldview shapers: Roots of worldviews and beliefs
We all have our views on the world, on life, and on issues. If we trace their origins we will find that they have resulted, for the most part, from our interactions with others through our personal and cultural environment. These include parents, teachers, and friends, as well as the books and newspapers we read, the programs we watch on TV, the movies we see, the places we visit, etc. The roots of beliefs and worldviews rest on three kinds of factors which may or may not overlap with one another in particular cases. We may call these worldview-shapers. They are as follows:
First, there is the logical framework of the human mind. Because of biological evolution the normal human brain functions in a particular way. There are clearly recognizable laws of thought which conform to what we call basic logical principles. Logical reasoning is an important capacity of the human mind, though not its unfailing characteristic. Practically all systems of thought—i.e. religions, philosophies and sciences—that reflect a worldview, have a logical basis.
Next, we rely on our own experiences. Any worldview is invariably the end-product of what we have ourselves experienced. In the scientific context, the goal is often to explain the experiences which are common to all normal humans. In speculative systems, where one goes beyond one’s immediate perceptions, personal experiences are important factors. Thus, for example, Thales of Miletus said that everything arose ultimately from water, because he had seen the river-based civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Likewise, our views on political, moral, social or religious questions are largely governed by our own personal experiences in these matters.
Finally, emotional and psychological factors also shape our views. We are creatures, not only of the mind, but of feelings and emotions as well. Feelings and emotions are more fundamental to our being than pure logic and reasoning. Consequently, these factors subtly come into play in the ideas we develop, the beliefs we hold, and the worldviews we accept. We are not always consciously aware of the operation of elementary logical principles which guide our thinking; likewise, we don’t always recognize the emotional undercurrents in our thoughts and behavior. Psychological factors giving rise to our worldviews arise for the most part from the human need to feel a sense of security, and our helplessness in the face of dangers that are implicit in the brute forces of nature.
In ancient worldviews, the logical framework is almost as fully present as in the modern scientific age. However, it is taken into account in a less formal way. The role of direct experiences which can be shared is much less apparent in ancient scientific systems. Indeed, there is relatively less conscious effort to reconcile a worldview with the facts and data of experience. Thus, the great Aristotle wrote that “Males have more teeth than females in the case of humans, sheep, goats, and swine; in the case of other animals, observations have not yet been made.”
Even if blatant contradictions are recognized between a firmly held belief and observed facts, in the ancient system one is not greatly perturbed by such discrepancies. Thus, even when comets appeared and disappeared without causing great catastrophes, people continued to believe that comets forebode bad things. In the modern scientific framework, data from observations are of primary important.
The third worldview shaper, which consists of the emotional and psychological components, played a major role in the ancient world. But one was largely unaware of their influence. These factors sometimes come into play in the modern scientific context also, but here one makes every effort to minimize and eliminate them as a determining element in the formulation of the scientific worldview..
Having said all this, it must be emphasized that ancient worldviews arose from the same urge to understand and explain the world that impels modern science. But that urge was satisfied more easily with what may strike the modern mind as simplistic answers. Thus, for example, from the observed impression of the rising and setting of the sun and stars it was concluded that the earth stands still while the firmament revolves around it. Often one made questionable extrapolations from observed facts. From the fact that there are seven apertures on the human face it was argued that there could be only seven planets in the heavens. There was also a general indifference to verifying statements that were propounded to be true, as in the case of Aristotle’s statement about the number of teeth in some animals. The requirement that statements must be subjected to observational tests before they are accepted may seem natural to the modern mind. But it was rarely taken seriously in the ancient framework.