What is a world view?
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What is a world view?

One of the biggest problems of present society is the effect of overall change and acceleration on human psychology. Neither individual minds nor collective culture seem able to cope with the unpredictable change and growing complexity. Stress, uncertainty and frustration increase, minds are overloaded with information, knowledge fragments, values erode, negative developments are consistently overemphasized, while positive ones are ignored. The resulting climate is one of nihilism, anxiety and despair. While the wisdom gathered in the past has lost much of its validity, we don't have a clear vision of the future either. As a result, there does not seem to be anything left to guide our actions.

What we need is a framework that ties everything together, that allows us to understand society, the world, and our place in it, and that could help us to make the critical decisions which will shape our future. It would synthesize the wisdom gathered in the different scientific disciplines, philosophies and religions. Rather than focusing on small sections of reality, it would provide us with a picture of the whole. In particular, it would help us to understand, and therefore cope with, complexity and change. Such a conceptual framework may be called a "world view".

The Belgian philosopher Leo Apostel has devoted his life to the development of such an integrating world view. As he quickly understood, the complexity of this task is too great for one man. Therefore, a major part of Apostel's efforts were directed at gathering other people, with different scientific and cultural backgrounds, to collaborate on this task. Only in the last years of his life, after several failed attempts, did he managed to create such an organization: the "Worldviews" group, which includes people from disciplines as diverse as engineering, psychiatry, theology, theoretical physics, sociology and biology.

Their first major product was a short book entitled "World views, from fragmentation to integration". This booklet is a call to arms, a program listing objectives rather than achievements. Its main contribution is a clear definition of what a world view is, and which are its necessary components. The "Worldviews" group has continued to work on different components and aspects of this general objective. Many of its members are also involved in a new interdisciplinary research center at the Free University of Brussels, which is named after Leo Apostel: the "Center Leo Apostel".

The book lists seven fundamental components of a world view. I will discuss them one by one, using a formulation which is slightly different from the one in the book, but which captures the main ideas.

A model of the world
It should allow us to understand how the world functions and how it is structured. "World" here means the totality, everything that exists around us, including the physical universe, the Earth, life, mind, society and culture. We ourselves are an important part of that world. Therefore, a world view should also answer the basic question: "Who are we?".

The second component is supposed to explain the first one. It should answer the questions: "Why is the world the way it is? Where does it all come from? Where do we come from?". This is perhaps the most important part of a world view. If we can explain how and why a particular phenomenon (say life or mind) has arisen, we will be able to better understand how that phenomenon functions. It will also help us to understand how that phenomenon will continue to evolve.

This extrapolation of past evolution into the future defines a third component of a world view: futurology. It should answer the question "Where are we going to?" It should give us a list of possibilities, of more or less probable future developments. But this will confront us with a choice: which of the different alternatives should we promote and which should we avoid?

This is the more fundamental issue of value: "What is good and what is evil?" The theory of values defines the fourth component of a world view. It includes morality or ethics, the system of rules which tells us how we should or should not behave. It also gives us a sense of purpose, a direction or set of goals to guide our actions. Together with the answer to the question "why?", the answer to the question "what for?", may help us to understand the real meaning of life.

Knowing what to strive for does not yet mean knowing how to get there, though. The next component must be a theory of action (praxiology). It would answer the question "How should we act?" It would help us to solve practical problems and to implement plans of action.

Plans are based on knowledge and information, on theories and models describing the phenomena we encounter. Therefore, we need to understand how we can construct reliable models. This is the component of knowledge acquisition. It is equivalent to what in philosophy is called "epistemology" or "the theory of knowledge". It should allow us to distinguish better theories from worse theories. It should answer the traditional philosophical question "What is true and what is false?"

Building Blocks
The final point on the agenda of a world view builder is not meant to answer any fundamental question. It just reminds us that world views cannot be developed from scratch. You need building blocks to start with. These building blocks can be found in existing theories, models, concepts, guidelines and values, scattered over the different disciplines and ideologies. This defines the seventh component: fragments of world views as a starting point.

As an example of how a world view can be achieved, the Principia Cybernetica Project has started to build an evolutionary-systemic world view, which starts from the different concepts and principles developed in cybernetics, systems theory and the theory of evolution. Its world view can be summarized in the form of answers to a list of eternal philosophical questions.

A Cybernetic Model of a World View

The apparently disconnected components of a world view can in fact be understood as part of an encompassing scheme describing the interaction between a system or self and the world or environment. In cybernetics an autonomous system or agent is conceptualized as a control system, which tries to achieve its goals or values by initiating the right actions that compensate for the disturbances produced by the environment. For that, it needs to perceive or get information about the effects of its actions and the effects of the events happening in the world. More specifically, it needs to understand how particular events (past) cause other events (future), that is to say it needs to have a model that allows it to explain and anticipate events. The first six components of a world view cover all the fundamental aspects of this control scheme, as illustrated in the following figure. World view components (in bold) are written above the corresponding control scheme components.

Copyright© 2000 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heylighen,

Apr 17, 2000 (modified)
Dec 9, 1996 (created)


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