The Formation of Worldviews over the Course of Human Development

 In Religion vs. Secularism, The Mind

When a person is born, their mind is not a blank slate because humans do have certain innate knowledge that is determined by DNA, but nearly all knowledge that a full grown adult has was gained from experience over the course of their life.   Early in life, the most basic empirical knowledge is formed by the totality of one’s experiences.  The ideas and concepts formed early in life are significantly more influential to life than those learned later.   The worldview that a person forms in late childhood and early adulthood ends up heavily influencing how they think and feel and their relationships with other people and how they interact with the world.  A person’s worldview can gradually shift throughout their life, especially in response to internal tensions brought about by new life circumstances.

We can imagine a few hypothetical cases of people whose lives are significantly impacted by the beliefs they form early in life, the worldview that is constructed in their minds in adolescence, and how they utilize their foundational beliefs into adulthood.  We can consider how they might react to new circumstances in life and how this might impact their worldview.  Through these thought experiments, we might get a better idea of the psychological and socio-cultural dynamics of how people’s worldviews are constructed, how they can be maintained in a stable state as one goes through the stages of life, and how they might in some cases be shifted, destructed, and rebuilt in response to new experiences and new life events.

Let’s call our first person Jack.  He is born into an environment where his parents and family are secular and trust in science.  He is told things in school that are based on science and he is not at any point indoctrinated with ideas that lack evidence.  In his first few years of school, he is not actually taught the line of reasoning nor the evidence that supports the facts that he is taught, nor is he taught critical thinking skills.  The scientific theories and facts that Jack is taught in school are presented to him as a set of information that he needs to learn and memorize in order to pass his classes and get good grades.  Jack has never been taught anything from a religious book and nobody ever told him accept his scientific teachings on the basis of faith.  However, based on the way that the science is presented to him, Jack has not developed the cognitive skills to be able to easily tell the difference between legitimate science and religious dogma at his young age.  He could have been inculcated with religious scriptures and he would not have known the difference because neither his parents nor his teachers put much emphasis on how to think critically and independently.

As he grows to adolescence, he starts to understand science at a deeper level through his firsthand experience of phenomena such as gravity, the growth of plants, the psychological development of himself and his peers, etc.  As he has developed a commonsense understanding of how things work in the world and this maps closely to the things he was taught to memorize for his tests, he is able to find that his basic beliefs do, in fact, make sense and can be confirmed by observation.  This is significant because the science that he was taught now seems to make intuitive sense to him and he consequently has developed an understanding of why science is reasonable and why it is worth knowing and worth appreciating.  Prior to this, his beliefs were structured within his mind somewhat dogmatically (since he never thought why things were assumed to be true) and now his beliefs are structured on the basis of the commonsense concepts of observation and reason.  He has also developed light version of skepticism regarding unjustified claims, since by this point in his life, he knows that many of the claims he hears or reads will not be true.

Another child, Jill, is instead born into an environment where her parents, family, and community strongly believe that the truth about the world and about one’s own self can be found by having strong faith in a religious book written several centuries ago, before the advent of modern science.  Jill is told to believe ideas in this book involving the origin of the world and numerous supernatural claims and she is taught that this book is the complete and infallible truth.  Knowing no other reality, she comes to strongly and unquestionably believe these things.  As Jill reaches adolescence, she begins hearing about scientific theories regarding the origin of the world.  Some of these things she is taught in school and some of them she sees on television shows.  Although these are presented to Jill as facts, her initial feeling is one of suspicion and she chooses not to believe because these claims are contrary to what her holy book says.  There are even circumstances where the scientific theories are presented with clear evidence to back them up, but she still rejects them without seriously considering the evidence that is presented.  The science is not presented as a polemic against her religious beliefs, but in effect the abundance of evidence that is given to her, if it had been fully considered, would have shown that much of her holy book is unreliable as a source of genuine knowledge.  Fearful of this consequence, Jill chooses to take a defensive stance against any scientific evidence that is presented to her.  As such, she preserves her dogmatic worldview, but she has a deep insecurity and a feeling of suspicion of most people who are supposed to be scientific experts.

If we consider that both Jack and Jill would have been presented with the same scientific evidence regarding the natural world at some point in their childhoods, then we can see a marked contrast.  Only Jack embraces this evidence because he was never taught to believe that certain things are true simply because they are written in a book.  Sure, Jack was initially taught to simply believe was he was taught, but he was never taught to uncritically accept anything based on authority.  He was never taught to simply believe in things regardless of the lack of evidence.  He was taught certain things that later made intuitive sense to him as he became old enough.  He came to realize that some of the things he was taught were indeed evident to him based on the commonsense science that he observed firsthand.  Jill, on the other hand, was raised to believe wholeheartedly in religious book that is full of unreasonable claims that are scientifically inaccurate.

Yet another child, Janie, is raised in the same community as Jill and enters adolescence with similar religious views.  Like Jill, she is presented with scientific theories and the evidence that supports these theories.  Nothing is ever presented to her as an attack on her faith or her holy book, but the evidence strongly points to much of this being unreasonable, unscientific, and unreliable.  Unlike Jill, Janie is put into a special teaching program where she is presented with a lot of clear scientific evidence, much from experiments that she personally participates in and directly observes.  People also explain to her in detail how each of these experiments work.  Up to this point, Janie’s beliefs are structured on the premise that her holy book is true and that all other questions of life need to be answered from this book.  She is also taught about certain philosophical principles, such as critical thinking and the philosophical underpinnings of the science itself.  Through this, Janie understands how science works, how scientists do their job, and she also realizes how science makes sense on the basis of things that she sees and hears every day.

Eventually, Janie is presented an abundance of clear and irrefutable evidence to the point where the her core structure of beliefs begins to shift.  Even though some of these things run counter to the teachings of her religious book, she eventually realizes that she cannot ignore this evidence that is so clearly presented to her.  This is a process that takes years, but she reconstructs her worldview in a way that is based on common sense, critical thinking, and an appreciation of modern science.  She no longer believes that her holy book is infallible, since it contains claims that can be disproven by the findings of modern science.  Janie still finds inspiration from this book, however, but in a more symbolic sense and as a way of filling the gaps in life that are not covered by modern science, such as morality and the meaning and purpose of life.  This detachment from her former core beliefs did cause her some suffering, but it allowed her to become more at peace with herself and with nature and she was also to become more enlightened through this shift in her worldview.

For Janie, it is notable that it was not just an appreciation of common sense, critical thinking, and modern science that allowed her to become more enlightened.  Even though she realized that her holy book was not infallible, it was nonetheless able to help her find answers to some important questions of life.  She still used her holy book as a source of inspiration about things such as morality and the meaning of life, which modern science could not adequately address for her.  She is able to find answers to these questions through her holy book and she accepts them on the basis of faith, which she believes is necessary in situations where science is not able to provide one with answers.

Yet another person named Joe has had very similar life experiences as Janie.  He was raised in a religious household and eventually came to believe in modern science through education and through his own intuitive understanding of nature.  In his adult life, he stopped believing that any religious book held reliable knowledge.  He found that he could still find inspiration from such books, and he sought assistance from the scriptures in his effort to better understand certain aspects of life that seem outside the realm of modern science, such as morality and the meaning and purpose of life.  Unlike Janie, however, Joe learned about some scientific innovations that had recently been developed to integrate the established scientific fields with phenomenology.  Joe came to believe that through such innovations, modern science could be expanded to apply to these areas of life that had previously been understood to be in the domain of faith.  Joe figured that this new integral science, which would apply to both the objective and the intersubjective, could perhaps allow him to find reasonable and evidence-based answers to these great questions of life without having to rely on blind faith.

This more reliable form of phenomenology helped Joe gain integral insights regarding the nature of conscious experience and its relation to the social landscape.  The underlying methodology of this discipline is somewhat similar to those of the physical, biological, psychological, and social sciences, which Joe was already familiar with.  Future posts will explain the philosophical underpinnings of a framework for integrating science with phenomenology.  I want to make the case how this can eventually be used to find reasonable and evidence-based answers to the questions of life that, up to now, have usually been thought to be outside the realm of science.

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