Note: this text was originally written for first-year Liberal Arts & Sciences students. As part of the course Systems View on Life. This course focuses on autonomy and the development of living systems (such as the biosphere as a whole, social systems, and adolescents).
How do people develop and improve their worldviews? Our worldview is the context in which we interpret all our information. Hence it is the context that gives meaning to whatever we perceive. But at the same time, our worldview needs to be bootstrapped based on fetal cognition and constructed while we use it. And all the while, it needs to be as reliable as possible at any point in time.
Let’s think a bit about this. When you were a fetus or newborn, your skills were innate abilities and only minimally developed. Hence you depended on others to care for you and provide you with learning opportunities. Apart from innate biological functions, many of which still to be brought under self-control, your primary skill was to add new knowledge and skills. But you could only do that provided it was sufficiently related to your existing skills and knowledge. Still, you did this at an incredible rate while you somehow kept your knowledge and skills reliable enough to remain alive and keep learning. The more you learned, the more you expanded your understanding of the world.
Initially, your cognition was locked to the here and now, and your worldview reflected your current state. But quite soon, you discovered temporal persistencies: the bed you returned to was always the same, and different rooms were associated with physiological needs, feelings, smells & sounds, specific activities, individuals, and times of the day, This provided a first more or less coherent worldview that allowed you to predict some things to happen at some time-place combinations and not at others. The more accurate these predictions, the more manageable and less problematic your daily life was. And fewer problems allowed for more time for play and further discovery, which in turn drove further learning. Conversely, if you had problems, you learned to resolve, avoid, or cope with them.
With further learning came levels of abstraction. As combinations of feelings and experiences, rooms became abstracted to enclosed spaces with a purpose (like a bathroom). Small and big humans became separated into adults and children and boys and girls. And adults and boys and girls were differentiated while keeping many commonalities. Gradually each of them became an individual with idiosyncrasies and a place they called home. And different homes and places became connected as a neighborhood.
The point is that the environment you could deal with expanded as your knowledge and skills expanded.
knowledge becomes progressively more generalized and of broader applicability. And with that, your skills become progressively more attuned to cope with a bigger and more varied habitat. The better developed your life skills are, the more prepared you are for what reality is likely to throw at you. And that is the key point of all this learning: to be prepared to end the problems and use the opportunities life confronts you with.
Skills are ways to realize desired real-world outcomes. And knowledge constrains and guides action selection. If you understand something, you can apply it safely and without too many unforeseen consequences in the real world.
Your knowledge and skill acquisition serves this general purpose.
Most of this learning was driven by your own experiences, but as your language capabilities developed, the role of narrative learning became bigger.
Level 1 - Memorizing everything - receiving well-structured knowledge. Slave
Level 2 - Memorizing the main points - structuring knowledge. Trained dog
Level 3 - Reproducing knowledge - applying procedures. Bureaucrat, domain specialist
Level 4 - Reconstructing knowledge - recreating knowledge.
Level 5 - Involving different viewpoints - generalizing knowledge
Level 6 -
It seems that we first adopt whole explanatory narratives as building blocks that are assumed to be completely true. At some point, we discover that these building blocks do not work well enough, need to be extended, or are inconsistent with other narratives. Honest appreciation of the narrative content allows us to identify weaknesses, limitations, blindnesses, and plain errors which allows us to refine and generalize the narrative content. Selecting suitable narrative building blocks, while avoiding “toxic” narratives, followed by consecutive refinements seems to be the way we build our worldview and make it progressively more all-encompassing and realistic.
In doing so the worldview becomes an ever-more reliable basis for real-world interaction.
This text addresses the properties of these two phases that we refer to as ‘building’ and ‘refinement’.
The purpose of Liberal Arts & Sciences is in the first place to allow one to educate one’s mind by providing the tools to build a realistic worldview. William Perry studied this development in Harvard students (end of the 1960s to 1990s). This let to the following defining description:1
An educated mind has learned to think about even his own thoughts, it examines the way it orders his data and the assumptions it is making, it compares these with other thoughts that other people might have and adopts whatever this scrutiny of data, ideas, and opinions decides on as most reliable and productive. In doing so the educated mind learned to think in accordance with reality from which position he can take responsibility for his own stand and negotiate – with respect – with others."
This definition is all is about making one’s worldview more realistic. A worldview constitutes data, ideas, and opinions and one gradually brings this more and more in accordance with reality.
Accordance with reality is important because reality doesn’t care whether our ideas and feelings are realistic and our intentions honorable. Reality just does whatever it does. Whenever we have unrealistic expectations, at some point reality will prove us wrong: and possibly with dire outcomes for ourselves and others. Conversely, realistic expectations allow us to use real-world dynamics to work in our favor and to gradually build on traces we leave in the world. (Andringa & Denham, 2021, Denham&Andringa, 2021).
Our worldview needs continual updates to remain in sync with reality and it needs to be improved to allow progressively more advanced and self-guided real-world interactions. Hence we must seek information that either contradicts or complements our worldview. Contradicting information suggests an opportunity for improvement. While complementing information, offers an opportunity to extend one’s worldview. In both cases, you have to play with (entertain) the information to determine its potential to improve your worldview. Hence:
It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it (attributed to Aristotle).
The educated mind focuses on refining its own thoughts and beliefs. We do this autonomously (from our own volition) and privately (others have no access to this process).
Entertaining thoughts can be a quite deliberate process in which we consciously and strategically visit associated thoughts. But it can also be a less conscious background process that becomes conscious when we are not thinking about anything pressing (no directed attention) such as when taking a shower or doing the dishes.2 Both are important and our mind has its own ways of guiding itself to issues that are worth pondering about and over time improve your worldview. Allowing ample lifetime to allow this process to occur naturally is in all likelihood well-spend time.
The opposite of Aristotle’s observation is:
It is the mark of an uneducated mind to accept or refute a thought without entertaining it.
The focus of the uneducated mind is not on how to improve existing beliefs, but on what to include and what to exclude in its worldview. This is about building a worldview through adopting acceptable narratives and refuting unacceptable narratives.
Narratives are a more or less coherent ordered set of beliefs, data, and opinions that reflect a particular unified perspective on a topic. Narratives are ways to share knowledge. Often they are particular to and characteristic of some in-group and represent important (shared) knowledge of the in-group. Adopting the in-group narrative makes you a reliable in-group member. Adopting a distorted, partial, or even an improved version of the in-group narrative makes you a source of unwanted (behavioral) diversity.
This is one reason why narratives are typically adopted all-inclusively. Another reason is that you need a basis of domain knowledge (and real-world experience) to be able to judge the quality of a narrative (and knowledge in general).
Narratives come in different quality grades: the best narratives are those that easily develop into stable and reliable building blocks. These building blocks provide a reliable, productive, and gradually improving basis for your interactions with the world: they help to generate expectations about the world that rarely prove invalid or harmful.
Conversely, basing yourself on low-grade narratives leads to conflicts with reality and associated disappointments whenever expected outcomes do not match actual outcomes (reality still doesn’t care). Low-grade narratives either need to be replaced by higher-grade ones or they require extensive refinement before they become a truly reliable basis for your real-world interactions. In both cases, they lead to loss of time, energy, and opportunities.
It is therefore really important to avoid low-grade narratives. For that, we have a few heuristics that can be used in the absence of more advanced refinement techniques.
Comprehensive stories that are to be adopted as a whole “block of beliefs” to fill a void in existing knowledge. This narrative of sorts — a block of beliefs — can only be integrate with already present body of knowledge when it does not conflict.
In fact apparent conflict poisons the existing world view and should be avoided at all costs. In a similar vein, conveyers of conflicting information are a threat to the seamless integration of the world view. In case of conflict, it is priority to make the conflicts in the building block disappear or to select a non-conflicting narrative.
Building precedes refining: on any knowledge domain you first need to build a decently stable, reasonably complete, and productive worldview before you have anything to refine. While you still build your world views into a strong foundation, you do not yet have the tools to appreciate the nuances of new information.
It makes sense to speak about the building mode and the refinement mode. The building mode, in any domain of knowledge, comes first. You have to adopt a body of knowledge that you use as foundational. You do that by carefully adopting comprehensive ingroup narratives — blocks of beliefs — that fill the void. When this basis is sufficiently developed and comprehensive you have a stable and productive basis for the improvement mode. Now conflicting information is no longer “poisonous”, but a welcome (or at least interesting) source of refinement.
The building mode ‘building blocks’ will often stem from ingroup bubbles (often from mainstream/ingroup discourse) because these can be integrated with the least tension. High tension — clear violations of expectations or apparent disrespect of ingroup authority or ingroup consensus 3 — increase intolerance to (further) diversity and the need to restore the order in the world view.
Hence depending on the topic, you can expect adolescents to either be in the process of developing their worldview or (just starting) refining it. These processes are both essential and there is no value judgment in being in one mode or the other. The only sensible value judgements are associated with whether one executes the current mode sloppily or seriously.
|Building mode||Issue||Refinement mode|
|“to accept or refute a narrative without entertaining its details”||General strategy||“to entertain a thought without accepting it”|
|To decide what narrative to accept as a foundational part of one’s worldview||Main purpose||To decide how existing beliefs can be improved.|
|Large block of knowledge (narratives) to be adopted as foundational||Unit size||Little bits of information that improve or extend one’s existing world view|
|Is the whole narrative compatible with own beliefs?||Activation of mode||Are elements novel, complementary, or contradictory with own beliefs?|
|Compatible of the whole narrative with existing beliefs (ingroup compatible)||Inclusion criterion||Improves some existing beliefs|
|Narrative components incompatible with own beliefs (ingroup incompatible)||Exclusion criterion||Information doesn’t improve aspects of the own beliefs or world view|
|Obvious acceptance/rejection pattern (high need for cognitive closure).||Certainty||At ease with the inconsistencies in one’s understanding of the world|
|High reliance on external authorities to judge the validity of new narratives||Authority||High reliance on self to make micro-decisions on countless bits of info|
|Typically ingroup mainstream sources||Sources||Typically other thinkers in the refinement mode|
|Ridiculed, treated as worldview “poison” and its conveyer as a poisoner.
Coming up with an outer narrative that is acceptable.
|Response to conflicting information||Treated as a learning opportunity. The smarter the conveyer, the better.|
William G Perry, J. (1998). Forms of Ethical and Intellectual Development in the College Years. Jossey-Bass. ↩︎
This is probably is related to the default mode network ↩︎
These are the 'normative threats' described by Stenner (2005) ↩︎
What Kruger & Dunning “discovered” is that people with low levels of domain competence tend to exhibit an equally low level of the metacognitive abilities to realize they are incompetent: they are “unskilled and unaware of it”.
In 1999, Justin Kruger and David Dunning wrote a paper called “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”. They noted that “People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains”. Because of this they “reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices”. This makes sense: if you overestimate your abilities, at some point reality will prove you wrong and you will suffer unexpected and generally unfortunate consequences.
You may have wasted your own or other people’s time, but it may also entail that you seriously harm yourself or others.
What Kruger & Dunning “discovered” is that people with low levels of domain competence tend to exhibit an equally low level of the metacognitive abilities to realize they are incompetent: they are “unskilled and unaware of it”. Hence, they judge their competence as adequate or good, while they are still pretty incompetent. While this is a unfortunate on an individual level, it may be disastrous on a societal level. Especially if policy makers, managers, and in general authorities, overestimate their abilities and remain completely unaware of this, even in the face of utterly failing policies. This lead to wasted resources at best and widespread harm and destruction at worst.
The way the Kruger-Dunning effect manifests itself during learning is straightforward. When you do not know anything about a topic you rate your competence as low. Most knowledge acquisition starts – rapidly and without much effort – with the adoption of an informative and explanatory narrative from an authority figure. This is the first step of knowledge and skill acquisition. Initially you need to hear the narrative a few times, but soon you become proficient in the explanatory narrative: you know the narrative components and can predict what will come. This is also the moment that you can formulate the narrative independently, which gives a sense of mastery: you mastered the narrative, you can give the proper answers within the new knowledge domain, and you now have a basis of confidence.
At the same time you still lack insight in the real-world aspects of applying the just acquired knowledge. Lacking this insight, you are at peak confidence, you think the real-world application of your new (narrative level) knowledge is simple, straightforward, and even obvious.
The normal progression towards true mastery is to start applying your new knowledge and go through a discovery and skill-development phase associated with the real-world aspects of your newly acquired narrative. Here you discover that real-world mastery not only requires narrative mastery, but it forces you take the intricacies of reality into account. Strategies that appeared straightforward have unexpected consequences that you only gradually learn to deal with, and other strategies work only when executed with a skill level that requires considerable practice. You discover: “it is complicated”, your good intentions and contributions are no guarantee to produce outcomes you foresaw. In fact you might screw-up a few times, be corrected regularly, and even be ridiculed due to your incompetence and naiveté.
Rapidly your initial sense of competence deflates and you pass what is called the valley of despair. You think “It is not easy at all and I’ll never master this!”. Weirdly enough, this disillusionment with your narrative’s validity is a sure sign of your growing real-world competence since it signifies the gradual appreciation of the real-world aspects of the domain, and the gradual transition from “book knowledge” into skilled behavior. Once the real-world aspects are sufficiently mastered they can become ever-more self-initiated, and your self-guided interactions will work out as intended (mostly that is).
But, although your real-world mastery increases, your respect for the real-world intricacies remains. While you’re competence rises, so does your experience and appreciation with the efforts required to make it work as intended. High competence is always respectful. You might say “I’ll find a way to do it”, but you do not expect it to be effortless: it rarely is. And as multiple thinkers have observed, the more you know, the more you know what you do not know. This curtails your justified feeling of competence to levels well below you initial inflated explanatory narrative competence.
Individuals who developed many and diverse skill domains to the level of respectful competence, represent a lot of knowledge about the structures of reality and they have developed many subtle ways to guide reality in a desired direction. These high level skills (tacit knowledge) are neither easy to communicate, nor easily appreciated by the unskilled. In fact the higher the skill-level the easier it seems.
The previous assumed a true effort to progress to real-world mastery. But that process came with fairly high and prolonged self-confidence costs. Suppose now that your original self-esteem was pretty low and that narrative adoption and mastery inflated your confidence to really high levels. Will you allow your self-esteem to be returned to a level similar to your original sense of incompetence and inadequacy? Will you pass through the valley of despair in the hope of becoming truly competent?
Or will you protect your inflated sense of confidence? You have just mastered the adopted narrative to proficiency, you can explain it to others, you can say the proper things, think narrative-appropriate thoughts, and correct others if they don’t. As long as you do not progress towards real-world mastery you can remain on an island of self-esteem that is appropriately named ‘Peak confidence’.
And you can do that by just preventing any application of your narrative in the real-world.
What will you do? Allow your first fragile and now inflated self-esteem to be lowered again or will you actively maintain the comfort of peak confidence? If you choose the latter you only have to make the explanatory narrative your ideology whilst preventing yourself from any real-world application of your narrative. You speak it and repeat it as often as you want, but since you never apply it you will never screw up, never be corrected, and never be ridiculed. You will not learn anything of value, but you will also be shielded from indications of your fallibility.
Maintaining peak confidence is alluringly easy. Even when applying your ideology – the explanatory narrative is now part of your identity – does not lead to the desired outcome it cannot be blamed on you, nor can it be the ideology itself that is flawed, your overly favorable views of your competence will convince you of this. And if it is neither you nor the ideology that is wrong, it must be the world; in particular those others that frustrate the expected real-world benefits of your ideology. These others are the problem: they create and maintain a world that frustrates the realization of the potential of your precious narrative. You are correct and those others need to change.
If only they understood the world as you do! If only they adopted the ideology that you know so well and that made you feel competent! Why not spread your ideology actively and start proselytizing? The more people who adopt your ideology, the more it will bolster your convictions and the further your self-esteem will be raised. Others listened to you, they gained competence boost from your insights, they tell you how well you master your ideology. More and more they form a bubble around you that shields you from other explanatory narratives and the intricacies of applying it in the real world. The more effective your proselytizing, the less you will be exposed to people and situations that expose your lack of real-world competence. And the more comfortable and secure your island of self-esteem feels.
This sense of comfort is worth fighting for; if your sense of comfort deflates, so does your identity. Your low self-esteem will reappear with a vengeance, since you have not gained much real-world mastery other than through proselytizing a narrative without mastering the real-world skills to apply it. So, any dissenting voice, in particular anyone who confronts your ideology – the narrative on which your self-esteem depends; is an existential risk. These might expose you as an inadequate actor in the world that – deep down – you know you still are.
Your self-esteem is now firmly dependent on the adoption of your ideology in your immediate environment, your in-group.
If you are confronted with a dissenting voice, your first tactic will be to convince the other with the best arguments your ideology can provide you with. If your narrative stems from the Bible you might talk about God’s love and commandments. If you are woke, you will discuss intersectionalism, white guilt, and patriarchy. If you adhere to a white nationalist narrative you will laud the benefits of the Arian race in comparison with other races and promote racial segregation and traditional values. If you espouse a socialist ideology you convince others of the oppression of workers by the capitalist class. And if you have adopted the vegan narrative you convince meat-eaters of their irresponsible behavior towards animal well-fare and energy use.
Whatever ideology you adhere to is ultimately irrelevant. Your explanatory narrative is the only one you are proficient in and have accepted both as truth an as replacement of real-world mastery. It is therefore true by default and hence infallible and complete: it is one totalizing perspective to explain all that needs explaining and all that can be explained. All your arguments stem from it and they are always sufficient and complete. And since you did not master other explanatory narratives, you are impervious to arguments that do directly relate to your ideology; you simply see no value in them. In fact you can only represent the arguments of others in relation to and limited by your ideology. This leads to straw man representations of the viewpoints of others that you then attack with the best arguments your explanatory narrative can produce.
And that feels good because you always win the argument. That you win the argument by attacking a straw man position that nobody actually holds is irrelevant, because the difference between your straw man and the actual position of others eludes you. What does not elude you is that you win all arguments. So if there was doubt left it disappears and you feel even more certain.
But how about those who do not argue with you, that just do not take you seriously or that remain unconvinced by your infallible argumentation: who do not accept the validity of your narrative and the authority of those that adhere to it? How to deal with these irritating people who refuse to see the light that you have seen?
Easy. You feel you are correct. And because you feel no doubt, you must be correct. And they are wrong, misguided, pitiable, and likely lost forever. You see no value in them and feel no need to protect them because of that. Quite on the contrary. The moment when you and your in-group gain sufficient social power you can deal with them by offering them a choice: adopt the ideology or be excluded or otherwise suppressed, made irrelevant or destroyed. You are a true authoritarian.
You got trapped in the perfect closed world that the coping mode allows us to create. It self-maintains the illusion of perfection because it closes itself from the being confronted by its imperfections. Real-world influences that cannot be fit in the narrative world are rejected in favor of ever more elaborate narrative constructs that explain why the real-world can and should be discounted in favor of the narrative we keep repeating.
Instead of using your intelligence to ever-improve and generalize your understanding of the world, it does just the opposite: you used your intelligence to protect youself from any (sometimes painful) learning experience that reduces your inadequacy. The result is that your inadequacy becomes a central part of your identity. This fits with what we have written down in part 3 of Coping & Co-creation in the part on the normative identity style.