I thought I would attempt the first draft of a college-level textbook, writing it directly into my blog, bit by bit. Feedback and recommendations in the thread comments are welcome, either encouraging or critical. The first chapter would be a mini-course in critical thinking for writers. To have a look at Concept 1.2, click here, and for 1.1 here.
Concept 1.3. Worldview. One large reason human beings do not all accept the same starting points, premises, and conclusions in reasoning is that they do not all share the same Weltanschauung (German for worldview: a broad and agreed upon philosophical orientation). In Western civilization, for instance, two broad worldviews have been in historic tension, and often outright contention: the monotheistic (belief in, and privileging of, one supernatural deity over all others in the public square) and the secular (no particular belief in, or privileging of, any supernatural deities in the public square). These are represented respectively by two cities, their roots extending into ancient times: Jerusalem–the holy city of the three great monotheistic faiths (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity)–and Athens, the historic city that birthed democracy, science, rhetoric, philosophy, and tragic and comic theatre. The civilizations of the East include worldviews associated with Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Within Christianity, there are broadly divergent worldviews represented by Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions. In Islam, Sunnis and Shiites represent different worldviews. In Judaism, Orthodox and Reform strains represent different orientations to the world. Among secular people, there are fundamental disagreements over what constitutes the best human future–capitalism, nationalism, socialism, environmentalism, feminism, and so on–each of which imply broadly different worldviews concerning human flourishing. Samuel Huntington, in his widely discussed book, The Clash of Civilizations, associates broadly distinct worldviews with different civilizations (the Western world with Christianity and secularism, Islamic civilization with Islam, India with Hinduism, China with Confucianism, etc.). This diversity, Huntington argues, poses (perhaps insurmountable) difficulties for the achievement of a global, unified, singular, and secular civilization over the next century, as aspired to by such eighteenth century Anglo-French Enlightenment thinkers as Voltaire, Francis Bacon, and David Hume—and in the 20th and 21st centuries by such figures as Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, Steven Pinker, and Bill Gates.
Worldviews that look to make themselves universal—as with monotheistic cultures and humanistic cultures devoted to universal human reason and rights—may seek to achieve a hegemonic discourse (a unitary discourse in which all fundamental premises are already shared in advance, the starting and stopping points of arguments agreed upon by all). Such a discourse, should it ever reach its universal aim of netting everyone living, would presumably rest, not just on powers of persuasion and pragmatic utility, but on powers of habit and violence, for human imagination and diversity do not generally lend themselves well or willingly to singular or conformist ways of talking, thinking, and acting. History suggests that human beings do not like to be governed in deed or thought absent some degree of consent, and that they grow rebellious when their thoughts and deeds do not feel self-determined (chosen) and in accord with private conscience and tribal affiliations.
So a successful worldview (in the sense that it is widely shared and expanding in the world) relies to some degree on its premises remaining largely beneath the radar of full awareness. As a system of ideas it thus constitutes an ideology that people just don’t talk about all that explicitly. When thought about at all, a worldview as an ideology comes to be associated with common sense, or as a signal of affiliation (what people in this or that tribe assume and practice). Its premises are rarely interrogated willingly by its followers. Scrutiny may be frowned upon–or worse. By habit, a worldview can function largely beneath full awareness of adherents. Unless challenged from outsiders–or by adverse circumstances that seem to suggest it’s not, in fact, functioning very well or usefully–it may go largely unquestioned in public.
Bringing one’s Weltanschauung or ideology into greater awareness. One useful way to bring your worldview or ideology into consciousness is to check your premises, asking questions of them in the light of broad scientific and philosophical categories, such as metaphysics, physics, biology, sociology, psychology, epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics. Thus, concerning metaphysics (first things, especially your largest, most abstract conceptual premises), what do you think is really real? For instance, do God, the soul, and free will exist? Are we living in what Space X founder Elon Musk calls base reality–or are we living in a very convincing computer simulation, many steps removed from base reality? Concerning physics (material nature), and all the subsets of material nature that can be studied scientifically (biology, sociology, psychology, etc.), what do you think you know about the world and how it works? Do you believe that the cosmos is vastly old and that life evolves over time? Do you believe that global warming is actually happening, as the consensus of climatologists insists it is? What makes for human flourishing? Is democracy a good thing? How about patriotism? Are the sexes equal? The question of how you know such things is the subject of epistemology (the study of belief and knowledge). The great question of epistemology is: how do you know that the things you take to be true, good, and beautiful actually are these? Do you know by experience, experiment, science, testimony, intuition, common sense, heuristics (simplifying rules of thumb, maps, or models you’ve come up with or accept), authority, expertise, reasoning, emotion, data, statistics, formal logic—or by some combination of these? With regard to ethics, what should you do about what you think you know? What, personally, do you value? Regarding politics, what should we do about the things we might believe in, value, and share together? (Ethics is about individual action, politics collective action). And with regard to aesthetics (the study of art), what’s beautiful? One’s beliefs and attitudes (conscious and unconscious) concerning metaphysics, nature, values, epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics make-up one’s worldview or ideology. In this sense, worldviews and ideologies are all around us, and we swim in them every day, perhaps grabbing bits and pieces from the numerous ones on offer, generating our own syncretistic (blended) worldview. The question is whether we do this consciously or unconsciously—and whether coherently or incoherently.
Coherence, background knowledge, and worldview. Attending to coherence is important to critical thinking, and therefore, in terms of rhetoric, to the logos–rational—aspect of your writing. Coherence links background knowledge—the things you think you already know—with incoming data. Take what paleontologists (fossil experts) think they know about the evolution of rabbits, for instance. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins notes that there should be no fossil rabbits in 500 million year old Cambrian rock strata because rabbits hadn’t evolved until much later. What we would recognize as a rabbit-like mammal does not appear in the fossil record until the Eocene, which spans from 56-33 million years ago. But were a rabbit fossil to be found in Cambrian strata, you would be cognitively dissonant (believing two apparently contradictory things at the same time) if you went on believing in the current scientific narrative of animal evolution anyway. A rabbit in the Cambrian would function, to use philosopher of science Karl Popper’s term loosely, as a falsification of the theory of evolution (at least as currently conceived).
So if you’re being fully coherent, it means that you’re being consistent; your ideas and actions are in harmony with themselves and appear to have a natural fit with reality (the data of reality). But no individual, group, or institution is ever wholly consistent in logic, professed ideals, or relation to reality, and this makes for opportunities to raise issues of coherence in writing and argumentation, such as a question like the following: Does a new claim you are being asked to believe cohere with what you already think you know—your background knowledge? If it doesn’t, something has to give (either the new claim or the background knowledge). Likewise with values: if you profess to be a libertarian—that is, if you believe in individual liberty as the highest human value—yet oppose marijuana legalization, you’re susceptible to the accusation of being incoherent and hypocritical.
Coherence needn’t be an all or nothing deal. A writing teacher who passionately advocates writing, yet rarely writes herself, is incoherent, not as to logic or background knowledge, but surrounding her values. Yet she is not entirely incoherent, for she does write a little. So coherence needn’t be all black or white, but can be grayscale (where a person is partly, rather than wholly, coherent—or coherent in one respect to a thing, but not another). Coherence can also expose oversimplification, where a person is coherent at a surface level, but the coherence dissolves under scrutiny. For example, you might tell a friend that you saw her sister eating a hamburger at a science fiction film, but then she informs you that her sister is a vegan and hates sci-fi. The surface level plausibility of what you believe you saw now appears to be incoherent with what you’ve just learned (the incoming data that your friend’s sister doesn’t eat meat and hates sci-fi). It may have happened, there’s just something that needs explaining: either your background knowledge needs to be updated or what you took to be new data is not as it appears.
There is also the matter of logical possibility in relation to coherence. Strictly speaking, for instance, it is not incoherent to say that one saw a penguin in flight outside of one’s plane window. It does not accord with what we know of penguins scientifically, but it is not logically incoherent. Such a bizarre event, though vanishingly implausible–indeed, unbelievable–can be imagined in the mind’s eye. A cartoonist could draw such a scene, so it’s not logically impossible. And if it’s not logically impossible, then you may have to evaluate the claim’s coherence via other criteria (whether it is physically or technologically possible, etc.). Attending to logical possibility is therefore another route by which one might check for coherence. In attending closely to a matter, and evaluating it, one might check for coherence at numerous levels.
Writing 1.3.1. Attend to the coherence of a piece of writing, and look for different levels of coherence. If it is coherent, what makes it coherent? If it is incoherent, in what ways is it incoherent?
Writing 1.3.2. In your journal, describe to yourself your Weltanschauung, making it explicit. What are some big things you think you know about existence and the world, and how do you think you know them? What are some things that follow from your worldview, ethically and politically? What’s beautiful?
Writing 1.3.3. Attempt in your journal an accurate, measured, fair minded–and perhaps even sympathetic–portrayal of a worldview or ideology that is not your own. What are its merits and demerits? What work does it do (i.e., how does it function within the community that adheres to it)?