The Mechanics of Meaning, Part I

Each animal has tangible strengths, be it sharp claws or fangs, or a keen sense of smell, amazing camouflage or a fur that keeps freezing weather at bay, incredible speed or a multi-use tail, great muscle power or an ear that can notice a water drop from afar. Humans don't. For several years after birth they're fragile, hairless blobs entirely dependent on the compassion of others. However, during that period --and beyond-- humans develop an admirable ability to acquire and use knowledge of the world: they develop a worldview and, armed with that, are entirely geared for action. Among all mammals, the featherless bipeds have the largest cerebral cortex relative to the body mass, and they generously use it in order to grasp, interlink, create, and update concepts, knowing that they can move between the realms of the world of objects and the one of abstracts, meaning, and culture. Mind you, this constitutes the essence of human existence cemented both in biological and cultural factors.

Two defining features arise from the above. First, humans possess self-awareness, theory of mind, and, sooner or later, the realization of their own mortality. And, second, they question the veracity of their experience of the world in terms of values. It's not easy to be human, mind you. When a predator goes after its prey there's no evil in it but a mere linkage between instinct, hunger, the spotting of the next meal and its pursuit. Humans have instincts and needs as well but they complicate themselves when evaluating the world around them, including their sense of self and what others may think, feel, say, or do in relation to their actions. That's why people sometimes do things that make no sense from an evolutionary perspective. This may be due to the human need to confront mortality by means of the search for meaning. There is no humanity without a unifying narrative.

Worldview: The Machine

Schematizing this morass is no cakewalk. One brilliant attempt is Leo Apostel's worldview model. A worldview can be understood as the more or less coherent basket of concepts used to experience, interpret, navigate, and manipulate the world. You will immediately recognize the questions contained in a worldview because humans have been asking them since they "ate from the forbidden fruit" or, if you may, since they gained consciousness. Let's look at the model one question at a time.

First, at the center of a worldview there is the meta-question. As beings capable of creating and passing forward a complex culture, humans attempt to decode the great questions using the cumulative human experience. That is, they reflect on how other societies have presented and responded to similar questions. The central element is, thus, an observation of the answers and assumptions that tradition has to offer. This is the reason why totalitarian governments toy with history whenever they wish to take over: they either erase history or nitpick at their convenience. Beyond the meta-question there are two dimensions in the search for a worldview: theorizing and modeling. The theorizing side of a worldview consists of formulating abstractions in order to reach a generalized statement explaining phenomena, while the questions of the modeling type are aimed at building tools to represent reality.

In the realm of models there are (1) explanation, (2) prediction, and (3) ontology. While ontology seeks to understand reality as a whole, explanation tries to figure out how and why certain phenomena arose, and prediction looks into the future, both as species and of the universe in general. This is a very important aspect of each human's worldview, for it has catapulted humans to the apex of the animal kingdom. The tools developed or adopted in this realm are (ideally) open to replication, which allows the building of certainty and robustness in the understanding of the world. Nothing esoteric about this: As a complex, tool-making animal armed with an inquiring mind, the human stands there in the prairie and sees the rain falling down, for example. "Why is water falling from the sky?" the brute asks. And while he tries to figure it out he also realizes that it makes plants grow and provides him with fruit, but also gets him soaked and cold, plus the odd thunder may strike him in a quite unpleasant fashion. So, the human discovers (and takes note) about which birds sing or stop singing when humidity in the air changes, then finds a way to be protected from the rain, and later figures out how to collect and drink the water --because the last time he drank from the sea he learned that it wasn't a good idea. This is the human functioning in the world of objects. He's thrown into a world of things and, thus, figuring out those objects is part innate human curiosity and part survival. There is no other animal doing this --at least not in such massive and systematic scale. The societies that have transformed the world privileged these questions into a coherent whole, one capable of penetrating and manipulating material reality.

But then another feature of the human worldview comes into play: the theorizing drive. Values are needed in order to make sense. Axiology is the baseline theoretical worldview. Why is something valuable? Direction, purpose and goals guide actions, thus questions must be asked and they are anything but simple. For example, what is good and evil? What’s the meaning of life? On which basis reality should be evaluated? Answering these questions allows purposeful action. Praxeology, then, consists of questions that allow for planning and execution of steps aimed at tackling specific problems. Yes, humans sneeze and defecate and fall, but they also do things that they don't necessarily have to do and they carry them out with a purpose in mind. Without a method, no wonderful human feature is really world changing but a mere collection of random slashes in the darkness. The last question within the human theorizing drive is epistemology and it is the cement of a mature worldview. How does the human brain acquire knowledge? If there are no clear principles for valid acquisition of information, testing, reconstruction, and organization of reality, it is not possible to arrive to truth. And humans are the only species preoccupied with such convoluted endeavors.

Short-circuited Worldview: Chaos

Leon Festinger coined the term cognitive dissonance. Humans need consonance –or at least to avoiding situations and information that increase dissonance altogether. What is the effect of living in a prolonged state of contradiction? Picture a militant atheist taking communion every Sunday at mass or an ardent believer in free enterprise who leads the local chapter of the communist party. Or a caveman who has discovered the natural phenomenon of precipitation yet still bangs a drum and sacrifices a goat in order to make it rain. The examples are endless. Vertically, humans find harmony in aligning what they feel with what they say, think, and do. Horizontally, the worldview has to be coherent because, otherwise, the result is chronic stress leading to a myriad of pathological symptoms. The psychological discomfort caused by being divergent is, in my view, the surest way of becoming a bag of cats. Stress is not a joke.

Have you ever wondered where fanaticism comes from? There are two ways of tackling the short-circuit of inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes: to confront and resolve the source of dissonance, which is painful and complex, or to become a fanatic. Nietzsche wrote:

No one can construct for you the bridge upon which precisely you must cross the stream of life, no one but you yourself alone. There are, to be sure, countless paths and bridges and demi-gods which would bear you through this stream; but only at the cost of yourself: you would put yourself in pawn and lose yourself.

Losing oneself is emptying the portions where uniqueness exists and filling it up with those paths, bridges and demi-gods. Jung, in turn, wrote:

For one can fall victim to possession if one does not understand betimes why one is possessed. One should ask oneself for once: Why has this idea taken possession of me? What does that mean in regard to myself? A modest doubt like this can save us from falling head first into the idea and vanishing forever.

And doubt is, by definition, the source of inquiry –something that the fanatic lacks. It is not what one believes but how it is believed. Self-affirming, know-it-all confidence in exclusive access to absolute truths is the vanishing of the individual and, eventually, the concoction of violence, for the conviction of being the holder of ultimate certainty is felt by its captive as too good not to (a) impose on others, and (b) seeing any dissenter as a justified target. The dramatic social polarization that we are experiencing throughout the world today is, essentially, the growth of dissonance between worldviews. This is replicated within each individual partaking of the massacring of unifying, grand narratives. Those who fall for the intoxicating drug of ultimate knowledge, thus, have chosen the easy path of avoiding the discomfort of facing the dissonance in their (adopted) worldview. People have given up because gluing a worldview is no paltry endeavor.

Here is my diagnose: the dominant worldview has fallen victim of its own success. Leszek Kolakowski was squarely on target when he penned his masterful The Illusions of Cultural Universalism . European culture's theoretical strength had a "bug" in it, one that would eventually be its demise. The philosophical marvel of Christianity is that it birthed and nested the Enlightenment but, with it, also a conception of the divinity of (and in) the individual; something that worked wonders while there was strife and a degree of homogeneity but then translated into a sort of shyness, a correctness that led to think of other cultures as equally valid despite their comparative backwardness, or fragility, or horrors. Think of it this way: the theoretical part of the worldview mechanism worked so great that it defined the modeling part to such a degree that it ended forcing the theoretical part to weaken itself. This is what Nietzsche meant by the death of God. It was reinvention or chaos. And in the cost-benefit analysis, unconsciously, Europe (and Europeans) did nothing.

Dynamics of a Worldview: Under the Hood

The world of objects is out there. The human worldview acts as a funnel through which input comes in, gets processed by a wealth of both innate and learned features, and then output goes out, changing the world and affecting the worldview of others, which in turn soak input and affect it. To understand the layers in which a worldview model actually works, it is useful to bring to the fore the ideas of Kolakoswki and Finnis.

Kolakowski (1927-2009) spoke about human expression occurring via synthetic a priori judgments. Pinker summarized it as follows: an intelligent system is not able to handle every object uniquely but, instead, places it in "boxes" with other objects possessing similar categories. It is a very useful tactic, as trillions of facts would otherwise overload the system. The machine, thus, functions based on a small list of core truths and then a set of rules to deduce their implications. This "packetizing" of the world is key to understand and act, though, of course, it also obfuscates the nitty gritty of experience. Expressing oneself in metaphorical terms makes it crucial that the storytelling ability of each group materializes in myths and institutions that delineate the frontier between each other. And this is where one of Kolakowski's genius devices appears. For him, existence is shaped by the interplay between the technological core and the mythical core, a figure resembling the modeling and theorizing sides of Apostel's worldview mechanism. The technological core is for Kolakowski the organ in human culture that is focused on practical applications geared towards discerning and taming the physical world. It is the modeling aspect of a worldview, i.e. ontology, explanation and prediction. Remember the human in the wild trying to figure out how rain works? Well, that's how he does it. But there's the theorizing aspect as well, which Kolakowski seems to have understood and thus identified it with the mythical core, or questions without which the range of decisions and actions would be limited to the animal instinct. It is the mechanism concerned with the quality of Being as a whole. Kolakowski has read perfectly well the realms of science and of Being, and it matches with the modeling and theorizing halves of the worldview model.

To add a dynamic feature to these concepts we need Finnis' schema of the four orders in which human existence is lived. I find it very useful because, in the same way that the worldview model helps to draw clear theoretical lines in an otherwise complex reality, the four orders of existence shed light on how human existence relates to the entirety of Being. And it elegantly fits to the structure unpacked so far. The four orders are: (1) nature; (2) bring concepts into our own understanding; (3) bring into matter subject to our powers; and (4) bring unity into our own actions by by intelligently deliberating and choosing. Sounds convoluted, isn't it? But it is not. Borrowing from Finnis' own example, he exemplifies the orders as follows, respectively: (1) you hear the sound of his voice during a class, (2) you hear his arguments, (3) you hear that he's speaking English and is making a certain point, and (4) you hear that he is conducting a seminar. See how the layers pile on top of each other, producing meaning at different levels of the reality you're living. Think of it in terms of football (or what we call football in Europe): (1) you're in a stadium and with your senses you perceive 22 guys kicking a ball around, (2) you perceive that they're split in two teams and trying to get the ball from each other in order to push it past the goal line of the opposing team, (3) you realize that by doing so they're competing and the team scoring more times wins, and (4) you realize that it is a sports competition and that you're in a stadium with supporters of both teams and that you're one of them and that means you belong to a certain group. Or something like that. So, if we superimpose the orders to Kolakowski's dual cores, we get something like this:

So, let's do this, shall we?

The order of nature is embedded in the technological core, as they are each other’s raison d’être, though the effects of such interplay influence beyond them and affect the mythical core, where the effort to elucidate Being is biologically constrained. A similar overlap takes place with what Finnis calls the order of lived experience in which we bring concepts into our understanding, because the mythical core aims at making conditioned reality intelligible. Then it is tempting to frame the third order in the technological core but we shouldn't because altering the world necessarily affects both the realm of nature and our perception of it. The greatest overlap is in the realm of unity via deliberation and choosing, though. My favorite example, inspired by Foster, is a random group of people whom are approached with a bunch of building materials and are told to build a house. Obviously they don't build it, either because they can't or because they're not used to be told by a random stranger to go into construction. But now imagine the same scenario but the group of people is formed by a mason, a civil engineer, a plumber, and so on. They will likely build the house, right?

So, in the first order of lived reality your eyes perceive a coordinated, orderly, and skilled group of humans who are engaged in mixing cement, nailing wooden structures in a logical manner, putting bricks on top of each other, laying tubes, connecting wires, and so on. As you observe them, your experience of reality in the second and third orders start comprehending that it is a group of construction professionals building a house, an object which is tangible and exists in a (now transformed) world, and which is known to be used to go inside and live there, sheltered from rain, cold, and predators. But this is where the fourth order, the most interesting of them all, kicks in. This is the order where things exist but, at the same time, they don't. What you see is a unity of movement, intention, and goals; a harmonious ballet which gives the impression of a "thing" out there, called a group, but there's no such thing in the order of nature, the one experienced by the senses. This is an amazing feature of humans: not only they create "things" in the fourth order but they modify the world using those things. It's what is called laws! Imagine, again, that group of humans building the house. Picture them realizing that building houses is good business and decide to go into business, so they print a few forms, sign their names, put some cash into a bank account, and walk into the companies house. In the fourth order of reality there's now a thing called Humans Ltd., an imaginary "person" with its own wholeness, rights and obligations. And this is a powerful thing. For example, if one of the humans building houses (now linked to that "person" existing in the fourth order) walks into the bank and takes the money that in the real world came from his or her pocket, there will be serious consequences in the tangible world, like going to prison or being forced to pay damages. There's a myriad of things taking place in that fourth order all the time, like a hive mind of intangible objects, i.e. concepts that cannot be touched but that have a profound effect in all orders of reality. That is why you can see the fourth order in the drawing above as overlapping the technological and mythical cores, flowing in both directions.

These are the cogs twisting and turning in an endless rain of concepts that blossom into what is. As the world gets more complex, the mechanics of a worldview increase in girth and length, accelerating the interplay of the technological and mythical cores across the four orders of lived reality, both within every human and in humanity as a whole.

A Map on Steroids

So, what should we do with this model, practically speaking? Alfred Korzybski was unto something when he maintained that humans are limited in what they know by biological factors, such as their nervous systems and the limitations of the code used to communicate among them, i.e. language. Not experiencing the world directly but through abstractions of it is what led Korzybski to coin the metaphor "the map is not the territory." In this sense, the world is out there and is a thing, but human senses capture a glimpse of it and make a representation, which is also a thing but a different one, a model so to speak. The implications of such a metaphor are profound: can the territory be altered by a change in the map if the map is merely a representation of the territory? Clearly not, but what if the map is altered to show a different layer or aspect of the territory, effectively shifting the way the territory is experiencing? For example, a map showing fluvial patterns isn't the same guide that one showing weather or the locations of barracks or the position of borders. Because, certainly, a perfect map is useless, for it would have to be scale 1:1 and include each and every aspect of the territory to such perfection that it would cover it. Such a feat, through the biological limitations of humans, would be impossible and, if theoretically possible, it would automatically generate a map of the map on top of the territory, which when made perfect would trigger a third map of the map on top of the map which rests upon the territory, and so on and so forth.

The worldview is the map, indeed, though of a special type. Recently I had the chance of listening to Don Hoffman talking about his theory of lived reality. It clicked with the notion of a worldview as a filter between the overwhelmingly complex reality that surrounds (and inhabits) every human and the necessity to make sense out of it. For Hoffman, everything we see around us is a shorthand, like an icon on a computer desktop, instead of a true replication of what actually may be out there. Human perception is then not a reconstruction of the truth but an evolved interpretation fit for a specific task. For example, the trash icon on your computer desktop (which isn't an actual trash can) hides behind it programming language, transistors, cables, chips, magnetic fields, and hundreds of other layers of objective reality, but it does the job of effectively symbolizing that if you drag a file there the data will be erased and space for more data then freed up. In the same way, humans do not perceive reality the same way as other animals do, neither in the same colors or angles nor at the layers which each species requires for surviving. For example, some fishes and birds perceive things such as magnetic fields and humans don't. Why? Because humans don't need to perceive those in order to navigate the world. Humans have evolved to see their own type of icons representing the pieces of reality that allow them to survive, thrive, and perpetuate. The chair you are seeing, according to Hoffman, is your reality and you see it the way it is for it serves the purpose of you sitting on it. A termite would see it differently.

Is a worldview an evolutionary map? It is. Because the distinctive survival tool of humans is their cognitive depth, a human without a coherent worldview would be akin to an owl with small eyes and a stiff neck, thus unable to capture the same amount of light in the dark or turn its head almost completely as other owls. The fascinating thing about the "icons" around humans, though, is that they are subject to (a) the seven aspects of a worldview, (b) a moral dimension, and (c) volition. Moreover, added to the three dimensional model of human experience (roughly formed by the models posited by Apostel, Kolakowski, and Hoffman) the complexity of the human self-awareness is laid across the alignment (or misalignment) of thought > feel > expression > action. This is the problem of coherence, a validation of sorts for the dynamic part of the worldview model as used herein.

End of part I.