The Price of Freedom

Why Humans Need Functional Worldviews

In order to survive, all living creatures must choose to pay close attention to certain aspects of reality and to completely ignore others. Moths, for example, have ears that can only detect a single frequency — the sound emitted by the flapping of bat wings. By contrast, ticks have learned to climb trees and then focus all of their attention on the appearance of one particular scent — butyric acid — which is secreted by all mammals. (When the blind tick smells this compound, it lets go of its perch in hopes of falling onto the back of the passing mammal.)

For most organisms, this orienting framework is inborn — it comes pre-loaded in their genes. As we’ve learned from evolutionary biology, natural selection rewards successful adaptations to life’s challenges, and genes allow these successes to be recorded and passed on to succeeding generations. Thanks to this vast genetic inheritance, organisms instinctively know how to orient to their world. A newborn python, for instance, knows precisely how to respond to the presence of a mouse, and oak seedlings know precisely how to react to the shortening days of autumn.

One of the peculiar features of the human species is that our behavior is not as tightly bound to the dictates of our genes. In fact, humans sometimes respond to life in ways that are entirely at odds with their genetically programmed instincts. As a vivid example, cosmologist Brian Swimme notes that most other species know exactly what to do when confronted with a raging forest fire. Because of humans’ enormous behavioral flexibility, however, our ancestors were able to suppress the inborn impulse to run from flames. Instead, they actually picked up burning branches and were soon carrying them around wherever they went.

As it turned out, this profoundly unnatural response to fire would have far-reaching consequences for the human species. For one thing, it allowed humans to cook their food, and the massive increase in calories this generated led directly to bigger families and bigger brains. In addition, it was the domestication of fire that allowed humans to leave the warm womb of the African savannah and spread — almost instantaneously — over the entire planet. Without fire, humans may never have populated the Siberian tundra or the mountains of Peru, and they may never have survived the Earth’s many ice ages, during which much of the planet was covered in a sheet of ice over a mile thick.

As this example illustrates, the loosening of genetically programmed instincts conferred enormous evolutionary advantages on our species. At the same time, however, unmooring ourselves from the genome’s well-tested wisdom also posed grave dangers for humans. Without the benefit of carefully crafted genetic instincts, how would we know how to respond to life’s ceaseless challenges?

According to anthropologists, this unique conundrum eventually led to a unique solution. In our species, a large part of the orienting role once played by biologically transmitted genes was replaced by culturally transmitted symbols. Instead of responding to the world based on genetically coded instincts, humans began to organize their behavior according to symbolically coded stories. These orienting stories provided answers to two fundamental questions:

• What is the nature of the universe in which we find ourselves?
• What role do humans (individually and collectively) play within this larger whole?

Because our species is now largely untethered from genetically programed instincts, it’s our answers to these questions that provide our basic orientation to life. Without this guiding framework, we are utterly lost — we can’t distinguish what is important from what is trivial, and we can’t distinguish what is good from what is detrimental. As philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre describes this human reliance on orienting narratives, “I can only answer the question ‘What I am to do?’ if I can answer the previous question ‘Of what stories do I find myself a part?’”

Intriguingly, this scientific insight — born from recent research in biology and anthropology — seems to be corroborated by revelations from the humanities. As we’ve recently learned from both philosophers and psychologists, humans never have direct access to reality because everything we experience is filtered through the lens of certain fundamental assumptions and beliefs.

In human societies, this filter is carried and transmitted in the form of widely shared cultural stories — for example, the story that we are participants in a vast cosmic battle between Good and Evil, or the story that we are the products of random collisions between mindless atoms. Because these narratives contain the filters through which we orient to reality, modern philosophers, sociologists, and depth psychologists all agree that there is simply no escaping from these culturally transmitted stories.

The inescapable power of these cultural filters is especially clear to anthropologists who study language. As the field of comparative linguistics has revealed, all languages use particular concepts to build mental maps of reality. As one example, we could point out that the previous sentence described the relationship between thoughts and reality using the metaphor of a ‘map’. While this choice might seem eminently reasonable, it should be obvious that many other metaphors could be used, and more importantly, that our chosen metaphor will have an enormous impact on how we see — and experience — this relationship. As another example, English often describes large-scale power structures using parental metaphors — as in “mother nature”, “the heavenly father,” or “the nanny state.” These metaphors will necessarily bring forth certain associations — for example, nature is nurturing, or God is jealous — and discourage others.

As a result of the biases and limitations inherent in this choice of symbolic metaphors, anthropologists have realized that we can never achieve anything like a fundamentally correct view of reality. We all live inside stories about the nature of reality, and each of those stories necessarily focuses on certain features of the world (parsing those out into fine-tuned words and concepts) while ignoring other distinctions (and thereby rendering those features of reality essentially invisible). The filter through which each of us experiences (and constructs) reality is our worldview.

As we’ll discuss in the coming posts, we believe that the fate of humanity depends not so much on discovering new technologies as on evolving our species’ worldviews. For our children to create and caretake a thriving world, they will need what cultural historian Thomas Berry called a functional worldview — a vision of reality that allows humans to develop mutually enhancing relationships with all the members of the Earth community. At the same time, however, we believe that it’s no longer appropriate (or respectful) for us as educators to tell students what their worldview should be. With this in mind, all our courses are designed to help students articulate their own worldview — to help them come to their own conclusions about the nature of reality and their role in it. We feel strongly that supporting students in finding their own answers to these deep questions is an essential part of making them empowered and fulfilled adults.

In the next post, we’ll dig deeper into the power of these largely invisible filters.