This section has tried to set the scene for the remaining sections of this website. The basic goal simply being to highlight that while our worldviews may be very important to us, personally, history suggests that nobody has ever had exclusive access to the absolute truth and, as such, our worldview is undoubtedly subjective and in all probability incomplete and quite possibly flawed. However, it is not a goal of this website to try to 'convert' anybody to another worldview, only that you might reflect on why others may have a different perspective.
It is also recognized that the discussion is biased to a western perspective, which reflects my own background. Of course, there have been many great civilizations centred on other regions of the world, but I do not think this invalidates the primary focus of the discussion because the development of the modern scientific worldview now has a global reach. Clearly, the Renaissance period was a key period of change, which helped forged the foundation of a worldview that required some level of empirical verification of its ideas. However, we might now want to reflect on what this view is exactly telling us about the world. For example:
Did this new worldview tell us something about the emerging nature of truth?
One observation that might be drawn is that the nature of successive worldviews, all of which were once held to be true, seems to be getting progressively more complex. It is believed that this is a central issue that will become more problematic in the future, if the scientific worldview continues to prevail.
Will the search for truth only become increasingly complex?
Of course, you might rightly respond that it depends of the nature of the given truth in question, i.e. some truths may be simple, some complex. While this in itself may be a simple truth, there is still the suggestion that our ability to continue to understand ever deeper truths may be linked to our ability to comprehend ever greater complexity. If so:
Will only smarter people be able to understand these deeper truths?
Possibly, in a politically correct age, there might be some immediate `knee-jerk` reaction as to where such a question might be leading; as surely all men and women must be considered equal. So first and foremost, this argument has nothing to do with the need to protect equality, as it purports to civil rights. However, it is asking, in what sense, are people equal to judge certain truths, if they cannot understand the concept or empirical evidence that supports a given hypothesis? You might equally be sensing that this discussion is trying to focus on some poor unfortunate section of society that does not have the wit to even understand some basic concepts. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth of what is being suggested. The implication of increasing complexity is that eventually even a relatively smart minority will not necessarily understand the rationale or the verification of certain truths and, more importantly, the ramifications stemming from them. In part, a similar question was raised in an initial section addressing the Verification of Truth although it was put into a slightly different context:
How does a society continue to judge the truth, if it cannot even understand the mechanisms by which it is verified?
This question differs only in the sense that the focus of understanding is shifted from an individual to a collective society. Even so, the scope of this question becomes more complex, because it also questions how a society, comprised of individuals, ever converges to a collective worldview that is meaningful. Of course, the implication of the next question might suggest that it never has to:
Is a collective worldview a reflection of the majority or the imposition of a minority?
While it may appear that we are simply raising ever more questions without attempting to answer any of them, we do need to establish a line of argument that ties in with some initial assumptions and the history outlined within this section. So let us start by trying to provide a basic definition of a society:
A society is an association of people united by a common aim or interest or principle.
History would suggest that the common human needs that initially forged many small communities in the Dark Ages was simply survival. According to the hierarchy of human needs, physiological and safety needs underpin social needs, which by their very nature form the foundations of primitive societies. Given the preoccupation with basic survival, the probability of an early death and the lack of any deeper understanding of the world around them; is it so surprising to find that the collective worldviews of such societies could be unified in a single belief system that offered hope? Our brief overview of history suggests this was the situation across much of Western Europe as the Roman Empire began to crumble into the feudal system. While these conditions existed, a truth of a given worldview was only predicated on belief, as for many, belief was all that existed to foster hope for a better life, at least, in the next world, if not this one. Today, it may be difficult for many of us to comprehend the seemingly overwhelming need for such profound belief; but shut your eyes and stare into the abyss, then try to imagine that your very survival and the promise of an entry into a better world depends on it.
How did the growth of a social hierarchy come to affect the collective worldview?
In small enclosed societies, the worldview may not have been sophisticated, but it is probably understood and shared by all. However, over time, many of these small communities were unified into more powerful groups, which were better able to satisfy the physiological, safety and social needs of its individuals. However, history suggests that the benefits derived by larger social hierarchies are not necessarily equitable, and the survival needs of some individuals are satisfied much earlier than others. As a consequence, the hierarchy within a given society allowed some individuals to chase higher goals, while others still fought for survival. In a sense, a collective society is still governed by the survival of the fittest, but where the 'fittest' are no longer the strongest, or even the smartest, but simply the most powerful within the collective structure of that society. However, as the sophistication of society increased, power transcended the individual by taking on the persona of an institution.
How do institutions influence the collective worldview?
An institution can be assigned exactly the same definition as a society, i.e. an association of people united by a common aim. However, there is an important difference in that its membership is normally selective in some manner. As the mainstream of a society grows, its population comes to represent an ever-broader spectrum of beliefs. One-way of avoiding the dilution of a particular aspect of social identity is by means of an institution in which a common truth or worldview is often a requirement of membership. From a historical perspective, we could cite the institution of the monarchy or the church as prime examples of powerful institutions with a common worldview, e.g. the maintenance of a class structure or the proliferation of a religious belief. However, in these cases, it is possibly more correct to say that these institutions not only influenced the perception of a collective worldview, they actually created and imposed it on the majority. In this sense, many worldviews are not a collective consensus, but rather an imposition of an idea by a powerful minority. When we refute the truth of an idea, we may call the teaching of that idea: indoctrination. Of course, when we happen to believe the truth of a particular idea, we call its teaching: education. With this said, let us now return to some of the open questions raised:
Why did Greek rationalism not immediately flourish and embrace empirical truth?
First, we might consider the trouble history accompanying the rise and fall of the Roman Empire as a major reason and simply say that most people had more pressing issues. Second, there is the argument that, during this time, the most powerful institutions of Western Europe had no need of rational or empirical truth for the maintenance and proliferation of their worldviews. Third, the truth of many worldviews exceeded the capability of the science of the day to verify or deny. For example, without the discovery of instruments that extended human senses, many early ideas about the microscopic world of the atom and the macroscopic world of cosmology could only be discussed within the context of philosophical debate. Fourth, in the area of religious belief, questions about the universe transcended the physical world and again remained beyond the realm of the physical science to verify or deny, even if allowed by the entrenched religious worldview(s) of the day.
Is the search for truth destined to become so complex that only an ever-diminishing minority will be able to understand its nature?
An argument can be made that only a very small minority of any given society has ever understood the rationale and evidence, or lack of, for any given worldview - ever. This is not advocating elitism, simply a rational statement, which history, at least, appears to support. As alluded to when trying to answer the previous question; the adoption of scientific method to help verify the truth of any idea had to wait for technical advances, which ultimately led to the development of ever more complex instrumentation. Even if this process stopped today, how many in society are in a position to question the truth of a statement made about modern particle physics? Other than our own self-destruction by technology, which ignorance may well inflict on us, there is probably little possibility that our worldview, based on empirical truth, will get any simpler. If this is indeed the case, the underlying assumptions, which support our notion of truth, may simply have to be accepted on trust. In the end, the majority may have little choice but to believe, as a matter of faith, in the growing institutions of science.
But surely faith, alone, goes against the very principle of science?
While I may agree, this does not necessarily stop it being true. In the end, we may have to face up to the reality of where today's science may be leading us or simply be prepared to hide our head deeper in the sand and hope it doesn't come true in our lifetime.