Friday, October 24, 2008

All Worldviews Are Weird

In a yet-to-be-finished (and maybe never-to-be) post on the role the Mormon church is playing in support of the anti-gay Proposition 8 in California, I had a sentence about the interest (as a Jewish atheist) I had in the Mormons which noted their bizarre worldview -- by which I mean their cosmology, theology, metaphysics: stuff like that.

But of course all worldviews are weird.

An atheist would of course rush forward to say that the standard Christian view is no less strange than the Mormon one: it's just a different flavor of strangeness. And the same is true, mutatis mutandis, of the comparisons of the various views of Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam -- whatever. I don't think that the world view of, say, Scientology is less strange than that of (say) mainstream Christianity (or any of its less-popular spinoffs); it's just less familiar.

But then, really, the same is true of the overall picture of the universe derived from modern science. I mean, quantum mechanics? It doesn't get any weirder than that. And lots of other areas are -- if you imagine explaining them to a person from a culture who knows about neither Christianity nor Enlightenment-and-thereafter science -- equally strange.

This is particularly true when those depictions of the universe are reduced to the summery summary form in which most of us are exposed to them (particularly those we don't subscribe to, but also those we do) -- but it is not exclusively true of summaries: it's just that more detailed descriptions of any given model of the universe will take enough time that we are apt to get used to the weirdness.

This is not to say, of course, that there aren't good reasons for preferring one picture of the world to another. There are.* It's just to say that prima facie strangeness is not a good reason for preferring any particular worldview, because they're all weird. For some we're just used to that.

This naturally leads to the question of why all worldviews are weird -- why isn't it that the truth makes intuitive sense? And while this is a question that libraries could be (and probably have been) written on, I think the first stab at an answer would be that the sort of issues I am intending to include under the rubric of "worldview" are all things that are decidedly outside our common frame of reference. Metaphysics, cosmology, theology, and so forth, all deal with issues that are broader in time, distant in space, differing in scale, and divergent in nature from the stuff of our everyday lives. Sidestepping the question of to what degree our common sense is instinctual and to what degree it is formed by experience,** that common sense is/was formed by things at a very limited scale: in time, in size, in nature, etc. So naturally any answer to the bigger questions is going to be weird, because the criteria by which we form our notion of what's normal are not calibrated to deal with those sorts of issues.

If this sketch of a reason is right, then not only are all known worldviews weird, but any possible worldview is weird -- indeed, if someone managed to somehow create a worldview that was intuitively plausible, reasonable at first blush, then we should be instantly suspicious of such a view, since it would involve projecting things from a common scale to ones upon which we have no experience.

*Personally, I think that science (and other secular studies as appropriate) is the best guide to questions such as what sort of things exist in the universe, how did they come to be and so forth because it is based on reasons and evidence. Others may use other standards, such as the teachings of their ancestors, a burning in the bosom, or what have you.

** I suppose, really, it's formed by experience either way: the only question is to what degree is that experience individual (having to do with our personal, psychological experiences) and to what degree does it reside in the species (the events that shaped the natural selection that gave rise to our instincts, the way our minds have evolved).

1 comment:

Holly said...

Maybe it's just because I know it so intimately, but I think the Mormon world view is a little weirder than most, in that it posits an afterworld that is almost exactly like this one. I remember being told as a child that there would even be garbage collectors in the next life. That's weirdly specific and specifically weird. Isn't it?