Worldviews: How We See the World, Part 1

As the twig is bent, so grows the tree. 00-bent-tree

The Center for Global Awareness is pleased to announce a forthcoming conversation program to enhance global awareness for adult learners called GRASP (Global Awareness Adult Study Program). GRASP’s mission is to enhance adult learners’ global awareness by offering conversation materials that present significant global topics using a unique four dimensional approach: see, know, evolve, and engage (SEEK). Participants will be able to see different perspectives and views, know more about significant global topics, evolve attitudes and shift behaviors, and engage more actively in helping to solve pressing global concerns through interacting more deeply with others.

We at CGA think it is as important to see different perspectives and views of global topics as it is to know about the topics. Therefore, we are developing new materials to enhance this “see” skill for adult learners. One of the ways to help us see different perspectives is to understand different worldviews. One of our forthcoming books, Worldviews: How We See the World, addresses the see dimension. I would like to share with you a condensed version of the first chapter of this book: An Introduction to Worldviews. Please follow our 4-part blog series on worldviews.

Why is it that one experience or situation can elicit so many different responses? Police often find that different eye witnesses can have wildly different interpretations of the same crime that their testimonies are virtually worthless in determining the outcome of a case. Proposals to demolish an old, decrepit building in the middle of a town can create a firestorm of reactions or the building of a Walmart on the outskirts of town can raise the blood pressure of the entire community.

Another contentious issue involves the rights of indigenous people to claim their artifacts. Natural history museums before 1990 often had exhibits depicting land before European colonization. These exhibits often included artifacts and possibly skeletons of Native Americans; they could claim no ownership rights to artifacts that were taken from their land. 01-native-headressTheir burial grounds were dug up by archaeologists, and the findings were dispersed to museums across the country and world. Many artifacts were either purchased, often below the value of the object, or stolen, with little legal recourse for the Native groups. Although these exhibits may be informative to the museum-goer, many Native Americans see them as a source of resentment. This changed in 1990 when the federal government passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which gave them the legal authority to reclaim artifacts from federally funded museums. Museums are often asked to return objects that are sacred, meaning they are used in present-day ceremonies. Institutions also must give back artifacts that have “ongoing historical, traditional, or cultural importance central to the Native American group or culture itself.” Tribes can claim ownership of the objects, and if a review determines their claim is justified, ownership of the artifact is given to the tribes. However, the question remains, “Who should own Native American artifacts?” The essence of the question is also being asked globally. Should Egypt be able to request the return of their plundered antiquities from the British Museum in London or the Berlin Museum? It is not the purpose of this example to answer this question but to show that how one answers this question reflects, in part, one’s particular worldview.

A worldview is a way of understanding or a lens through which one explains events, phenomena, and actions that happen in our everyday lives. It refers to the framework of ideas and beliefs through which an individual interprets the world and interacts with it. The term worldview comes from the German world Weltanschauung: welt means world and anschauung means outlook or view. 02-reading-glassesA useful way to think of how a worldview shapes our reality is to think of a pair of glasses. We can see through the glasses without actually being aware of them, yet the prescription of the glasses is focusing the world for us. So too are worldviews. Every book read, policy statement enacted, vote cast, problem solved, class taught, Congressional bill passed, religious sermon preached, the way children are raised, and even the approach used to write this book are shaped as much, if not more, by our worldview as by any objective data or analysis.

A worldview is an overall perspective from which one sees and interprets the world; a set of simplifying suppositions about how the world works and what is seen and not seen. It is an internal collection of assumptions, held by an individual or a group that are firmly believed to be self-evident truths. These assumptions shape an individual’s beliefs, ideas, attitudes, and values, which, in turn, affect behaviors and actions. A worldview is a paradigm, a fundamental way of looking at reality which functions as a filter. When people look out through a filter, such as a pane of colored glass, they usually see through it, rather than seeing it—as so with worldviews. It admits information that is consistent with our deeply held expectations about the world while guiding us to disregard information that challenges or disproves these expectations. A worldview acts as a built-in “operating system.”

Each of us has a worldview. It develops in part because we seek some understanding of our own significance. People desire certitude by which to live their lives. There are universal queries for understanding important aspects of life. Through the lens of our worldview an individual is able to answer these universal queries, such as the notions of the existence or nonexistence of the supernatural and a deity or deities; the origins of the universe and of human life; 03-subconscious-mindthe source of morality and values and identification of what is good or evil; how to live one’s life; the meaning of life and of death; and so on. To greater or lesser degree, people are able to obtain reassurances from worldview coherency.

Worldviews are rarely brought out into the light of day, so people are not usually aware of them. They are hidden deep in our human consciousness, all the while quietly shaping our reactions to new ideas and information, guiding our decisions, and ordering expectations for the future. For example, our worldview guides us to answering questions such as is free trade good for the economy, is universal health care a human right, is our clan always right, or does land always have a monetary value. A worldview consists of basic assumptions and images that provide a more or less coherent, though not necessarily accurate, way of thinking about the world.

Worldviews deeply influence the kind of political, economic, cultural and social patterns we build, and those, in turn, reinforce the events that occur around the world. An iceberg serves as a good way to better understand worldviews. At the tip of the iceberg, the 10-20 percent seen above the surface represents events that occur around the world. These events are reported on the television news, headlined in the newspaper, or featured on the Internet. But looking beneath the surface level of the iceberg’s events are the episodes. For example, we see the event of Hurricane Katrina on the news, but the hurricane is not an isolated event; it is part of larger episodes of hurricanes that are wreaking havoc along coastlines. 04-icebergAnd if we look further below the surface of the iceberg’s events and episodes, we see that a society’s political, economic, technological, social, environmental, and cultural patterns have an impact on the events and episodes (I call these patterns “currents” in my holistic world history). Many scientists attribute such violent and extreme weather conditions as Hurricane Katrina to global warming, which is caused by our burning of fossil fuels. The modern economic system, the current or pattern, is based on the burning of fossil fuels for our energy consumption, which drives our modern way of life, while the environmental impact of burning fossil fuels is an unfortunate but necessary byproduct.

Farther down towards the base of the iceberg is what I call worldviews, which, in turn, influences the events, episodes and patterns. On worldview extols is fashioned around the idea that unlimited economic growth is the unquestioned path to prosperity and well-being. However, the environmental repercussions of this worldview are finally revealing the unintended consequences of this unquestioned belief in unlimited growth. Finally, at the very base of the iceberg we see the great mass of ice supporting the whole iceberg; these are our human behaviors, the universal human commonalities that shape who we are as a species. Therefore, if we want to change events, episodes and patterns we need to change our worldview that created them in the first place.

These worldviews are not merely the latest psychological profile fad but deeply entrenched mental constructs of how we see the world. It is the lens through which we make sense of reality, arrive at solutions to problems, create a way of living our lives, or structure our government and other institutions. In other words, we make both big decisions and little decisions through the lens of our worldview.


  1. In what ways do worldviews deeply influence the kind of political, economic, cultural and social patterns in your country? Think of examples.
  2. Do you feel the worldview/s that influence these patterns reflect your values and beliefs?


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