Overview:

All worldviews aren't created equal. How do you tell from the inside if yours is in accord with reality?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

[Previous: How do we know who to trust?]

The world is deluded and blinded—and we’re the only ones who realize it.

Churches, cults, political factions, corporations all conspire to keep people cut off from the truth. Since we’re the enlightened rational ones, we can look down and see the poor suckers who’ve fallen for it. They’re being drip-fed with lies and propaganda, trapped in a bubble of misinformation constructed by those who benefit from keeping them ignorant.

It’s tempting to pity them… except that they’re pointing back at us and pitying us for the same reason. In their eyes, they’re the critical thinkers and we’re the sheep.

How do we break this symmetry? How do we know who’s deceived and who’s truly seeing reality as it is?

By definition, if you’re trapped in a bubble, it won’t be obvious. All the authority figures you trust will assure you that you’re not, and they’ll have clever rationalizations any time their teachings fail to accord with reality. But there are some ways to realize that your worldview is a prison and break out from the inside.

The marks of a good worldview

First, a truthful and objective worldview should contain no plot holes, meaning logical leaps, explanatory gaps, internal contradictions, or question-begging assumptions deployed to paper over problems. It should be grounded in simple, defensible principles, not complex suppositions about what could or might be so. While it doesn’t have to account for every fact in the universe, it should be a seamless weave of cause and effect, organizing the facts it does explain in a consistent way.

As part of this, a good worldview should also do justice to the complexity of human motivation. It should allow for the possibility of people often being stubborn and irrational while still recognizing that everyone acts in (what they perceive to be) their own self-interest. It should allow for people to be malicious while recognizing that no one becomes a cackling villain for no reason at all. And it shouldn’t claim that all virtue resides within the bounds of one belief system or that all evil is to be found without.

Second, a good worldview should always have an answer to the question, “How do you know that?” The methods and sources of knowledge should be open and transparent, like a map that anyone can follow for themselves. It’s not that every individual person has to be prepared to explain all their beliefs down to the root at any time, but the answers should be available to those who care to look. And wherever possible, those sources should be rigorous tests and controlled experiments designed to eliminate bias—not anecdotes from strangers with unknown motivations.

In counterpoint, a good worldview should not assert that some beliefs come from mystical revelation that can never be replicated or explained to the uninitiated, and have to be taken on faith. This claim can (and does!) justify literally any belief, including beliefs that directly contradict each other, so it’s useless to distinguish truth from falsehood.

A corollary is that a good worldview should be falsifiable. Its advocates should be able to list the evidence that would convince them that they were wrong. This is a key sign that a worldview conforms to reality, and isn’t a closed-loop intellectual circle that exists solely to justify itself. If your answer to “What would change your mind?” is “Nothing,” you’ve definitely trapped yourself in a bubble.

As part of this, a good worldview encourages questioning, even of its basic assumptions. A worldview that welcomes questioning and correction is like a metal that grows stronger from tempering, rather than a brittle ceramic that shatters if it’s stressed too much. This is true even if—especially if—the questions come from outsiders.

A worldview that welcomes questioning and correction is like a metal that grows stronger from tempering.

A solid and confident worldview treats good-faith criticism as an opportunity to improve, not a threat to be defeated by any means necessary. If the trusted leaders of your tribe discourage you from reading or listening to arguments made by people who don’t agree with you, that’s a powerful sign that you’re trapped in a bubble.

A good worldview is fruitful: it yields a harvest of new knowledge. The history of humanity, both on the scale of civilizations and on the scale of individual lives, is a steady climb: constantly seeking to improve, wanting to be better than we are. A good worldview is open-ended, encouraging growth and exploration, and not taking for granted that everything worth knowing is already known.

This is in contrast to worldviews that claim “knowledge” consists of the endless repetition of founding dogmas, or which believe that everything was already perfect at some point in the past and every change since then was loss and corruption. These philosophies are intellectual dead ends, leading to stagnation, knee-jerk conservatism and hostility towards new and different ideas.

Last but certainly not least, a good worldview is beneficial. It should make life better for those who follow it.

A good worldview should elevate the best moments and cushion the lows of the worst ones.

This isn’t to say that if you find the right worldview, you’ll be happy all the time. It also doesn’t mean that your worldview is a failure if you ever feel sad or angry or frustrated. Life has its hardships, its trials, and its moments of darkness no matter who you are or what you believe. We’re all fallible flesh and blood, and the best philosophy ever conceived can’t overcome an imbalanced brain chemistry.

However, a good worldview should elevate the best moments and cushion the lows of the worst ones. It should give us resilience to weather life’s storms, as well as motivation to help each other so that life is better for everyone. If your philosophy teaches that doom is inevitable or that human beings are powerless to bring about change, then it’s a philosophy that’s not worth holding. A worldview that encourages its holders to retreat into nihilism, to distrust and reject everything that might improve their lives, is the worst kind of bubble.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...