Most of us rarely think about our most precious possession. Asked about it, we’re likely to think of heirlooms, childhood memorabilia, old photographs or trophies, one’s house, one’s job, one’s life savings or other sensible-sounding things.
To my mind, our most precious possession is intangible and essential to our well being. It is also something we rarely think about and might not even be able to describe very well if asked to do so. I’m talking about our view of things in general, the working picture we have of life, the values and conceptions that shape our experience.
Whether or not we think about our worldview, the invisible agents that drive us burrow in the deep fabric of our being and emit their influence. We are the products, conscious and unconscious, of the worldview propelling our life-journey. No one can take hold of their life unless they pause from time to time and take inventory of the idea-forces acting upon them. All sorts of angels and hobgoblins are playing shuttlecock with our heads.
We can look for three things essential to any useful worldmap or worldview. The first is about what we think is really “real”. This is a tricky contrast word, as in “I dreamt of you” is ‘less real’ than “I met you on East 3rd Street on April 1st.” On the other hand, my dream experience is real, too, but in different ways. (I’ve had some dreams that put reality to shame.) “Reality” is not a monolithic concept; the one proven strategy of escape from its complexities and mysteries is to stop thinking.
This is big for the anatomy of a worldview. Two extremes are polarized. Some say that basic reality is physical; some that the foundation of all is mental. Which you prefer, and choose to embody, will make a difference to how you perceive and carry on with the world. Main point: a concept of reality is a primary component of our worldviewing apparatus.
Now to a second essential feature, namely, one’s style of cognition. What are your main tools for getting to know things? Everybody has an epistemic slant.
Are you a Romantic or a rationalist, a mystic or a taxonimist, a scientist with a passion to analyze or a lover disposed to ecstatic adoration? Should I learn to vary my approach in forming and interpreting my experience? Maybe I’m too emotional or too rational, too extraverted, too introverted, and so on; awareness of how we filter our consciousness from moment to moment can be a life-enhancing exercise.
Finally, there is one more key component to every worldview, according to the German historian of ideas, Wilhelm Dilthey. We have a map of what is real and many ways of exploring and knowing this reality; but we can’t omit a model for action, for the ethical dimension. The issue of ethics is not to be taken for granted.
We have only to look around at the slaughter-house of history unfolding before us to realize something is amiss with the ethical creds of current humanity at large. So every worldview must provide some kind of ethical compass for the sphere of action in life.
To sum up the requirements for an operating worldview. First, you need a sense, a concept of core reality, some kind of ontology. Then you need a scheme for
interacting with that acknowledged reality – science, art, the contemplative life, capitalism, terrorism, whatever. Finally, you need a guide for general conduct in the historical world you find yourself stuck in. In our contingent world where anything can happen and usually does, the ethical orientation is forced upon us. When for example movements of protest and rebellion arise among us, we may be sucked into the fray and forced to take sides and act.
Like it or not, we must vote, join an uprising, flee to the hills, migrate, get jailed, risk being shot, or beheaded, or thrust for decades into solitary confinement. We have to act in the world and that calls for a plan, a goal, a view of how things ought to be and could be. Aims, visions, ideals, worldviews: without them, we’re pretty much dust in the winds of chance. In the end, our most precious possession is our own mind.