My friend Ed Gibney has written on each and every one of the thought experiments in Julian Baggini’s, The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten: 100 Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher. He has also summarized his own 100 blog posts on Baggini’s 100 thought experiments in “What I learned from 100 Philosophy Thought Experiments.”
Overall Gibney’s careful and conscientious effort to summarize, categorize, and comment on all these thought experiments and place them in the larger context is a superb intellectual achievement.
After finishing this work Gibney claimed “that this writing project made subtle but important changes to the way I looked at things. In other words, I felt my worldview change.” Not many books do that. But what exactly is a worldview? Let Gibney explain.
From Ed Gibney’s blog, reprinted with permission.
What is a worldview? We all have one. It’s possible that they can be explicitly known and explored, but more commonly they are a bundle of hidden assumptions tied together by a few professed beliefs you’ve either grown up with or adopted later in life. They can be passively absorbed from the society around you, or actively built through personal research and rational reflection. They aren’t always, if ever, perfectly consistent, but they have many interrelated and interlocking components, which makes them very difficult to shift. They’re sometimes called a “personal philosophy,” but since 1790, when Immanuel Kant coined the German word weltanschauung in his book Critique of Judgment, the specific idea of a worldview has been adapted and adopted all over the world as a term that “refers to the framework of ideas and beliefs forming a global description through which an individual, group, or culture watches and interprets the world and interacts with it.”
What specifically does this framework of ideas and beliefs consist of? A brief search through the Internet turns up several different but often overlapping elements of what a worldview must include. According to several sources (1, 2, 3, 4), a worldview ought to:
… explain the nature of the world; give us direction; tell us what to value; tell us how to act; explain what we can know; provide consistency and coherence to the story we tell ourselves; incorporate facts that we encounter; explain how things function; tell us why we are the way we are; yield insights into our feelings and emotions; tell us how to organise politically; help us choose future paths; uncover the origins of the universe and life itself; give us meaning and purpose; answer questions about gods and other mysteries; tell us what is good, what is truth, and what is beauty; help us feel less terrified of death; shed light on our joys and sorrows; and guide us through our darker hours.
Such core beliefs of our lives “are often deeply rooted…and are brought to the surface only in moments of crises. [But] the philosophical importance of worldviews became increasingly clear during the 20th century for a number of reasons, such as increasing contact between cultures, and the failure of some aspects of the Enlightenment project, such as the rationalist project of attaining all truth by reason alone.” Adding to the difficulty of getting our worldviews from fragmentation to integration has been the arrival of the information age. Ever since “the final decade of the 20th century, we have had an enormous amount of information at our disposal. On the one hand, this makes it easier for us to form an image of the world in which we live, but on the other hand, this introduces a new type of difficulty, i.e. we must develop the ability to take into account all this information.” We now have all the facts we could ever consume, but many worldviews are struggling to properly digest them.
This rising complexity and clash of worldviews in the late-20th century remind me of an illustrative passage of dialogue I just read in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, which was published in 1868 and therefore foreshadowed some of these issues. In the novel, one of the minor characters reacts negatively to the modernism of his time by appealing to some good old-fashioned nostalgia (which never seems to go out of style). Recalling an earlier time, he said:
“Back then, people were driven by a single idea somehow, now they’re more edgy, more mature, more sensitive, able to cope with two or three ideas at a time…the man of today has a wider apprehension and, believe me, that prevents him from being as harmoniously integrated as they were in those days.” — Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Two or three ideas? Those were simpler times! What about when we are forced to cope with thousands of them? Or even just 100 that have been chosen very precisely to pick apart the tiniest inconsistencies in your worldview. How could anyone manage to be “harmoniously integrated” in the face of such a deluge? As I worked my way through Baggini’s book, it became apparent that he had ordered his thought experiments pretty much at random, and that made it very difficult for me to see how the changes he was causing might be strung together into a coherent summary of what I had learned. But then, this is a lot like life. And philosophy has been used to make sense of life for thousands of years.
In my first edition of Evolutionary Philosophy, I attempted to construct a worldview through the use of a simple list of 10 tenets, and then by using a more comprehensive set of questions on how to Know Thyself. Those were both non-traditional methods for philosophers, but now it’s more of a natural fit to try and sort the 100 philosophical thought experiments into a traditional construction of a worldview by using the six academic branches of philosophy: epistemology, logic, metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, and political philosophy. These branches originate from very basic and universal questions: What do I know? How do I know it? Where do we come from? What is good? What is beautiful? How do we act? As I slot the lessons learned from 100 thought experiments into these six categories, I believe that all of the needs for a worldview which we listed above will be met. In fact, due to the overlap and repetition that exists in this list, we now know (specifically from #43 Future Shock) that one hundred philosophical thought experiments are more than enough to know the field.
Great. We know the journey will be worth it, so let’s get started. I’ll try to go through this as quickly as I can by summarising the lesson of each thought experiment in just a sentence or two (as I just did above after the hyperlink). If any summary doesn’t immediately feel right for your worldview, have a look at the thought experiment in full to see where one of us has gone wrong. And with that, we’re off! First, to build a view of the world, we must gain some knowledge about it.
(Next up – the thought experiments dealing with epistemology.)