James Borda Writer, Game and Interaction Designer

On (Not) Reconciling Worldviews

I hope I have the privilege of being the first person on the Internet to synthesize two arguments by Paul Krugman (NYTimes columnist and liberal provocateur) and Zak Smith (artist, dungeon master, and writer of the brilliant blog Playing D&D with Porn Stars). Krugman’s post today is not one of his strongest, but it makes a crucial point that President Obama (understandably) tried to paper over in his Tucson address – the political rancor endemic to our national discourse is not just a matter of volume, or tone, or stridency. The left and right in America have fundamentally different worldviews – we can’t agree on the issues because we are arguing from totally different assumptions about the way the world works. Krugman uses the example of the health care debate. Despite some disingenuous admissions from the right that our system was broken, their stonewalling, misinformation campaign, and the inadequate ‘solutions’ which were counter-proposed by the GOP betrayed the fact that, really, the Republicans were quite happy with the way things were. 40 million uninsured Americans was not evidence of a broken system, it was evidence of the moral failure of 40 million Americans. And it is not government’s job to rectify individual moral failings.

Smith’s post was on the aesthetics of the Weird. Bear with me, here. According to Smith, the industrial and scientific revolutions marked a profound shift in the way (some) people placed themselves within the context of the broader universe. Previous to this revolution, our thinking was symbolic and magical – everything in the universe related directly to humanity through a web of symbolic relationships. So a snake, for example, was evil – it was the physical embodiment of a moral position, and to associate with that physical thing was equally to associate with the morality it represented. Owning a pet snake was a sure sign of evil intent. We see the remnants of this in astrology – a codex for interpreting the influence of the stars on an individual human life.

The scientific revolution, however, gave us a different perspective. A snake is just a snake. It exists because its ancestors passed on genetic information which was advantageous to the species’ continued reproduction. And though a snake will sometimes commit an act which is harmful to a human, that act is no longer seen as having a moral context – a snakebite is an act of instinct, not malice. In other words, the universe exists as a discrete entity which contains humanity, but it not about humanity. There are vast (unimaginably vast) regions of the universe which are not affected in any way by the existence of human beings, and which don’t affect us much, either.

(The Weird, by the way, is defined by Smith as a cultural product that is not clearly situated within either of these worldviews. The classic example is the work of H. P. Lovecraft, whose Cthulu mythology never clearly indicated what moral position it represented – was Cthulu malicious, a kind of demon that reveled in the destruction it caused, or was it an impersonal (amoral) force that had no more regard for the human consequences of its actions than we would for the blades of grass we mow? But that’s something of an aside as far as my argument is concerned.)

What I think is at play in American politics is the tension between these two worldviews. The magical/symbolic worldview is represented by the religious right, which famously rejects science and insists that reality is entirely explained by the Christian Bible. The Bible is essentially a magical codex – it makes assertions about the symbolic interconnectedness of the universe (the wine is My blood; the bread is My flesh), which are unobservable and unprovable, but nevertheless vital to a true understanding of reality. The universe was created to house humanity, which has ‘dominion over the earth,’ and every action has a weight in the crucial moral struggle which is, fundamentally, what the universe is about.

Contrast this to the scientific worldview, which is essentially pragmatic and impersonal. Morality is simply a code of behaviors which govern specific cultures – an uncertain amalgam of genetic conditioning and custom. If something that was previously deemed ‘immoral’ (like homosexuality) is found to have no observable socially-detrimental effects, then there is no reason to continue stigmatizing the behavior. (Of course this an oversimplification. There is a whole spectrum, from scientists who seek religious guidance for questions they feel science cannot answer, to theologians who welcome scientific advancements as a chance to illuminate and deepen their faith. But the most vocal and unified political group in America today is the far-right, who eschew science and cluster around the witch-hunting Sarah Palin.)

The result is a profound clash of cultures. Take an example: Abstinence-Only Education. Several studies have shown that this program is a failure on its own terms. Children taught in this program are just as likely to get pregnant or to contract an STD as children outside it, and there is a mountain of evidence from overseas that the opposite strategy works better. (Denmark, with a comprehensive mandatory sex education program in its public schools, enjoys the lowest rate of teen pregnancy in the developed world). This matters not at all to the religious right, who continue to support the abstinence-only program, because their reality is defined by the web of symbolic associations they absorbed through their religious teachings. Their moral universe is unequivocal – unmarried sex is a sin and must be discouraged. Even if their program creates  negative social effects, the moral principle must be upheld.

So our differences, despite Obama’s comforting words, are not simply shades on a single palate. On a very deep level we all desire the same things – security, comfort, respect within our chosen peer groups, upward mobility for ourselves and our children – but one level up from that we are talking apples and oranges. If you uphold a scientific worldview, how can you negotiate with a person who does not accept evidence as a valid criterion for decision-making? And if you live within a magical/symbolic universe, how can you be expected to negotiate with someone who refuses to accept the fundamental moral framework of that universe? The only ‘middle ground’ here is the struggle to attract those who are on the fence – the independent voter.

If you’ve read this far, you can probably guess which side I’m on. For someone who accepts evidence as a valid criterion, the evidence is overwhelmingly clear – science has revealed truths that no religion ever has, and challenging received wisdom has produced more social good than upholding it. But I don’t hold out any hope of converting the faithful.

The unfortunate truth is that advances in social well-being do not arise through compromise between these worldviews. Political advancement is a one-legged frog. By definition, a person who refuses to consult any evidence to measure his progress can only achieve success by accident. Each time humanity advances, it is despite the doctrinaire, not in concert with them.


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Posted: January 15, 2011


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Open Source Democracy, Writing