Published on December 16, 2020

Building and refining your worldview

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Developing your worldview

Note: this text was originally written for first-year Liberal Arts & Sciences students. As part of the course Systems View on Life. This course focuses on autonomy and the development of living systems (such as the biosphere as a whole, social systems, and adolescents).

How do people develop and improve their worldviews? Our worldview is the context in which we interpret all our information. Hence it is the context that gives meaning to whatever we perceive. But at the same time, our worldview needs to be bootstrapped based on fetal cognition and constructed while we use it. And all the while, it needs to be as reliable as possible at any point in time.

Bootstrapping a worldview

Let’s think a bit about this. When you were a fetus or newborn, your skills were innate abilities and only minimally developed. Hence you depended on others to care for you and provide you with learning opportunities. Apart from innate biological functions, many of which still to be brought under self-control, your primary skill was to add new knowledge and skills. But you could only do that provided it was sufficiently related to your existing skills and knowledge. Still, you did this at an incredible rate while you somehow kept your knowledge and skills reliable enough to remain alive and keep learning. The more you learned, the more you expanded your understanding of the world.

Initially, your cognition was locked to the here and now, and your worldview reflected your current state. But quite soon, you discovered temporal persistencies: the bed you returned to was always the same, and different rooms were associated with physiological needs, feelings, smells & sounds, specific activities, individuals, and times of the day, This provided a first more or less coherent worldview that allowed you to predict some things to happen at some time-place combinations and not at others. The more accurate these predictions, the more manageable and less problematic your daily life was. And fewer problems allowed for more time for play and further discovery, which in turn drove further learning. Conversely, if you had problems, you learned to resolve, avoid, or cope with them.

With further learning came levels of abstraction. As combinations of feelings and experiences, rooms became abstracted to enclosed spaces with a purpose (like a bathroom). Small and big humans became separated into adults and children and boys and girls. And adults and boys and girls were differentiated while keeping many commonalities. Gradually each of them became an individual with idiosyncrasies and a place they called home. And different homes and places became connected as a neighborhood.

The point is that the environment you could deal with expanded as your knowledge and skills expanded.

knowledge becomes progressively more generalized and of broader applicability. And with that, your skills become progressively more attuned to cope with a bigger and more varied habitat. The better developed your life skills are, the more prepared you are for what reality is likely to throw at you. And that is the key point of all this learning: to be prepared to end the problems and use the opportunities life confronts you with.

Skills are ways to realize desired real-world outcomes. And knowledge constrains and guides action selection. If you understand something, you can apply it safely and without too many unforeseen consequences in the real world.

Your knowledge and skill acquisition serves this general purpose.

Most of this learning was driven by your own experiences, but as your language capabilities developed, the role of narrative learning became bigger.

Using shared knowledge to build a shared worldview

Level 1 - Memorizing everything - receiving well-structured knowledge. Slave

Level 2 - Memorizing the main points - structuring knowledge. Trained dog

Level 3 - Reproducing knowledge - applying procedures. Bureaucrat, domain specialist

Applying knowledge refinement to

Level 4 - Reconstructing knowledge - recreating knowledge.

Level 5 - Involving different viewpoints - generalizing knowledge

Level 6 -

It seems that we first adopt whole explanatory narratives as building blocks that are assumed to be completely true. At some point, we discover that these building blocks do not work well enough, need to be extended, or are inconsistent with other narratives. Honest appreciation of the narrative content allows us to identify weaknesses, limitations, blindnesses, and plain errors which allows us to refine and generalize the narrative content. Selecting suitable narrative building blocks, while avoiding “toxic” narratives, followed by consecutive refinements seems to be the way we build our worldview and make it progressively more all-encompassing and realistic.

In doing so the worldview becomes an ever-more reliable basis for real-world interaction.

This text addresses the properties of these two phases that we refer to as ‘building’ and ‘refinement’.


Building a realistic worldview

The purpose of Liberal Arts & Sciences is in the first place to allow one to educate one’s mind by providing the tools to build a realistic worldview. William Perry studied this development in Harvard students (end of the 1960s to 1990s). This let to the following defining description:1

An educated mind has learned to think about even his own thoughts, it examines the way it orders his data and the assumptions it is making, it compares these with other thoughts that other people might have and adopts whatever this scrutiny of data, ideas, and opinions decides on as most reliable and productive. In doing so the educated mind learned to think in accordance with reality from which position he can take responsibility for his own stand and negotiate – with respect – with others."

This definition is all is about making one’s worldview more realistic. A worldview constitutes data, ideas, and opinions and one gradually brings this more and more in accordance with reality.

Accordance with reality is important because reality doesn’t care whether our ideas and feelings are realistic and our intentions honorable. Reality just does whatever it does. Whenever we have unrealistic expectations, at some point reality will prove us wrong: and possibly with dire outcomes for ourselves and others. Conversely, realistic expectations allow us to use real-world dynamics to work in our favor and to gradually build on traces we leave in the world. (Andringa & Denham, 2021, Denham&Andringa, 2021).

Our worldview needs continual updates to remain in sync with reality and it needs to be improved to allow progressively more advanced and self-guided real-world interactions. Hence we must seek information that either contradicts or complements our worldview. Contradicting information suggests an opportunity for improvement. While complementing information, offers an opportunity to extend one’s worldview. In both cases, you have to play with (entertain) the information to determine its potential to improve your worldview. Hence:

It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it (attributed to Aristotle).

The educated mind focuses on refining its own thoughts and beliefs. We do this autonomously (from our own volition) and privately (others have no access to this process).

Entertaining thoughts can be a quite deliberate process in which we consciously and strategically visit associated thoughts. But it can also be a less conscious background process that becomes conscious when we are not thinking about anything pressing (no directed attention) such as when taking a shower or doing the dishes.2 Both are important and our mind has its own ways of guiding itself to issues that are worth pondering about and over time improve your worldview. Allowing ample lifetime to allow this process to occur naturally is in all likelihood well-spend time.

The opposite of Aristotle’s observation is:

It is the mark of an uneducated mind to accept or refute a thought without entertaining it.

The focus of the uneducated mind is not on how to improve existing beliefs, but on what to include and what to exclude in its worldview. This is about building a worldview through adopting acceptable narratives and refuting unacceptable narratives.

Narratives are a more or less coherent ordered set of beliefs, data, and opinions that reflect a particular unified perspective on a topic. Narratives are ways to share knowledge. Often they are particular to and characteristic of some in-group and represent important (shared) knowledge of the in-group. Adopting the in-group narrative makes you a reliable in-group member. Adopting a distorted, partial, or even an improved version of the in-group narrative makes you a source of unwanted (behavioral) diversity.

This is one reason why narratives are typically adopted all-inclusively. Another reason is that you need a basis of domain knowledge (and real-world experience) to be able to judge the quality of a narrative (and knowledge in general).

Narratives come in different quality grades: the best narratives are those that easily develop into stable and reliable building blocks. These building blocks provide a reliable, productive, and gradually improving basis for your interactions with the world: they help to generate expectations about the world that rarely prove invalid or harmful.

Conversely, basing yourself on low-grade narratives leads to conflicts with reality and associated disappointments whenever expected outcomes do not match actual outcomes (reality still doesn’t care). Low-grade narratives either need to be replaced by higher-grade ones or they require extensive refinement before they become a truly reliable basis for your real-world interactions. In both cases, they lead to loss of time, energy, and opportunities.

It is therefore really important to avoid low-grade narratives. For that, we have a few heuristics that can be used in the absence of more advanced refinement techniques.

  • The reputation of the source. Is the narrative source a part of the in-group? Or if it is not, is it generally reputable? This is a form of knowledge acquisition in which the locus of control over mental content lies outside the learner.
  • Self-assessed in-group compliance.

: deded


Comprehensive stories that are to be adopted as a whole “block of beliefs” to fill a void in existing knowledge. This narrative of sorts — a block of beliefs — can only be integrate with already present body of knowledge when it does not conflict.

In fact apparent conflict poisons the existing world view and should be avoided at all costs. In a similar vein, conveyers of conflicting information are a threat to the seamless integration of the world view. In case of conflict, it is priority to make the conflicts in the building block disappear or to select a non-conflicting narrative.

Building precedes refining: on any knowledge domain you first need to build a decently stable, reasonably complete, and productive worldview before you have anything to refine. While you still build your world views into a strong foundation, you do not yet have the tools to appreciate the nuances of new information.

It makes sense to speak about the building mode and the refinement mode. The building mode, in any domain of knowledge, comes first. You have to adopt a body of knowledge that you use as foundational. You do that by carefully adopting comprehensive ingroup narratives — blocks of beliefs — that fill the void. When this basis is sufficiently developed and comprehensive you have a stable and productive basis for the improvement mode. Now conflicting information is no longer “poisonous”, but a welcome (or at least interesting) source of refinement.

The building mode ‘building blocks’ will often stem from ingroup bubbles (often from mainstream/ingroup discourse) because these can be integrated with the least tension. High tension — clear violations of expectations or apparent disrespect of ingroup authority or ingroup consensus 3 — increase intolerance to (further) diversity and the need to restore the order in the world view.

Hence depending on the topic, you can expect adolescents to either be in the process of developing their worldview or (just starting) refining it. These processes are both essential and there is no value judgment in being in one mode or the other. The only sensible value judgements are associated with whether one executes the current mode sloppily or seriously.

Defining properties of the building and the refinement mode


Building mode Issue Refinement mode
“to accept or refute a narrative without entertaining its details” General strategy “to entertain a thought without accepting it”
To decide what narrative to accept as a foundational part of one’s worldview Main purpose To decide how existing beliefs can be improved.
Large block of knowledge (narratives) to be adopted as foundational Unit size Little bits of information that improve or extend one’s existing world view
Is the whole narrative compatible with own beliefs? Activation of mode Are elements novel, complementary, or contradictory with own beliefs?
Compatible of the whole narrative with existing beliefs (ingroup compatible) Inclusion criterion Improves some existing beliefs
Narrative components incompatible with own beliefs (ingroup incompatible) Exclusion criterion Information doesn’t improve aspects of the own beliefs or world view
Obvious acceptance/rejection pattern (high need for cognitive closure). Certainty At ease with the inconsistencies in one’s understanding of the world
High reliance on external authorities to judge the validity of new narratives Authority High reliance on self to make micro-decisions on countless bits of info
Typically ingroup mainstream sources Sources Typically other thinkers in the refinement mode
Ridiculed, treated as worldview “poison” and its conveyer as a poisoner.
Coming up with an outer narrative that is acceptable.
Response to conflicting information Treated as a learning opportunity. The smarter the conveyer, the better.



  1. William G Perry, J. (1998). Forms of Ethical and Intellectual Development in the College Years. Jossey-Bass. ↩︎

  2. This is probably is related to the default mode network ↩︎

  3. These are the 'normative threats' described by Stenner (2005) ↩︎