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The four current worldviews

Author: Juan Luis Lorda
Published in: Para una idea cristiana del hombre, Rialp, Madrid 2001 (2ª) 83-107.
Date of publication: 2001


  1. Analogy and the fundamental levels of experience.

  2. Constructivist materialism

  3. Vitalist naturalism

  4. The whole as spirit

  5. A personal universe: God and mankind

  6. The drift of the enlightened mentality

1. Analogy and the fundamental levels of experience.

One of the most important tools of the human knowledge is analogy. It greatly expands our capacities and gives an incredible plasticity to our intelligence. It is used spontaneously in all areas of knowledge. We tend to transfer our experience from one field to others, and so we can deal with new situations and problems by analogically applying what we know. The application of analogies is a formidable intellectual tool, but it is also the source of some mirages.

All of us tend to have a global idea of the world, based on our particular experience. It is a natural aspiration. And in the most powerful and daring spirits, it is almost a necessity that leads to the formulation of the great theoretical worldviews. Simplifying a little, it can be said that each worldview is constructed from a perspective, from a basic experience. From it, an attempt is made to contemplate and explain the whole of reality. It can be called, in classical terms, the analogatum princeps; that is, the main analogate, the starting point or reference of the analogy.

In the following, we will try to show that the main worldviews currently in force come from analogically extending the experience of four fundamental levels *(a) to the whole of reality.

a) - the subject

b) - life (the lower psyche)

c) - spiritual awareness

d) - disclosure of the personal

Each of these basic experiences gives rise to a worldview. In the past, others have existed because, for example, people had a mythologised idea of nature; or because they thought that there were many gods (polytheism). There is also room for mixtures and derivatives, giving rise to hybrid worldviews. But in our century, these four fundamental forms stand out, especially with the disappearance of Marxism, which has had an immense distorting effect on the world's intellectual and political landscape.

We will see that all worldviews are right in what they claim: because reality can be contemplated from their level. But we will also see that they are wrong when they deny that there is something higher than their level, and decide to close themselves in the field of experience to which they are accustomed. This very common phenomenon is called reductionism, because it reduces the richness of reality by ignoring the higher levels and trying to explain them with the categories that are valid for the lower ones.

2. Constructivist materialism

This worldview can be considered to be widespread among people with a scientific background. It consists of viewing all reality from the experience of biochemistry and atomic physics.

Almost everyone with a scientific background looks at the world as if it were an immense construction: an intimately ordered material conglomerate. There was - and still is - a very popular game called "Meccano". It is a construction game with metal parts, which allows you to make cranes, cars, bridges, etc. Many scientifically minded people tend to look at the world as if it were a huge "Meccano": a very complicated contraption built with very simple parts. Everything that is built with it depends absolutely on the parts with which it is built. That's all there is to it.

For two centuries, modern science has been discovering, in successive steps, the composition of the material world: both of the inert subject and of the living subject . And they have come to the conclusion that everything is composed of the same thing. This idea has been reinforced by the Big Bang theory, which speaks of a common origin of the universe, and of an unfolding of all visible reality from an enormous concentration of primitive energy (S. Weinberg, The First Three Minutes of the Universe).

Thanks to a formidable scientific endeavour, we know how almost the entire visible cosmos is composed. And it is very easy to be tempted to say that the universe is just a huge construction made of the elementary pieces we know. And that everything can be explained by the properties of those elementary "pieces". Exactly the same as we would say about a car built with the Meccano set. We could say that it is only a set of parts, and that the properties of the car are explained by the properties of the parts that compose it. But it should be noted in passing that this is a subtle reduction, because a car is not only made of the "pieces" of Meccano, but also of an "idea" of what a car is. A car is not just a set of parts, for the same reason that Don Quixote is not just an ordered set of letters. But let's take it one step at a time.

In this materialistic worldview, the analogatum princeps from which all reality is viewed, i.e. the starting point, are the subatomic particles that make up atoms and molecules, as described by physics. We want to look at all of reality from the perspective of physics and assume that everything can be explained by the elementary properties that we work with in physics. A rock, a plant, a dog or a man is only, at final, a huge physico-chemical compound. And the properties of the whole must depend on the elementary properties.

This is the thesis of some well-known scientists who have spread their ideas, such as the Nobel Prize winners Erwin Schrödinger (What is Life) and Jacques Monod (Chance and Necessity), and the astrophysicists Stephen Hawking (History of Time) and Carl Sagan (Cosmos). They apply their knowledge of the composition of the subject to the whole universe, and reduce it to what is most familiar to them. They see everything from some properties of the subject.

They certainly bring something to the table when they say that everything visible is composed of the same thing. It is a truth full of interest. On the other hand, they are reductivists when they say that all reality is "only" a complex material composition.

First, they forget the complexity of reality and, in particular, the ideas that give the possibility and form of things: "ideas" such as that of the "car", without which the possibility of construction cannot be explained. They are satisfied with a "material" explanation, but the form of things also needs an explanation. It is obvious that something is missing when we say that Don Quixote is just a set of letters. Something is also missing when we say that an animal is a physico-chemical compound. Today we have, in addition, another approach to the problem, as we know better the composition of genetic codes. It is evident that there is in them some subject of the laws of rearrangement; otherwise evolution could not have progressed in an increasing way. With a Meccano you can make a car, but not a horse, no matter how many parts you put together. The Meccano parts do not have the necessary properties to make a horse. The car is already in parts that have been prepared with the car in mind, but the horse is not.

Secondly, by denying that there can be anything non-material in the universe, they reduce all dimensions of the human person to physical phenomena, even though - they say - we still cannot explain them. A particular version of this tendency is the intense discussion about artificial intelligence. Some scientists think that human intelligence is like that of a complex processor (Marvin Mynsky), and that very soon all its functions can be imitated, although today there are considerable difficulties. This leads them to see man as a complex mechanism and to ignore, in fact, the complex intellectual functions that manifest themselves in consciousness. They take it for granted that they depend, at final, on composition, although they cannot prove it.

It must be said that materialistic and mechanistic ideals have been somewhat blurred in the last twenty years by the epistemological consequences of Heisemberg's indeterminacy principle; by the problem of starting conditions (Arecchi); and by the emergence of the problem of chaos (Ilya Prygoguine), which affects many scientific disciplines. We are more aware than ever of the limits of our scientific knowledge . And the mechanistic utopia that thought that one day we would be able to know and control the entire universe as if it were an immense mechanism has disappeared. Just think of the usual difficulties of meteorological forecasts...

3. Vitalist naturalism

This second worldview is very old, and has always been present in human history. Its point of reference (its analogatum princeps) is the phenomenon of life, especially the vital impulses. It perceives the world as living and moving. Ancient animism, which still survives in many primitive cultures, sees life and souls in everything that moves: the rivers, the seas, the volcanoes, the earth, the clouds, the stars.... All of nature as a whole and the earth is presented to us in movement, and therefore alive. Everything has a soul. The telluric religions, which deify nature, also see it as an immense living being: the goddess mother earth is an all-embracing being.

At the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, some Romantic forms of a vitalist character emerged; with an exaltation of nature and a certain cult of vital impulses or also of national "feelings", sometimes with a revival of pagan forms. It was a reaction against the overwhelming rationalism of the Enlightenment, defending the rights of feelings and vital impulses (Sturm und Drang). In addition to many romantic literary expressions, this irrationalist current reaches Nietzsche, who defended the rights of Dionysus against Apollo. But today, with the exception of Nietzsche, these forms have been abandoned as naive and socially unproductive.

With the appearance of the theory of evolution in the middle of the last century, a new expression of vitalist naturalism appeared, with a much more sober and scientific tone. The image of an upward movement of growth from subject to man has changed the mentality of our time. For many people, this upward movement expresses the whole history of the cosmos. They think that there is an inner impulse in the whole of nature which constantly pushes it upwards and which is the explanation for everything that means life.

This idea found important philosophical expressions in the first half of this century, such as those of Bergson or even the late Max Scheler; also that of Ortega y Gasset, who is often called a "vitalist", although the term is rather vague. It also had expressions of historical or sociological subject , such as Oswald Spengler's famous book, The Decline of the West, which was an application of the idea of evolution to the history of civilisations. The latter subject of political-cultural applications inevitably led to nationalist and racist expressions; for if evolution is the fundamental law present in everything, some races are superior to others. The proponents of these ideas (e.g. the Nazis, but not only the Nazis) were at odds with the liberal and Christian Enlightenment tradition, and were totally discredited after the Second World War. In a way, it can be said that they lost the war and disappeared with it from the cultural space, though not from the whole scientific space.

Other, vaguer forms of vitalism have emerged in the cultural space. There is a certain ecological vitalism that legitimately wants to protect nature and sometimes treats it as if it were a living whole, in terms reminiscent of ancient telluric religions. There is also the somewhat eccentric but somewhat well-founded expression of James Lovelock, who thinks that the planet earth behaves, in fact, like a living being, with homeostatic movements, and calls it Gaia (Gaia's defence).

And, in the scientific field, sociobiology has appeared, much more modest in its approaches than the previous ones, but with great seductive force in scientific circles. Some conspicuous representatives have had great success publishing house in spreading these ideas, starting with its founder, Edmund Wilson (Sociobiology, a new synthesis), and others, such as Richard Dawkins (The Blind Watchmaker; The Selfish Gene), and R. Foley (Humans Before Humanity). These authors believe that the fundamental impulse governing life is the principle of conservation of the genetic heritage. This principle would explain all animal behaviour and the emergence of all forms of life, including intelligence and all cultural expressions. And they strive to elaborate stories that explain everything, from the emergence of bipedalism to family and social coexistence, in a way that is, it must be said, somewhat naïve but, for that very reason, simple and successful.

These authors can be considered "vitalists" only in the sense that they speak of a biological "impulse" that does not belong to the categories of physics or chemistry. In all other respects they tend towards constructivist materialism, and are very close to other popular scientists such as Hawking or Sagan.

It may be that many - including themselves - do not perceive the importance of this distinction. But by acknowledging the existence of an "impulse" that cannot be expressed in biochemical terms, they are arguing for the existence of a plane of reality that is superior to that of physics and chemistry. They are talking about a "property" that is not in physics, but manifests itself only in the processes of life. If so, there is no reason to deny that there may be in the universe other higher planes with other irreducible properties. This is the problem of the so-called "emergent properties" studied by the philosophy of science.

Undoubtedly, the various vitalisms express a great truth, or rather many truths: they express the unity of nature, they express the vigour of natural forces and the importance of the mystery of evolution. On the other hand, they are reductionist when they consider that in the universe there are only blind and, in the same sense, inhuman vital forces.

4. The whole as spirit

In contrast to these sad worldviews, insofar as they are inhuman, there is another very ancient way of conceiving the universe that comes from Eastern religions. It is present in Hinduism and, in an almost philosophical way, characterises Buddhism and Taoism. The basic experience of this worldview is transcendental meditation. That is, the penetration into the depths of consciousness.

When one experiences this, one somehow perceives the immense dimensions of the spiritual universe, especially in the cognitive sphere. And one believes that one enters contact with the deepest substratum of reality. One perceives a spiritual background, which seems to be common to all consciousness and to all reality. One tends to affirm that this whole (Atmen) is the universal consciousness, present in all consciousnesses; and the life present in all forms of life. All reality is the presence, emanation, degradation or division of the spiritual whole. And it longs to be integrated, once again, into it. Everything is basically the same: it proceeds from the same and returns to the same. But here it is a spiritual whole. It is a spiritualistic pantheism.

This intuition reaches Greek philosophy through Orphism and influences Plato's philosophy. And, subsequently, in the whole Platonic tradition, where it takes many forms, especially insofar as it enters contact with the biblical revelation (Philo of Alexandria).

It has some similarities with the aforementioned telluric religions, which think of the earth as the mother goddess. In both worldviews one could speak of a "soul" of the world. But the difference is B. In telluric religions, the basic experience is that of the forces of life (the lower psyche), whereas in spiritualist pantheism, the basic experience is that of self-consciousness (higher psyche). In telluric religions the soul is only life, impulse and blind animation, whereas in spiritualistic pantheism it is, above all, consciousness.

This world view is also reminiscent of Hegelian philosophy when it speaks of the absolute spirit. But Hegelian philosophy does not really start from an experience of transcendental meditation. It is an entirely theoretical spiritualism. Its basic experience is the dynamism of culture as objectified knowledge; interpreted in the forms of a secularised Christian theology. In Hegel there is no transcendental meditation, but only speculation. His spirit is the spirit goal of culture, not of consciousness.

Today the spiritualist worldview is still expressed mainly in Eastern religions and their derivatives. And they are more present than ever in the West. For a century, but more intensely in recent decades, Buddhism has arrived with new vitality and has presented itself as a real alternative to satisfy spiritual needs and longings. Although it is a Buddhism, or Hinduism, strongly purified by its contact with the Christian tradition, as is the case, for example, in the Hindu religiosity of Gandhi, Tagore and also Krishnamurti.

As they approach the West, these religions lose much of the superstitious and mythological baggage with which they have been cloaked by history. And they tend to become techniques of self-help and concentration, with a kind of pantheistic metaphysics, but without a personal divinity. There is a consciousness, but not a person; it is a whole but not a somebody; at bottom, they are pantheisms without God. There cannot be a personal interlocutor and a dialogue, when everything is the same and is bound to merge.

These religions permeate the mentality of many new religious movements, which take their inspiration from the East. Most notably, the New Age movement, which wishes to make an overcoming and ecumenical synthesis of all religions, and therefore loses the reference to a personal God. It is also present, to some extent, in certain expressions of Islamic religion that are received in the West, such as Sufi spirituality. And, in general, it permeates the various forms of natural mysticism, which do not perceive the otherness of the divine, i.e. the distinction between God and the world.

The spiritualist worldview - spiritual pantheism - expresses a truth, which is the deep permeation of intelligence in the cosmos. It recognises the mysterious communion of all that exists. And it knows how to discover the depth of human consciousness. But by diluting it in the common whole, it destroys the personal universe. Each man is only a particle provisional called to dissolve into the whole. That is why history is meaningless and meaningless. Neither people nor the relations between them are of interest. Distances and differences do not remain, personalities do not stand out. Everything is called to come together. The final aspiration is confusion: that everything is the same.

5. A personal universe: God and mankind

While the first two worldviews reduce man's being to the lower substrates of nature, the spiritualist worldview blurs it into the spiritual totality. In order to understand the idea of man as conveyed by Western culture, it is necessary to turn to another worldview that has inspired it and is still present as a real alternative: the Christian worldview, which is a profoundly personalistic worldview.

The Christian worldview is not based directly on experience but, as it is presented, on divine revelation. Whether or not we accept the existence of this revelation, we must recognise that it has made it possible to look at the realities of the universe with new eyes. And that our idea of the personal universe, of what man is and his dignity, and of what human relationships are, is based on it. It is the only worldview - among the ones we have seen - that allows us to base human personality and the universe of personal realities on it. It should not be forgotten that the word "person" comes from Christian theology.

The Christian worldview is based on three fundamental points:

a) that God is creator, and that He made the world when He willed to make it

b) that God is Triune, i.e. a life-giving communion of three persons

c) that man is made in the image of God.

a) That God is creator means that God is a personal being, someone and not something that has freely created the world, and that he does not confuse himself with the world but transcends it. That is why he can act in the world and in history, when he wills and how he wills. God is the foundation of everything, but He is not confused with everything. He is at the bottom of all that exists, but He is not the bottom of all that exists. Things are not a part of God and God is not a part of things. Between God and created things there is a distance, because He has created them with His will, they do not proceed from Him as if they were the effluvia of a hot gas.

b) That God is Triune is the great revelation transmitted to us by Jesus Christ, when he presented himself as the Son of God, filled with his Holy Spirit. Through Jesus Christ we know that in the mystery of God there is a communion of three Persons. This truth illuminates our whole idea of the cosmos and especially our idea of man, of his capacity for relationship and of social life. At the heart of reality, the most important being of all beings, God, happens to contain, to be, a communion of three persons. God is not an inert being, nor a gaseous spirit with an immutable and perplexed intelligence. At the heart of the mystery of God - we know this from Jesus Christ - is a communion of three persons.

c) The third great affirmation is that man is the image of God. Made in the likeness of God and with an imprint and likeness of God. This means, among other things, that we can look for in man the reflection of the two previous affirmations: that God is Creator and that He is Triune. If it is true that man is the image of God, he is the image of a Creator God and of a Triune God. This has very important anthropological consequences, which we will try to show.

  • That man is the image of a creative and transcendent God means that, in the likeness of God, he is a creative subject. On the one hand, a subject, i.e. an actor. On the other hand, a creator, with the capacity to make something new, with creative capacities, at final with the freedom to put the fruits of his intelligence into reality. And precisely because there is something of God in every man, men, although they are in the world, are not reduced to the world, they transcend it. There is something in them that does not come from the world, that is not part of the world, that is not reduced to the world. This is the foundation of the special dignity of man, of every man, of everything that is man.

  • The communion of persons of the Trinity also has an image. It is reflected, in some way, in human communities. It is the model of human communities. And the fact that each divine person - the Father, the Son, the Spirit - exists in relation to the others gives us an idea of what it means to be a person in God. Each person of the Trinity, as a subsistent relationship, expresses the ultimate personal realisation. And it is the model of fulfilment of the created persons. For this reason, human fulfilment consists "in the sincere submission of oneself to others", as the constitution Gaudium et Spes wished to recall. The mutual submission of the divine persons is the model of the behaviour of the human person.

Every human being is created by God and for God. Therefore, with respect to the creator, he has an original relationship that establishes him as a person, as a being open to dialogue. And it is in this openness that he bases his capacity for relationship, communication and love with other people, with other men. In imitation of the Trinity, human beings are naturally sociable, and are called to understand and love one another.

It is said of God that "he is love" (1 Jn 4,8). That is why the word "love" is the most important word in the personal universe: it expresses what communion between people must be. Human communities are called to reflect the divine communion. And for that, they need to participate in some way in the Mystery of the Trinity. The Christian idea of love does not start from the experience of friendship or conjugal love, but from the revelation of divine love.

In this way, Christian revelation provides a foundation for the personal universe: it authentically supports the personality of each person, with his or her own intimacy and creativity, and expresses the fullness of his or her relationships. This world view provides an ideal of fulfilment and responds to the human being's longing for transcendence and fullness (fullness of fulfilment and love). The connaturality of these ideals with human longings is an indication of their truth, but it is not sufficient to prove it. The Christian worldview is based on faith and is only entered into when one accepts Jesus Christ as Son and revealer of God the Father, and redeemer of man, because he has given us his Spirit.

6. The drift of the Enlightenment mentality

We have outlined the four fundamental worldviews present in the West. If we were to extend our analysis to the whole universe, we would have to take into account others, especially that of Islam, although it depends to a large extent on the Judeo-Christian revelation. We have limited ourselves to what is currently relevant in our culture.

The first two worldviews are today presented as scientific expressions (although their reductionism cannot be based on science). The second two worldviews are religious: the impersonal (the divine whole) and the personal (a creator and trinitarian God).

But intellectual positions are not only defined by adherences, but also by prejudices and aversions. Therefore, if we want to take into account the intellectual choices current in the West, something more needs to be said. For three centuries, there has been a strong current of reaction and emancipation against the Christian message, especially in sociologically Catholic countries. It is the Enlightenment movement, or at least a part of it. It would require a delicate analysis to see to what extent its grievances and also its achievements can be accepted. Many distinctions would also have to be made to identify the multiplicity of its manifestations. But this is not the time to attempt such a complex judgement. A few brief historical brushstrokes will suffice.

At its inception, the Enlightenment tradition took over the personal universe created by the Christian faith, turning it, as far as possible, into philosophy. It was the rationalist project : it wanted to rely on reason and science, which seemed to be the best fruit of reason. From English political culture, he incorporated the ideals of parliamentary democracy and civic tolerance. From the French, his love of law. Since Kant, a considerable part of the enlightened elites assumed agnosticism as a vital stance, lost metaphysics, and felt liberated from the need to choose between different worldviews. It then redefined itself as a secular, ethical and political culture, still upholding Christian values, especially ethical ones, such as the dignity of the person, the fundamental equality of men, personal freedom, the rationality of ethics and relations of justice, and the notion of the common good. In countries with a Catholic tradition, especially in France, it has had a secularist and strongly critical streak towards the Church. In other countries, it has remained moderately agnostic.

From the end of the last century, it lost the cultural initiative and was partly subsumed by socialist political utopias, especially Marxism, which also represented a strong alternative to Christianity. At the end of the century, with the disappearance of Marxism, a curious regression towards enlightened forms of thought can be observed throughout the West. Enlightenment with a secularist slant was the most widespread mentality among the educated elites who refused to be Christian. It is expressed through important organs of public opinion in all the countries of Europe, especially in those with a Catholic majority. Against Christianity, it maintains a historical critique and ridicule of its morals, especially its sexual morals. At the same time, it tries to recover, by all means, a civil and secular ethic, capable of replacing the Christian ethic, in order to shape civic life and give meaning to the old abstractions (freedom, tolerance, equality, etc.).

But it is not easy to turn back the clock. Today, the Enlightenment movement is stumbling against the force of materialistic or naturalistic reductionism. Many scientifically minded enlightened people have opted for one of the first two worldviews, constructivist materialism or biological naturalism, and can no longer intellectually sustain the ethical values upheld by the Enlightenment. They are in the minority, however, because it is difficult to live coherently with these worldviews.

On the other hand, the humanist-minded enlightened, after the demise of Marxism, seem to have lost the vigour of their critical rationalism and secularism, and are moving towards the spiritualist vision of Eastern religions. Purified Buddhism or Hinduism may be the intellectual temptation of the future for the elites of Western culture who are critical of Christianity. Apart from other folkloric alternatives, such as pagan polytheism, or religious alternatives, such as Islam, which are in the minority.

A new agnosticism, which dares neither affirm nor deny anything, is also flourishing, albeit in a very weakened form. It is tired of "grand narratives" and utopias, i.e. of any general theory about the world, and also of any project too big to change it. He is satisfied with partial observations and entertaining little experiments. It is defined as "weak thinking" and is one of the expressions of what has come to be called "post-modernity". But its very weakness makes its life languid. It cannot arouse enthusiasm, nor can it win consensus because it is not clear, nor is it constant in what it affirms and what it denies. It is too dependent on a few indecisive figures.

In this cultural context, there is an opportunity to present with new vigour the Christian worldview, which is profoundly coherent with the personal universe that we consider one of the great treasures of the West. There is no point in presenting it in polemic with other options, because it would wear it out uselessly. It must be presented as the fullness of what has been established elsewhere. Christianity as a religious faith is capable of assuming what is true in other worldviews and other partial visions of reality. This is the approach that suits a modern apologetics, which has taken up the idea of a creative and redeeming God for the whole universe. Everything of natural value has a place in the work of redemption and completion in Christ. Therefore, in the face of every worldview, full or partial, it is necessary to discern in order to expose its reductionism and to accept what is valid in it.

The strength of the Christian offer is based on the beauty of the personal universe: on its idea of the person and intimacy, of freedom and human fulfilment, of personal relationships, of submission and love, of happiness and God. This whole universe has nowhere to rely on other worldviews. It was born of Christian culture and is sustained only within it. We must strive to show its attractiveness, which is a sign of its truth. But, as we have said before, beauty is only a hint to overcome prejudices; the door of entrance to this worldview is faith in the risen Christ.



  1. The analysis of the levels of reality can already be found in Max Scheler's famous book, Man's Place in the Cosmos. Or in Romano Guardini's less famous but also wonderful book, World and Person. Although this reflection comes from the 1920s, it has not lost its relevance.