Do you prefer a top-down or bottom-up strategy? When it comes to finding solutions to complex problems or maturing your worldview, which approach is best? It depends, I suppose, on what I mean by top-down and bottom-up. These cognitive strategies are somewhat vague, and the terms symbolize different things in different domains. Let’s dig into these a bit more and look at a hybrid approach I call constrictive thinking. There may be an optimal way to tackle complex problems and build a substantive worldview.

Before we get into the two strategies, let’s clarify a few definitions. Worldview is a comprehensive set of beliefs about the fundamental aspects of reality. It informs us on questions of humanity, morality, purpose, origin, destiny, etc. A substantive worldview is logically consistent, corresponds with reality, and is deep and wide enough to embrace the profound mysteries of existence. One might picture a substantive worldview as a web of consonant and connected beliefs that significantly inform us on meaningful subjects. (1) For purposes here, I somewhat interchangeably use ideologyparadigm, and worldview to represent sets of beliefs that help us evaluate the world and solve complex problems.

A top-down cognitive strategy prioritizes the ideological structures our brains implement to assimilate, mold, and reject new information and sense data. We use what we know to guide what we learn. To view this analogically, think of a hierarchical catalog where observations are like a new product listing requiring optimal placement within its pages. The product might fit nicely as-is somewhere on page 342. On the other hand, you may need to adjust the listing (reshape your belief) or discard it altogether because it does not fit anywhere.

The primary advantage of a top-down strategy is, of course, guidance from prior understanding. A broad, deep, and consonant foundation that corresponds with reality provides the optimal filtering and reshaping of input data into true belief. Our assessments of the truth may be quicker and more decisive. Given such a solid footing, we are perhaps less likely to assume falsehoods. Ideally, as we mature, our foundation becomes more robust, providing even greater aid for handling new observations and data. But of course, this approach requires us to have some infrastructure in place.

There are obvious drawbacks to a top-down strategy. One issue is a sort of chicken-n-egg problem. How do we develop a top-down framework by requiring one? Not that there is an easy answer, but I try to tackle this question here. Another issue is potential stagnation. Suppose something doesn’t line up with what we already believe. In that case, we do everything in our intellectual power to remove the dissonance. If an ideology is full of error, novel information may not fit anywhere. Under such conditions, we may respond with intransigence leaving us in a state of error. 

Uncompromising ideological assumptions pose a genuine danger. A dogmatic approach might hinder us from seeing things from a fresh perspective. For example, top-down constraints from materialist ideology delayed a shift in the mid-twentieth century from a static universe model to a model where the universe began to exist. At that time, and in that context, new revelations made bottom-up thinking unfashionable. Anything even resembling creationism was too hard to swallow. Scientists remained stubborn for decades, looking for static-model answers to novel observations because their ideology demanded it.

Perhaps a different strategy is preferable. The late John Polkinghorne referred to himself as a bottom-up thinker. In his book, Serious Talk, Polkinghorne wrote: “My instinct is to start with a phenomenon, something I am trying to understand and explain, and then to build up from that, rather than starting with some broad general principles and working downward.” To Polkinghorne, the methods of scientific inquiry provide the optimal path to understanding even when overlapping the domains of philosophy and theology. Accordingly, interpretation of sense data and new information involves piecing bits together and observing how they work collectively.

Coming up from the bottom has clear advantages. There is a freedom to go where the evidence leads. If you run into a dead-end, nothing is stopping you from going in a new direction. Error correction is a powerful truth-delivery mechanism. As Karl Popper wrote: “We have made great mistakes — all living creatures make mistakes. It is indeed impossible to foresee all the unintended consequences of our actions. Here science is our greatest hope: its method is the correction of error.” Failing forward is widely recognized as a common path to success. Why could we not conceive a substantive worldview from the ground up using a piecewise error-correcting approach?

One reason to doubt a ground-up strategy as a sole means to building a substantive worldview is that no one has ever done it. We always start with a previously laid foundation, conceiving on top of previously developed thoughts—some our own, but primarily others: our parents, the Academy, the Arts, the Sciences, the Church. Yet, some reject past developments and think their generation is in a unique position to build from scratch what thousands of years of deep philosophical, theological and scientific inquiry could not. Even so, few ideas of any merit start from the atomic and axiomatic. A bottom-up-only approach to building a substantive worldview is just not feasible.

I see people taking sides, confidently committing to one approach over the other. Some regard themselves as progressive bottom-up thinkers, open to the facts, and free from ideological constraint—the other side merely dogmatic ideologues who snub the “science.” What this camp fails to see is that they are just like everyone else. Chesterton sums it up nicely: “There are two kinds of people in the world, the conscious dogmatists and the unconscious dogmatists. I have always found myself that the unconscious dogmatists were by far the most dogmatic.” In other words, there are no bottom-up purists; even those who think they are, aren’t. Every thinking person relies on their preconceived beliefs that are exempt from skepticism.

Conversely, top-downers see themselves as the learned polymaths who have cherry-picked the best fruit from history. They capitalize on the knowledge no one person could ever conceive on their own. To them, the other side is arrogant and ignorant, disregarding time-tested ideas that have served humanity well. But if we do not keep observing and error-correcting, we may get stuck in our ideological cages. It is starting to look like taking sides is not the answer.

In the world of software engineering, no developer worth his salt would take an either-or position here. Complex solutions require a simultaneous application of both strategies. As I mentioned, a top-down only approach limits creativity. Such a developer may find himself down a worn trail only to hit a dead-end with no suitable scenario to meet his customer’s needs. A top-down-only product may feel to the end-user like too many square pegs stuffed into too many round holes. Something previously thought ideal becomes contrived.

On the other hand, those who only develop from the bottom up are the tinkerers, the hacks of the software world. They ignore successful, time-tested patterns and focus on the weeds. They may maximize a home-grown routine but rarely develop anything complicated. It is nearly impossible to create any substantive software today without relying on preexisting frameworks and practices. Either-or doesn’t work for software or substantive worldviews; both strategies are essential.

Constrictive thinking takes a simultaneous approach from the top, down, and the bottom, up. One way to visualize this is to imagine a collection of similar but slightly different puzzles, each with missing patches. The set of puzzles (A, B, C) represent close but acceptable variations of worldview, ideology, or know-how of a particular subject matter. The patches represent ignorance, uncertainty, and malleable areas of understanding. (2)

Individual puzzle pieces (1-4) represent some relevant facts, observations, or low-level information from a much greater set not shown. As you combine various bits and pieces, you end up with insights or cohesive patches (X) that may or may not fit within a particular variation of your accepted paradigms. If you find a match, that variation increases in explanatory scope. 

At this point, you are probably thinking, okay, I get it. Still, I don’t see any practical way to apply puzzles, gaps, and puzzle pieces to real-world scenarios. Fair enough! The metaphor merely highlights the strategy. It does not give us a step-by-step approach. Detail is not practical here, given the endless scenarios and the overwhelming complexity and mystery of the human mind. Employing these guidelines, however, will help us cultivate a constrictive-thinking strategy over time:

    1. Recognize top-down, and bottom-up approaches work together.
    2. Strive for, and rely upon, a solid ideological foundation.
    3. Know your ideologies are imperfect and incomplete.
    4. Allow your worldview to be malleable and risk being wrong.
    5. Do the heavy lifting of observation, study, and verification.
    6. Construct new insights from your bottom-up efforts.
    7. Combine your ideological foundation with new insights to reshape what you know and tackle the unknown.

By applying the above guidelines, we can change our approach to problem-solving and expanding our worldview. Using a constrictive-thinking strategy, we avoid the pitfalls of ideological stagnation and shallow skepticism. We take advantage of new observations and error correction as well as benefit from past discoveries and developments. We all desire to have a substantive worldview. Constrictive thinking is a tool to help us get there.

(1) Logically consistent: Given any proposition (P) we accept, P cannot be the negation of any other held proposition (Q, R, S). Furthermore, any corollary of P {P1, P2, P3} cannot negate (Q, R, S) or its correlates. For example: If you believe in a literal six-day interpretation of Genesis, you cannot consistently believe dinosaurs walked the earth a hundred million years ago. Nor can you accept the related idea that fossils are correctly measured using carbon-14 dating or that the geological dating of rock strata is accurate. Something has to give--either your interpretation of Genesis or multiple insights from science.

(2) Yes, the puzzles have edges and our understanding, of course, doesn't fit neatly into a box. The puzzle is just a metaphor.