According to Jordan Peterson, “Ideologies are pathological oversimplifications; clubs, the kind you hit people with, as well as the clubs you belong to.” Considering the level of polarization we see in our country today, with the ideological divide vast and growing, it is tempting to think Dr. Peterson is right. Wouldn’t the world be better off if we would just loosen the shackles of ideology? Can’t we all become free-thinkers, open-minded and impartial? No more worldview. All opinions equally valued; a culture poised for progress!
But what is an ideology? Is it conceivable or even desirable to rid ourselves of them entirely? While I believe Dr. Peterson is warning of the genuine danger posed by uncompromising ideological assumptions, I doubt he would want to dispose of an essential aspect of rational thought necessary for thinking beyond the childish and the petty. Since we are bound to have an ideology, it is worth knowing how to obtain a good one.
An ideology is a systematic body of concepts. A worldview is a comprehensive conception of the world. These are the belief structures everyone uses to make sense of the world. We need them. They are part of our properly functioning cognitive faculties and necessary for productive, meaningful thought. There are no purist freethinkers; only the unabashed-dogmatic and the deluded-dogmatic who virtue-signal how unbiased and broad-minded they are. Few ideas of any merit start from the atomic and axiomatic. No one gives the story of their life like Bugs Bunny: “In the beginning…two tiny amoebae.” We nearly always conceive on top of the previously-conceived.
If I’ve learned anything in the past thirty years as an electrical and software engineer, it is that large complex systems would be impossible without component-reuse. From your iPhone to your computer’s OS; modern hardware and software systems are developed using nested hierarchies of components within components. No engineer in the world could design the iPhone one transistor at a time. The microprocessor alone is 3.3 billion of them! It is itself an assembly of modules within modules, refined and optimised by developers over the years. Complex architectures build on the past success of prior complexity. The same goes for ideology. Freethinking from a handful of axioms cannot a substantive-worldview make. Ignoring the established ideas and philosophies of the past ensures a foundation both sparse and shallow. Sound ideology builds on the history of thought.
So how do we separate the wheat from the chaff? What are some guidelines for a sound worldview? First and foremost we start with solid ground. If your first-principles do not correspond with reality, then you are building on sand. It does not matter how consistently your ideas mesh with your core beliefs if those beliefs are false. So just as technological advancement rides on top of the tried and true discoveries of the past, a substantive worldview builds on a bedrock of propositions that have withstood the reasoned and experiential tests of time. While drawing from history is not contrary to progress, ignoring it might be. Modern ideology often neglects the venerated and tested foundations of rock, for the shifting sand of cultural acceptance, iconoclasm, and a hatred of tradition. Such bias leads to the chaff of repeated-error and cognitive dissonance against the backdrop of historical fact.
We ought to feed our ideologies that which corresponds to reality rather than that which favors culture or personal preference. In The Prince, by Machiavelli, we see idealism is not merely passed over by realism; the cultural ideologies of the day are considered irrelevant compared with objective historical fact and what it takes to survive as a prince. Machiavelli writes: “A man who wishes to live up to his professions of virtue in every circumstance soon meets with what destroys him among so many who are evil.” According to Machiavelli, you can keep to the conventions, follow the ideology of the day, or you can survive by concerning yourself with the cold hard facts. Unfortunately, we see this less and less today. It remains tough to get through to a culture more interested in feelings than in finding the truth. As Thomas Sowell puts it: “It is usually futile to try to talk facts and analysis to people who are enjoying a sense of moral superiority in their ignorance.” But facts must take precedence over feelings to form a sound ideology.
Granted, being ideological comes with risk. Working from a substantive worldview is problematic. Cognitive dissonance may cause us to tune-out and dig-in. We may end up stuck on sources filtered by our confirmation-bias. It is much easier to be incorrigible than to experience a shift in worldview, especially when ideas challenge the foundation of our belief-structure. The taller the Jenga tower, the bigger the crash when a load-bearing block from the base is yanked out. If we have erected comprehensive ideology, it is much harder to accept a contrary foundational truth.
If we are to build at all, however, the risk must be taken. The alternative is triviality or the fetters of skepticism. Extreme open-mindedness will not mitigate the risk or even help us on our journey. As Chesterton aptly put it: “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” If we want our ideologies to be sound, we must take the risk, engage honestly in the marketplace of ideas, and grab hold of the truth.
We need humility as we engage others. When I switched from a foundation of atheistic materialism to Christian theism, it was very humiliating. Radical paradigm shifts require us to admit we are wrong at the very core of our thinking – and no one likes to hear they are wrong. Nevertheless, our ideas must be open to the sort of critical rationalism one finds in Karl Popper. We ought to welcome the falsification of a bad idea; the error-correction process leading to refinement. Desiring only the confirmation of others stunts development. The fascist movement on today’s college campuses, where any unwanted speech is considered “hate” and therefore censorable, is precisely the wrong environment. We need a free exchange of ideas while remaining unoffended and humble to foster healthy ideological development. Seek out those who think differently but are capable of having a cordial and thoughtful exchange.
Therefore, despite the dangers, we ought still to view ideologies as essential to deep, meaningful thought. Rarely are revolutionary ideas built from the ground up. We develop our substantive worldview on a solid foundation of truth and recognize the historical development of knowledge. Personal preference and cultural pressure must take a back seat to the cold hard facts of reality. We accept the risk and proceed with humility, being receptive to correction when the truth leads us in a new direction. These are the guidelines for the development of a sound ideology. It pleases me to know these harmonize well within our life in Christ. Though the deliverables of science, philosophy, and politics shape much of our worldview; the significant questions of origin, purpose, morality, and destiny find their ideological support around the core view of God, and how we come to know Him. Christ himself is to be our ideological foundation.
Christ is the Logos; the Word made flesh. He is the solid rock, the foundation upon which to build a substantive worldview. We lay down our soul, the locus of will, intellect, and desire. We place it, and the cares and worries of the world, at the Cross, taking every thought captive to Christ. This commitment allows truth to drown out the noise of culture, lies of the Enemy and the Sirens of desire. We find an increasing love of the light and hatred of the darkness. What is true becomes of higher value than what is expedient. We are willing to take the risk and accept the persecution that comes with holding it firmly. Christ in us produces humility and a softness of heart where a correction may be received. In the book of John, Jesus said: “everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” The Good Shephard guides us and shapes the clay until his work is complete; until our ideology is sound.