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Where do our opinions come from?

By Chris Harries - posted Wednesday, 6 September 2006

Why do each of us cherish our personal values and worldviews with the passion that we do? Why are so many of us angry with people who have contrasting opinions?

When there are literally thousands of different ways to view the world, what can possibly make our own worldview superior to anybody else’s? Oddly, few stop to ask the most obvious question of all. Few stop to ponder what makes us who we are.

The nature-versus-nurture conundrum has been around for eons and has been the subject of untold scientific explorations - such as the study of twins who have been separated at birth and then have gone on to live out their different lives.


I don’t wish to invade that complex area of social science too deeply, but am more fascinated by the things that stare us in the face. For instance, if, perchance, I was born in Iran there is perhaps a 95 per cent chance I would be a practicing Muslim. I would cherish the values of Islam and argue fervently for them, die for them evenly. In short, I would not be who I am. Only a slender thread of chance made the difference.

If I happened to be born in Brazil I would be, most likely, a practicing Catholic. If born in Australia, I would most likely be nominally a Christian who does not go to church. If I was born in a remote village in New Guinea, I would believe, without question, in the power of my deceased ancestors.

Religious belief makes for convenient comparison, because it generally comes with a label. But the same observation applies to many other cultural values we may or may not cherish. Like our attitudes to war and justice, women’s rights, abortion, sustainability … and so forth.

So, let’s surmise for a moment. How would history have changed if two contemporary humans - say Adolf Hitler and Mother Theresa - had been swapped in their hospital cots at the time of their births? Would the vices of Adolf and the virtues of Mother Theresa have been reversed? Who is to know? But we can safely say history would not have been the same as actual history, as it is now recorded.

Clearly, the major driver of “what we intrinsically believe” comes simply from sheer chance - the place in which we happened to be born, the parents we inherited and the accidental influences that touched us in our critical, formative childhood years.

Seen this way, if we acted with humble intelligence we would have to accept that our personal worldviews, as invincibly logical as they may appear to ourselves, are mostly an accident of circumstance. Logic is a minor player. I am what I am mostly because of where I was born and who I was born to and whatever happened to me after that. Yet, as if turning a blind eye to this glaring truth, we defend to the bitter end our gospel of truth, as if it was derived from a diligent, bipartisan summing up of facts.


That sobering knowledge should make us all immediately more tolerant and more understanding of those from other cultures, and of those within our own culture, who hold contrasting worldviews to our own. After all, there is barely a whisker between “us” and “them”. Nothing but a whisker separates bin Laden and George Bush; John Howard and Phillip Adams; myself and the Iraqi immigrant down the road.

These observations should also inform us that any doctrinaire outlook is actually a feature of gross human blindness, even arrogance. A universal human frailty it would seem, because it is so commonplace.

So, should we then just believe in mush - where anything goes, nothing is sacred? There is a middle way. We also know that humanity has always advanced through an intelligent, dialectic contest between contrasting worldviews. Mush doesn’t provide answers when lives are shattered, for instance.

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About the Author

Chris Harries is a Tasmanian based opinion writer and social advocate, and former adviser to Australian Greens senator Bob Brown.

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