II. The Power of Worldview
With that general understanding of the components and nature of worldview, let’s take a look at the influence that our worldview has. I want to focus our attention on four ways that our worldview influences our interpretation of evidence and rational arguments. First, incumbent worldviews require relatively less evidential or rational support for their continued support. Second, we tend to interpret new data or arguments in a manner that accommodates it within our existing worldview. Third, a consciously-held, critically-examined worldview controls what we call the pool of live options – what we consider to be possible or likely to happen. Fourth, we tend to cling to our worldviews tenaciously, unless we are confronted with strong or persuasive reasons (evidential, rational, emotional, or volitional) to change them. Through examining these four ways that worldview influences our interpretation of external data, I pray that we will come to a deeper understanding of how we should critically examine worldviews—our own and other peoples’.
A. Existing Worldviews Require Less Evidential/Rational Support
I love detective shows, like Law & Order, and particular Monk. When cops or crown attorneys have a working thesis concerning a particular crime, the way they treat evidence is affected by how that evidence relates to their governing thesis. For example, if they have a suspect who they are sure committed the crime in question, tiny bits of evidence will strengthen their position. In one Monk episode, called Monk and the Astronaut, Adrian Monk investigates the murder (a staged suicide) of a former call girl who was about to publish a revealing autobiography. Monk quickly becomes convinced that the murderer is a prominent NASA astronaut and rising politician. During the investigation, it is suggested to Monk that the woman’s autobiography was going to include a chapter relating how the suspect was intimately involved with the dead call-girl earlier, and was arrested at one point for beating her to a pulp. When Monk hears that, it supports his thesis that the astronaut is “the guy”. It provides “motive” for the murder. The evidence is not airtight—there are no surviving manuscripts of the autobiography, no solid proof that the woman was going to “out” the suspect, no concrete evidence that the call-girl was beaten up by the suspect. But it doesn’t take a big piece of evidence to support or maintain Monk’s theory.
As it is with criminal theories, so it is with worldview. It takes relatively less evidence (or less persuasive arguments) to support an existing worldview. This is the first way in which worldview affects the way we treat external data. Tiny shreds of external confirmation support our worldview and are clung to accordingly.
You can see this with proponents of evolution. According to Darwin’s original theory, the fossil record should be replete with multitudes of examples of intermediate species, transitional fossils which highlight the evolution from one distinct species into another. While evolutionists acknowledge that the vast fossil evidence predicted by early Darwinists is simply not there, evolutionary theory persists. And every year or two, you hear about the proclamation of a new fossil discovery of a professed “transitional species”. There are few intermediates, certainly not as many as predicted; but proponents of an evolutionary worldview cling to each new proposed discovery as “proof” of the truth of the theory.
Along the same lines, proponents of a worldview which claims we live in a random, purposeless universe, and that human life on earth arose strictly by chance, tend to believe that there must be life somewhere out there in the universe. If it is believed that there is life beyond the earth, then the discovery of lines that look like ancient river beds on the surface of Mars is quite exciting, and serves as confirmation of that worldview. To me, it just looks like interesting lines that might indicate there used to be water on the surface of Mars—nothing earth-shattering, and certainly not proof that life could have existed on the Red Planet.
Alternatively, Christians who believe in life after death, that this physical life is only the introduction to eternity, point to studies in near-death experiences as proof that there is at least a minimal existence and consciousness after death. It doesn’t take a significant amount of corroborating evidence to support or reinforce the existing worldview.
B. New Data/Arguments is Interpreted In A Self-Affirming Manner
A second way that worldview affects our interpretation of evidence and argumentation is the accommodation of new, relatively neutral evidence. Simply put, worldviews interpret new data or arguments in a self-affirming manner. One example is the layers evident in the Grand Canyon. Mainstream geologists look at the data, carbon-date the rocks within the layers, and conclude quite logically that the various layers are the product of layers of sediment laid down millions of years after one another. This fits quite nicely within their basic worldview assumption that the earth is billions of years old, and that events on earth have progressed over time through predictable and lengthy physical processes.
A minority of geologists (known as young-earth creationists), however, look at the same physical data and come to radically different conclusions about what it means. From their perspective, the layers and even the ancient appearance of the Grand Canyon is not the result of millions of years of erosion, but rather represents the catastrophic effects of a global flood described in Genesis 6. The dire consequences of the flood, in their view, explains the inaccuracy of carbon-dating the rocks in those sediment strata—the flood changed the composition of the atmosphere, thereby rendering long-term past carbon dating useless. Young-earth geologists begin with a radically different set of assumptions, and thus interpret the same physical data in a radically different way. It must be emphasized that both groups of geologists cannot possibly be right. The data of the Grand Canyon cannot mean both that the earth is billions of years old and the rocks are layers of sediment laid down millions of years after one another; AND that the earth is only thousands of years old and the evident layers are the result of a single catastrophic flood. One camp is correct in their interpretation and the other is incorrect—or, perhaps, both camps are incorrect and some other explanation is the right one. Some of you will have a definite opinion in terms of which camp is correct, but for our purposes this evening, it is not important who is right—what’s important is to note the power of worldview in determining how physical data is interpreted. The point is that worldviews interpret new data, evidence, or arguments in a self-affirming manner. Young-earth geologists accommodate the data to fit their prevailing worldview; old-earth geologists do the same, although in this case their job is a little easier. To the extent that it is possible, people will accommodate new data within their worldview, rather than altering their worldview to suit new data.
Using our earlier analogy of crimes and suspects, there was another Monk episode where a rich playboy is suspected by Monk of committing a gruesome murder. However, he had an alibi for the night of the murder—he was occupied in bed with a particular young woman. The woman confirmed the alibi—they were ‘busy’ all night. Someone who believed the playboy was innocent would have taken the alibi as conclusive proof that he couldn’t have done it. But Monk wasn’t convinced. Rather than allaying his suspicion, he sought to understand how this new data could fit within his existing theory. He still believed the playboy to be guilty, but had to explain why the woman would lie to protect him. He figured that the playboy had to be paying off the young woman—a suspicion that eventually was proven correct. The point, again, is that we generally seek to accommodate new data or information within our existing worldview.
Sometimes this requires a minor adjustment to the worldview. For example, the relative absence of transitional species in the fossil record has not led any evolutionary theorists to abandon their primary commitment to a purposeless, random process of evolution and common descent. Rather, the underlying worldview is slightly tweaked to explain the lack of supporting evidence. Hence, Stephen Jay Gould proposed the idea of punctuated equilibrium, whereby new species arise very quickly with a large number of mutative changes present in them. Punctuated equilibrium is not the same as Darwinian evolution, which required the changes to occur over long periods of time. But the fundamental worldview remains the same—the process occurs through random mutation and natural selection, and is not governed by any type of intelligent designer or Creator.
C. Worldview Controls the Pool of Live Options
The conceptual scheme through which we view the world exerts great influence upon the pool of live options that we approach data or arguments with. Sometimes, the foundational beliefs that we hold determine what the answer to a given question (even an empirical question) must be. For example, my great-grandmother died when I turned 9; a week after her funeral, I asked my mother – “Where is Great-Gramma Ross now?” After a long pause, my mother replied: “Nowhere. After we die, that’s it. We’re dead, and there isn’t anything more.” Within my mother’s worldview, there is no room for a belief in an afterlife. However, if I had asked my Grampa Roberts (Great-Gramma’s son-in-law) that same question, I suspect he would have replied: “I think she’s in heaven now; but only God knows.” Grampa’s worldview allowed for the possibility (indeed, probability) of life after death.
Worldviews, particularly if they are consciously held, are held tenaciously. A bit of contrary evidence of argumentation doesn’t do much to challenge a deeply-held worldview. One of the best examples of this that I have come across involves John Dominic Crossan, a scholar with the Jesus Seminar in the 1980s. Crossan once engaged in a public debate with William Lane Craig, one of my favorite Christian scholars and apologists, about the resurrection of Jesus. During their dialogue time, there is a fascinating and very revealing exchange.
First, Craig asks Crossan: “What evidence would it take to convince you [that the resurrection of Jesus really happened]? Or are your preconceived ideas about the impossibility of the miraculous and so forth so strong that, in fact, they skew your historical judgment so that such an event could never even be admitted into court?” Craig is asking Crossan, what type and amount of evidence would convince you that Jesus really was raised from the dead? Is your worldview so set against the very possibility of such things that you could not be convinced no matter how powerful the evidence? Crossan’s reply is revealing, and worth quoting:
“But it’s a theological presupposition of mine that God does not operate that way. … What would it take to prove to me what you ask? I don’t know, unless God changes the universe.” In other words, there is no type or amount of evidence that could convince Crossan of the literal truth of the resurrection of Jesus. It’s a theological presupposition of his that God would not do such things. It is a part of his worldview. He is absolutely closed to the possibility, because it does not fit within his worldview. In other words, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not within Crossan’s pool of live options.
The pool of live options is the realm of possible explanations that we can give to a given set of data or arguments. For example, if you come home after church today and find a couple letters in your mailbox, what are some possible explanations? (1) Perhaps you missed taking the mail in yesterday. (2) Perhaps the mailman came to your house today, mistakenly thinking it was Saturday. (3) Perhaps your mail got delivered to your neighbor by mistake, and they put your letters in your mailbox this morning. (4) Perhaps the U.S. Postal Service has begun delivering mail seven days a week. (5) Perhaps aliens descended during church and planted mail in your mailbox while you were gone. (6) Perhaps it’s a communist plot. Given various worldviews, each of those options is a possibility. However, almost all of us would immediately rule some of them out – that is, they wouldn’t be within the pool of live options for explanations we would consider. If I found mail in my mailbox, I wouldn’t attribute it to aliens, nor to a communist plot. I would consider it just barely possible (but not at all likely) that the Postal Service has begun delivering on Sundays, or that the mailman got his days mixed up. My natural assumptions would be (1) or (3). But, if there was fairly strong evidence, I could be persuaded that (2) or (4) was the correct explanation. The point is, there is a pool of live options that I approach the data with; that pool of live options determines what I consider a possible explanation. Believe it or not, a fair number of Americans would consider (5) an entirely plausible explanation – aliens delivered the mail!
Going back to the example of John Dominic Crossan; in order to accept the historicity of Christ’s resurrection, Crossan would have to alter his entire worldview, which holds that there is absolutely no possibility of life after death, and that God (if an objective Creator God really exists at all) never involves Himself in the affairs of the world. The bodily resurrection of Jesus, although it is undeniably a central doctrine of the Christian faith, is simply not within Crossan’s pool of live options.
Or, to take another example, I fiercely hold an orthodox Christian worldview—that God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit exist in perfect Triune communion, that God created the universe and everything within it, that human beings are the special creation of God, made in His image as the crown of His Creation, that we have fallen into sin, and thus earned the penalty of physical death and eternal separation from God, but that Jesus came to die in our place and grant us the gift of redemption and eternal life. I believe that we will all rise after our death, to judgment and hell or salvation and heaven. Imagine a university philosopher professor stood up in front of my class and proclaimed, “I have examined all of the arguments for the existence of God and found them all to be lacking and unpersuasive. I have concluded that there is absolutely no possibility that God exists. We live in a godless universe without purpose and meaning.” Would that shake my Christian worldview? No. It might force me to examine certain aspects of my worldview, seek to evaluate the philosophical arguments for God’s existence (which, as we’ve gone through, I personally find quite compelling and convincing). But it would not force me to alter my underlying worldview—because my worldview is consciously-held and critically examined. The non-existence of God is not currently within my pool of live options.
D. It Takes Overwhelming Evidence/Arguments to Overthrow Existing Worldviews
However, there was a point in time at which I did not believe in God. In fact, when I was 17, my pool of live options was the exact opposite of what it is now – the existence of God was not within my pool of live options. But my view of the world changed, and so did my pool of live options as a result. But how do worldviews change? What causes someone to embrace something that formerly was rejected? Worldviews can only be defeated or replaced by strong or overwhelming evidence and powerfully persuasive arguments. Worldviews represent the core assumptions and understandings about the world around us. The questions involved in the fundamental worldview we hold are foundational. Such beliefs are not easily altered—especially when they have been critically examined and are consciously held. We tend to cling to our worldviews tenaciously, unless we are confronted with strong or persuasive reasons (evidential, rational, emotional, or volitional) to change them.
For example, let’s go back to Monk and the Astronaut, the episode where Monk suspects an astronaut of murdering a former call-girl who was writing an autobiography. Monk’s primary obstacle in solving that case was the little problem of the suspect’s alibi—he was in a spaceship orbiting the earth at the time of the woman’s death. Alibis really don’t come much more airtight than that! How does Monk deal with that alibi? Does he say, “Oh well, the guy’s got a pretty solid alibi—he must not be the guy”? No, instead he says, “I don’t know how he did it, but he did it. He’s the guy.” It takes more than an apparently air-tight alibi to convince Monk to abandon his thesis. As it happens, Monk was right—I’m not going to give the story away, but Monk eventually figures out how the astronaut set conditions up for the woman to die while he was in space. The point is that Monk was not dissuaded by pretty powerful evidence that contradicted his thesis.
As it is with Monk, so it is with worldview. For many people, like John Dominic Crossan, worldviews are very stubbornly held. Contrary evidence does not convince them to abandon their worldview and adopt a different one. Another way of putting this is to say that worldviews are inherently conservative. They are not changed unless they have to be. Last summer, Vanessa and I went to see Race to Witch Mountain, starring “The Rock” as a taxi driver who unwittingly drives two alien teenagers around Las Vegas. Weird things start happening right after The Rock picks them up, but he doesn’t immediately conclude that they are alien beings. After all, his character, Jack Bruno, is a committed alien skeptic. It takes a long time, and a number of seriously strange occurrences, for Jack Bruno’s worldview to be overthrown by the overwhelming evidence that these teens ain’t human.
There are other examples as well. C. S. Lewis was an atheist until well into his professional adulthood, when he converted to Christianity. In 2004, Antony Flew, Britain’s leading intellectual atheist for the past 50 years, abandoned the atheistic worldview which he had defended quite consciously and critically.
III. The Necessity of Engaging Worldviews
The difficulty that many Christian students face when they get to university is that they have held a Christian worldview, but have neither examined it nor consciously acknowledged it. When a different worldview is presented to them (as it certainly will be on a university campus), they are ill-prepared to respond to it or deal with it. Oftentimes, Christian students are shaken at their worldview level, and many of them abandon their faith—they convert from an unexamined, unconscious Christian worldview to an unexamined but conscious atheistic or agnostic worldview. There are two reasons that it is vitally important to engage others’ worldviews.
A. Developing and Defending Our Christian Worldview
First, in our contemporary, increasingly secular society, the Christian worldview (where it is held consciously and consistently) is under attack. We need to defend it. Sometimes this requires questioning the worldview of those who attack ours. Sometimes it requires us to consciously understand and critically examine our own Christian worldview, so that we can defend its coherence and truth to skeptics. Our churches are filled with young men and women whose Christian worldviews will come under strenuous attack. If they hold their Christian worldview unconsciously and uncritically, then they will probably abandon the faith before graduating from college. If, however, we build up a Christian worldview in our students, and an ability to defend God’s truth, then they will indeed stand firm in the faith. (Rom. 12:1-2, Col. 2:8) This is a part of closing the back door of the church – the purpose of apologetics that I talked about in an earlier post.
B. Expose Flaws in Contrary Worldviews
Second, many non-Christians are consciously committed to an anti-Christian worldview—we need to expose the weaknesses and fatal flaws in their worldview. For example, atheists like Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins deny the existence of any transcendent Being; simultaneously, they promote vibrant moral standards which all people ought to embrace and follow. However, they have no foundation for the moral standards which they promote. This is a flaw which we can pursue to demonstrate why atheists’ worldview is lacking and needs to be replaced by a coherent, liveable worldview.
Similarly, many non-Christians are unconsciously operating under a worldview which excludes the possibility of God—we need to highlight their core worldview assumptions. Often they will reject these assumptions when they are forced to admit them, because the unspoken assumptions are untenable. For example, many people today unthinkingly embrace moral relativism—the view that what is right for me could be wrong for you, and vice versa. Because they hold that underlying worldview, they reject the possibility of Christianity – a religion which claims to be the way, the truth, and the life. When pursued, however, such folks will almost always admit that there are some things which are actually and fundamentally wrong—rape, child abuse, torture, cold-blooded murder. But their admission that there are some things that are objectively wrong undermines their professed acceptance of ethical relativism.
Or consider those who have unthinkingly embraced an atheistic evolutionary perspective regarding the universe. You can question them: “Let me get this straight. You think that the universe arose out of total nothingness? That there was no cause to the universe? Even though from all the scientific knowledge and observation that we have, nothing ever comes from nothing? And let me understand this as well—you believe that life on earth arose from random chemical reactions, even though all of our biological and chemical knowledge demonstrates that life cannot arise from non-life?” When you uncover some of the weaknesses and flaws in others’ non-Christian worldviews, you can begin to bring down their defenses against the Christian faith. Looking back, I think that was instrumental in my own conversion. I had friends who were willing to challenge my atheistic worldview, and put the truth of Christianity forward for me to consider. Over time, it sunk in, and I became open to considering Christianity.
So, is worldview important? Yes, it is. Your worldview is the collection of fundamental assumptions that you hold about the world and how it works, and it affects how you interpret the world around you. We need to have a conscious, well-thought-out worldview, and be willing to challenge the worldview of our non-Christian friends. This is a part of both defending our faith, and of presenting the glorious truth of Jesus Christ to those who do not yet know Him.