Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Nature and Power of Worldview

A. Introduction: The World of The Matrix

Eleven years ago, the remarkable movie, The Matrix, was released. It was followed by two sequels in 2003, and ranks as one of the most successful Hollywood franchises. The Matrix is built around the premise that the world as we experience it is an illusion—the result of an intricate computer simulation. Human-created artificial intelligence have taken over the ‘real world’ and enslaved human beings to suck the heat and energy out of their bodies. The real world sees human bodies ‘grown’ in vast fields, hooked up to electrical inputs to harvest their resources, and also hooked up to visual simulators that treat them to a virtual reality. This virtual reality, known as ‘The Matrix’, resembles human life on earth as we know it. Human beings who are in reality hooked up to machines have the vivid experience of working normal jobs, having relationships, and so forth. The virtual reality is so accurate that people do not realize they are being manipulated and deceived.

However, a group of humans has been awakened to the true nature of reality, and they wage a quiet rebellion against The Matrix. In the movie, the focus is on Neo Anderson, a computer hacker who questions his reality but has no idea of what is out there. Morpheus and Trinity, two ‘liberated’ humans, seek to enlighten Neo. They offer him two pills, one of which will return him to his virtual reality life, the other of which will show him what is really real. Neo famously takes the red pill, and his world is forever changed. He will never look at things the same way again. Neo now sees the world through a new lens, a new theoretical structure: he has a new worldview

NOTE: This blog essay is an adaptation of notes used in my Introduction to Philosophy classes on Wednesday August 31 and Thursday September 1. I have sought to edit it for this context. If there are any remaining passages or phrases that do not make sense without having been in the class, or which use shorthand for sources instead of full citations, I apologize.

B. The Concept of Worldview

(1) Worldview: Concept & Questions

In their Introduction to Philosophy, Cowan & Spiegel write: “Let us consider now one of the main goals of philosophy, specifically to develop a reasonable worldview. … a worldview is a set of beliefs, values, and presuppositions concerning life’s most fundamental issues.” (Steven Cowan and James Spiegel, The Love of Wisdom: A Christian Introduction to Philosophy [B&H Academic, 2009], 7) They identify five key worldview questions: (1) God/theology; (2) Reality/metaphysics; (3) Knowledge/epistemology; (4) Human Beings/anthropology; (5) Values/ethics/aesthetics.

Cowan & Spiegel then (correctly in my opinion) identify the construction and development of a comprehensive worldview as being one of the key goals of philosophy.

James Sire has a slightly different take on the components of a worldview. First, he defines worldview: “A worldview is a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being.” Then he identifies seven key worldview questions which distinguish one worldview from another: “Each worldview considers the following basic questions: (1) the nature and character of God or ultimate reality, (2) the nature of the universe, (3) the nature of humanity, (4) the question of what happens to a person at death, (5) the basis of human knowing, (6) the basis of ethics, (7) the meaning of history.” (25) James Sire, The Universe Next Door, 4th ed. (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2004), 17. 25.

What is a worldview? A worldview is a lens through which we view the world around us. Our worldview contains a set of fundamental assumptions and understandings about how the world works. Our worldview is a person-specific matrix—a perception of reality, a filter through which everything flows as we seek to make sense of external data. For my own part, I like to identify five fundamental questions: 1. Where did we come from? (i.e., the existence and nature of God/ultimate reality); 2. Where are we, or what is the nature of reality? (i.e., the nature and character of the physical world); 3. What is wrong with us? (i.e., the origin and nature of man); 4. What is the solution to the problem? (i.e., the nature of salvation); and 5. Where are we going? (i.e., the nature of life after death).

Every worldview makes assumptions in each of those five areas. For example: the atheist worldview claims that the universe sprang into existence from nothingness with no explanation, life arose on primordial earth through random chemical reactions, and human life evolved through random mutation and natural selection; our primary problem is enslavement to a superstitious worldview that promotes religious belief; the solution to the problem is intellectual evolution; and after we die we entirely cease to be. The Christian worldview has substantially different answers. In the beginning was God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All that is was created by Him out of nothingness; at its creation, everything was declared good by God. The problem with the world is the result of man’s rebellion and fall into sin. Instead of harmony and communion, mankind now experiences broken relationships with God, with self, with fellow human beings, and with God’s creation. God provides the means for redemption through the atoning death of Jesus—broken relationships can be healed and reconciled in Christ. After death, all men are judged on the basis of their relationship with God in Christ—believers experience eternal life in the presence of God. The difference between these two worldview matrices is significant, and greatly affects the way that we perceive the world around us.

(2) Unavoidable and Ubiquitous
Cowan and Spiegel insist that, “Although there are many worldviews, only one worldview can be true.” (The Love of Wisdom, 9) Are they right? Yes, I think they are. Why? Because worldviews offer mutually exclusive answers to the same questions. The atheist and the Christian give not only different answers to the question of what happens to us after we die: they give mutually exclusive answers. Theoretically, both the atheist and the Christian answers could be wrong; the one thing they cannot be is both right. So, only one worldview can be true. We will work this out more later in the semester, time permitting, when we talk about the question of religious pluralism.

Every person has a worldview—worldview is ubiquitous and universal. Some worldviews are consciously acknowledged; some are unconsciously entrenched. For example, I consciously hold a Christian theistic worldview which proclaims and worships God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Many, however, unknowingly embrace a worldview which precludes the very possibility of God’s existence.

Some worldviews are critically analyzed; others are unquestioningly embraced. For example, Gary Habermas grew up in a Christian home, but had his faith shaken by trials, tribulations, and atheistic university professors. Dr. Habermas was forced to critically examine his worldview, and after years of philosophical and emotional searching, he concluded that Christianity was indeed true. He remains a vibrant Christian today, and a world-class philosopher and professor as well.
Finally, some worldviews are challenged and eventually rejected; others are held firmly for life. For example, Billy Graham and Charles Templeton began their adult life on the same path—as promising and powerful Christian evangelists. In their mid-20s, the two friends simultaneously went through a deep crisis of faith and belief. Billy Graham remained on the Christian path; Charles Templeton questioned and eventually rejected the Christian worldview, and is now an elderly agnostic.

So worldviews can be conscious or unconscious; examined or unexamined; rejected or maintained. But worldviews are like souls—everyone has one, even if they think they don’t. Unfortunately, the worldview of many (perhaps most) Americans and Canadians (including, sadly, Christians) is unconscious and unexamined. The Greek philosopher Socrates declared, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” To modify Socrates’ wisdom, I would also argue that the unexamined worldview is not worth holding. As Christians, we need to consciously hold and examine our worldview, and seek to see reality through the correct interpretive lenses.

(3) Philosophy & Worldview
Cowan & Spiegel argue: “The discipline of philosophy requires that one take a hard look at one’s worldview and examine it by means of the philosophical method laid out in the previous section with the goal of ascertaining whether that worldview is true. By doing so one may hold one’s beliefs and values more confidently or one may be led to embrace a different worldview that seems more nearly correct. This is both the benefit and danger of philosophy.” (The Love of Wisdom, 9)
They then identify three purposes of Christian philosophy: (1) A means of confirming your worldview. (2) A way of better understanding your faith. (3) A method by which to acquire wisdom.

C. The Power & Influence of Worldview

We’ve identified worldview; laid out its components; seen that everyone has a worldview that needs to be examined. Let’s close by considering some of the ways that worldview affect the way that we live and think.

(1) It takes relatively less evidence (or persuasive arguments) to support an existing worldview.

I love detective shows, like Law & Order, and particularly 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 think 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, the theory persists. And every year or two, you hear about the proclamation of a new fossil discovery of a professed “transitional species”. There are not many of these 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.

Alternatively, Christians who believe in life after death, that this physical life is only the introduction to eternity, can point to 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 an existing worldview.

(2) We interpret new data or arguments in a manner that affirms or fits within our existing worldview

A second way that worldview affects our interpretation of evidence and argumentation is in 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. For our purposes, 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 or arguments in a self-affirming manner. Young-earth geologists accommodate the data to fit their prevailing worldview; old-earth geologists do the same. If at all possible, people will accommodate new data within their worldview, rather than altering their worldview to suit new data.

For example, in Matthew 12:22-24, the Pharisees have a negative response to Jesus’ miraculous ministry. Then they brought to Jesus a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. All the people were astonished and said, ‘Could this be the Son of David?’ But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, ‘It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.’ Jesus proceeds to rebuke them for their incoherence and their spiritual closed-mindedness. But what we often miss when we read this passage today is that the Pharisees were doing what comes entirely naturally to us as human beings. They were seeking to accommodate new data, new evidence, within their existing worldview presuppositions. They presumed that God worked through the established religious leadership and channels of second-temple Judaism – the rabbis, priests, temple sacrifices, and daily prayers. Jesus certainly did not fit that model – he proclaimed authority over the Sabbath, healed and taught in his own name and on his own authority. He was a rebel against the religious system. The Pharisees could not fit Jesus within the legitimate religious structure of Israel, hence they had to lump him in with illegitimate religious powers—Satan. Thus, they did not acknowledge the divine origins of Jesus or His ministry. Jesus’ power was unmistakeable; they had to attribute that power to something. The something could not be God, since Jesus was not one of them. Therefore, the power had to be Satan. While we rightly critique the Pharisees for missing the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God in the person and ministry of Christ, let us also notice that they are simply applying their worldview to new and difficult data. The point, again, is that we seek to accommodate new data or information within our existing worldview.

Sometimes this requires a minor adjustment to the worldview. For example, the absence of transitional species in the fossil record has not led evolutionary theorists to abandon their commitment to random mutation and common descent. Rather, the underlying worldview is tweaked to explain the lack of supporting evidence. Hence, Stephen Jay Gould proposed 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; evolution is not governed by any type of intelligent designer or Creator.

(3) Worldviews will only be partially or completely defeated or replaced in the face of strong or overwhelming evidence, powerfully persuasive arguments, or significant experiential data.

That is an example of a slight alteration to worldview, and it leads nicely to the third influence of worldview upon our interpretation of evidence and arguments: worldviews can only be defeated or replaced by strong or overwhelming evidence, powerfully persuasive arguments, or significant experiential data. Worldviews represent core assumptions about the world. Such beliefs are not easily altered—especially when they have been critically examined.

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—rather, Monk says, “I don’t know how he did it, but he did it. He’s the guy.” It would take more than an apparently air-tight alibi to convince Monk to abandon his thesis. As it happens, Monk was right—he 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 crime, so it is with worldview. Worldviews, particularly if they are consciously held, are held tenaciously. A little 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 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 of Jesus’ resurrection, because it does not fit within his worldview. 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 never involves Himself in the affairs of the world.

For many people, like 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 except under extreme duress. Nonetheless, worldviews do sometimes change. This happens when many formerly Christian students abandon the faith in university—they convert from an unexamined, unconscious Christian worldview to an unexamined but conscious atheistic or agnostic worldview. On the other hand, 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.

(4) The importance of knowing and holding our worldview

This is why it is vitally important to cultivate our biblical Christian worldview—to allow God’s Word to shape the way that we view the world and interpret that data and arguments that we come face-to-face with. The worldview that we hold influences the way we interpret the world around us. It takes less evidence to support an existing worldview; new data is interpreted to fit within an existing worldview; and it takes overwhelming evidence or arguments to overturn a consciously-held worldview. It is important that we as Christians consciously hold our Christian worldview, understanding what we believe, why we believe it, the logical and evidential support that confirms our faith.

Many non-Christians are unconsciously operating under a worldview which excludes the possibility of God. If we desire to reach them with the Gospel, then 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. 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. When you uncover the weaknesses and flaws in others’ non-Christian worldviews, you can begin to bring down their opposition to the Christian faith. Looking back, 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.
It is important that followers of Jesus are able to both cultivate a conscious Christian worldview and engage with the non-Christian worldviews of neighbors and friends. If we hold to this worldview consistently and consciously, it will affect the way that we interpret the world around us. It is also essential to understand that the contrary worldviews that others hold affect the way that they see and interpret the world around them. It will also enable us to understand how others see the world differently.

The medieval understanding of philosophy is “the handmaid to theology in the sense that, when done responsibly, philosophy is especially helpful to the study of God.” (The Love of Wisdom, 11) That’s the goal!

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