Sunday, December 01, 2019

WSIBC: “Competing Worldviews”

In setting the stage for making his case for Christianity, Christian apologist James Anderson makes it clear that he’s talking about Christianity as a “worldview.” On pages 32-33 of his book Why Should I Believe Christianity? (WSIBC), Anderson explains:
a worldview is a comprehensive view of the world. I don’t mean a physical view of the world, like the sight of planet earth you might get from an orbiting space station. A worldview is a philosophical view of the world – and not just of our planet, but of the entire universe, indeed all of reality. A worldview is an all-encompassing perspective on ourselves and everything else that exists, especially those things that matter most to us and have the greatest influence on our lives.
Since a worldview is “a philosophical view of the world… indeed all of reality” that is “all-encompassing,” a worldview should be expected to help us understand “things we take for granted in our everyday lives, such as the orderliness of the universe, the meaningfulness of human existence, and our ability to use reason to extend our knowledge of the world” (p. 45). Thus, if “Christianity is an all-compassing worldview" (p. 25), then I would expect Christianity to have something informative to say about some fundamental matters, such as the proper starting point of human cognition, the relationship between consciousness and its objects, the nature of concepts and how we form them, etc. For whether one realizes it or not, these are fundamental matters which “have the greatest influence on our lives.”

Now of course there are many different “worldviews,” very few of which are not religious, either explicitly so or by virtue of unwittingly inheriting various features of religion. Worldviews which are explicitly religious typically affirm that the world in which we live is some kind of creation or projection under the supervision of otherworldly beings or “spirits” which are not accessible to the senses. These worldviews represent the attempts of pre-rational, pre-scientific thinkers to answer fundamental questions that naturally arise when considering the human condition. As Plato puts it in his dialogue Theaetetus, “philosophy begins in wonder.” Generally speaking, religion is a primitive form of philosophy and is typically informed by stories (myths, legends, parables, and the like) passed down through the generations. In spite of its primitive nature, the religious view of the world persists today and has an entire industry of publications dedicated to promoting it.

On page 49 of his book, Anderson exhorts that “each worldview should be evaluated on its own terms, not by the standards and expectations of some other worldview.” But he also states that “no one interprets evidence in isolation from their worldview” (p. 46). It’s not clear, if it’s not possible to interpret evidence in isolation from one’s worldview, how one is supposed to evaluate “each worldview… on its own terms, not by the standards and expectations of some other worldview,” especially when everyone has a worldview, just as they have bellybuttons and cerebellums (p. 34).

Then again, perhaps the unexamined premise in operation here is that worldviews are pre-packaged over-the-counter finished products accepted as ready-made wholes as opposed to cumulative sums assembled piece by piece, beginning with a clear starting point and built as one discovers and validates knowledge on that basis. If worldviews are pre-configured market-ready totalities that are to be consumed in one gulp without examining their contents (for one would, goes the attendant reasoning, need a worldview in order to perform any examination), why invest in one? Apparently the idea here is that one needs a worldview even to answer that question, which would mean: one would need a worldview to choose whether or not have a worldview in the first place, but that would be an endless, circular run-around. It seems we need to identify a secure starting point before anything else. At any rate, the all-or-nothing approach suggested by some of Anderson’s statements strikes me as quite implausible. We need to start somewhere.

If everyone has a worldview and doesn’t really realize this about themselves (as Anderson puts it on page 34, “everyone has one… but not everyone knows that he has one”), then an inestimable number of people are walking around with a worldview that they’ve not examined very closely before adopting it. Insisting that a worldview is true without having first examined its contents is intellectually irresponsible. Moreover, beginning from a starting point and building on it does not by itself assure us that the whole is internally consistent or true. The starting point itself may be faulty. Everyone walking around today who has a worldview, started assembling his understanding of the world from childhood, when he did not have the philosophical tools needed to ensure that what he accepts as truth is really true, consistent with other truths he’s accepted, free of fallacies, etc. And the likelihood that one will transition into adulthood without critically examining his worldview, especially the fundamental matters I mentioned above, is, as Alvin Plantinga might put it, “inscrutable.” This seems to cast a new perspective on Proverbs 22:6, which states: “Train up a child in the way he should go, And when he is old he will not depart from it.”

“Ideally,” writes Anderson, “a worldview should be evaluated in comparison with other worldviews” (p. 48). He explains:
Only once we assess Christianity as a distinctive worldview, alongside competing worldviews, will we be in a position to appreciate why anyone should believe it. (pp. 25-26)
One can debate when this is appropriate; it would not be the first stage of inquiry, for one would have to know what he’s comparing. But I’ve already done my homework on these matters, so I’m happy to take up this project! In the interest of evaluating worldview fundamentals, let’s put the basics on the table. Consider these three different worldview positions about the nature of reality:
Supernaturalism: There are different “levels” of being (p. 96) – on the one hand, a “contingent”(p. 103), temporary reality that is “created” (p. 125), physical, populated by finite things, a realm accessible to sense perception, typically referred to as the universe, and on the other, an “ultimate reality” (p. 94) that is "personal and rational and moral in nature” (p. 97) which is “absolutely self-existent” (p. 105), non-physical and immaterial, a something which “is the most real being of all” (p. 96), a “spiritual being” that is also “an infinite being” (p. 95), a something which “we cannot ‘detect’ the way we detect things within the universe” (p. 96), all essentially characterized by the view that “mind preceded matter” (p. 125).  
Naturalism: “Naturalism is the view that only the natural universe exists” (p. 98).  
Objectivism: “Existence exists – and only existence exists” (Leonard Peikoff, “The Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy,” Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 109).
Now a few questions:
1. Do any of these positions require us to treat something we can only imagine as though it were real?  
2. Do any of these positions appear to have been constructed as a reaction to one of the others?  
3. Do any of these positions encapsulate a conceptually irreducible starting point?
In the case of Anderson’s supernaturalism, a direct answer to the question “How do you know?” seems to be as elusive as an albino rhinoceros in Antarctica. But an answer is suggested by things that he does say. But since a means of knowledge is not directly identified and explained, we have to use a process of elimination. And here what Anderson does say is very helpful.

Anderson tells us that “God cannot be directly perceived like the ordinary things within the universe” (WSIBC, p. 96), so if anyone tells us that they do perceive the Christian god, such as when they claim to see it or hear its voice, they must be mistaken, confused, or pulling our leg. But if we cannot directly perceive the Christian god, does this mean that we can infer its existence through rational inquiry? The prospects of this being the case are indeed dim.

Since, as Anderson states, “we can’t ‘detect’ God in the way that we detect things within the universe,” let us first ask: how do we detect things that do exist “within the universe”? If we can answer this, then we know that whatever it is, it is not the means by which we can “detect God” – assuming it can be detected at all in the first place. Well, the way we detect things that exist in the universe is generally called reason: “Reason is the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by the senses” (Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 20). Generally speaking, we detect things in the universe by looking outward at the world, acquiring awareness of them by means of sense perception, identifying them by means of concepts and thus integrating what we discover and identify into the sum of our knowledge. This is how we discover and validate knowledge on the basis of what exists, of what is real.

Rational inference has as its starting point the evidence of the senses as identified and integrated by a conceptual process. But to understand this, we need a good theory of concepts. Objectivism has this – see Ayn Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology where she lays out the framework for the objective theory of concepts. But Christians reject Objectivism, and therefore they must reject the objective theory of concepts. Unfortunately, their bibles provide no informed instruction on the nature of concepts and the way in which the human mind forms them and integrates them into the sum of our knowledge. This entire category of investigation, which is critically essential to epistemology, is something Christian apologists take completely for granted, using concepts without understanding concepts and telling us that “we cannot make sense of the ordinary things we do perceive – and the universe as a whole - unless God exists” (WSIBC, p. 96). And yet, consider where they start!

So when Anderson tells us that “we can’t ‘detect’ God in the way that we detect things within the universe,” he is telling us that we do not use reason when it comes to god-belief: we do not perceive it, nor can we infer its existence from what we do perceive. What we perceive are things that are natural (or man-made), material and finite; but as I asked in my blog entry Is Human Experience Evidence of the Christian God? how would such things constitute evidence of that which is said to be “supernatural,” “immaterial,” and “infinite”? Apologists can give no rational answer to this question that helps their case for theism.

So, to “detect God,” we must use some faculty other than reason. Unfortunately I have not yet found any place in Anderson’s book where he explains what this other faculty might be or how it works (he does make reference to “intuition” (p. 45), but does not identify this as an alternative to reason in the task of “detecting God”). Similarly, Greg Bahnsen fails to come through on this very point in a chapter of his book Always Ready supposedly devoted to untangling “The Problem of Knowing the ‘Super-Natural’.” If belief in the Christian god is as important as Christians tell us it is, why are they so hesitant to identify in positive terms the means by which we can allegedly “detect God” when that means is not the way we detect other things that are real? Do they not know?

Again, this raises the suspicion that the faculty involved in “knowing God” is really none other than the imagination. While it’s an undeniable fact that “existence exists – and only existence exists,” one can always imagine something “outside” existence. But the notion that there’s something which exists “outside existence” would be a contradiction in terms: it would be an assertion of existence where no existence exists. In this way, the Objectivist position, in contrast to the two others described above, necessarily limits knowledge built on its starting point to the realm of the actual. This does not guarantee infallibility or provide omniscience – we will always need reason because we are neither omniscient nor infallible. But existence as the starting point delimits the frame of reference in our cognition to that which is actual, as opposed to that which is not real and only imaginary. This does not mean that we cannot use our imagination for anything, but that our imagination is not a source of knowledge of reality and that it ceases to have useful value when its ultimate frame of reference is something other than what is real (whether it’s Santa, or Satan and the like).

Anderson tells us that his deity “exists at an entirely different level of being than the universe” (p. 96). He offers nothing to justify the assumption central to this assertion that there are different “levels of being.” Specifically, he does not explain what differentiates these levels of being or how one can objectively confirm what he assumes. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that he was simply told to believe this by other human beings (and here he is telling his readers and expecting them to believe it on his say so), or perhaps it is an inference of sorts resulting from his own mystical speculations.

The notion that something can “exist more” than something else (as in “God is the most real being of all” (p. 96)), is clearly essential to Anderson’s defense of his metaphysics, but he nowhere justifies it that I can tell. Like the notion that there are different “levels of being,” it’s just assumed, taken for granted, and smuggled as a premise into the overall rationale of his case (which I will examine in detail in future entries on this blog).

Either something exists, or it doesn’t exist. There is no in-between when it comes to existence, like shades of color, seasonal jobs, or geographical locations. A potted plant exists no more and no less than a tree in a forest, just as the pot itself does not exist any more or any less than the soil in the forest. Whether a thing is metaphysically given, like a mountain or a cloud, or man-made, like a shoe or a bicycle, it exists period. It makes no sense whatsoever to apply gradations to the axiom of existence.

But this does not stop the mystic from preferring that there are different “levels” of being, as though reality conformed to his preferences, imagination and hoping. And that’s what appears to be underlying Anderson’s basic metaphysics at this point: some things “exist more” than other things, and the things that “exist more” than other thing cannot be detected using the same means we use to detect the things that exist right here in our universe. Some faculty other than the means which we use to detect things “within the universe” must be used when it comes to what Anderson calls “ultimate reality.” What else could that be if not imagination?

Above I made reference to fundamental matters which philosophy needs to address, namely the proper starting point of human cognition, the relationship between consciousness and its objects, the nature of concepts and how we form them, etc. These fundamental areas of inquiry and how a particular worldview addresses them do in fact have the greatest influence not only on the overall nature of our understanding of reality and our minds, but also on our lives and how we live them. They lie at the foundation of our thinking, and it is here, at the fundamental level of philosophy, that is most crucial to get right.

An analogy will help illustrate this. If we liken human knowledge to a tall structure, like a modern skyscraper, with a foundation grounding it to solid bedrock and built floor by floor above the earth and into the sky, the most important part to get right is that foundation. If the building has a faulty foundation, anything built atop it will be in serious jeopardy (the famous Millennium Tower in San Francisco comes to mind). Unfortunately, the factors which cause a city high rise to sink and tilt are vastly easier to detect than the faulty foundations of an erroneous worldview to which one has already committed himself. Indeed, many adherents of worldviews whose foundations are faulty will, in spite of its faults, insist that “there must be one worldview that is most true” (pp. 40-41), and quite coincidentally their worldview happens to be it! Either they are unaware of the faulty foundations of their worldview, or they know their worldview is false but choose to push forward regardless. Nevertheless, faults in the foundation in one’s worldview can – and should – be discovered, corrected and avoided.

There is nothing more effective, so far as I have seen, in concealing the faults of a worldview’s foundations than to keep the adherent’s attention focused elsewhere and carry on with the habit of taking for granted those basic assumptions which are dubious (or worse) as if they were perfectly no need to investigate them. This is essentially “the error of starting in midstream,” as Ayn Rand put it (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 251), that is, with any number of unexamined assumptions bundled together in an indiscriminate hodgepodge and swallowed whole in one uncritical motion. The last thing that faulty foundations will survive is a systematic process of stripping our most fundamental assumptions down to their barest roots and examining them for their alignment with reality.

But there’s a surer way to have confidence in one’s foundations, and that is to clear all assumptions off the table altogether and start afresh, where the mind meets reality on reality's own terms. Leonard Peikoff summarizes these points as follows:
Every philosophy builds on its starting points. Where, then, does one start? What ideas qualify as primaries?  
By the time men begin to philosophize, they are adults who have acquired a complex set of concepts. The first task of the philosopher is to separate the fundamentals from the rest. He must determine which concepts are at the base of human knowledge and which are farther up the structure — which are the irreducible principles of cognition and which are derivatives.  
Objectivism begins by naming and validating its primaries. Ayn Rand does not select questions at random; she does not plunge in by caprice. She begins deliberately at the beginning — at what she can prove is the beginning, and the root of all the rest. (Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 4)
So what is the root of all the rest? What is the beginning? Where should we as thinkers begin? “We begin,” writes Peikoff, “at the only place there is to begin: by looking at the world” (Ibid.), that is, by looking outward to perceive what we perceive and “start with the irreducible fact and concept of existence – that which is” (Ibid.).

Objectivism does exactly this – it starts with the conceptually irreducible fact that existence exists. There can be nothing “prior to” or “more fundamental than” the fact that existence exists, for to constitute a fact, it would have to exist.

But do other worldviews make this fundamental fact their explicit starting point? Or, do they take this fundamental fact for granted and “start in midstream” with any number of unexamined assumptions packed into what are taken as their starting point? And if they do in fact begin with a mass of unexamined assumptions, how can they have confidence that the foundations of their knowledge are not sinking and inclining the entire structure to tip over?

Of the three different worldview positions about the nature of reality, which if any appears to be at risk of “the error of starting in midstream”? Which represents an example of avoiding this risk?

by Dawson Bethrick

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