The Trouble with Worldviews

I have been thinking about how challenging philosophical discussion can be and I think that part of that difficulty comes about when we are not discussing ideas within a single worldview, but are actually clashing one worldview against another. As I see it a worldview is a belief in a complete philosophical system. Discussing within a given philosophical system is easy, discussing across one system into another gets challenging.

Philosophy is generally seen to be comprised of three main elements; Metaphysics, which tells you what is real; Epistemology which tells you how you know what is real; and Ethics which tells you what you should value. To my understanding, a philosophical system is complete in the sense that it fulfills all of these functions.

Let’s use the Christian Worldview as an example (and I know that I am making gross generalizations, but I am only doing it to keep this post short and with no intended offense to Christians). Christian metaphysics involves a creator (God) and his/her creations. It also includes a place called heaven and a place called hell and the belief that you will abide in one or the other after death, based on the way you live and the state of some invisible part of you called a soul. Epistemologically the way Christians know what is real is that God has told human beings what is real through the Bible, so what is true is what is written in the Bible. Christian Ethics revolve around things like charity, loving thy neighbor, duty to family, etc. In a closed system like this you can always ask questions from within the system. Question: Should I steal? Answer: No. Justification: Because the Bible dictates that you don’t. But when you start to ask questions from outside of the system such as: Does God exist? Things get more challenging.

The question, “Does God exist?” Does not arise from within the Christian system – it is a given in that system. If the question is inserted into the system from the outside, a Christian could answer by saying, ‘yes, God exists because the Bible says so.’ But that argument only works if someone shares the epistemological presupposition that the Bible is the source of truth. So a complete philosophical system – a worldview – dictates what is real, how you know what is real and what to value about what is real. Without those agreements there is only flimsy basis for discussion.

If we think about the modernist worldview we have a different system. Metaphysically we have a universe that is composed of matter that has evolved to a complexity that gave rise to human beings and a mysterious property we call consciousness. Epistemologically we know what is true based on ‘logical positivism’ which means adhering to certain laws of logic applied to the evidence we gather through our senses. And the ethics of modernism revolves around the inherent goodness of progress. This is also a complete philosophical system.

When you hear debates between truly devoted Christians and truly devoted modernists – for instance in the debate between creation vs. evolution, it quickly becomes clear that there is no real ground for inquiry – the best you can do is agree to disagree, unless someone is willing to give up their worldview. Today we are not really modernists; we are post-modernists, although some would argue that this is really a later stage of modernism. As postmodernists we recognize that there are different worldviews and we value that diversity. We also recognize that we can’t impose one worldview on another because they rest on different fundamental beliefs and each person has a right to believe as they wish as long as they don’t hurt one another.

The Pragmatists, particularly William James, were part of the leading edge of post-modernism. James was recognizing that our worldview is based on a philosophical system that can prove the reality of all things within it, but that itself has to be taken on faith. The pragmatists were trying to find a way that takes us beyond the dead ends of clashing worldviews when debating what is true. That is why they said that it was more useful to argue the truth of something by examining its effect. It isn’t that useful to debate, for instance, whether Behaviorism is true or not. A Christian might say no because that is not the view that the Bible tells us. A modernist might say yes because that is what the evidence proves. The question that is more useful to ask is what results from a belief in Behaviorism. Does it work? When does it work? Does it work in this instance and not in that? What results from materialism, what results from a belief in the soul, a belief in freewill, a belief in God? Everything can be examined based on Pragmatic grounds.

William James believed that humanity had evolved beyond the point of absolute truth. We don’t know the absolute truth; we only know part of the truth and what that truth is, is always changing. For that reason truth had to be seen as evolving; utilized for as long as it worked in those circumstances in which it worked. He, along with his Pragmatist colleagues imagined a complete revisioning of all of philosophy based on Pragmatic grounds.