The Trouble with Worldviews

Jeff Carreira Philosophy 9 Comments

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.

About the Author

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira is a mystical philosopher and spiritual guide. He is the author of eleven books on meditation and philosophy. He teaches online programs and leads retreats throughout the world that teach people how to let go of their current perceptual habits so they are free to participate in the creation of a new paradigm. To put it simply, he supports people to live a spiritually inspired life, free from the constraints of fear, worry and self-doubt, and aligned with their own deepest sense of meaning and purpose.
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Dharm Kaur Khalsa
9 years ago

Pragmatic grounds could include the energetic basic of life, including humans. That has always been the basis of Truth for the Dharmas that include some kind of yoga and meditation ie experiential practices, not philosophical dogmas.

John Slade
9 years ago

I’ve never heard metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics thumbnailed so succinctly, and I enjoy how Wm. James keeps re-entering the conversation. But I think I’d rather have my worldview described as evolutionary than (post)-modernist. The latter connotes fashion and seems fixed and dated even as it speaks its name. “Evolutionary” contains, for me, a thrill of hope for a nonzero-sum future.

9 years ago

You don’t mention truth gathered from experience, spiritual experience, or transcendental experience. Like Jesus or Buddha got their truth from some sort of transcendental experience, not through science, not through reasoning, not through oral or written tradition. And yet they had more effect on humanity than any other man on earth. Where do that truth comes in? Does postmodernism embrace this source for truth? Does it recognize that we all have that possibility in us? Is this a pragmatist method of knowing in the sense that it theoretically connects us with a timeless ultimate truth, and yet by nature it… Read more »

Nils Montan
9 years ago

There are two “truths” in the world. One is pragmatic. When I wake up tomorrow and stub my toe on the bed leg, it’s going to hurt. The other is metaphysical. When I wake up tomorrow, God will be watching out for me. Trying to “reconcile” these two truths is more or less a waste of time in my opinion. Just live in both simultaneously and you will be fine.

Frank Luke
9 years ago

Hi Anon, re Jesus … got (his) truth from some sort of transcendental experience: I believe Jesus didn’t need a transcendental experience to arrive at any truths, his empirical knowing was enough since he’s purportedly the son of (God) and would know all he needed to know, wouldn’t you agree? Being that the concept of (God) will remain a mystery for those who can accept it as such, a worldview would need to be open-ended to include that aspect. We who ponder on this issue would like to come to settling matters as much as possible but if we are… Read more »

David Hogg
9 years ago

For many years I sought to understand various religious “worldviews” – Christian, Buddhist, Hundu, etc. with the goal of trying to figure out which ONE (or none) was closest to describing the true nature of ultimate reality. When I eventually discovered integral philosophy, it was such a hugely powerful perspective from which to look at world religions. All of a sudden I realized that to talk about a “Christian Worldview” or a “Buddhist Worldview” was in fact quite a poor way to “slice” various religious worldviews. Instead, speaking of “Mythic Worldviews”, or “Modern” or “Post-Modern” – even within a particular… Read more »

9 years ago

Wow Jeff and John Slade, I loved the post and comment. Must we be tolerant of worldviews that are not evidence-based?

Kurt Roeloffs
Kurt Roeloffs
9 years ago

Does Pragmatism really have the opportunity to test many people on the practical comsequences of alternative world views? My observation is that nearly no one acts in concert with one’s avowed worldview. People rarely have that degree of integrity. Most religious wars are good examples of this. One people claim God is on their side in order to muster an impulse to attack another people who make the same claim often about the same God. The seventeenth century Thirty War which killed thirty percent of the German peoples is my favorite example. Moreover, many of those who most vigorously act… Read more »


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