Last week we started figuring out how to test worldviews by asking questions or listening for cues that pointed that a particular belief or worldview didn’t match with what we know about ourselves and reality. This week, we’ll take a look at the second test we can apply to worldviews in principle #4.
Test the Idol: Does It Contradict Itself?
This test looks at the person’s beliefs and puts them against each other. Worldviews should fit together, and one piece shouldn’t contradict another. An easy example of this is anyone who says that there is no such thing as truth. This statement tacitly makes an exception for their own belief in the truth of what they just said. It may seem simple, but I’ve often asked “is that statement true?” in response to people saying that with great effect.
This one can be immediately obvious, like the above example, but usually this takes a long conversation or multiple conversations. This gives people time to explain their views on multiple things, and it will allow you some time to put the puzzle pieces together. Remember, most people don’t think about trying to build a comprehensive worldview, but rather, just have certain beliefs about isolated things.
However, this is not a sneaky logical trick to simply be able to say “gotcha!” with a person you’re talking with. To steal a quote from R.C. Sproul, ideas have consequences, and this is one way of getting someone to see the consequences of their ideas. It’s easy to pretend that certain ideas are harmless when we segregate them to one particular issue or area, but they might be very dangerous when applied to the rest of our experience. If we look at moral relativism again, it’s often said that we can’t make moral judgments on others because there is no such thing as objective or absolute morality, and each person decides what is moral or true for themselves. This may work swimmingly when someone is trying to tell you that your sexual proclivities are immoral, but what if you take this idea and apply it to politics?
In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris by ISIS, what if we had world leaders respond with moral relativism? The only thing they could say would be “we feel like this is something that we don’t prefer, but that is another culture, and if they feel like it was a moral act, then we have no right to say otherwise.” and there would be a very justified outrage from the rest of the world.
The key to identifying where a worldview commits suicide is to uncover its particular form of reductionism. Any theory that says, “Truth claims are nothing but X” is susceptible to self-refutation.
Pearcey then goes on to to identify a few historically influential theories which end up refuting themselves.
For example, Karl Marx said that truth claims are nothing but rationalizations of economic interests: Laws are created by the rich to protect their property. Religion is the “opiate of the people,” placing the poor with false promises of a happy afterlife. But what happens if we apply Marx’s rule to his own theory? Did he create it merely to rationalize his own economic interests? If so, we can dismiss it as a serious truth claim. The theory commits suicide.
Or take Friederich Nietzsche. He held that all human action is driven by the will to power: Morality is invented by the weak to give them leverage over the strong. Religion is a “holy lie” used to control people. But what about Nietzsche’s own theory? Was it driven by his own will to power? Then why should the rest of us pay any attention to it? The theory undercuts itself.
Sigmund Freud insists that our thoughts are shaped by unconscious emotional needs: Personality is shaped by things like early toilet training. Much of human behavior is a result of sexual repression. But what does that imply about the origin of Freud’s own theory? Onto the couch yourself, Dr. Freud.
The behaviorist B. F. Skinner held that humans are nothing but stimulus-response mechanisms, responding to rewards and punishments: Their behavior is explainable in terms of operant conditioning, like pigeons in his experiments, pecking at levers to get a pellet of food. But is Skinner’s theory a product of his own conditioning? The theory refutes itself.
In each of these theories, they reject truth as being truth, and try to reduce it to something else, all while silently exempting themselves from the same critique. Yet with such a glaring flaw, these theories and others like them went on to become immensely influential in the academy, and have trickled down to the popular level as well. Every time you hear someone explaining some facet of our experience as humans in phrases like “well all that is is…” it should tip you off to get ready to hear some reductionism.
I once had a conversation with a guy where he said that my belief in God is an evolutionary holdover which might have been useful in the past, but now we know that such beliefs are best explained by giving them the honor of being simply an electro-chemical (mis)firing of the synapses in our brains. Such things can’t really be tested in a lab, and therefore can’t be useful truth, and so they must be simple brain chemistry doing what it does, obeying the laws of physics. How would you respond? If you reread that, you’ll notice that it sounds like he has managed to stuff everything into a box (scientism, in this case) yet somehow he has managed to be on the outside of that box, in order to objectively judge the situation. I asked him if all beliefs are equally able to be relegated to brain chemistry, to which he said that any belief that can’t be empirically verified (tested in a lab and with the senses) will be explained that way. I asked him if that included the belief that only empirically verifiable things could be true. He didn’t particularly like that, but he did begrudgingly see my point. His worldview had become self-refuting. A self-refuting worldview is logically inconsistent, and therefore can’t be true.
C.S. Lewis realized this long ago, and it was one of the reasons he stopped being an Atheist.
If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees. But if I can’t trust my own thinking, of course I can’t trust the arguments leading to Atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an Atheist, or anything else.
This sort of thing applies to Evolution as well, which we discussed on this blog here.
Darwin, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Skinner. Things are not looking good for the Atheists. However, merely refuting opposing worldviews is only the first step in the process. Leaving a vacuum doesn’t help anyone. The job of the apologist and evangelist is to not only point out deficiencies in other worldviews, but to then show how Christianity is a more complete worldview, which does not suffer from those deficiencies, and is ultimately true. That’s what we’ll be covering in principle #5, next week.