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Apologetic Methods, philosophy, Presuppositionalism

The Impossibility of a Neutral Worldview

There is no such thing as a “neutral worldview.”

It is often proposed that some worldview is “basic”, in the sense of being “the worldview from which all others should be judged.” This proposition is wholly false. Within any worldview (which will be interchangeably referred to as a “noetic structure”), certain premises are taken in some sort of presupposed form. For example, within Christianity, the existence of God, on that worldview, is a presupposition. This isn’t to say that one can’t argue for the presuppositions within one’s worldview. One can certainly argue for the validity of one’s presuppositions, but this in itself doesn’t change the fact that every worldview is built upon some background.

I have seen it claimed that atheism does not or cannot constitute a worldview. This is also false. Any human being has his or her own noetic structure from which he or she judges the probability of propositions. Various atheists are not immune from having noetic structures or beliefs.

As Stephen Parrish writes, in God and Necessity, “…there are differences in the way people judge the probability or plausibility about the truth of certain propositions, and these judgments are made on the basis of the noetic and probability structures which are believed in” (147). It is simply not possible to divorce oneself from one’s presuppositions.

Thus, it is impossible to declare some worldview “neutral” and determine that from this worldview, all others should be judged. I would call this the height of self-edification. Christians, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, etc. all have certain presuppositions within their worldviews which will make the propositions of other worldviews more or less likely. One cannot retreat to, say, agnosticism and argue that one will then judge everything from that “neutral” worldview, for everyone is going to maintain some kind of noetic structure which will, in turn, define what propositions are to be believed–or even considered.

Further, it’s not as if retreating from belief in all gods or affirming that there is no god–that is, atheism in its varied forms–will allow one to stand on “neutral” grounds in order to judge worldviews. Instead, the presuppositions within an atheistic worldview will serve to confirm that noetic structure. Again, as Parrish writes, “[r]ealistically, for many thinkers, no amount of evidence would ever be enough to justify a belief in God or miracles” (157). This, of course, is due to the noetic structures which are presupposed.

Further, writes Parrish,

“Every person capable of considering or having an opinion on issues brings with them a specific noetic structure or world-view accompanied by a corresponding probability structure. If a person did not bring this component to the debate he would be unable to formulate an opinion, as he would have no way of judging probability. So before considering the evidence on a particular issue, there must already be in place a noetic and probability structure. Probability  is inherent in one’s world-view and thus is used in judging the evidence” (158).

The same, of course, applies to Christians or believers in various faiths. Their own presuppositions guide their thinking and discernment of probability structures. Again, there is no neutral worldview.

Cornelius Van Til, one of the great apologists of the last century, was well known for his own views on how presuppositions affect judgment of worldviews. He wrote, “In spite of th[e] claim to neutrality on the part of the non-Christian, the… apologist must point out that every method, the supposedly neutral one no less than any other, presupposes either the truth or the falsity of Christian theism” (Christian Apologetics, 129). Furthermore, Van Til goes on to make the point that in some sense, then, all reasoning is circular,

“To admit one’s own presuppositions and to point out the presuppositions of others is therefore to maintain that all reasoning is, in the nature of the case, circular reasoning. The starting point, the method, and the conclusion are always involved in one another” (130).

This is not to say that we should be relativists when it comes to worldviews. There are ways (logical reasoning, scientific exploration, philosophy, etc.) to explore the validity of the claims of worldviews, and thus serve to confirm or disconfirm various presuppositions found within these noetic structures. The point, rather, is twofold:

1) It is question begging to assume that one’s own worldview is “neutral” or basic, and that all other worldviews should be judged from within this structure

2) We should be modest when comparing our worldview to that of others’, realizing that our presuppositions cannot be the basis for rejecting the claims of competing noetic structures.

Sources:

Parrish, Stephen. God and Necessity. University Press of America. 2001.

Van Til, Cornelius. Christian Apologetics. P & R Publishing. 2003.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Discussion

6 thoughts on “The Impossibility of a Neutral Worldview

  1. There is a sense in which this insight is trivially true. Quine and others have shown that, given a particular web of belief, absolutely any worldview can be justified, while remaining immune to the criticisms of other worldviews. So, we can say, “So what?” So what if there is no neutral worldview? We still can make judgments about which ones are better. We do this based on our values.

    Every religious believer, except for cave-dwelling fundies like the Taliban, embrace Scientism (Scientific Naturalism) along with whatever religious faith they have. Viewed this way, Scientism may be the world’s largest belief system.

    The point is that discerning between rival noetic structures isn’t a philosophical question; it is one of values. Since almost every modern person accepts scientific values, the only way to be religious is to inhabit two or more worldviews or switch between them as needed. Most people I know do this without qualms. I value consistency, so I don’t.

    Posted by Don Severs | July 19, 2010, 8:34 PM
    • You may say “So what?” if you desire. I actually mirrored several of the points you made (such as making judgments about other worldviews). However, to suggest that somehow most people in the world embrace scientism as you’ve defined it (that is, wedded with naturalism) is an extraordinarily lofty claim, one which I would say needs to be backed up with some statistical data.

      Further, you’ve seemingly fallen to the very problem I’ve been trying to point out with that post, which is the assumption that some worldview, which is what scientism as you’ve defined it is, is somehow the arbiter of all other worldviews. This, I believe, is highly question begging. It seems to me that it is logic, not science, which is the arbiter between worldviews, for what is necessarily true in logic is necessarily true, regardless of worldview. Science–and note that this is not to attack science, only to point out a flaw in your reasoning–can yield only inductive truths. Thus, it cannot be the arbiter between worldviews.

      I believe that you have really missed my points in a number of ways, and, as I said, actually fallen prey to them. By setting up scientific naturalism as some “value” by which all worldviews are judged, you have utilized your noetic structure, which sets scientific naturalism as the arbiter of truth, as the judge between worldviews. Thus, even though you think my point is trivially true, you haven’t managed to utilize this “trivial” knowledge very effectively.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | July 19, 2010, 10:12 PM
  2. I get the point that science can’t claim to be the arbiter of worldviews since that would be question begging. I know believers who reject logic, too. They flatly state that contradictory statements can simultaneously be true. I don’t engage such people. They have placed themselves outside meaningful discourse.

    My point was that few religious believers reject science. This requires them to maintain two worldviews. Whether you can do that is a matter of how much you value consistency.

    Posted by Don Severs | July 21, 2010, 9:20 AM
  3. >By setting up scientific naturalism as some “value” by which all worldviews are judged,

    I didn’t do this.

    But of course I agree that in philosophical discussions we should avoid question-begging. That’s why I raised the issue of values.

    Scientism can be shown to be superior to other systems in certain ways. For example, Scientism is a superior system for naturalists, just as Christianity is superior to Scientism for people who believe in supernaturalism.

    This isn’t question-begging because I’m not using scientific principles to demonstrate the superiority of science. I’m just citing a special case where science comes out on top. This is how values determine beliefs. Beliefs are value-laden.

    Now, a person would still have to defend why they value naturalism or supernaturalism, so I’ve just moved the problem. But I think these decisions are based on one’s values, too. We all have intuitions and our emotions color our thinking.

    I have spoken with dozens of believers who, when out of arguments, simply say “Well, it’s just what I believe”. Something in their makeup casts the deciding vote. To me, they look downcast like the man in Mark 10:22. Their beliefs are their “great wealth” and they simply can’t part with them. They deeply want to be scientific, but can only go so far.

    I know their dilemma. I have struggled and have given up a lot to shed my supernaturalism. I have done so only because I value being consistent with a naturalistic worldview.

    Posted by Don Severs | July 21, 2010, 9:41 AM
    • First, I once again challenge you to justify your claim that “Every religious believer, except for cave-dwelling fundies like the Taliban, embrace Scientism (Scientific Naturalism) along with whatever religious faith they have. Viewed this way, Scientism may be the world’s largest belief system.”

      I am profoundly skeptical that this is anything other than a bald assertion. Surely you cannot actually think that the billions of theistic, pantheistic, deistic, etc. people in the universe are scientific naturalists.

      Now as far as justifying belief. The religious believer does indeed have to justify their beliefs, as does the one who adheres to scientific naturalism. The origins of the universe and the origin of life are two places the theist clearly has a philosophical advantage over the naturalist, who has no explanation other than “brute fact” for these events. Furthermore, arguments such as the modern Kalam Cosmological Argument, the ontological argument, and the teleological argument, as well as the free will defense against the problem of evil, continue to demonstrate theism is vastly superior in power to explain the universe than naturalism. Clearly, theism is used in conjunction with science, but not scientism as you have defined.

      Therefore, I urge that you absolutely must somehow justify your statement, “Every religious believer, except for cave-dwelling fundies like the Taliban, embrace Scientism (Scientific Naturalism) along with whatever religious faith they have. Viewed this way, Scientism may be the world’s largest belief system.”

      I don’t think you can.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | July 23, 2010, 7:46 PM

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