by ProfDave, ©2021
(Sep. 21, 2021) — We live today in a society where everything is relative. There is no established consensus of values, right and wrong, truth or fiction, or even what is real. There is a cacophony of loud voices screaming slogans and claims in our ears. Each of us is expected to establish what is true and what is real for ourselves. We need to establish a framework, a conscious worldview to give us a sense of which way is up and which direction is the top of the map of life. Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Have you given any thought to the meaning of life or are you just wandering about the playground kicking pebbles? Hmmmh.
So what? Most of the time, we do not even think about working out a worldview. We live by a fractured naïve realism, sometimes thinking in terms of cause and effect, sometimes of luck, sometimes hoping for magical or supernatural intervention. We think we can count on what we see and hear and touch. Can you believe what you see on TV? Sometimes you press a button on the remote and it works (how?), sometimes you can’t find the remote. How do you know what is fact and what is fiction – even on the news? Do you believe in the omniscience of the weather man? Who chooses the pictures and words you see? Who chooses where to point the camera or what stories to air? Why is it chosen? Does the camera or the microphone record what is really there? Do your eyes and ears record what is really there? Why should they? Why should there be a should?
Are you confused yet? The first dimension of a worldview has to be its maturity. Have you ever thought about it? If you are just kicking pebbles on the playground of life, you have not considered your worldview. If your life is disconnected from what you think and what you believe, you have some growing to do. The rest of maturity is integrity – the agreement between what you think, what you believe and what you give your life to. “Purity of heart is to will one thing” (Kierkegaard).
Believing is seeing. The second dimension of a worldview is our answer to the question: what is real. Is anything real? Why? Are you real? Back in the 17th century, Descartes came to the conclusion that there was only one thing that could not be doubted: his own consciousness. “I think, therefore I am.” I cannot resist –
Pascal was drinking in a bar, near closing time. The bartender asked, “Will you have another?” Pascal replied, “I think not” – and vanished.
Do you think? Do you still exist when you are asleep? Hmmm. The existence and continuity of a conscious self is an interesting problem to science, but nothing was more certain to Descartes.
OK, you are real, but am I? You need to decide if anything else exists, or are you alone in an imaginary cosmos? Is life – are the experiences we have – all a dream? Is there a difference between waking and sleeping? C.S. Lewis wrote that God is not our dream, but we are His – God is so much more real in his worldview than Lewis was. The trouble with imagining that all the world around us is imaginary is that we keep bumping into things that we did not imagine were there. We can only imagine that everything is imaginary as a mental experiment. We assume there is a reality outside ourselves. But is it material or spiritual or both?
If you agree that there is something beyond your own thoughts, what is the nature of external reality? From the beginning to the end of your conscious day sense data and hundreds of thoughts per minute are flowing through your consciousness. We assume that at least some of it is connected to real external things. We know that our senses can be fooled, but for practical purposes we assume that what we can see, hear, touch, smell and taste is real. Materialists believe that matter and energy in time is all there is, ever was or ever will be. Major eastern religions believe these things are all illusions, that only spiritual things are real. Can they really live that way? “Even in India,” the late Ravi Zacharias would say, “when you cross the street it is either you or the bus, not both.”
Do you agree that material things are real? Sometimes we believe in things we cannot see (like electricity or fairness or Honolulu), sometimes we do not (like leprechauns or free lunch or Utopia). Do you believe in peace in the Middle East or affordable health care (apologies to Biden and Obama)? Some other things move in and out depending on where we are, the church or the casino or the science class. What is the difference between Nova and the animated movie Ice Age? Both depend on creative graphics. Do we live in a world of creative graphics? Hmmmh.
Having established that there is a reality beyond yourself (a no brainer, really), you need to take a closer look at the next worldview question. What is the nature of reality? There are three options. Option 1: reality is limited to what is available to sense data – what we can see, hear, touch and smell, with technological enhancements thereof (materialism). Option 2: sense data is illusory, real reality is invisible, intangible and spiritual (Eastern religions, Christian Science, some Platonists). Option 3: There are both material and spiritual realities and illusions (Western religions). We may be mistaken.
The first two options, as worldviews, require a certain amount of practical reductionism and hypocrisy. Materialists have a certain amount of difficulty explaining everything they encounter in life in material terms. Is there such a thing as a self? No, to be consistent, you and I are things, not persons: conglomerations of atoms in motion. Your thoughts are electro-chemical reactions to stimuli. We compromise and think of ourselves as persons, but other people as things. Love is chemistry – literally. Science has yet to find a physical explanation of right and wrong. There is no basis in the cosmos for moral judgments, yet even the most dedicated atheist cannot help making them.
Worldviews based on materialism have several negative social effects. To begin, there is no place for God or religion beyond a social club. Next, treating others as things – objectifying them – allows us to despise those who are different from us, to despise the week, to use each other for our own gratification and advancement and to generally walk all over each other. We confuse love with sex. More generally, the Darwinian struggle – the survival of the fittest – bleeds over into social and political relations. Slavery, trafficking, imperialism, euthanasia and all sorts of exploitation find justification. We have no fixed standard of right and wrong, even though the sensations of guilt and shame linger to torment us.
Finally, materialism can explain the ‘what’ of life within natural limits, but the ‘why’ is a non-material question. The language of purpose and meaning is foreign to materialism. Why is there anything instead of nothing? Why am I here? What is the meaning and purpose of my life? What is the object of the game? These questions we all ask at some point in our lives, but are the answers found in physical nature? At best, materialism is reductionist, reducing the range of thought and experience. We can only live by such a worldview inconsistently.
Believing is seeing. Several philosophies and religions suggest that the things we see and touch are not really real. In the West Plato taught that material things were reflections of ideal forms in the eternal realm. Our bodies are prison houses of the soul from which we are liberated at death. He did not deny the reality of these reflections, but some later followers did. As I understand it, strict Hinduism and Buddhism teach that the physical world is an illusion – what is real is the spiritual realm. Platonism is a fine philosophy, giving reality to ideas and warning us that things may not be as they seem. Versions of eastern religions are very popular these days in the west, but can we construct a workable worldview without matter? Sense data can certainly be unreliable, but is it generated by our own minds without reference to external things? Two directions emerged: extreme asceticism (Hindu sadhus, Buddhist monks and Medieval Catharii), avoiding material things as evil, and dualism (ancient Gnostics), combining spirituality with physical amorality – what is done in the flesh does not count.
The basic difficulty is that a worldview that does not take account of material realities outside our own minds is very nearly unlivable. Escaping the body is not easy – perhaps not possible without escaping mortal life entirely. We keep bumping into things we did not imagine and the holiest of monks has to occasionally consume material things. Compromise is necessary for survival. The ideal, the unseen and the eternal may have priority, but the material and temporal intrude. Can one sin in the body without having already sinned in the soul?
While it is philosophically possible to say that the physical cosmos is all there is, ever was or ever will be, or to say the spiritual cosmos is all there is, ever was or ever will be, both of the worldviews. Neither makes for a well-balanced life. Both require a certain amount of reductionism – to dismiss or explain away significant aspects of common human experience. The third option is to recognize that we may encounter both material and spiritual realities both in and outside ourselves. We accept that sense data may reflect, accurately or inaccurately, real things outside ourselves. At the same time, the existence of things beyond our senses is also probable. The most important things in our world are not things: persons, values, ideas and ourselves.
We ourselves are more than the sum of our body parts. For example, everything we do may be in and through our bodies, but a body without life does nothing but decompose. What stuff is life? We are not bodies; we have bodies. Everything we think is through our brains, but are we brains or do we have brains? What part of the brain is the conscious mind or the self? Life, mind, self and consciousness are non-material realities. Things are material, but persons are non-material. Relationships are non-material. Morality is non-material. Beauty is a non-material. History is mostly non-material. Both Sociology and political science are non-material. Psychology is both material and non-material. Ideas and ideologies are non-material. Religion is non-material.
When we open our eyes to things invisible as well as visible, we open ourselves to a fuller range of experience and value. What is reality, anyway? Is it things? Is it persons? Is it ideas? Is it all three? Are values real? You do not have to do deep philosophy to see that your answers to these questions make a difference. Are persons just things? Am I a thing? That is what scientific naturalism says. Or am I a person but all others are things? That would be existentialism, perhaps? “I think therefore I am” – but I don’t know about you. Instinctively we say, “that’s wrong!”- even though we have a powerful tendency to operate that way. It is selfish and anti-social.
A decent worldview has to make sense: be consistent with itself and with the way we actually live. Carl Sagan can believe in extraterrestrials, but he is not allowed to believe in ghosts. Scientific materialism reduces reality to things. A ghost would be a person without thing-ness. But we cannot conceive of ourselves as things – as purely random accumulations of electro-chemical reactions. The scientist himself, at least, is intentional. Ooops! Intention is non-material! It is non-thing! Sorry Carl. Hypocrisy is when your real worldview is not the one you profess.
A decent worldview has to work. It has to be livable. If your version of reality, or something outside it, is biting you in the behind on a daily basis, putting you in conflict with everyone around you, and making you miserable, morose, or even suicidal – something might be wrong with it. Sorry Nietzsche – poster child for that sort of thing. On the contrary, it should be helping you through the hard times and making sense of your life in general. If you are lost in life, you need a new worldview. It should give life meaning and purpose, even if – like most of us – you don’t win every day. It shouldn’t just congratulate you when you are at the top of your game (like Tiger Woods) but pick you up when you have fallen from the heights of power (like John Rowland or the late Chuck Colson). It should be good for the untouchables as well as the Brahmins, publicans and sinners as well as scribes and Pharisees. The acid test is decline and death. Sooner or later, no matter how creative our denial, it happens. How does your worldview work for you when it rains?
If you choose to accept the existence of things you cannot see – something most probable – your next question might be, is there a God or gods and what difference does He or they make?