A blueprint for building tolerance and humility.
Human beings need a worldview to function. A worldview isn’t a single belief or even a collection of beliefs. It’s the widest possible view we can take of reality.
A worldview is an interpretative framework, a conceptual map containing all the various facts about the world. It orientates us to the world and informs us how we should live. C.S Lewis said,
“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
Christianity, or any worldview, isn’t one belief among many. We don’t believe our worldview the same way we believe dogs and atoms exist. Our worldview is a big picture foundational belief.
It guides us on how to make sense of all those other beliefs about dogs and atoms. It helps us place those other beliefs in a wider context which tells us their significance for the meaning and purpose of our lives.
In the modern world a pervasive skepticism taints all our worldviews, like a philosophical malaise that infects our culture. We’ve lost faith in our ability to gain access to these big picture truths.
We don’t think of this skepticism as a worldview. We think skepticism is the refusal to commit to an answer, not an answer itself. But in practice, skepticism collapses into a choice of some kind, a choice which hasn’t been scrutinized. It becomes an inaction, the default setting.
For example, most of us have confronted the question of whether it’s ethical to eat meat. It’s reasonable to conclude we don’t have enough information to know what is right. But at mealtime, this intellectual indecision is useless. Our only choice is to eat meat or refuse it.
Whatever the truth of the question, we either act ethically or not when we make that choice. Our choice is in the action and we can’t abstain from choosing, because we can’t abstain from acting.
Skepticism isn’t a practical option
Agnosticism isn’t something we can use to decide on the correct way of acting. For questions of the meaning of our lives, and how we should act, skeptical non-commitment isn’t an option.
In circumstances where we must choose, we’re forced to decide based on the information we have available. We make the best choice we can, even if the evidence isn’t as plentiful as we’d like it to be.
There are a myriad of these kind of choices we need to make in our lives. Do we act on the assumption there is no afterlife and we cease to exist at death? Or do we assume our existence is independent of the body and our destination at death depends on our actions in this life?
Will we assume there is some eternal existence free of suffering that we can attain and then act to achieve that goal? Do we assume there is a personal God and engage in practices like prayer to try and establish a relationship?
While no one knows with any comfortable level of certainty which of these options is true, we must all live under the assumption something is true. Our only option is to choose what we judge most likely to be true, or what is in harmony with our conscience and ideals.
The skeptic tells us we shouldn’t affirm any belief unless we first know which option is true. This sounds good in theory, but in practice it often turns out to be an atheistic worldview. But this atheistic worldview is defaulted to without being tested for sufficiency of evidence itself. This is because it’s often not seen as a worldview itself, but the skeptical refusal to commit to one.
If we don’t engage in religious practices, that’s a choice, a judgement on the truth and value of religious practices. If we don’t face Mecca and pray 5 times a day, we make a choice on how we interact with the world. If we don’t attend services in a temple or Church, that’s a choice on what actions we judge most beneficial.
And without engaging in those activities, we won’t achieve the goal they’re designed to achieve. Inaction is also a choice. Yet the skeptic would advise us to not commit to religious practices, even while admitting they don’t know if it’s false.
The correct method is an inference to the best explanation
The skeptical method is the wrong one to use in the circumstances. No one has sufficient evidence to reach a definitive conclusion. Atheism or naturalism is no exception to that.
Atheism isn’t free of philosophical content merely by virtue of being a negative existence claim. Both atheism and naturalism entail certain things are true about the nature of reality. Those truths about reality have implications for the meaning and purpose of our lives.
We may think there is insufficient evidence to assume the existence of a soul and an afterlife, but the evidence the conscious self arises from the physical brain is rarely examined with the same rigor.
And regardless of the debate about the adequacy of the evidence for either option, we each must choose how to live, and those choices are inevitably made within the wider context of our worldview.
If there is a God and an eternal afterlife as most religions claim, it’s sheer folly to not engage in activities designed to achieve that while we wait for definitive confirmation that will never arrive.
The skeptic would have us refrain from committing to belief in a destiny that extends beyond this life due to lack of evidence. But what is the evidence our existence ends at the death of the body? What would the world need to be like for that to be true? What evidence would be adequate to consider it true?
Skeptics rarely answer any of these questions. Most often we find a disparity in the evidence the skeptic requires for their own worldview, because they don’t consider their skepticism of an afterlife or the existence of God to be a claim to truth. They see it as the refusal to accept a claim.
Rather than a skeptical non-committal being the correct procedure for deciding questions of existential importance, we should use an inference to the best explanation.
There is no proof that can definitively settle the question, but we must make a choice with the evidence we have. In those circumstances we should compare the alternatives and choose the best available option.
Constructing a plausible story that withstands reasonable doubt
This comparative method of constructing a worldview is analogous to how a detective solves a crime. They take the various pieces of information and evidence and construct the most plausible story.
It’s not one piece of evidence that confirms the conclusion beyond reasonable doubt, but a collection of small clues. It’s how all those small clues fit together that shows which answer is most likely to be true.
This is similar to how we construct our worldview. We take the disparate facts of our experience and construct a conceptual framework to interpret the world and our place in it. If all the pieces of evidence fit well into one story, they support the truth of the story.
With this approach we’re presented with a very different situation than the method the skeptic advises us to adopt. The skeptic relies on not having to judge the truth of naturalism or atheism and compare its plausibility with the other options available.
When we undertake this comparison of available worldviews, we discover many clues which don’t fit well into the naturalist picture of the world. We must accept the universe has no causal explanation.
We have a universe with sufficient complexity to support the extended evolution of life that can only be explained by a statistical miracle. The existence of moral values must be reduced to a useful survival trait. We have a picture of human beings as meat robots in contradiction to our direct experience of our inner selves.
These are all pieces of data that can only be uncomfortably crammed into a naturalist worldview. This becomes a problem if we compare the merits of this naturalist worldview to theistic alternatives.
Naturalism is often presented as some kind of starting assumption which requires evidence before we move beyond it. But with a comparative approach, this naturalist worldview needs to be true if we’re to assume consciousness ceases to exist at death of the body.
If we can’t confirm the truth of naturalism with more confidence than the theistic alternatives, we’re free to think about our worldviews in broader terms than mere intellectual belief. In cases where the intellect can give no definitive judgement, we become free to make our final choice based on the the most fulfilling way to live.
The effective use of skepticism
Rather than an eternal debate about the adequacy of philosophical proofs for theism while ignoring the problems with naturalist alternatives, with a comparative approach, we’re forced to recognize every worldview is incomplete and sure to be wrong in many details.
But since we all need a worldview to function, these defects are seen in a different light. While every worldview is imperfect in the details, it provides us with a general orientation to the world and the means to align ourselves with values we judge important. It inspires us to live the best life we can.
Each worldview is constructed with the understanding everything is provisional. None of us can have excessive confidence in its truth. Now skepticism becomes a valuable tool, it keeps people questioning and gives them an openness to updating their interpretative map.
The recognition of the limitations we all face in constructing our worldview can produce humility. It gives us a curiosity to learn about the ideas found in different worldviews because we can include new ideas into our own worldview to improve it.
Knowing that everyone faces the same limitations fosters tolerance of views which differ from our own. Instead of the idea only one worldview has the truth, we can embrace a pluralism.
The variety of worldviews reflect the variety of different ways of understanding and relating to the world. Each person paints their own picture of the world and tells their own story.