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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Changing World-Views

One's world-view (German--weltanschauung) is a comprehensive conception or apprehension of the world especially from a specific standpoint. Put simply, its how one views one's world. It includes the presuppositions and belief system through which one makes sense of what he sees and experiences in the real world.

One’s world view does shape how one interprets the evidence. There is a good illustration of this in John's Gospel (12:28-29), when Jesus said: Father, glorify your name!" Then a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it, and will glorify it again." The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him. Note the two different interpretations of what they heard: 1) some said it thundered (perhaps the Saduccees or those influenced by them); 2) others said an angel spoke (perhaps the Pharisees or those influenced by them). One event--two interpretations. One group interpreted it within a naturalistic framework and the other within a supernatural framework.

Thus, some Christian apologists will argue that it does no good to debate with non-believers over the evidence for Christianity because the non-believer will give a different interpretation to the evidence than will the Christian. This particular school of apologetics is called the presuppositional school and is largely held by Calvinists. These apologists also maintain that since the unregenerate man cannot understand spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14), the Christian world-view will always seem like foolishness to him (1 Cor. 1:23-29) unless and until the Holy Spirit regenerates him. Before that happens, the natural man is blinded by Satan and cannot believe the gospel (2 Cor. 4:4).

The presuppositional apologists would say that other apologists, such as William Craig, are wasting their time trying to explain the beauty of a sunset to a blind man. They also criticize Craig and other apologists as in fact making historical evidence and philosophical arguments more authoritative than the Word of God since they use those arguments to try to substantiate the Word of God. Their thinking is that whatever you use as your authority to prove something else is superior in authority to the thing proved.

Now, I think there is a lot to be said for the presuppositionalist's criticisms of other apologists. As a matter of fact, when I was a Christian I was a presuppositionalist. Occasionally, I run into a presuppositionalist on some forums. This happened yesterday. Listen to a gentleman who calls himself Hodge (comment #91):
Evidence doesn’t EVER determine your ultimate beliefs. EVER! Your ultimate beliefs define reality and therefore identify, organize, and interpret the evidence AT ALL TIMES. Our atheism is given to us at an early age. I believe it is part of the sin nature, and fostered in our culture, mainly in implicit forms. Religious beliefs are simply stacked on top of it, or in my view, supernaturally replace our ultimate belief of unbelief with true faith. Otherwise, it’s simply a tug of war that eventually ends in the assent to it, or it’s a life of intellectual simplicity that never asks those questions. But let’s not be dishonest with ourselves and pretend that uninterpreted data moves the belief that interprets it in the first place. There is no such animal on the planet.

I agree completely that one's world-view determines how one interprets the evidence. However, I also believe that one can change world-views when one comes to realize that the evidence is more coherent within another world-view. I think Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is helpful in understanding how this change happens.

Here is a synopsis of Kuhn's thesis (from a Study Guide prepared by Frank Pajares):

1. A scientific community cannot practice its trade without some set of received beliefs (p. 4).

a. These beliefs form the foundation of the "educational initiation that prepares and licenses the student for professional practice" (p. 5).

b. The nature of the "rigorous and rigid" preparation helps ensure that the received beliefs exert a "deep hold" on the student's mind.

2. Normal science "is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like" (p. 5)—scientists take great pains to defend that assumption.

3. To this end, "normal science often suppresses fundamental novelties because they are necessarily subversive of its basic commitments" (p. 5).

4. Research is "a strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes supplied by professional education" (p. 5).

5. A shift in professional commitments to shared assumptions takes place when an anomaly "subverts the existing tradition of scientific practice" (p. 6). These shifts are what Kuhn describes as scientific revolutions—"the tradition-shattering complements to the tradition-bound activity of normal science" (p. 6).

a. New assumptions (paradigms/theories) require the reconstruction of prior assumptions and the reevaluation of prior facts. This is difficult and time consuming. It is also strongly resisted by the established community.

b. When a shift takes place, "a scientist's world is qualitatively transformed [and] quantitatively enriched by fundamental novelties of either fact or theory" (p. 7).

In my case, I found that the evangelical Christian world-view was internally contradictory and that the “facts” of the real world did not fit within that world-view as well within another world-view. So with great reluctance and over a long period of time, my world-view changed.


  1. Ken, thanks for another good summary (of Kuhn particularly). I myself encourage the reading and use of his seminal work as a helpful reference point, and for its insightfulness. It was Kuhn who, almost single-handedly, popularized using "paradigm," which came to include "paradigm shift."

    Something you or other explorers may want to check out, if you haven't, is the appendix Kuhn put into the 1969 ed. of the original (1962) book. I forget the title of the add-on, but it is an update, responding to critiques, and including some thoughts on the relevance of his concepts to religion and theology (hardly, if any, touched on in the original, if I recall rightly).

    Well beyond what he says there, I do think one can generally substitute "theologian" or "religious educator" for "scientist" and "institutional church(es)" for "scientific community." There are differences, of course, but the basic processes and dynamica overlap a lot. Fortunately, religions and even religious "orthodoxies" DO evolve, much as conservative leaders claim otherwise. However, I'm one, like you, to feel it's worth it to accelerate the process to the extent possible in peaceable ways, and in beneficial directions, such as more universal elements (ridding of "eternal punishment") and humanitarian cooperation, regardless of a participant's type of belief, or disbelief in God.

    I muse over this, and would like your thoughts, and those of like-minded bloggers here: A few of Kuhn's major points are fairly widely known, but not much about the deeper social mechanisms or psychology driving it all. Similarly, the theories of influential "pragmatists" like William James, the "father of American psychology," or John Dewey. Again, similarly for the developmental stage theories of key thinkers like Piaget, Kohlberg, Eric Erickson, James Fowler (religion, specifically), and Ken Wilber... and Carol Gilligan, in that feminist thought (or yin/yang balance) and trends are vital in all this. So that "wind-up" is for this "spring" question:

    Might it not be worth at least 1/2 of my time, and others on a similar mission, to research further, synthesize good existing material, and educate on just HOW religious thought (belief, hope, allegiance, etc.) forms in an individual AND in a society or sub-society; how it is perpetuated and modified in institutions, etc. Can this be made interesting and practical enough to "catch on" broadly, perhaps both in academia (where it already has, somewhat), and in popular culture and even our educational system BELOW as well as in college? (The Brits have a bit of this... never studied their system much.) I think it can, and is an exciting and important pursuit.


  2. I'm not sure I agree with Kuhn's thesis. It smacks to me of the kind of nonsense I was reading in a post over on PZ Meyers' blog, where a Christian suggested that science is predicated on assumptions, such as "the laws of mathematics and logic are true".

    But these aren't assumptions, and if I'm understanding Kuhn's thesis correctly, he's wrong to characterize them as such. These are observations. They're observations that are continually reinforced. A nice test would be to eschew all those "assumptions" and see how our observations differ.

  3. Mike,

    I don't recall Kuhn's wording well enough now, many years later, to speak to the "assumptions" vs. "observations" issue. But if you've not read him, I think it'd be worth your time. He's been heavily critiqued, for sure, much of it probably valid, and things that have refined the "conversation." But realize that Kuhn was not a general philosopher or from another field, speaking beyond his familiarity. He was a scientist first (physicist I believe) and then moved into history and philosophy of science before writing "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions."

    And regardless of flaws in details, his work is important to get familiar with directly, if one has interest in how institutions (academic/scientific/philosophical) tend to work and historically. Also "worth it" in that his work WAS so influential over many decades (agree with it or not). Oh... and look for the 1969 edition, for his responses to his reviewers.