, Research Paper
Some Ways to Critique a Worldview
When analyzing someone’s worldview (= that person’s overall philosophical perspective on reality), there are a number of errors which you should look out for. These errors represent the different ways in which one’s worldview can be exposed as being philosophically inadequate. They are by no means exhaustive of all the different ways in which a given worldview can be critiqued, but they represent some basic strategies which I personally find to be helpful. We will also apply the general insights gained from the analysis of such errors to particular statements which are often uttered by proponents of a non-Christian worldview.
1. Self-referential incoherence or self-refutation
Whenever you are listening to someone argue for a position, ask yourself, “Is that statement or position self-referentially incoherent or self-refuting?” A given worldview is definitely inadequate when its central tenet is self-referentially incoherent. Let me explain what this means.
Statements or propositions have a subject matter; they refer to things (either actual or not) or are about them. The proposition, “There are trees outside my window” refer to trees outside my window. This proposition does not refer to itself but to something other than itself. Call this “the referential character of propositions.”
However, there are propositions which refer to themselves; they are included in their own field of reference. For example, “This is an English sentence” refers to itself and claims that it is in English. Whenever a proposition refers to itself it is said to be self-referential.
A proposition is said to be incoherent when it is not logically consistent or coherent. An incoherent proposition is false and necessarily so.
Now we are in a position to understand what a self-referentially incoherent proposition is. A self-referentially incoherent proposition is a proposition which includes itself in its own field of reference, and fails to be consistent with itself. Such a proposition is said to be self-refuting. For example, the proposition “This sentence contains less than three words” is self-referentially incoherent since it contains three or more words. Likewise, the proposition, “I can’t speak a word of English,” if spoken in English, is self-refuting. Let’s look at some other examples which are more relevant to apologetics:
“One ought to believe that determinism is true and that every event is determined by its antecedent causes.”
Philosopher J.R. Lucas says about the determinist:
If what he says is true, he says it merely as the result of his heredity and environment, and of nothing else. He does not hold his determinist views because they are true, but because he has such-and-such stimuli; that is, not because the structure of the universe is such-and-such but only because the configuration of only part of the universe, together with the structure of the determinist’s brain, is such as to produce that result…. Determinism, therefore, cannot be true, because if it was, we should not take the determinist’s arguments as being really arguments, but as being only conditioned reflexes. Their statements should not be regarded as really claiming to be true, but only as seeking to cause us to respond in some way desired by them. (Quoted in J.P. Moreland’s Scaling the Secular City, p.90).
Thus, physical determinism is self-refuting if it is offered as a rational theory which one ought to believe for good reasons.
“There is no such thing as absolute truth.”
This is often uttered by epistemological skeptics. If they claim that this statement is absolutely and objectively true, then it is self-refuting (e.g. it is an absolute truth that there are no absolute truths). The only way the skeptic can avoid self-refutation is by making a non-absolute claim that there are no absolute truths. But if his claim is now non-absolute, then he can’t be as dogmatic and he should be more open-minded towards the possibility that there are absolute truths!
“We ought to tolerate every point of view.”
This becomes self-refuting when, as is usually the case, the principle in question, namely, tolerance, is used to accept some point of view (e.g. homosexuality, religious pluralism) while excluding others (e.g. Christianity) — which shows that they are intolerant of those views which are excluded! If such people were really consistent with their principle of tolerance, then they should accept every point of view, including Christianity.
“We can never get to the meaning of a text.”
Many Postmodernists and Deconstructionists make the above claim. But this claim of theirs becomes self-refuting when they themselves write books, expecting people to “get to the meaning of the text” which they authored! If no one can get to the meaning of a text (as the Deconstructionists claim), then why is Deconstructionism so well understood?!
“Only that which can be verified empirically is meaningful or true.”
A claim very similar to this one was made by the “Logical Positivists” of the early 20th century. They were a group of philosophers who wanted to allow only scientific and logical statements within their worldview. By means of their “verificationist criterion of meaning” they sought to rid philosophy of metaphysical statements about God, the soul, immortality, etc. The trouble with the Logical Positivists’ criterion was that their criterion itself could not be verified empirically. We can’t verify the meaningfulness of that statement itself by means of “the scientific method.” Thus, every worldview (such as the Logical Positivists’) which tries to limit the domain of existence to empirical existence is bound to be self-refuting. Consistent empiricism is self-refuting as a philosophy. Also, strong Scientism is self-refuting since its claim that science is the only way to know things itself is not a scientific claim, but a second-order philosophical claim about science.
Similar self-refutation occurs when one claims (e.g. Antony Flew) that every meaningful proposition must be falsifiable, since there is no way to falsify that statement itself.
“Nothing should be believed upon mere authority.”
Sometimes skeptics mistakenly believe that Christians are commanded by the Bible to believe its truth-claims on “mere” intrasystemic and self-referential, biblical authority-pronouncements alone. Setting aside this error for the moment, let’s focus on the claim above. If nothing should be believed upon mere authority, then that statement itself should not be believed upon mere authority either. Thus, the skeptic who makes that claim in opposition to biblical authority ought to produce some kind of evidence or argument for that claim itself. But since most of the time the skeptic makes such a claim as the one above without offering a single argument for its truth, the statement in question often turns out to be self-refuting.
2. Inconsistency between one’s metaphysics (theory of reality or being), epistemology (theory of knowledge), and ethics (theory of right and wrong).
“All that exists is matter,” a metaphysical claim, in conflict with, “We are able to know universal and necessary truths,” an epistemological claim. If all that exists is matter, which is always a particular thing, then how can we account for any universals?
“The universe began as a result of chance” (metaphysics) in conflict with “We should seek to discover the fundamental laws of the universe” (epistemology, or ethics concerning our scientific practices). If the universe really is the product of blind chance, then how can we ever justify our belief that there are genuine laws of nature? If the universe is the product of chance, then Hume was correct in his skepticism concerning induction.
As noted above, physical determinism involves the following inconsistency: “Everything is determined by the laws of physics” (metaphysics) is in conflict with “One ought to believe that God doesn’t exist” (epistemology or ethics).
“Humans are simply products of evolution” (metaphysics) does not comport well with “We should fight racial injustice” (ethical claim). If humans do not bear the image of God, then why is racial injustice really wrong? Maybe such racial injustice is simply natural selection (survival of the fittest) in action!
“There are no moral absolutes” (ethics) is inconsistent with the claim that “We know that the problem of evil disproves the existence of God” (epistemology). If there are no moral absolutes, no absolute good or bad, then there is no absolute evil either. And if there is no absolute evil, then the problem of evil loses its force (N.B.: If there is absolute evil, then this actually boomerangs into an argument for God, if one grants (as even some atheists actually do) that the existence of an absolute standard of morality entails the existence of God).
“There are no moral absolutes” (ethics) is inconsistent with “What Hitler did to the Jews was really wrong” (ethics). If there is no absolute standard of morality, then how can we objectively and rationally critique moral monsters like Hitler?
3. Unargued philosophical assumptions: Presuppositions which are simply assumed, rather than argued for.
To give just one example, I often hear people say “The impossibility of miracles disproves Christianity” — but miracles are impossible only if God doesn’t exist. Therefore, to assume this from the outset is to beg the fundamental question!