Course: Essentials of Philosophy and Christian Thought

Lecture: Worldviews

What you are about to listen to is the summary three hour session, that goes with my course, “The History of Philosophy and Christian Thought.” This course could also be called “Introduction to Philosophy” because the course does a lot of things. Among the purposes of the course are to, number one, show people that many of life’s problems can be illuminated by philosophy. In fairness, I also have to admit, I guess, that most philosophers produce more darkness than light on some of the subjects that they discuss. A second objective of the course is to help students think more clearly about the problems and philosophers that I’ll be talking about in this course. A third objective is to introduce you listeners to several important philosophical tools, including logic and various ways of developing an argument. A fourth object of the course is to introduce people to examples of conceptual analysis, that is, thinking about basic ideas. Many centuries ago Socrates noted how often human arguments contain an implicit appeal to some concept, or term, that few people seem able to define. 2500 years of philosophy have not diluted the wisdom of Socrates’ judgment. And another object of the course, the last one I’ll mention here, is to introduce readers to worldview thinking. Conceptual analysis, that is, analysis of certain fundamental ideas, deals with individual ideas or concepts. But sooner or later we have to combine separate concepts, separate ideas, into patterns of thought that I call worldviews.

Now, one of the benefits of is that you can just listen to the teachers talk the way I am without necessarily having to read any of the books. I do advise you, however, that it would help you appreciation of this material and your grasp of this material if you could get two or three books and read them alongside of my lectures. The most important of these three books is a book titled Life’s Ultimate Questions. It’s published by Zondervan Publishing Company. It’s readily available from and any number of Internet sites that handle books. A second book that’s very relevant to this course is called The Word of God and the Mind of Man. It’s published by Presbyterian Reformed Publishing Company and it too is available from Internet book distributors. And the third one is called The Gospel and the Greeks.

Chapter 1 of the book Life’s Ultimate Questions introduce the reader to the idea of a worldview, to the importance of worldviews, and to their place in philosophy. One of the more important things that the study of philosophy ought to do is acquaint the reader with the role that worldviews play in every person’s thought and conduct. I want readers of my book to advance their understanding of their own worldview. I would like to think that by the time readers have finished the book Life’s Ultimate Questions, their worldview will have undergone some changes and will be better because of those changes. I trust many readers of that book will have eliminated inconsistent or inadequate beliefs from their worldviews.

In chapter 1 I introduce some of the elements of any reasonably complete worldview, and discuss the tests by which we can evaluate these beliefs. One such test is the law of non-contradiction.

Part 1 of the book covers six important systems in the history of philosophy. The content of part 1 is significant for several reasons. For one thing, knowing the fundamental ideas of thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas used to be a vital part of what it meant to be an educated person. Moreover, the study of these six systems will enable us to tap into formative discussions of life’s ultimate questions at different stages of their development. Why, some people ask, are the conceptual systems of no philosophers after Aquinas included in the book? Well, for one thing, this is not a textbook in the history of philosophy. I would like to think that many of my readers will want someday to take a history course that will introduce them to the systems of such famous philosophers as Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, Hegel, and others. But Life’s Ultimate Questions is a book that’s intended for beginners. There will be plenty of opportunities later in life to explore the intricacies of modern and contemporary philosophy.

Moreover, Part 2 of the book covers a number of issues that have gained prominence in recent centuries and that owe much to the work of modern and contemporary philosophers. Who can complain about my decision to include the system to Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas in Part 1 of my book? I added the system of Plotinus because it marks a brilliant synthesis of the work of Plato and Aristotle, and also because it played a major role in the development of the systems of Augustine and Aquinas. Only someone unfamiliar with the importance of Plotinus would object. Then, to provide balance and to close a major gap, my discussion of six major worldviews includes the materialistic and naturalistic beliefs of such ancient thinkers as Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius. Part 1 begins with the chapter on naturalism because most of the core beliefs of ancient naturalist were opposed by Plato and Aristotle. Naturalism continues to be an influential worldview even though many of its modern formulations appear to be more sophisticated than ancient opinions that I examined. I wrote the book Life’s Ultimate Questions from a perspective from which I have great sympathy. And that sympathy is for the Christian worldview.

Let’s take a few minutes and think about the nature of worldview thinking, what the content of a worldview is, and the important of worldview thinking. Let me begin with a historical example. Fifty years ago a California gangster named Mickey Cohen shocked people on both sides of the law when he went forward at a Billy Graham crusade and made a profession of faith. After several months, however, people began to notice that Mickey Cohen’s life showed no sign of the changes that should have been apparent in the life of a genuine convert. During an interview, Cohen made it clear that he had no interest in abandoning his career as a gangster. He explained his position in a novel way: Since we have Christian movie stars and Christian politicians, Cohen noted, he wanted to be known as the first Christian gangster. Until recently, most Americans, regardless of their competence in religious matters, would have expressed their dismay at Mickey Cohen’s behavior. Religious converts, people used to say, are supposed to live better lives than they did before their conversion. I suspect that many Americans today would find nothing unusual at Cohen’s attempt at self-justification.

One purpose of my first chapter on worldview thinking is to explain these odd happenings. Cohen, Mickey Cohen, displayed a defective understanding of the cognitive and moral demands of what my first chapter calls the “Christian Worldview.” If someone considers himself a Christian, he is supposed to think and act like a Christian. The fact that so many Americans no longer think that way is an indication of a major shift in their worldview. One thing students can learn from philosophy is the nature, importance, and influence of worldviews. If one is serious about getting somewhere in the study of philosophy, it is helpful to examine the bigger picture, namely, the worldviews of thinkers whose theories have become a philosopher’s study. A worldview contains a person’s answers to the major questions in life, almost all of which contain significant philosophical content. You’re going to study worldviews, you’re going to be studying philosophy. A worldview is a conceptual framework, a pattern, an arrangement of a person’s beliefs. The best worldviews are comprehensive, systematic, and supposedly true views of life and of the world. The philosophical systems of great thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, and Aquinas delineate their worldviews. Of course, many worldviews suffer from incompleteness, from inconsistencies, and other failings. Few of the pieces of such worldviews fit together. In fact, in many cases, the pieces of the worldviews of even the greatest philosophers are conceptually inconsistent.

Most people have no idea of what a worldview is, or even that they have one. People like this are unlikely to know much about the specific content of their own worldview. Nonetheless, achieving a greater awareness of our own worldview is one of the most important things we can do. Insight into the worldviews of others is essential to understanding what makes them tick. Let me say that again. If you understand a person’s worldview, you can understand better what makes that person, that man or that woman, tick. If you don’t understand their worldview, their behavior, their actions, the content of their speech will not make sense.

One thing we can do for others is to help them achieve a better understanding of their worldview. We can also help them to improve it, which means eliminating inconsistencies and providing new information that will fill gaps and remove errors in their conceptual system. A worldview, then, is a conceptual scheme that contains our fundamental beliefs. It is also the means by which we interpret and judge reality. Worldviews function much like eyeglasses. The right eyeglasses can put the world into clearer focus, and the correct worldview can do something similar. When people look at the world through the wrong worldview, reality doesn’t make sense to them. But putting on the right conceptual scheme, that is, viewing the world through the correct worldview can have consequences for the rest of a person’s thinking and acting.

Most of us know people who seem incapable of seeing certain points that are obvious to us. Perhaps those people view us as equally thickheaded or stubborn. They often seem to have a built-in grid that filters out information and arguments and that leads them to place a peculiar twist on what seems obvious to us. Such obstinacy is often a consequence of the worldview that those people hold. The study of philosophy can help us realize what a worldview is. It can assist us in achieving a better understanding of our own worldview and can aid us in improving it.

Another thing the study of philosophy can teach us is that some worldviews are better than others. Even though Plato and Aristotle got some things, perhaps many things, wrong, chances are their worldviews will generally get higher marks than those of students who read my books or listen to this tape. The fact that some worldviews are better than others suggests the need for tests, or criteria, by which worldviews can be evaluated. This chapter will identify some of those criteria.

Now, there are five major beliefs, or collections of beliefs, that make up a worldview. Remember, I define a worldview as the sum total of answers that people give to life’s most important questions. Well, then, what are life’s most important questions? I focus on five clusters of beliefs as containing the most important questions in life; there are more than five, of course, but these five clusters of beliefs are surely among the most important. They include beliefs about, number one, God—that’s the most important. Number two, beliefs about ultimate reality. Number three, beliefs about knowledge. Number four, beliefs about ethics. And, number five, beliefs about ultimate human nature. While worldviews may contain other beliefs that need not be mentioned here, these five usually define the most important differences among competing conceptual systems or competing worldview.

Now, incidentally, when we go through Part 1 of the course or Part 1 of the book Life’s Ultimate Questions, I deal with each of the these five clusters of beliefs, whether it is the atheism of ancient or modern naturalism, I talk about what those philosophers who were naturalists believed about God, ultimate reality, knowledge, ethics, and human nature. I do the same with Plato, those five basic beliefs. I do the same with Aristotle, and so on.

Now let me make a few comments about each of those five central beliefs. Number one, God. The crucial element of any worldview is what it says or does not say about God. Worldviews differ greatly over basic questions. Does God exist? What is God’s nature? Is there but one God? Is God a personal being, that is, is he the kind of being who can know, love, and act? Or is God an impersonal force or power? Because of conflicting views about the nature of God, such systems as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Shintoism are not only different religions, they are also different worldviews, because Christianity and Judaism are examples of theism. Conservative adherents of these religions hold to worldviews that have more in common with each other than they do with dualistic religions, which teach that there are, perhaps, two gods, polytheistic faiths—more than two gods—and pantheistic systems that view the world as divine in some sense. One essential component, then, of any worldview is what it teaches about God. And even an atheistic worldview, nonetheless, has a God component—it simply says there is no God.

Now the second part of a worldview is sometimes covered with a technical word, “metaphysics.” The word metaphysics shouldn’t frighten you. It’s basically that part of philosophy that studies ultimate reality. And here are some examples of metaphysical questions: What is the relationship between God and the world? Is the existence of the universe a brute fact? Is the universe eternal? Did an eternal, personal, and all-powerful God create the world? Are God and the world co-eternal, and interdependent beings? That’s a theory that’s sometimes called panentheism. Is the world best understood in a mechanistic, that is, a non-purposeful, way, or is there a purpose in the universe? What is the ultimate nature of the universe? Is the cosmos material, spiritual, or something else? Is the universe a self-enclosed system in the sense that everything that happens is caused by, and thus, explained by other events within the system? Or can a supernatural reality, that is, a being beyond nature, [a] kind of being Christians called God, can a supernatural being act causally within nature? Are miracles possible? Though some of the questions never occur to some people, it is likely that anyone reading this book has thought about most of these questions, and holds beliefs about at least some of them.

Now the third major part of a worldview is often introduced by the technical word, “epistemology.” Don’t be frightened by that word. That’s simply a fancy, two-dollar word that means theory of knowledge. Even people not given to philosophical pursuits hold some epistemological beliefs. The easiest way to see this is to ask them if they belief that knowledge about the world is possible. Whether [they say yes] or no to this question, their reply will identify one element of their epistemology, their theory of knowledge. Other epistemological questions include the following: Can we trust our senses? What are the proper roles of reason and sense experience in knowledge? Do we apprehend our own states of consciousness in some way other than reason and sense-experience? Are our intuitions of our own states of consciousness more dependable than our perceptions of the world outside of us? Is truth relative? That’s another question. Or must truth be the same for all rational beings? What is the relationship between religious faith and reason? Is the scientific method the only, or perhaps, the best method of knowledge? Is knowledge about God possible? If so, how can we know God? Can God reveal himself to human beings? Can God reveal information to human beings? What is the relationship between the mind of God and the human mind? That kind of material is dealt with in my book The Word of God and the Mind of Man. Even though few human beings think about such questions while watching a baseball game on television, or during any normal daily activity, all that is usually required to elicit an opinion is to ask the question. All of us hold beliefs on epistemological issues. We need only to have our attention directed to the questions.

The fourth branch of a worldview deals with ethics. Most people are more aware of the ethical component of their worldview than of their metaphysical or epistemological beliefs. We make moral judgments about the conduct of individuals, like ourselves, and others, and of nations. The kinds of ethical beliefs that are important in this context, however, are more basic than moral judgments about single actions. It is one thing to say that some action of a human being like Adolf Hitler, or of a nation like Iraq, is morally wrong. Ethics is more concerned with the question of why human actions are wrong. Are there moral laws that govern human conduct? What are they? Are these moral laws the same for all human beings? Is morality subjective, as many people today suggest? It is subjective like some person’s taste for squid? Or is there an objective dimension to moral laws that means their truth is independent of our preferences and our desires? Are the moral laws discovered in a way, more or less, similar to the way we discover that seven times seven equals forty-nine? Or are moral laws constructed by human beings, in a way, more or less, similar to what we call human customs? Is morality relative to individuals, cultures, or historical periods? Does it make sense to say that the same action may be right for people in one culture, or historical epoch, and wrong for others? Or does morality transcend cultural, historical, and individual boundaries?

Well, no doubt, as I’ve been rattling of these questions, if you’ve been paying attention, you notice that you’ve been able to answer many of those. Those preliminary answers that you have given to some of these questions about ethics or epistemology are a reflection of what is presently your worldview. Now we’ve got one more branch of human knowledge to mention. It’s part five of the ultimate questions that make up a worldview.

We can call this anthropology—what we believe about human beings. Every worldview includes a number of beliefs about the nature of human beings. Examples of relevant questions include the following: Are human beings free? Oh, if you want to start a debate, just start talking about free will versus determinism. My book contains, what some people say, is a very helpful introduction to that debate between human free will and determinism. Are human beings free or are they merely pawns of deterministic forces? Are human beings only bodies, or material beings? Or were all the religious and philosophical thinkers correct who talked about the human soul, or who distinguished the mind from the body? If they were right in some sense, what is the human soul or mind? And how is it related to the body? Does physical death end the existence of the human person? Or is there conscious, personal survival after death? Are there rewards and punishment after death? Are humans inherently good or inherently evil?

Now, I have just rattled off about one hundred questions that are easily divided among those five branches of philosophy, or those five major branches of a worldview. I daresay many of you have opinions about most of those questions, and even if you do have opinions about them, you would like to know with more certainty whether your opinions are correct, whether your opinions are justifiable beliefs, and that’s what worldview thinking is all about.

Now let me make an important qualification. I do not want to suggest that adherents of the same general worldview will agree on every issue. Even Christians who share beliefs on all essential issues may disagree on other major points. They may understand the relationship between human freedom and the sovereignty of God in different ways. Christians may disagree over how some revealed law of God applies to a current situation. Christians may squabble publicly over complex issues like national defense, capital punishment, and the welfare estate, to say nothing about the issues that divide Christendom into different denominations. Incidentally, in one or two of my other courses available through, I deal with specific social and cultural issues just like these.

Now, does the fact that Christians disagree over important matters undercut the case I’ve been making about the nature of a worldview? If I’ve said Christians have their worldview and yet they still disagree about important issues, is that inconsistent with what I’m arguing? Not at all. A careful study of the disagreements within the Christian family will reveal that they are differences within a broader family of beliefs. When two or more Christians, let us say, argue over some issue, one of the steps they take, or should take, to justify their position, and to persuade the other person to change his mind, is to show that their view is more consistent with the basic tenets of the Christian worldview.

However, it is necessary to recognize that disagreements on some issues should result in the disputants being regarded as people who have left the Christian family of beliefs however much they desire to use the Christian name. For example, many theological liberals within Christendom continue to use the label “Christian” for views that are clearly inconsistent with the beliefs of historic Christianity. Whether they deny the trinity, or the personality of God, or the doctrine of creation, or the fact of human depravity, or the doctrine of salvation by grace, they make clear the religious system they espouse—liberalism—is a different worldview from what has traditionally been called Christianity. Much confusion could be eliminated if some way could be found to get people to use labels like “Christianity” in a way that is faithful to their historic meaning.

Well, what we’ve been talking about then, is simply this: Whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, each of us has a worldview, and our worldviews function as interpretive, conceptual schemes to explain why we see the world as we do, why we think and act as we do. Competing worldviews often come into conflict. These clashes may be as innocuous as a simple argument between people, or as serious as a war between nations. It is important, therefore, that we understand the extent to which significant disagreements reflect clashes between competing worldviews. Worldviews are double-edged swords. An inadequate conceptual scheme can hinder our efforts to understand God, the world, and ourselves. But the right conceptual scheme, just like the right prescription eyeglasses, can suddenly bring everything into proper focus.

One final point: Worldview thinking has important links to religious belief. Take the Christian faith as an example. Instead of viewing Christianity as a collection of theological bits and pieces to be believed or debated, individuals should approach it—the Christian faith—as a conceptual scheme, as a total world and life view. Once people understand that both Christianity and its competitors are worldviews, they will be in a better position to judge the relative merits of competing systems. The case for or against Christian theism should be made and evaluated in terms of total systems. The reason why many reject Christianity is not due to their problem with one or two isolated issues. Their dissent results rather from the fact the anti-Christian conceptual scheme of such people leads them to reject information and arguments that, for believers, provide support for their worldview. One illustration of this claim lies in people’s differing approaches to the central place that miracles occupy in the Christian faith. Religious believers who affirm the reality of such miracles as the resurrection of Jesus Christ need to understand how one’s general perspective on the world, that is, one’s worldview, controls one’s attitude towards miracle claims. People who disagree about the reality of miracles often find themselves talking past each other because they do not appreciate the underlying convictions that make their respective attitudes about miracles seem reasonable to them. Christianity, then, is not merely a religion that tells human beings how they may be forgiven. It is a world- and life-view. The Christian worldview has important things to say about the whole of human life, and once we understand in a systematic way how challenges to Christianity are also worldviews, we will be in a better position to rationally justify our choice of the Christian worldview.

These summary courses of necessity must take somewhat different approaches to the subject matter. If I were doing a course on the Old Testament or the new Testament, my summary lectures would still have to say something about every major section of the, of that part of the Bible. But in the case of a philosophy course, what’s really important are the arguments, and the arguments really can’t be abbreviated too much. So what I have to do, in order to meet the time limits of this summary course, is to delete a great deal of material that I wish I could otherwise include.