Saturday, August 21, 2010

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Worldview?

Before heading off to undergrad five years ago, I got my share of lectures on the importance of church attendance, the dangers of booze and loose women, and snapshots of the prevailing philosophy of the ivory tower. Even as I took the advice to heart, I was afraid of the intellectual obstacles just ahead, nervous that I would soon see my Christianity besmirched, bludgeoned, and beheaded by the rationalistic arsenal of the academy. I wasn't afraid so much of a single knock-out argument against Christianity as the effect of a battery of small ones, each requiring an evasive ad hoc response, each making the faith a little less plausible while academic atheism stood firm against assault.

Then I got to college. I met plenty of anti-Christians, and I heard the full spectrum of arguments against Christianity. Some of their objections were trivial; some were serious and led me to reexamine my own views. The alternatives, however, did not fare any better. I found the popular academic views to be plagued with problems even greater than those of Christianity.

There are essentially three competing kinds of worldviews in the academy: theism, metaphysical naturalism, and creative anti-realism. Metaphysical naturalism prevails in the hard sciences, while creative anti-realism is nearly dogma in the humanities. Social science folks swing both ways, typically depending on just how scientific their disciplines are. There are a few theists throughout, and a number of staunch agnostics who claim that there is not enough evidence to justify holding any substantial worldview.

Metaphysical naturalism, as held in the academy, usually embraces both a metaphysics - all that exists is the natural, and an epistemology - all that provides knowledge is science. Its epistemology is incoherent, as the claims of metaphysical naturalism are not themselves scientific, and its metaphysics is unsatisfying, for it cannot explain why there is any universe at all, and moreover, why there is a small rock in the middle of it populated by creatures that are desperately seeking meaning beyond survival and reproduction. The usual response to these objections is simply to reject the question, to refuse to seek justification for its incoherent epistemology beyond the practical success of science, and to simply accept that the observable universe requires no explanation.

Creative anti-realism is a good name for a number of views that hold in common that there is no such thing as global truth, because all persons who make truth claims make them from divergent perspectives of culture, gender, history and embodiment. We are therefore creators of truths and of our worlds. It takes a very erudite and sophisticated mind to embrace this idea, because most people recognize that creative anti-realism is itself a global truth claim. Creative anti-realism usually clothes itself in intense moral language, rejecting the truth claims as imperialistic and oppressive. It nevertheless tirades against moral claims, by which its proponents really mean moral claims about sex and substance abuse. Creative anti-realism finds foes in both theism and metaphysical naturalism, and often in rigorous academic disciplines such as physics and logic, what with their annoying (sexist?) claims of universality. The anti-realists often do well in calling attention to the way in which our unique histories shape our views on important subjects, but they slide into silliness and forget that most truth claims are supremely banal.

Now, Christianity has some significant problems of its own, primarily, the problem of how a good, omniscient and benevolent God could allow human suffering, and how, even if miracles occur, it can be rational to believe in them. I think that there are good responses to these objections, and perhaps I will address them in a later post. But Christians should not worry that they are only ones with chinks in their armor.

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