What is Christianity? Part 5
In his book The Universe Next Door (IVP, 3rd edition, 1997; hereafter: TUND), James Sire speaks of worldviews as things that can be true:
…I am convinced that for any of us to be fully conscious intellectually we should not only be able to detect the worldviews of others but be aware of our own–why it is ours and why in light of so many options we think it is true. (TUND, p.10, emphasis added)
In the opening pages of Chapter 1, Sire loosely equates faiths, worldviews, and collections of beliefs:
The struggle to discover our own faith, our own worldview, our beliefs about reality is what this book is all about. (TUND, p.15)
This seems right to me. The Christian faith can be thought of primarily as a worldview, as the Christian worldview, and the Christian worldview is basically a collection of “beliefs about reality”. Furthermore, if this is correct, then it makes sense to ask the question: Is Christianity true? This question would be equivalent to asking the question: Is the Christian worldview true? These questions would make sense because a worldview is basically a collection of beliefs about reality, and beliefs are the sort of thing that can be true (or false).
This understanding of the nature of the Christian worldview is captured in Sire’s definition of “a worldview”:
A worldview is a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic makeup of our world. (TUND, p.16)
According to this defintion, a worldview is made up of a set of presuppositions or assumptions. Presuppositions or assumptions are the sort of thing that can be true (or false). Thus, a “set” or collection of presuppositions can be true (or false) too, if all of the presuppositions in a set are true, or all of them are false. If some presuppositions in a set are true and others are false, then the situation is more complicated, and some standard would need to be established to distinguish between sets that are “mostly true” and sets that are “mostly false”, and with sets of presuppositions we probably need to leave room for a gray area between truth and falsehood, where a particular set has a good number of true presuppositions combined with a good number of false ones.
But in a more recent book called Naming the Elephant (IVP, 2004; hereafter: NTE), Sire takes a closer look at the concept of “a worldview”, and he changes his mind about the kind of thing that a worldview is, and he no longer considers a worldview to be “a set of presuppositions”. His new definition goes like this:
A worldview is a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides a foundation on which we live and move and have our being. (NTE, p.122, emphasis added)
I don’t think this is an improvement over Sire’s original definition. There are a number of problems with this new defintion, but the most basic problem is that Sire now defines “a worldview” as a kind of commitment, not as a set of presuppositions. The problem I have with this is that a commitment is NOT the sort of thing that can be true:
1. If a worldview is a kind of commitment, then the Christian worldview is a kind of commitment.
2. If the Christian worldview is a kind of commitment, then the Christian worldview cannot be true (or false).
3. If a worldview is a kind of commitment, then the Christian worldview cannot be true (or false).
Premise (1) is obviously true, and (3) follows logically from the combination of (1) and (2), so the only possible mistake here would be if premise (2) was false (or its truth was not known).
But it seems clear to me that a commitment is NOT the sort of thing that could be true (or false). If I am correct about premise (2) being true, then one is forced to choose between Sire’s definition of “a worldview” and a claim that Sire and nearly all Christians wish to make: Christianity is true (i.e. The Christian worldview is true).
If I borrow twenty dollars from a friend and make a commitment to pay back the twenty dollars within a week, is my commitment true or false? Does it even make sense to speak of my commitment as being true or false? In this case, my commitment is basically a PROMISE. Can a promise be true? Can a promise be false? I don’t think so. Promises don’t describe reality. Promises also don’t describe or predict the future. In promising that I will pay the twenty dollars back next week, I’m NOT predicting that I will pay the money back next week.
I can be insincere in making a promise. That happens if I have no real intention of paying the money back when I make the promise to pay it back. An insincere promise is a deceptive promise, but that does not make the promise false, because the function of promising is NOT to describe how things are or even to describe how things will be in the future.
If I was sincere in making the promise to pay back the money, then the promise was a sincere one, but even so I might fail to pay the money back. Perhaps a theif steals all my money shortly before I was going to pay back the loan. Perhaps I have enough money to pay back the money but I get into a car accident and because of a head injury I go into a coma that lasts for two months. Does this mean the promise I made was false? No. Truth and falsehood don’t apply to promises. In these scenarios, I fail to keep my promise, but have a good reason for my failure.
If a promise is not the sort of thing that can be true (or false), then this suggests to me that a commitment is not the sort of thing that can be true (or false), since a promise is a kind of commitment. Are there other types of commitments that can be true (or false)?
What about a parent’s commitment to love, raise, and care for, a child? No doubt it is a good thing for a parent to love, raise, and care for his or her children. Sometimes it can be difficult and challenging to love, raise, and care for a child, especially if the child becomes sick or disabled or has emotional problems. Commitment to loving, raising, and caring for a child is needed to ensure that these activities are persisted in for the long haul and even when this becomes difficult and challenging.
Can such a commitment be true (or false)? I suppose that a person might pretend to have such a commitment towards a child, while secretly looking for an opportunity to escape from the situation and to abandon the child. That would be a fake or insincere commitment. But we don’t talk about a parent’s commitment to a child being true (or false). We could say that a parent was “truly committed” to loving, raising, and caring for his/her child. But that just implies that the commitment is sincere and strong. If a parent publically declares “I am committed to loving, raising, and caring for my child.” that might be either like making a promise (to love, raise, and care for the child) or it might be an assertion which describes his/her attitude, an assertion that could be true (or false). But what is true (or false) in this case is NOT the commitment, but the STATEMENT about the existence of that commitment or attitude. Statements or assertions can be true (or false), but commitments and attitudes cannot be true (or false).
In the earlier book The Universe Next Door, Sire clearly believes that the Christian worldview is true, and his defintiion of “a worldview” in that book supports this idea, because it makes sense to talk about “a set of presuppositions” being true (or false). But it seems that in his more recent book Naming the Elephant, Sire still wants to talk about worldviews as being true (or false) even though his new definition seems to rule this out. In the opening paragraph of the Preface, Sire speaks about worldviews in terms of truth:
For almost fifty years I have been trying to think in worldview terms. It was worldview analysis that made the literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance come alive for me in graduate school at the University of Missouri. It was the history of worldviews that formed the skeleton on which as a teacher I hung the flesh of English literature. Moreover, developing a congnizance of my own worldview has provided a way of orienting not just my own thoughts but my whole take on life itself. I have, in short, long been interested in detecting the basic intellectual commitments we make as human beings, reveling in their variety, delighting in the depth of their insight when they have grasped the truth and despairing over their disastrous consequences when they have proven false. (NTE, p.11, emphasis added)
To what does the prounoun “they” refer in the last sentence of this paragraph? Since the opening sentence, the second sentence, the third sentence, and the fourth sentence are all about worldviews, it seems reasonable to take the pronoun “they” as referring to “worldviews”. In that case Sire assumes that at least one worldview has “grasped the truth” and that at least one worldview has “proven false”. So, Sire appears to still want to say that a worldview can be true (or false). But given his new definition of “a worldview” it seems to me that it no longer makes any sense to talk about a worldview being true (or false).
In the opening paragraph of the Preface to Naming the Elephant, Sire appears to assume that a person’s worldview consists of “the basic intellectual commitments” that a person makes. What is an intellectual commitment? Can an intellectual commitment be true? By modifying the term ” commitment” with the adjective “intellectual” it seems to me that Sire is trying to build the idea of a belief or proposition back into the sort of thing that a worldview is. An “intellectual commitment” is something much like a FIRM BELIEF, or better: FIRM ASSENT. But assent is NOT the sort of thing that can be true (or false), in my view.
Think about the traditional Justified-True-Belief analysis of KNOWLDEGE:
Someone S knows that proposition P is the case IF AND ONLY IF:
1. S has sufficient justification for believing that proposition P is true,
2. Proposition P is true,
3. S believes that P is true.
The belief condition (3) can be satisfied even if the truth condition (2) is not. In other words, we can believe a FALSE proposition. It doesn’t matter how FIRMLY S believes P, even if S feels completely certain that P is true, S might be mistaken, and P might be false, in spite of how strongly S believes that P is true. It is not the believing or the ASSENT that is true (or false); it is the proposition, the object of the believing or assenting, that is true or false.
Someone might firmly believe that proposition P is true, but have no good reason for believing this. Such belief might be irrational or unreasonable belief, belief which is lacking in rational justification. Such believing is generally bad or undesirable, but we don’t say that foolish or irrational believing is true (or false). It is the OBJECT of belief or assent that can be true (or false), not the believing or assenting.
If “intellectual commitment” means something like “firm belief” or “firm assent”, then this attitude is NOT something that can be true (or false). Therefore, if “intellectual commitment” means something like “firm assent”, then, based on Sire’s new definition, a worldview is NOT something that can be true (or false), and thus the Christian worldview is NOT true (or false). But Sire does not appear to realize that his definition of “a worldview” turns Christianity into something that CANNOT be true (or false).