What is Christianity? Part 11

Shortly after the turn of the century, the Christian apologist James Sire revised his understanding of the concept of a “worldview” and wrote a book advocating this revised understanding: Naming the Elephant (hereafter: NTE).  Some of the the key changes that Sire makes to his conception of a “worldview” are defended in Chapter 5 of NTE:

…the discussion so far has proceeded as if a worldview were a set of propositions or beliefs that serve as answers to a systematic set of [basic philosophical] questions.  This certainly is how I understood the notion of worldview as I wrote The Universe Next Door.  I still believe that this is a useful way to define the concept, but I have become aware that it both overemphasizes the systematic nature of worldviews and misses some other important aspects.  So what is inadequate?  And what is missing?  Those are the subjects of this chapter [i.e. Chapter 5].   (NTE, p.91)

In Chapter 1 of NTE, Sire summarizes the issues covered in Chapter 5 of NTE this way:

Is a worldview primarily an intellectual system, a way of life, or a story? (NTE, p.22)

One of his key conclusions from Chapter 5 is clearly stated in Chapter 7:

First, a worldview is not fundamentally a set of propositions or a web of beliefs. That is, it is not first and foremost a matter of the intellect.  (NTE, p.123)

If Sire is correct, then my cognitivist view of religion is wrong, and if my cognitivist view of religion is correct, then Sire’s revised understaning of the nature of worldviews is wrong.   So, I am attempting to defend Sire’s earlier conception of worldviews against his own objections, the objections that led him to revise his understanding and definition of the word “worldview”.

In the previous post in this series,  I defended Sire’s earlier concept of a worldview against the objection that it unrealistically requires that a worldview consist of a carefully thought out complete and systematic philosophy of life.   I agree that this would be an unrealistic requirement or definition of “worldview”.   However, neither his previous definition of “worldview”, nor his previous description of the nature of worldviews had this implication, so there is no need to modify his previous definition or account based on this concern.

The next objection raised by Sire against his older conception of a worldview, is presented in a subsection of Chapter 5 called “The Right Questions” on pages 94 to 97 of NTE.  Sire compares his seven basic questions (see the previous post for his list of questions) to questions proposed by others (mostly Christian theologians) who have attempted to analyze worldviews by means of a small set of such questions.  After briefly comparing his questions with the questions proposed by a few other key thinkers, Sire draws this conlcusion:

It appears, therefore, that my seven questions are in fact fairly comprehensive.  They include in some way the essence of all the questions others have formulated.  This should not be surprising, since the questions address ontology, epistemology, and ethics.  What else besides aesthetics is left?  

What is missing from my seven questions is not content but existential relevance.  True, the fourth question (“What happens to persons at death?”) is existential, but the others are not. …  (NTE, p.97, emphasis added)

Is there a problem with a lack of “existential relevance” in Sire’s previous account of worldviews?  Before we can answer this question, we first need to understand what “existential relevance” means.  The meaning of this phrase is best understood in terms of this specific context, namely in relationship to the contrast that Sire makes between his conception of “worldview” and that of others in this particular subsection of Chapter 5.

In the subsection of Chapter 5 called “The Right Questions” Sire begins by comparing his questions with a similar series of questions in a quote from Wilhelm Dilthey (emphasis added by me):

The riddle of existence . . . is always bound up organically with that of the world itself and with the question of what I am supposed to do in this world, why I am in it, and how my life in it will end.  Where did I come from?  Why do I exist?  What will become of me?  This is the most general question of all questions and the one that most concerns me. (NTE, p.95; quoted by David Naugle in Worldview: The History of a Concept, p.83)

I take it that the question “Why do I exist?” is NOT a scientific question.  This question would not be answered by explaining the biology of sexual reproduction and the historical circumstances that led to one’s parents having sexual intercourse, which then resulted in one’s conception and birth.  Such a scientific or causal explanation is not what is desired here.

Rather, this question is about the purpose or meaning of one’s life.  A clearer expression of the intended question would be “Why should I continue to exist, as opposed to killing myself?”  That is a question with “existential relevance”.  I have also emphasized the phrase  “the question of what I am supposed to do in this world” because, as we shall soon see, this is at least an important part of what Sire means by “existential relevance”, namely relevance to practical decisions concerning what actions one should take or what choices one should make.

Sire also considers another list of questions that James Orr asks in relation to the analysis of a worldview, and Sire makes a general comment about those questions:

James Orr notes that two types of causes–speculative and practical–are involved in the formation of worldviews.  Both “lie deep in the constitution of human nature.”  On the one hand, we want a comprehensive theoretical understanding of the “origin, purpose, and destiny” of the universe and our lives.  But we also want a practical understanding of these issues so that we can properly order our lives. …  (NTE, p.95, emphasis added by me)

Sire notes that Orr views the basic questions that define a worldview as encompassing both theoretical and practical issues.  This is another indication that “existential relevance” is closely related to practical issues and concerns.  (The first indication was the phrase quoted from Dilthey “…the question of what I am supposed to do in this world…”).  Also, among the list of questions from Orr quoted by Sire is this one: “By what ultimate principles ought man to be guided in the framing and ordering of his life?”  (NTE, p. 96)

I find the worldview questions that Sire quotes from the theologians Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton very appealing.  Walsh and Middleton ask only four basic questions, and two of them are, in my view, of particular importance:

(3) What’s wrong?  Or, what is the basic problem or obstacle that keeps me from fulfillment? …

(4) What is the remedy?  Or, how is it possible to overcome this hindrance to my fulfillment? …  (NTE, p.96)

Like me, Walsh and Middleton conceive of worldviews in terms of problem-solving.  The basic problems being practical in nature: How should I live my life?  What do I need to do to live a good life or to live my life well?  These are basic questions in the sub-discipline of philosophy called ethics.

When Sire sums up the comparisons of his seven questions with the questions put forward by Dilthey, Orr, and Walsh & Middleton, he closely associates “existential concerns” with questions that have a “practical” focus:

With Dilthey, Orr, and to some extent, Walsh and Middleton, the questions focus on existential concerns.  They are all about us.  While the answers will involve God and nature, the emphasis is practical.  What are the implications for us as human beings looking for a satisfying life?  (NTE, p.97, emphasis added by me)

Based on the particular context of the comparisons made between Sire’s seven worldview questions and similar sets of questions proposed by Dilthey, Orr, Walsh & Middleton, we can clarify this objection to Sire’s seven worldview questions:

What is missing from my seven questions is not content but existential relevance.  (NTE, p.97)

This objection can be re-stated in terms of practical concerns:

Sire’s seven worldview questions lack a proper emphasis on practical and ethical concerns.

If this is a good interpretation of the objection, then I would concede that there is some truth to this objection.

Sire’s intention behind his seven basic worldview questions was to capture the basic and most important issues of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.  To the extent that Sire succeeded in this intention, his seven questions would include one or more basic questions of ethics, and in doing so he would have provided a proper emphasis on practical and ethical concerns.

However, it seems to me that Sire’s seven questions do not do a great job of capturing the basic questions of ethics, so there is room for improvement by adding one or two basic questions of ethics and/or by revising one or two of his questions to make them more clearly questions of ethics or more clearly questions about practical concerns.  I believe that some minor changes to Sire’s seven worldview questions would be sufficient to resolve this issue.

Three of Sire’s seven questions appear to be related to ethics (from NTE, p.94):

3. What is a human being?

6. How do we know what is right and wrong?

7. What is the meaning of human history?

Question (3) relates to metaphysics (e.g. Do human beings have souls or spirits?  What is the relationship between a human mind and a human brain?).  But question (3) is also related to ethics: Do human beings have free will?  Are human beings moral agents who can be worthy of moral praise or moral blame?  Do human beings have a right to life?  Is the life of a human being of more value than the life of a non-human animal, like a dog or a deer?

Question (6) attempts to get at the heart of ethics but fails to do so.  This question is too narrow in two different ways.  First, it is focused on epistemology (“How do we know…”).  Other questions in Sire’s list deal with epistemology, so this one ought to be more about ethics.   Second, this question focuses on morality, but ethics is broader than just morality.  The basic question of ethics is “How should I live my life?”.

One partial response to this question could be “You should live your life in a way that is morally good and morally responsible.”  But morality, even if it is an important aim for life, is not the ONLY thing that can make a life a good life or a bad one.  What about pleasure and creativity and obtaining knowledge?  In addition to being a fair person, and being a considerate person, and being an honest person, isn’t it also good to enjoy life? to make use of one’s imagination and creative abilities?  to learn about history and science and art?  Perhaps being morally good is more important than enjoying life or being creative or learning new things, but to live a life that is focused exclusively on morality seems like it would make a person rather narrow and uptight and unhappy and difficult to live around.  In any case, it begs important questions to simply assume that the only goal that one ought to aim at in life is to be a morally good person.

Question (6) is Sire’s attempt to get at the heart of ethics, and his intention was a good and proper one, but question (6) does not fully capture the heart of ethics because it is a bit too narrow.  If we broaden (6) just a bit, then that would help Sire’s seven questions to have a proper emphasis on practical or ethical concerns.  Here is my suggested alternative:

(6A)  How should I live my life?  (What are the main criteria for judging that a life is/was a good life, a well-lived life? What are the main obstacles to acheiving such a life?)

Questions of morality and right vs. wrong actions are obviously relevant to this general question, but so are other important values and considerations, such as pleasure, creativity, and knowledge.

Question (7) asks about the “meaning” of human history.  This question relates to ethics in that the goodness of a person’s life can be judged, in part, in relation to their contributions or impacts on human progress or on the acheivement of valueable goals that occur after the death of the person in question.

A military officer’s actions in a battle might help his country to win a war, but the winning of the war might happen years after that officer’s death.  The discoveries of a scientist might help other scientists to find a cure for cancer, but the cure might not be found until decades after the death of that scientist.  In such cases, we often think that there was some good or value in that person’s life because of the positive impact their actions had on the lives of others long after that person had died.

We want our lives to be meaningful and significant, and part of that desire involves a desire to have a significant impact on people and events beyond the limited scope of the people we meet and the events we experience in the limited time that we are alive.  These sorts of concerns and desires are all relevant to the basic question of ethics that I spelled out in question (6A).

Although Sire’s seven questions might not have done a great job in capturing the heart of ethics, I think if we revise his question (6) to (6A), and if we understand that there are ethical aspects to questions (3) and (7), then Sire’s set of worldview questions would provide a proper emphasis on practical and ethical concerns.  Thus, the objection that we were considering, represents only a minor problem that can be corrected with a minor change (or two) to Sire’s questions.  There is no need for a major revision to Sire’s seven questions.