A Response to Some Criticisms of WYW

A couple of months ago I received a polite and thoughtful email from a student at Princeton University with some criticisms of my little book What’s Your Worldview?. I’m reproducing the email here (with the author’s permission) with my responses interspersed.

I recently picked up and read your book What’s Your Worldview? The questions you posed were fascinating—I always love these kinds of philosophical questions. I also enjoyed the fact that the book is meant to be an “interactive” guide to the discovery of a worldview (no doubt a complex task).

I respect your worldview. However, I found your presentation of the opposing views to be highly biased. I do not fault you for being biased; as you say in your introduction, we are all unavoidably biased (“Does that mean the whole book is biased? Well, sure!”). I disagree, however, that bias cannot be hidden (or at least, not so obviously flaunted as it is here).

I agree that one’s bias can be hidden. But why should it be? If, as you agree, we’re all unavoidably biased, shouldn’t we be open about that? Shouldn’t we be up-front about our biases and then critically evaluate those biases?

Let me be direct here. I’m an orthodox Christian. I’m convinced that Christianity is true and reasonable; indeed, I believe the Christian worldview is more reasonable than any alternative worldview. What’s more, I want other people to believe that too — and I’m willing to make a reasoned case for my beliefs with a view to persuading others. (Even if I can’t change their minds, perhaps at least I can help them think about the issues more clearly.) So if I write a book about worldviews, I’m not going to try to be ‘neutral’ about it. Rather, I want to be open and accurate about the pros and cons of different worldviews, as I see them. That means my book will inevitably have a Christian bias to it. I think that’s actually commendable rather than a weakness. I’m not pretending the book is something it isn’t.

These are complicated questions with complicated answers. Each side has its own legitimate arguments; if they did not, they would not (after so many centuries) still be debated.

Actually, the questions themselves are quite simple. For example, “Is there any objective truth?” is a pretty simple question if you understand what “objective truth” means (and I carefully explain what it means immediately after the question). And the answer to that question, properly understood, has to be either “Yes” or “No”. So the answers aren’t really complicated either!

What can be complicated are some of the arguments philosophers have offered in support of one or other answer. Philosophers, however, have a reputation for making simple things complicated. The basic arguments in favor of objective truth can be stated fairly simply and concisely. One doesn’t have to be a trained philosopher to understand and appreciate them. Likewise, one doesn’t have to be a trained philosopher to have a useful opinion on the issue. I doubt you think that a person needs a philosophy degree before they’re in a position to offer their answers to the questions posed in the book and to think critically about them.

Further, I found it troubling that the “interactive” questions seemed to lead towards only a handful of worldviews that did not reach the “end of the trail”. Is the book truly “interactive” if you present criticism for only the views that you, personally, oppose? Are you really, as you say you are, guiding us to freely reflect on our worldview?

But I don’t present criticism for only the views that I personally oppose. For example, I’m a theist, but I acknowledge in the book that the problem of evil is one of the major challenges to theism.

I’m unsure why you think I’m not guiding the reader to freely reflect on their worldview. I’m hardly coercing them to accept my worldview! I’m asking questions, raising issues, and encouraging readers to reflect more critically on their own worldviews. Is that a bad thing? I forewarn readers that I have my own biases and agenda, so it’s not as though I’m trying to trick them. You’re actually impugning the intelligence of the book’s readers if you think I’m hoodwinking them.

In many of your arguments you attack basically a straw-man of the real opposition. Respectfully, I’d like to point out a few of the faults I found. You are probably aware of them, as many of them were first proposed by some quite famous philosophers, but I will state them anyway:

Okay, let’s take a look at your three examples.

The Freedom Question:

Your argument for free will here is based on the fact it is one of our “most basic human intuitions” (page 20). I agree that we intuitively believe ourselves to have free will. However, appealing to intuition is hardly a strong enough argument. We have intuitions for all sorts of ideas that are false. For instance, people for centuries believed that the earth was the center of the universe. We know now, however, that this is not the case. (We are not the center of the universe.) It is clear that our intuitions cannot always be depended on to be right.

Where do you get the idea that geocentrism was ever defended on the basis of intuition? I think you need to find a better example! In any case, if your point is that our intuitions are fallible, I agree. But that doesn’t mean appeals to intuition are worthless. (You say an appeal to intuition is “hardly a strong enough argument.” But strong enough for what exactly?)

If we cannot rely on our intuitions then, it is not so obvious that there is free will. Let’s look at the incompatibilist first, who argues that free will may exist, but only in a world that is indeterministic (I will define indeterminism as such: the future state of the universe cannot be determined by the laws of nature and the current state of the universe). The incompatibilist argues that free will requires that there is more than one lawful continuation of our universe. If the world is deterministic, however, the laws of nature are not probabilistic and so there is only one lawful continuation of our universe—thus there is no free will. The impossibilist  might further debate that there is no free will in any kind of universe, deterministic or indeterministic. The impossibilist agrees with the incompatibilist in a deterministic world but argues: How can one have free world in a world that is determined by chance? Does free will not require deliberate, non-probabilistic choice? Of course, a compatibilist might rightfully argue back that this sense of free will is not the one that is important for moral responsibility—that we are free in another sense.

In your book you fail to acknowledge any of this debate. Perhaps you wanted to keep your explanation simple—that is fine—but I believe it is wrong to keep your reader completely ignorant of the very valid objections that exist to your worldview.

Several things to say in response:

1. Yes, I’m quite familiar with the compatibilism/incompatibilism debate. Indeed, I’ve written about it on a number of occasions. But that debate isn’t primarily a debate over whether we have free will; it’s a debate over the nature of free will or over the necessary conditions for free will. So it’s not clear to me why I would need to get into the compatibilism/incompatibilism issue in simply asking the question, “Do you have the power to make free choices?” Whether the reader is a compatibilist, an incompatibilist, or has no idea what those terms mean, they’re still able to understand the question and to express their opinion in answer to it.

2. I don’t think for a moment that appeals to intuitions or to common sense settle philosophical debates. I do think, however, that pre-philosophical intuitions can serve as prima facie reasons for philosophical beliefs, and that if most of your epistemic peers share the intuition that p is true, then the burden of proof lies with one who questions p. In short, I think one of the goals of good philosophy is to explain our pre-philosophical intuitions rather than to explain them away.

3. Either you think that we have the power to make free choices (i.e., choices for which we can be held morally responsible) or you don’t. If you do, I’m not sure why you would find anything I say in the book objectionable. If you don’t, I have to wonder why you think it’s appropriate to chide me for “keep[ing] your reader completely ignorant of the very valid objections that exist to your worldview.” Do you think I’m morally responsible for what I wrote?

4. What exactly you have in mind when you speak above of “the very valid objections that exist to your worldview”? An objection to an incompatibilist view of free will wouldn’t be an objection to my worldview, since I’m a compatibilist. What’s more, the Christian worldview as such doesn’t explicitly affirm compatibilism or incompatibilism. (I think compatibilism is most consistent with a biblical Christian worldview, but other orthodox Christians take a different view. It’s a healthy, open debate among Christian thinkers.)

Perhaps you meant objections to any view of free will, i.e., objections to the very idea that we are morally responsible for our choices. Well, that would be an objection to Christianity, I suppose, but it would also be an objection to most other worldviews. Worldviews that explicitly deny moral responsibility are the exception rather than the rule. And nothing you say above actually constitutes an objection to free will as such.

5. In any event, most of this is beside the point, since it misses the purpose of the Freedom Question. As I say in the book, it’s “a joke with a serious point.” The joke is… well, I’m not going to repeat it here and spoil it for potential readers. :)

The serious point is to challenge readers to take responsibility for thinking seriously and critically about their own worldviews. As you know, this initial question isn’t like the other questions in the book. It doesn’t actually matter how readers answer the question, at least in terms of their path through the book. The point of the question is not to guide them toward any particular worldview, but rather to encourage them to take the process seriously.

The Truth Question:

To this question, I would like to take an approach similar to the one described by Alasdair MacIntyre in Whose Rationality? Who Justice? Whether or not we realize it, our personal rationality is conducted only within the context of our culture. For example, take the question of God’s existence. Our answer depends on our definition of “God,” which can only be informed through religion (or philosophy). One might hold the belief, for existence, that God as a creator exists, but that God as a perfectly benevolent being does not, or that God as a personal being does not. These are not logically contradictory views. Depending on our definition of “God,” God might exist or God might not exist—there is no objective truth here. All of it depends on the way in which we think of God.

This is very confused, I’m afraid. You’re conflating two distinct concepts: truth and meaning. Yes, the meaning of a statement is context-relative; it depends on linguistic conventions, definitions of terms, etc. That’s obvious. But it doesn’t follow that the proposition expressed by that statement can’t have an objective truth-value, i.e., a truth-value that is independent of any speaker or thinker.

Certainly the meaning of the statement “God exists” will depend on how ‘God’ is being defined. If ‘God’ is defined as the transcendent Creator of the universe, then the statement is expressing a very different proposition than if ‘God’ is defined as, say, the invisible leprechaun living in my closet. But when someone says, “God exists,” it’s not as though we can interpret that statement any way we like. We can’t just impose our own definitions on someone else’s statements!

When I say, “God exists,” I have a specific definition of ‘God’ in view (and a pretty conventional one too). My statement expresses a particular proposition, and that proposition has an objective truth-value. It’s either true or false. Either there is a Being who satisfies that definition or there isn’t. You may disagree with my view on the truth-value of that proposition, but that’s entirely irrelevant to whether the proposition expressed by my statement has an objective truth-value.

I find it hard to believe that you would seriously think otherwise about this. Take a far less controversial statement: “The Taj Mahal exists.” Do you really think that the proposition expressed by that existential claim (which I assume you’re quite capable of rightly interpreting) doesn’t have an objective truth-value?

I’d like to give a particularly apt mathematical example (one that will not be computational or technical). In mathematics there are “axioms”—principles that are assumed in further analysis to be true, but cannot be prove. In Euclidean geometry, there are five of these. One of them is the parallel postulate (an easy definition of this postulate can be found online if necessary). An entire mathematical field is based around it— and if anything is “objectively true,” probably math is. Yet in non-Euclidean geometry, it is not always true. The parallel postulate is violated, for example, when we look at lines on the surface of a sphere.

Truth depends on a set of axioms that is unprovable, and all truth is relative to the set of axioms that we subscribe to.

Again, this is based on another confusion, this time the conflation of truth and provability. Suppose for the sake of argument that 1+1=2 is unprovable, that it’s a axiom that can’t be deduced from more basic truths. Does it follow that 1+1=2 isn’t objectively true? Of course not.

The fact that there are competing mathematical or geometric systems does nothing to show that truth as such isn’t objective. We can talk about “truth within a system” in the sense that certain propositions will be true if the axioms of the system are themselves taken as true. (This is sometimes referred to as “conditional truth”: p is ‘true’ within a system S if p follows from the axioms of S.) But that’s entirely consistent with there being objective truths in our ordinary discourse. If truth is objective, what follows is that only the axioms of one system can be objectively true.

I do recognize that there are anti-realist theories of truth according to which truth is defined in terms of provability, knowability, or some other epistemic concept. But these are very controversial and counterintuitive theories which have some quite unpalatable implications (unpalatable, at least, for those philosophers who advocate such theories; see Alvin Plantinga’s paper “How to be an Anti-Realist” for details). Given the purpose and readership of What’s Your Worldview? it would be wholly inappropriate to delve into those debates.

The Knowledge Question:

Here again your argument seems to be mainly an appeal to intuition (“the general claim that we can’t know any truth flies in the face of common sense,” page 94). I have already shown why we cannot rely on common sense.

I don’t believe you’ve shown that. You’ve made the point (albeit with an inapt illustration) that intuition is fallible. I agree. But that’s consistent with intuition being a source of prima facie evidence. Do you really take the position that we should disregard or distrust our intuitions altogether? Take the notion that trees exist independently of your perceiving them, such that if you were killed by a falling tree, the fallen tree would continue to exist. Do you think that commonsense notion is no more or less reasonable than its denial?

I believe many philosophers would disagree with your take on skepticism. The general argument behind skepticism is that we cannot trust our senses to be true.

That’s a particular form of skepticism: skepticism about sense perception. But that’s not the kind of skepticism I focus on in the book. The Knowledge Question is targeting global skepticism, i.e., the view that we should doubt all truth-claims or knowledge-claims. The arguments for skepticism about sense perception presuppose that global skepticism is false.

The evidence we have for a real, external world is the same evidence we would have if there weren’t an external world—say if this were all a simulation, or we were all “brains in a vat” (Pollock, A Brain in a Vat + many others), or if there were an “evil demon” giving us the illusion that there was an external world (Descartes).

That’s true only if the evidence we could have for a real, external world is restricted to empirical evidence. But why assume that?

Of course, saying that we cannot know whether there is external world is different from saying that we should behave as though there weren’t. For all intents and purposes, I do agree that we should behave as though there is an external world.

Yes, those are different claims. But I wonder how you would defend the second claim. Why should we behave as though p is true if we have no rational basis for believing p to be true? (One might just as well turn this around and argue that if it’s rational to think we ought to act as though p is true, then it must be rational to think that p is true.)

I believe I have raised some serious philosophical objections. I am bothered not that your worldview may disagree with mine, but that you trivialized these debates. I would be very interested in hearing your reply.

You’ve basically made the point that my book doesn’t delve into the more technical philosophical debates concerning some of the questions posed in the book. And of course, you’re right. But that doesn’t in itself amount to a serious philosophical objection to anything in the book. And I don’t think you’ve shown that, given the limited scope and goals of the book and its target readership, it was incumbent on me to delve into these debates. The mere fact that there are various philosophical debates about X doesn’t in itself generate an obligation for an author to mention all those debates whenever he raises or assumes X.

What’s Your Worldview? isn’t meant to be an introduction to philosophy. It’s an introduction to worldviews designed to get people to think about the Big Questions and to reflect more critically on their own worldviews and those of others. It’s also intended to help people see that some worldviews are more coherent and reasonable than others. I don’t think it needs to delve into technical philosophical debates in order to do accomplish those objectives; in fact, that would be quite counterproductive.

Think of it this way: there are many disputed and debated issues in physics today, such as how to understand quantum mechanics. Does it follow that an introductory-level physics textbook ought to survey all those debates? Is the author of such a textbook being deceptive or disingenuous by not mentioning those debates — or not mentioning quantum mechanics at all? I don’t think so. But those readers who are sufficiently interested in physics, and want to delve deeper into the subject, will soon enough discover those issues for themselves. (How could they fail to?) And without that introductory textbook, they might never have developed an interest in physics in the first place.

Despite our disagreements, I do appreciate the fact that you read the book and took the time to share your concerns and objections. Thank you for doing so!