Worldviews in the balance

The observation is often made (and often by religious people) that each of us has our own worldview, by which we understand and interpret things in the world around us. When this observation is made during a debate over religion and/or science, it is often claimed that your conclusions owe as much to your worldview as my conclusions do to mine, and therefore I have just as much right to my conclusions as you do to yours.

This argument overlooks the fact that not all worldviews are created equal. There are two kinds of worldview, rational worldviews, and rationalizing worldviews, and they differ by the degree to which they accurately reflect the world they’re supposed to be viewing. In general, we want to avoid the rationalizing worldview because it tends to isolate us from the truth and leads us to make mistakes that are both painful and avoidable. But how do we know which kind of worldview our worldview is?

The problem is that rationalizing is something we humans do very well. To the person that embraces it, a rationalizing worldview appears to have covered all the bases, and produced a view of the world that successfully and consistently accounts for all the facts, just like the rational worldview does. No matter what inconsistencies may exist in our original assumptions, or between our worldview and the real world, we can always think of some rationalization that reconciles what we see with what we want to believe.

The catch is that, as we discussed yesterday and the day before, the rationalizing worldview can never be as simple as the rational worldview, due to the nature of truth. Truth means being consistent with the real world, and therefore the worldview that is the most true is going to be the worldview that will have the fewest inconsistencies that need rationalizing. The way to measure which worldview is more rational, therefore, is to compare two worldviews and see which is most consistent with the most facts while requiring the fewest extra explanations to account for the discrepancies between belief and reality.

I have a series of posts in mind that I’ve done before on my old blog, and I think it might be fun to bring them up again for another look. The theme of the series is the Gospel Hypothesis versus the Myth Hypothesis. Let’s compare the Christian worldview and the secular worldview and compare the two in terms of two assumptions regarding the origin of religion. The Gospel Hypothesis proposes that there exists a divine Heavenly Father who is loving, omniscient, omnipotent, and all-good, and that religion exists because He revealed it to man in order that we might be saved and be with Him forever. The Myth Hypothesis proposes that no such God exists, and that religion comes from ordinary human superstition and myth-making, coupled with gullibility and wishful thinking.

What I want to do is look at the verifiable facts we can observe concerning religion and its history, and compare them to each of these two hypotheses, to see which hypothesis requires the greatest number of additional rationalizations in order to reconcile the original assumption with the observable facts. The last time we did this, we attracted the attention of one or two believers, and things got pretty exciting, but it was great fun. We probably won’t be as lucky this time, but I think it will be interesting anyway.



  1. Thorne says

    Just the kind of stuff I’m interested in. More ammunition to fight against the idiocy being spewed by those around me. Keep up the good work.

  2. jenny6833a says

    Let’s compare the Christian worldview and the secular worldview and compare the two in terms of two assumptions regarding the origin of religion.

    You’ve set up an easy slam dunk. When you’ve celebrated your victory, howzaboutcha take on the real question, namely whether any supernatural entity did or does exist.

    • Otto Tellick says

      @jenny6833a: In order to address your “real question,” whether any supernatural entity did or does exist, it would be necessary to establish what constitutes real-world evidence for the existence of any such entity. That is a fool’s errand, because just framing that sort of question involves a built-in contradiction in terms: “entities” that fit the definition of “supernatural” are, by definition, unevidenced.

      But don’t despair! There are analytical techniques to study, learn about, and model “hidden causes.” These depend on a research paradigm along the following lines: identify and record some series of observations; assume that the things you observed are related by some common cause, but this cause is not directly observable; further assume that the cause is likely to exhibit some amount of consistency in the relations between its own internal (unobservable) “states” and the actual events that we’re able to observe; try to model those internal states based on the observed events.

      That general approach is known as “Hidden Markov Modeling” (HMM). It has a few short-comings: the “hidden states”, and the overall nature of the “hidden cause” cannot really be “understood” in normal, declarative terms – they’re just ad-hoc combinations of Gaussian distributions; and of course the predictive power of the models will always have a statistically notable margin of error. But if the assumptions are valid, the margin of error for predictions can be reduced to single-digit percentages, giving a rather strong indication that the behavior of the “hidden cause” is in fact knowable from observable phenomena (even though the “intrinsic nature” or “true identity” of the cause remains unknown).

      For perspective, I’ll mention that HMM has been proven to be very effective in research on human languages. We don’t really know how humans decode an acoustic signal, or the acoustics implied by patterns of marks on a page, in order to discern “meaning” – that whole process is still, in a sense, “supernatural.” But it is possible to model this behavior, to the extent that acoustic signals can at least be correlated with the marks on the page that “mean the same thing.” (Working out exactly what “meaning” is remains a problem, of course…)

      In any case, if you happen to choose a set of observations that in fact are not related by a common cause, HMM won’t yield very much predictive power. For example, given an assumption that there is a God who (a) controls physical reality, and (b) disapproves of homosexuality, you might try to model a relationship between the geographical distributions of natural disasters and homosexual populations. I suspect that wouldn’t get very far.

  3. Kevin K says

    The “real question” is asked and answered.

    No. There is no supernatural anything — gods, ghosts, angels, demons, goblins, fairies, leprechauns, huldenfollke, demi-gods, evil spirits, pixies.

    Nor has there ever been any supernatural anything. All of that, gods included, were made up in the minds of men who didn’t understand where the weather came from or why rainbows never reached the ground.

    • Kevin K says

      Of course, the problem with that is that “god did it” is a very parsimonious solution.

      How did the bacteria get its flagellum? God did it!

      How did the crocoduck get its feathers? God did it!

      • Deacon Duncan says

        The flaw with such explanations is that they’re not explanations, they’re just superstitions. Real explanations demonstrate verifiable cause-and-effect relationships in sufficient detail that you can follow how the effect results from the cause. Superstitions arbitrarily associate effects with essentially random causes via unverifiable, magical connections. So “Goddidit” can never be the simplest explanation of anything, because it is a superstition rather than an explanation.

      • says

        “Goddidit” is indeed a quick and easy answer to mysteries of the natural world, but it quickly fails as an explanation. A good explanation fits the evidence, and successfully predicts further observations. In contrast, “Goddidit” makes up excuses when it fails to fit the facts, and predicts nothing. It scarcely even pretends to add to our knowledge — it is more often used to stop inquiry, normally in cases where honest investigation is likely to turn up facts which would be very inconvenient for god-belief (e.g. evolution, and the age of the universe).

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