Worldview as Explanatory Hypothesis

In the town in which I live resides a Harvard-trained academic neurosurgeon who, in 2008, was struck by a rare illness that put him into a coma for seven days, during which his entire neo-cortex shut down. Evan Alexander had mysteriously contracted E-coli bacterial meningitis, which attacks the brain. Just recently I met Alexander, who was doing a local book signing. He has written up the remarkable story of his experience in a gripping book—Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into the Afterlife—that has been featured on the cover of Newsweek. That he survived and without permanent brain damage is amazing enough, but perhaps that is not the most surprising part of his story. For during his coma, when the part of his brain responsible for thought and emotion was not merely malfunctioning but turned off and off line, Alexander recounts that he experienced a hyper-vivid voyage to another realm of existence where he claims to have gleaned profound insight into the nature of reality and the human condition—most importantly that an all-powerful, infinitely loving God is real. Irrespective of how veridical are all the features of his experience and his various interpretations of the experience, what is remarkable is that in his condition he was able to experience any conscious states at all.

Nobody was more surprised at this than Alexander himself, who admits that for the seven years leading up to this life-changing event, he had been a card-carrying materialist. He had heard his share of near-death experiences, and he had retained the conviction that an adequate scientific explanation would be forthcoming, an explanation predicated on the axioms of materialist reductionism, a thoroughgoing naturalistic paradigm. As a neurosurgeon, though, once he regained consciousness and came to understand the severity of his condition during the coma, he became convinced that no naturalistic account would do. As a scientist, he entertained a range of hypotheses to explain his memories—from a primitive brainstream program to ease terminal pain and suffering to the distorted recall of memories from deeper parts of the limbic system relatively protected from the meningitis inflammation, and seven more hypotheses—none of which, in his studied estimation, can explain the nature of his conscious experience during that coma on the assumption of a materialist worldview’s account of consciousness. Needless to say, the event proved transformative for him, unraveling the naturalistic paradigm that he has so long adopted and assumed, a viewpoint that is arguably the prevailing worldview among most contemporary philosophers and scientists.

That naturalism is a worldview means, among other things, that it is an explanatory hypothesis. To say a worldview is an explanatory hypothesis is to identify one of its most important functions: the epistemic task of providing, in J. P. Moreland’s words, “an explanation of facts, of reality, the way it actually is. Indeed it is incumbent on a worldview that it explain what does and does not exist in ways that follow naturally from the core explanation commitments of that worldview.” Moreland argues that such explanations must range over causal, epistemic, and metaphysical issues. A worldview is an expansive way of looking at ourselves and the world. Worldviews offer answers to questions about God, meaning, knowledge, reality, the human condition, and values. Naturalism is certainly a worldview, but is naturalism a religion? Here’s what Alvin Plantinga has to say on that matter: "[Naturalism] isn’t clearly a religion: the term ‘religion’ is vague, and naturalism falls into the vague area of its application. Still, naturalism plays many of the same roles as a religion. In particular, it gives answers to the great human questions: Is there such a person as God? How should we live? Can we look forward to life after death? What is our place in the universe? How are we related to other creatures? Naturalism gives answers here: there is no God, and it makes no sense to hope for life after death. As to our place in the grand scheme of things, we human beings are just another animal with a peculiar way of making a living. Naturalism isn’t clearly a religion; but since it plays some of the same roles as a religion, we could properly call it a quasi-religion." As I ponder such issues, I can’t help but think of the students at the Christian university where I teach. Unless they are told they must, when they are asked about their own worldview, very few of them will say anything about why they believe what they do. Nor will they tend to have much if anything to say about what explanatory power their worldview possesses. If they do broach the issue of why they believe their worldview, they tend to privilege psychological over philosophical or evidential categories. What students tend to do is just give a litany or perhaps one or two of their core convictions—God exists, for example, unlike what those atheists believe. What is especially hard to take about this, for me, is that this doesn’t just explain their answers coming into my introductory philosophy course, but going out too.

It pains me to admit this, but perhaps this sad state of affairs gives me an opportunity. At present I administer a worldview pre-test and post-test to my students in this particular class. The course has for one of its major goals greater clarity on worldview—articulating it, defending it, etc. We cover quite a few ways in which they can do these things better, but the results at the end of the course are generally disappointing, revealing nominal improvement at most much of the time. What I intend to do to ameliorate the situation is to hold their feet to the proverbial fire. For whatever reason, they often do not seem to be connecting the dots, despite our encouragement for them to do so. I am less convinced they can’t than that they simply are not. And if they think they can get away with the bare minimum, sad to say, they usually try, which means the post-test tends not to show their best work. Students at this age—with their philosophy of education, their pragmatism, their time constraints, and their still-forming pre-frontal cortex—often need their hand to be forced. Formerly I would refrain from requiring a minimum word length on the post-test, reasoning optimistically that surely students would avail themselves in an “essay assignment” as part of the final exam to show what they know. I figured they would relish the chance to knock it out of the park. What I have found too often instead are a series of strikeouts or, at best, weak singles. The internal motivation I had assumed would animate them on such an assignment frequently fails to materialize. If am I right, the problem is more about this issue of motivation than that of competence. So, one obvious way to address this situation is to require the post-test essay to be at least a specified minimum length. That’s an easy fix.

The second change I’m planning to implement, though, will be far more important, I’m convinced. Once again, since students tend to focus on the content of their beliefs, the assignment needs explicitly to force their hand to consider questions of evidence. Students tend to be steeped in the lingo of social science, so it needs to be clarified to them that the issue is not the origin of their beliefs—culture, parents, church—but rather their truth and evidence. So what I intend to do is to follow Moreland’s characterization of worldview as explanatory hypothesis. I intend to leave behind saying a worldview is primarily a matter of one’s beliefs and convictions about God, the world, and the human condition—which invariably lends itself to superficial first-order analysis and mindless litanies. No, the function of a worldview is to explain. Talk about that, I intend to tell them, and then to remind them of the specific ways in which they can do so. What can better explain facts that most all of us—theists and atheists alike—believe in and common sense can apprehend? The human capacity for rational deliberation, free will, objective moral truths, real guilt, and moral responsibility? Arguments, philosophical and otherwise, for the ability of theism to explain such realities better than atheism are both cogent and compelling. This is the very stuff we spend so much time in class on all term long. One of the books I have my students read in the course is C. S. Lewis’s Miracles, the third chapter of which is the famous “argument from reason,” the topic of Lewis’s famous debate with famed Wittgenstein student Elizabeth Anscombe, and an argument that in recent years has been updated by the likes of Alvin Plantinga and Victor Reppert. The import of the chapter is the intrinsic problem naturalism has accounting for rationality. In a recent book by atheist Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos, he makes a similar point; this is not just an argument only theists can see. In the fifth chapter of Miracles Lewis shows that naturalism has an equally hard time making sense of objective morality. Morality and rationality, however, are comfortable fits in a world created and sustained by a loving and personal God. Elsewhere in the course we spend time exploring how naturalists lack the resources to make sense of genuine free will in the world as they envision it—yet without free will, there can be no genuinely authoritative morality. For theists who believe that, as a prerequisite for loving relationship, God has conferred on human beings, made in his image, the capacity for free choice, it all makes excellent sense. Classical theism can simply explain free will, rationality, and morality better than can naturalism; the evidence is on the side of theism.

But today’s Christian students, starting well before college, are breathing the air of a culture that, each day in a myriad of ways, proclaims the irrationality of a life of faith. Even the locution “faith” has been co-opted to convey connotations of an Enlightenment-foisted distorted view of faith as bespeaking a lack of evidence. Biblically, faith is nothing of the kind, but rather principled trust in God’s faithfulness to do all he has promised to do, principled for being rooted in God’s track record of faithfulness. If we do not wish to lose a generation of Christian young people to the corrosive effects of skepticism and cynicism, postmodernism and the quasi-religion of naturalism, we need to help them know not just what they believe, but see why. They must, and fortunately they can, come to understand that they are eminently justified to hold a Christian worldview because, as an explanation of life’s most important and undeniable realities—from love to logic, from cognition to consciousness—it is second to none.