How to Know Truth and Evaluate Competing Worldviews
- Chris Daniel Executive Director of the Richmond Center for Christian Study
- Updated Aug 25, 2022
Rev. Chris Daniel is the Executive Director of the Richmond Center for Christian Study. This article is based on the first of five sessions of an apologetics course that Chris originally presented at Virginia Commonwealth University (March 24-April 21, 2010). Details and audio recordings can be found here.
Truth - Why Should I Care?
Why should I care about truth? There are many reasons. One is because it is often detrimental to be out of touch with reality. Let's say you were standing in front of an oncoming bus. If oncoming buses can't hurt you, then it really doesn't matter. But if it's really true that standing in front of an oncoming bus would likely hurt or even kill you, you probably need to know that.
Likewise, if sticking a needle in a power outlet can't hurt you, then it really doesn't matter. But if it's really true that sticking a needle in a power outlet could hurt or even kill you, you need to know that.
Take the case of failing to embrace your Creator who determines your eternal destiny. If God isn't there or doesn't determine your fate, it really doesn't matter. But if it's really true that there is a Creator who determines our destinies, you need to know that.
Truth matters. It's not the only thing that matters, but it does matter. To live out of touch with reality is detrimental to our well-being. But as the following poem illustrates, people sometimes choose to ignore the truth…
My face in the mirror
Isn't wrinkled or drawn.
My house isn't dirty,
The cobwebs are gone.
My garden looks lovely
And so does my lawn.
I think I might never
Put my glasses back on. 1
For those who don't want to see it, there's not much you can do. But for those who want to see and know the truth (that is, the basic nature of reality), I believe it is easy to get to. Although higher education can be a great tool, you don't have to have an advanced degree to get a basic handle on the nature of reality. It is truly accessible to the average person.
To understand the basic nature of the world we live in, it is helpful to start with three foundational principles that I like to call the Reality Principle, the Bias Principle and the Certainty Principle.
Principles for How to Know What's Really True - #1 The Reality Principle
The Reality Principle simply states that truth is really there and is really knowable. This is important because it means that it's not all just a matter of opinions and viewpoints (the impression we often get in our world). Now, I'm not claiming that we can know truth exhaustively, but I do mean that we can know it genuinely. In fact, to deny this principle is self-defeating. To say "truth is not there" is to make a truth claim, which of course undercuts the statement being made. Likewise, to say "truth is not knowable" is to claim to know something to be true, which again undercuts the claim being made. The moment you try and deny this principle, you affirm it. So we can't say that everything is just a matter of personal perspective, but must maintain that truth is really there and is really knowable.
Now, some might say "You can say that certain things are true in the realm of science and history and things like that, but when it comes to things pertaining to God, that's just a matter of faith." I would respond in two ways. First, the idea that faith and truth (i.e., fact) are somehow divorced and reside in two different realms is an idea that we got from the Enlightenment and is not shared by most of human history. Secondly, the notion that "you can't know truth about matters pertaining to God" is itself a self-defeating notion. Such a notion makes a truth claim about matters pertaining to God, namely, that you can't know truth when it comes to matters pertaining to God.
So it turns out that the Reality Principle is in force, even with things that are often referred to as "matters of faith." Truth is really there, and it is really knowable.
To counter-balance the previous principle, we have to always be mindful of the Bias Principle. The Bias Principle states that how we interpret the facts tends to be influenced by the perspective of the world we already have.
We all grew up in different ways - some Christian, some Atheist, some Buddhist, some Humanist, etc.—and we tend to be convinced that we see the world the way it really is, and we interpret (or misinterpret) the facts in light of that.
The Copernican Revolution is a good example of this. Centuries ago, people believed that the sun revolved around the earth - the Geocentric view. Of course, with the additional facts we have today, we know that this view is not correct. Now, when we today see the sun rise and set, we are looking at the same data that they were, but their geocentric bias caused them to misinterpret the facts and, in that way, they were out of touch with reality. It was only when they recognized their biases, came to be open to additional facts, and were willing to have their perspectives changed by those facts that they came to be in touch with reality in this way.
We also must recognize our various biases in all fields of life and always be open to the facts as they present themselves to us. We must be willing to have our perspectives changed by them.
Principles for How to Know What's Really True - #3 The Certainty Principle
Now, there's a myth in our culture that says that you can't know something to be true unless you can prove it with absolute certainty. For example, some might say "You can't know that God exists or that Jesus really rose from the dead or that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God unless you can prove it absolutely." This leads us to the Certainty Principle.
The Certainty Principle says two things. First, it concedes that, yes, you can't know anything to be true with absolute certainty. In fact, you can't even be absolutely certain that you are reading this article! Hypothetically, you could be dreaming.
But the second and more important thing that the Certainty Principle states is that absolute certainty is not required for you to know something to be true. Sufficient certainty is all that is required. This is just how knowledge works.
For example, as I write this I am sitting in a coffee shop and looking out the window at my car. I parked it there about thirty minutes ago, I remember where I parked it, and I am looking at it. Now, it is remotely possible that, while I wasn't looking, a drunken tow truck driver pulled up, hauled my car away, and then replaced it with a car just like mine. That is possible, but as I look out the window I have a sufficient amount of certainty that allows me to rightly say, "I know that's my car."
Likewise, if you are a college student, you could say "Professor, I didn't study because I wasn't absolutely certain the test was going to be today. You could have gotten sick and postponed it." Your professor would rightly say, "I told you the test was going to be today. You knew well enough. You are responsible to take it."
The Certainty Principle tells us that there comes a point where you're sure enough about something that you can rest in the knowledge that it is true and thus become responsible to act upon it. So we can't wait until absolute proof is presented before we will believe something to be true, but must be willing to consider the facts and go where they reasonably lead.
How to Test a Worldview
Now that we see a bit about how knowledge works and how we come to know things, let's take a look at how to actually go about evaluating the competing worldviews in our culture. What is a worldview? A worldview is simply a comprehensive view of reality. And there are many worldviews out there such as Humanism, Buddhism, Deism, Naturalism, Postmodernism, Christian Theism, Islamic Theism, and Nihilism—to name a few.
How are we to think about this competition of worldviews? There is a drive in our culture today to affirm everybody in whatever he or she believes. That raises an important question. Why can't we all just be right? Why do we have to say "This is true and that is false; this is right and that is wrong"?
There are two reasons. First, very often different worldviews contradict each other at the core. So it is not possible that they could both be true. For example, take Atheism and Theism. Theism says, "God exists," and without this, Theism falls apart. Atheism says, "God does not exist," and without this, Atheism falls apart. So if it's really true that God exists, Atheism cannot be true. On the other hand, if it's really true that God does not exist, Theism cannot be true. Of course, God either exists or he doesn't. So one of these worldviews has to fail.
The second reason we can't all be right is because there is, of course, only one reality and we all live in it. And our worldviews either fit or fail to fit the nature of the world we live in. Different worldviews paint fundamentally different pictures of reality. But since there is only one reality, only one worldview can match reality as it actually is and thus be true. All other worldviews would be painting pictures different from reality and thus would be essentially false.
For the sake of illustration, let's assume that DaVinci's Mona Lisa represents reality. Now consider Grant Wood's American Gothic. There is much that it has in common with the Mona Lisa (faces, backgrounds, etc.), but it is essentially a different picture. Take Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam. Again, there is much that it has in common with the Mona Lisa (eyes, hair, etc.), but it is not the Mona Lisa. Now let's consider a replica of the Mona Lisa. Of course, it represents the Mona Lisa (i.e., reality) as it actually is. In the same way, since there is only one reality, only one worldview could paint a picture of reality as it actually is.
This leads to the fundamental question we have to ask when evaluating a worldview, "Is this worldview consistent with reality or not?"
It seems to me that there are at least three tests by which we can determine whether a worldview is consistent with reality. First is the Test of Logical Consistency, which asks "Is this worldview consistent with itself?" If this worldview represents reality, in order to be consistent with reality it has to be consistent with itself. Second is the Test of Historical Consistency, which asks "Is this worldview consistent with history?" History tells us what the world has been like up to this point. So if a worldview is going to fit reality, it will have to be consistent with history. Third is the Test of Experiential Consistency, which asks "Is this worldview consistent with life as it presents itself to us?" If a worldview is going to fit reality, it is going to have to fit the data that life lays out before us.
Though I do not want to oversimplify the various worldviews in our culture (there is always more to learn), I do want to show that worldviews tend to have core, decisive elements that allow the average Joe on the street to evaluate them in light of the tests just mentioned.
How to Test a Worldview - Postmodernism
Let's take a few examples. First, Postmodernism. Postmodernism is perhaps the most pervasive, fundamental worldview in our culture today. The essence of Postmodernism is the notion that everybody decides for himself what is true and what is right. You hear Postmodernism when you hear people say things like "That's true for you, but not for me," or "You have your truth; I have mine," or "That's just your personal belief."
The core truth claim of Postmodernism is that there is no overarching truth that applies to everybody. And this core truth claim, by the way, is the overarching truth that applies to everybody! Of course, in claiming that there is no overarching truth that applies to everybody, it is making an overarching truth claim that applies to everybody. This, of course, is a contradiction, causing Postmodernism to fail the Test of Logical Consistency. Thus, Postmodernism cannot fit reality as it actually is.
I find this utterly fascinating! The worldview that governs so much of our culture at a fundamental level could not possibly be true. And you do not have to go very deep to see it.
How to Test a Worldview - Naturalism
Another example is Naturalism. At its core, Naturalism says that matter and energy are all there is (thus, it is essentially Atheistic). You hear this worldview when you hear people say things like "Everything has to have a ‘scientific' explanation," which is often code for "Naturalistic explanation." So everything in life has to be explained in terms of the properties of matter and energy alone.
One of the problems with Naturalism is that it just doesn't fit our collective experience of life. Life presents itself to us as including things like relationships, commitment, love, hate, etc. But Naturalism does not have room for these things. Atoms cannot love; energy cannot hate. Naturalism paints a picture of reality that clashes with the world as we know it. So Naturalism fails the Test of Experiential Consistency and thus cannot fit reality.
It should be noted that the Naturalist has a high price to pay for the worldview he embraces. The Naturalist must say that the things that we all value in life—love, relationships, beauty, justice—are mere illusions. A consistent Naturalist will admit this.
But the Naturalist has a deeper problem. How can mere matter and energy have an illusion? Of course, it can't. At this point, we realize that Naturalism fails the Test of Logical Consistency as well, requiring illusions which Naturalism cannot allow.
How to Test a Worldview - Islam
What about Islam? Islam depends on the notion that the Bible has been fundamentally corrupted. Islam has to claim this because, while it affirms that the Bible as originally written is the Word of God, there are core contradictions between the Bible as we have it today and the teachings of Islam.
For example, the Bible teaches that Jesus is the Son of God, and without this teaching Christianity falls apart. But Islam teaches that Jesus is not the Son of God, and without this teaching Islam falls apart. Again, the Bible teaches that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead, and without this teaching Christianity falls apart. But Islam teaches that Jesus did not die on the cross and rise from the dead, and without this teaching Islam falls apart. So there are clear contradictions between the core teachings of the Bible as we have it today and the core teachings of Islam. And the only way Islam can maintain that the Bible is the Word of God and avoid these kinds of contradictions is by claiming that the Bible as originally written came to be fundamentally corrupted at some point in time.
So then, the question becomes "When was the Bible corrupted?" One possibility is before the Koran was written in the seventh century. The problem with this possibility is that the Koran itself refers to the Bible as a reliable document at the time in which the Koran was written.
For example, Koran 5:47 says "Let the People of the Gospel [i.e., Christians] judge by what God hath revealed therein. If any do fail to judge by the light of what God hath revealed, they are no better than those who rebel." This is a call issued by the Koran in the seventh century for Christians to listen to what God had revealed in the New Testament. This call only makes sense if the New Testament had been faithfully preserved through the seventh century, because only then could they "judge by the light of what God hath revealed."
Likewise, Koran 5:68 says "Say: ‘O People of the Book [i.e., Jews and Christians]! Ye have no ground to stand upon unless ye stand fast by the Law [i.e., the Old Testament], the Gospel [i.e., the New Testament], and all the revelation that has come to you from your Lord.'" Again, this assumes that the Bible is reliable at the time of the writing of the Koran because you can't "stand fast" by what has essentially been lost through corruption.
So, the Koran itself assumes that the Bible had been faithfully preserved, at least through the seventh century when the Koran was written. Of course, for Islam to suggest that the Bible had become fundamentally corrupted before the seventh century would lead to a contradiction, causing Islam to fail the Test of Logical Consistency.
Of course, the other possibility is that the Bible came to be corrupted at some point after the seventh century. The problem with this is that we have a massive amount of New Testament manuscripts dating as far back as the second century and Old Testament manuscripts dating back even earlier that are virtually identical with our Bibles today. This rules out the possibility of the kind of Biblical corruption that Islam requires after the second century. And of course, for Islam to suggest that the Bible had become fundamentally corrupted after the second century would simply clash with history, causing Islam to fail the Test of Historical Consistency.
So where does that leave us? The Koran does not allow for a corrupted Bible before the seventh century. History itself shows that the Bible could not have been corrupted after the second century. So there is no time left in which the Bible could have been corrupted. And since Islam depends on the notion that the Bible has been fundamentally corrupted, we see that Islam as a worldview cannot fit reality.
What About Tolerance?
With all this talk about different worldviews failing to fit reality, you might wonder what happened to tolerance. It sure doesn't sound tolerant, does it? But what is tolerance?
Our modern notion of tolerance is that you can't say that someone else's beliefs are wrong. If you do, you are being intolerant. But that is not what tolerance has always meant. The historic meaning of tolerance is that you should be willing to live peacefully and respectfully with those you believe, and even say, are wrong.
If you think about it, our modern "redefined" understanding of tolerance doesn't even make sense. If you can't say something is wrong or false, there is nothing left to tolerate.
But even more than this, our modern understanding of tolerance undercuts itself. It does the very thing that it claims ought not to be done. It says, essentially, that it is wrong for you to say that someone else is wrong. This, of course, fails the Test of Logical Consistency, and thus cannot be an approach that fits reality.
The historic meaning of tolerance is actually a reflection of the teaching of Jesus himself, and this is how we ought to approach others and the worldviews they hold.
The Call of Jesus
This leads us, finally, to the call of Jesus. John 1:17 states, "The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." One of the implications of this verse is simply that grace and truth must be held together when evaluating different worldviews, and when relating to the people that hold them.
If we hold onto truth without grace, we beat people up with our words and we fail to follow the Jesus who was called "the friend of sinners" and who humbled himself even to the point of death on a cross. If we hold onto grace without truth, we find ourselves no longer in touch with reality, but rather blinded by a pretend world that doesn't match the real world as it actually is.
The Apostle Peter shows the need for both when he says in 1 Peter 3:15, "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have [referring to truth]. But do this with gentleness and respect [referring to grace]."
May it be so with each of us.
Rev. Chris Daniel is the Executive Director of the Richmond Center for Christian Study. This article is based on the first of five sessions of an apologetics course that Chris originally presented at Virginia Commonwealth University (March 24 -April 21, 2010). Details and audio recordings can be found here. For further discussion with Chris and others on this topic, visit richmondstudycenter.org/posts/6441
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