The Worldview Fallacy

Nothing is more dangerous than a dogmatic worldview—nothing more constraining, more blinding to innovation, more destructive of openness to novelty.
-Stephen Jay Gould

“A particular philosophy of life or conception of the world.”

Worldview is often sited by religious believers as an authorization for logic that yields their desired conclusions. An example of this came up recently at a debate (not mine but attended) where a believer didn’t like a scientific conclusion. He dismissed the evidential outcome, replacing it and stating that his own conclusion was valid given a Christian worldview. In other words, he didn’t like the real answer so he changed the rules of analysis.

Worldview has nothing to do with fact. It is an overlay that makes one prone to bias, particularly a worldview based on the sacred texts of a deity. When a person places an immutable prerequisite in front of their thinking, logic becomes unreliable. If a conclusion conflicts with the precondition it is rejected then modifications are applied—bias, rationalization, reinterpretation of evidence, dissonance-reducing confabulation—until an acceptable result is reached.

Worldview has been described as seeing through color-filtered glasses, usually rose-colored to represent a desirable bias. While there is something to this concept—we are all influenced by our knowledge and environment—it is incorrect to assume that all worldviews are equally valid. My Christian friend could have been confronted by a Scientologist, claiming that her worldview accepts that emotional baggage is traceable to engram-inducing in-utero trauma. He could have been confronted by an astrologer whose worldview holds that good and bad days are due to planetary alignment. But on this day he was confronted by a scientifically educated person with high confidence (from the knowledge of a consensus of cosmologists and physicists) that the universe is 13.72 billion years old, rather than the 6000 years his book implied.

Putting forth a false worldview as an analytic shield is like pretending to throw a magic spell that automatically elevates your conclusions to incontrovertible “truth.” At best it is a demonstration of believence in full bloom, at worst a dodge or manipulation.

I have also seen worldview used to encumber when, seeing their own argument attacked, a believer tried to counterattack but accusing his opponent of having her own falsifying worldview. This tactic is reminiscent of the accusation that atheists practice a religion—faith in science. In other words, the childish ploy of “Oh yeah? Well you too.” Not exactly high debate. The problem again is the assumption of balance, this time to an equally low level, not admitting (or worse not recognizing) the deficiency of this plane.

Some will retort that validity is in the eye of the beholder. Who is either side to judge whose worldview is valid and whose is not? Why not default them to equal footings? Rubbish. The best source of knowledge is a consensus of a majority of educated specialists within a particular field, unless of course the subject has already been dismissed (I’m thinking astrology here). Experts don’t always turn out to be correct but they have the best chance of being so. When the consensus shifts, so does the best current knowledge. Is this an Argument From Authority fallacy? No, because a consensus is not a single authority, and we simply do not have a more reliable method. Conception and non-evidential belief don’t even come close. Would you rather be subject to an Argument From Ignorance fallacy?

Until recently we have thought of these tactics as misrepresentation but it more appears to be honest belief, sad evidence that apologetic teachings are having some success molding opinions. Believers are not unthinking followers but apologists seed and feed their opinions. Given that these followers have a propensity to accept religious views, they then become resistant to physical explanations of nature. Worse, creation rationalizationists are laying claim to science itself, arguing that science is now proving deity and accusing real scientists of being the deceptive, illogical ones. It’s a classic attack switch tactic—take what your opposition accuses you of and reverse its direction.

Time will tell if the worldview tactic holds up. So far it’s providing many with a comforting belief bubble, a safe haven to reduce the dissonance stress of being in disagreement with the world’s most prominent scientists. But bubbles are thin…and they can pop.

3 thoughts on “The Worldview Fallacy

  1. Hi Phil,

    I gave a brief reply…”hmmmm”….as I began to read this article. As you know I’m a Christian and understand the statement made by the Christian. I don’t think it unrealistic for the Christian to use his or her worldview as a basis for understanding. After all this is their worldview so it would logically conclude that it provides a basis for explaining facts. To use their worldview as a basis for analysis is quite logical also. Isn’t it a bit unrealistic not to mention boastful that you possessed the “real” answer in contrast to the Christian’s. I think you made quite a leap in that respect not to mention an unfair conclusion about the Christian’s motive.

    1. The point of the essay is precisely that it can be incorrect to precede analysis of anything with worldview, in particular worldviews that persist in carrying historical error forward once best knowledge has determined its content to be likely false. The fact that a Christian–indeed I have met many who do exactly this–apply a religious-filter to their interpretation of everything does not make their conclusions correct; by definition it makes them suspect and biased. Proper consideration should never add additional variables to a question, let alone variables that are considered immutable. See the post on religious science:

      We would never consider a preliminary overlay of astrology or numerology to be proper. Religious overlays are equally inappropriate, based largely on revelation (hearsay) or philosophy.

      Having said this, it is valuable to observe when the religious overlay their worldview because it helps us understand how they come to their conclusions. It is strong evidence that those who claim the religious to be less intellectual than others are incorrect. But it helps explain how many of their conclusions are wrong–incorrect input yields incorrect output.

      Finally it is wrong to blindly assume that any one person, myself included, has the correct answers. That’s why best knowledge is determined by consensus of those most highly educated in a field. Proper functioning of those of us who try to educate others is to try hard to spread that consensus forward, differentiating it from opinion when we do editorialize.

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