What is a Worldview?
1. What is a Worldview and Why Does it Matter in the Abortion Debate?
Worldviews are clusters of foundational beliefs that determine how one sees the world at large. Think of them as glasses, interpretive frameworks through which a person views reality and makes sense of it. Everyone has a worldview whether they intentionally choose it or passively absorb it from the surrounding culture. As Nancy Pearcy points out, “In every decision we make, we are not just deciding what we want to do. We are expressing our view of the purpose of human life.” To effectively engage arguments, we must often address what people ultimately believe about the nature and purpose of human life itself. That requires getting down to the worldview level.
At a minimum, one’s larger worldview speaks to the following areas:
- Metaphysics: What is the nature of reality? What is ultimate reality?
- Epistemology: How can we know the world? What counts as knowledge?
- Anthropology: What is human nature? What makes humans valuable?
- Ethics/morality: What’s wrong with us? What’s right and wrong? What’s the fix?
- Cosmology: How did we get here? What happens after death? Where is history going and is it guided or unguided?
Neutrality on these foundational questions is impossible. How you answer them will determine your worldview and influence the assumptions you bring to the abortion debate. As we shall see, the worldview assumptions that make abortion plausible to millions of Americans are deeply entrenched in western culture and have been for hundreds of years. They won’t go away overnight, especially if they remain largely uncontested. For pro-life advocates, a pressing worldview problem is the loss of moral knowlege — namely, the wide-spread cultural assumption that moral claims do not count as real knowledge, only personal preferences (or perspectives). For many today, truth can be found in the hard sciences but never in religion and ethics. That assumption did not arrive in the 1960s, as many erroneously believe. Its roots go back to the late 17th century and the dawn of the Enlightenment. In short, pro-life advocates need a good dose of patience. Those who think we’ve failed because abortion remains legal haven’t read their history.
2. Which Worldviews Are the Major Players?
In western culture, the three major worldview contenders are Philosophical Naturalism, Postmodernism, and Theism. Each of these major worldviews influences one’s view of knowledge, human nature, ethics, and purpose — all foundational to formulating a position on abortion. We will analyze these worldviews later in this session, but for now, let’s summarize them:
Summary: The universe is random. We are the product of a blind watchmaker.
- Metaphysics: Reality is strictly physical and consists of the material world alone. Indeed, everything that exists is the product of strict physical laws and blind random chance.
- Epistemology: Only what we observe via the five senses counts as knowledge (a view known as scientism). Non-material things like souls, minds, morals, and human value cannot be measured empirically and thus are mere human constructs rather than items of real knowledge.
- Anthropology: Human beings are strictly physical, the product of blind evolutionary forces. You are nothing more than the sum total of your physical parts and properties. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as human nature, only biology. Nor is there any basis for human dignity. Everything about you — your thoughts, aims, desires, and beliefs — are strictly determined by physics and chemistry. There are no souls and no non-material minds, only physical brain states. Indeed, in a universe that came from nothing and was caused by nothing, human beings, like all living things, are cosmic accidents reduced to physical matter and functional characteristics. The logic of the argument is clear enough: Nature has no purpose. Human bodies are part of nature. Therefore, human bodies have no purposes.
- Ethics / Morality: In an unguided universe, it’s difficult to pinpoint what is objectively wrong with us because we were not crafted to fulfill any intrinsic purposes. Other than chucking superstition (religion) and embracing science, no fix is needed. Ethics in such a world are illusory and as such are merely contractual. Applied to abortion, naturalism provides no basis for the fundamental dignity of any human being, born or unborn. At best, autonomy and consent govern how we treat others.
- Cosmology: We came from nothing and were caused by nothing. We simply exist, then die. Death is final and we answer to no one.
Application to abortion:
- Humans are accidental. If they are accidental, they have no intrinsic purposes, no intrinsic value, and no fundamental dignity at any stage of development. Katha Pollitt is right: Vacuuming out your womb is morally no different than vacuuming out your house. Talk of human life as “precious” or intrinsically valuable means nothing in a naturalistic worldview. All we have are biological machines predetermined to function according to strict laws of chemistry and physics.
Summary: The universe can’t be known.
- Metaphysics: Ultimate reality does not exist objectively. Rather, we construct it subjectively through language.
- Epistemology: Even if objective moral truths exist, we can never know them as such because no one has privileged access to what is real. Instead, all moral knowledge is received through the bias of our own cultural lenses as crafted by our own individual language communities. True moral knowledge requires bomb-proof certainty, and no one anywhere has that. Thus, morals — and even human beings themselves — are reduced to language construction. All we have are perspectives, no objective truths.
- Anthropology: Human nature is up for grabs. We can’t know it objectively. Rather, we socially construct it from place to place according to local culture. The human self is not a substantial entity we know objectively, but a floating construct created by language. We are only what we describe ourselves to be. In short, human nature is not fixed but is determined subjectively through linguistic conventions. On this view, writes Arkes, “there is no objective nature of human beings and no settled truths that arise from that nature. What we call human nature is socially constructed from one place to another according to the vagaries of local culture.” The Supreme Court’s famous “Mystery Passage” in the 1992 Casey decision is a case in point: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and the mystery of human life.” Even if human nature exists objectively, we can never know it as it truly is. All we have are the perspectives of our own language communities.
- Ethics / Morality: Like human nature and knowledge, morals are not objective. Rather, what’s right and wrong is socially constructed from place to place. Social good is whatever a given society takes it to be. Thus, what is wrong for us may not be wrong for a different language community.
- Cosmology: There is no Master Designer and no objective nature I am to fulfill. Human beings create themselves through language. There can be no final judgment because any constructed story but my own is oppressive.
Application to abortion:
- Given a human fetus has no objective nature or value outside my personal perspective, my thinking that a fetus has value is what gives him value. I literally create value for my unborn offspring by how I talk about him/her.
- Thus, you will hear the same mother describe an unwanted pregnancy as an “unwelcome intrusion” and a wanted one as “giving her life new meaning.” Her offspring’s value is determined strictly by how she talks of him. Or, imagine two women standing side-by-side, each 24 weeks pregnant. The first woman values her child and speaks of him as a gift to herself and her community. The second views her child similar to a rapist who invades her body without consent and violently curtails her liberty. Though each child is exactly at the same stage of development, given postmodernism, the first child has a right to life but the second does not. Absurd.
- Metaphysics: Ultimate reality is immaterial, namely, a personal God who created the material world. The material world exists, but it is not the only reality that exists. Immaterial things like souls, morals, logic, and human nature also exist. Because immaterial things exist, materialism is false.
- Epistemology: The physical world can be known, but so can non-physical things like morals, human nature, and the laws of logic (to name a few).
- Anthropology: On theism, human nature is fixed and objective. All humans have value because they equally bear the image of their Creator. Contra naturalism and postmodernism, humans are not mere biological machines or constructs of language, but image bearers designed to flourish according to their natures.
- Morals / Ethics: In a theistic universe, morals are not fictions we socially construct in our various language communities; they exist objectively and are grounded in the character of a holy God. Our job is to get in line with them. Our problem is that often we do not and thus need the fix of forgiveness. Applied to abortion, consent and autonomy, though important considerations, do not drive decision making. Objective moral truths grounded in a Creator do. Chief among those truths is that we should not intentionally harm innocent human beings.
- Cosmology: The universe was designed and fine-tuned to anticipate human life. As such, human beings will answer for how they fulfilled their intrinsic purposes.
Application to abortion:
- Christian theism in particular says that all humans have intrinsic value because they bear the image of God. Because they bear the image of God, the shedding of innocent blood (intentionally killing innocent human beings) is strictly forbidden. Abortion is the shedding of innocent blood. Therefore, abortion is immoral.
Which of those three major worldviews — Philosophical Naturalism, Postmodernism, or Theism — provides a more comfortable fit for the pro-life view? The obvious answer is Theism. Conversely, if your starting point is that humans are the product of blind random chance with no intrinsic purposes, a pro-life presentation grounded in the intrinsic dignity of human beings might sound like a foreign language! Put simply, we live in an uncertain age where critics bring radically different worldview assumptions to the table. Failure to understand and engage those worldviews means we talk right past each other.
- Lesson #1: Clearing the Ground
- Lesson #2: Abortion & Worldviews
- Lesson #3: What is the Unborn?
- Lesson #4: What Makes Humans Valuable? Part 1: The Substance View of Human Beings
- Lesson #5: What Makes Humans Valuable? Part 2: Specific Academic Challenges to the Substance View
- Lesson #6: What About Those Who Bite the Bullet?