The burden of proof

Jason Waymire
Editorials Editor

When students walk into a classroom here at Tech, it is likely that they will be faced with a chalkboard full of algebraic manipulations and Greek symbols. Or perhaps the lecture will consist of the conclusions drawn from the experiments of Dr. XYZ, which demonstrated some principle which we now take for granted.

This is how it should be. Many students would probably be perfectly happy to skip the algebra and believe the professor. The professor is supposed to know what's going on. But the algebra, or the experiment, or the deductions which support some truth claim are very important. If the truth claim is not supported with evidence, and if it is not self-evident, how do you know that it is really the truth?

Every legitimate academic discipline is rooted in factuality. This is not to say that everything which you read in a science or history book is cold hard fact. The point, though, is that legitimate bodies of truth are backed and supported by references to reality. The scholars and scientists who bring new knowledge into our midst are usually very concerned that their theories are amply backed by some sort of proof. Attorneys, too, are ultimately judged by how well they manage to support a case, and justification of 'truth' is the ostensible aim and duty of any philosopher.

None of this should be a revelation. We all know that assertions and proposals have to be backed by good reasons in many professional endeavors. This is one of the reasons why the following observation is so surprising: I find that many people whom I meet and talk to have very little concern about supporting their own versions of truth—what I'll call their particular 'worldviews'.

A rough and ready definition for 'worldview' would be 'the collection of beliefs which a person holds about reality,' whether it concerns matters of science, human nature, ethics, religious beliefs or the like. Many of the deepest and most long-lived conflicts among humans derive from fundamental worldview schisms. We find many splits in our own country over questions of race, of 'rights', and of politics—all of which derive from the variety of worldviews among us.

Insofar as a person lives consistently with their own worldview, it is very important. We generally live life according to our beliefs about what is right and wrong, beautiful and ugly, holy and profane—all of which are encompassed by a worldview. It follows, then, that it is very important to adhere to a worldview which is based in reality. If you live by rules and beliefs which don't have any basis in truth, isn't it a strong possibility that you are wasting your time?

Socrates is reputed to have held that "the unexamined life is not worth living." I wouldn't quite agree with this, but I can say that it can be a very enriching and fulfilling experience to examine the factuality of your own fundamental beliefs. It can also be quite shocking and even shattering, depending on how true the fundamental beliefs happen to be. Socrates also told each of us to "know thyself." I would suggest that knowing the basis for the things which you hold to be true is a crucial step in knowing yourself. Your worldview is part of you; if you were a computer, it would be the software which substantially controls everything else, at least in the conscious realm.

Our particular culture currently places a major emphasis on 'diversity', which (in the best sense of the concept) means a multiplicity of divergent worldviews. There is no question that we can learn quite a bit from people who believe different things than we do. If nothing else, it's often more interesting to disagree than to agree, so long as disagreements are dealt with in an environment of mutual respect and civility.

There is one tendency, however, which is mildly disturbing. It is what I'll call the egalitarianism of ideas—the concept which people bring into play when they insist that everyone's particular worldview is equally valid, equally true. Claims like this are generally accompanied with words like 'tolerance,' and are often couched in sanctimonious terminology. In most cases I think that this is done with good intentions: to preserve harmony and ensure that nobody comes away feeling that they have been slighted. Among conflicting truth claims, however, there is no question of tolerance or moralism; it is a question of truth. If two worldviews fundamentally contradict one another, there is no chance that each is equally true, unless they are both equally false.

I'll use myself as an illustration. My particular worldview is that of the evangelical Christian. As such, I believe that the fundamentals of Christianity are true, and that truth claims which contradict those fundamental tenets are false. Again, it is not a matter of tolerance or moralism—it is a question of truth, and of consistency. Quite simply, the opposite of true is false. One of the more extraordinary Christian claims is that Jesus was raised from the dead; if I believe this to be true, I must (by definition!) believe that any claim to the contrary is false. All of us assume that this relationship holds true whenever we assume that 'true' and 'false' are meaningful categories. [Incidentally, Dr. William Craig will explicate the basis for the historicity of the resurrection Saturday evening in the Student Center Ballroom, 6 p.m.]

If and when I have a 'worldview discussion' with someone whose fundamental beliefs differ from my own, I generally learn quite a bit. I don't insist that anyone agree with me—it would be futile and silly, and it will never happen anyway. But I do ask for honesty—from myself, and from the other person. And I ask that truth claims which contradict my own be backed up with evidence, whether it be philosophic, physical, historical, scientific, etc. I wouldn't expect anyone to believe something I declare to be truth but do not defend as such.

If I should be convinced that something which I currently believe is false, I am willing to amend my beliefs accordingly. It is a matter of intellectual integrity. I have absolutely no desire to live by a lie, however psychologically satisfying or existentially useful it might be. I appreciate it when anyone shows me a legitimate flaw in my own worldview. If I really want to know the truth, I should be willing to accept it when it is held up to my face.

Questions or comments about this page? Feedback
Copyright © 1997 by Gregory S. Scherrer, Editor
and by the Student Publications Board