Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept

  • James W. Sire
  • Sep 1, 2004
  • Series: Volume 7 - 2004

Sire, James W. Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004. 161 pp.

Since the publication of his popular book The Universe Next Door, many academics have dubbed James Sire the evangelical expert on worldview analysis. This is understandable, since this book constitutes a brilliant summary and analysis of many worldviews, which has been revised and kept relevant through four editions. Yet, as Sire admits, The Universe Next Door has always lacked a complete definition of "worldview" and a thorough study of that concept itself. Sire writes his newest book, Naming the Elephant, in an effort to fill this gap.

This book is a quick read, consisting of just over 150 pages of thought-provoking and clearly-written text. The content includes a brief history of the worldview concept (adapted largely from David Naugle's more detailed historical survey found in his book Worldview), an in-depth analysis of this concept, and a new definition of "worldview," which is revised from the definition offered in The Universe Next Door. Sire wraps up his book with a helpful "so-what?" chapter that answers the question of why one ought to be concerned with the study of worldviews. He argues convincingly that such study is necessary in order for one adequately to analyze oneself, other individuals, cultures, or academic fields. That is, Sire rightly portrays the study of worldviews qua worldviews and the study of particular worldviews themselves as aids in the ultimate pursuit to understand existence.

Although Sire's book is helpful in these ways, it is not without its major problems and confusions. These fall under three categories: epistemological and ontological confusion, an epistemically vacuous foundation for Christian belief, and unjustified pessimism pertaining to humanity's common ability to reason.

One major point consistently made throughout this book is that it is appropriate to place "ontology before epistemology." This phrase is confusing, and Sire does little to clarify its meaning. Is "before" intended chronologically, in which case Sire seems to suggest that one may not rightly think about how one gains knowledge or justification unless one has already spent time studying what does and does not exist? Or is "before" intended logically, so that Sire is asserting that any headway in epistemology always remains contingent upon ontology – and not vice versa? Sire is not clear on this question, and he seems to be using "before" in both senses at different points in the book.

"In the biblical worldview," Sire writes, "...everything is first and foremost determined by the nature and character of God. It cannot be said too strongly: Ontology precedes epistemology" (55-56). Sire's argument here – and in several other similar passages – is that human knowledge is contingent upon an ontological fact, and so, in this way, ontology precedes epistemology. But this argument fails to establish any of the interesting interpretations of "ontology before epistemology" given above. Postmodernists aside, few if any thinkers would disagree with the fact that human knowledge is only possible because of some ontological fact, whether that be the laws of nature, survival of the fittest, God, or something else. This simple belief in no way means that the study of ontology must come before the study of epistemology, chronologically or logically.

Regardless of which interpretation Sire actually means, his important point seems to be that only a "presupposed" and "unquestioned" ontology can validate any epistemology. For Sire, this presupposed ontology is one's worldview. Sire communicates that once one chooses to place ontological presuppositions before epistemology, one may not return and modify one's ontology because of epistemic concerns. Thus, Sire avers that it is appropriate for ontology to inform epistemology but not vice versa. Consequently, regarding metaphysical issues, Sire states, "[t]hese concepts are not questioned" (79).

In order to make any progress in epistemology or ontology, Sire claims, one must initially presuppose a worldview. He presents seven questions that make up one's worldview: 1) What is prime reality? 2) What is the nature of external reality? 3) What is a human being? 4) What happens to a person at death? 5) Why is it possible to know anything at all? 6) How do we know what is right and wrong? Finally, 7) What is the meaning of human history? Sire's point is that there are no justified answers to any of these questions, because as he says, that would be to place epistemology before ontology. At the fundamental worldview level, "we can no longer give telling reasons for the views we hold" (76). Thus, he swiftly brushes aside natural theology, metaphysics, anthropology, epistemology, metaethics, and the philosophy of history. Such studies only operate upon the false method of placing epistemology before ontology. As Sire himself clarifies, aside from presupposition, "our only other recourse" is "speculation" (89).

At this point, one may legitimately ask what the difference is between Sire's "presupposition" and "speculation." The word "speculation" refers to the act of taking something to be true upon insufficient evidence. But this is just what Sire means by presupposition; indeed, Sire claims that we ought to take our entire worldview to be true upon no evidence – in his words, a worldview is "presupposed," "untested," "groundless," "intuitive," "pretheoretical," and "without reason" (76). But then why choose Christian presuppositions over those of other worldviews? Sire does note that "If God, the all-knowing knower of all things, made us in his image, we can be the sometimes-knowing knowers of some things" (117; italics mine). But the most important question remains: Why, apart from reason and evidence, should one believe this antecedent condition?

Sire offers the reader two considerations. First, he goes the way of reformed epistemology and invokes the Calvinistic idea of the sensus divinitatis, which he describes as follows: "This sense is not so much the conclusion of an argument as an intuitive grasp of an idea or a being who just comes to mind. In this sense, belief in God is like our belief that two plus two equals four. We just ‘see' that it does" (81). The problem here is that there is any number of adherents to any number of religions who sincerely claim to know that their religion is true because of an internal sense of the divine. Thus, the sensus divinitatis, though largely sound according to Christian theology, is silent on the question of why one ought to presuppose Christianity in particular.

Second, Sire goes the way of presuppositionalism and offers pragmatic justification for accepting the Christian worldview. He writes, "All of us desire to know the truth, not just a story constructed by ourselves – each of us as individuals some of us as communities or all of us as human beings. And there is at least one worldview that shows how that is possible" (119). Here, Sire communicates that Christianity works as a consistent explanation of how humans are able to know truths; therefore, it is acceptable. Yet, again, the majority of other worldviews make the same claim. Also, assuming that humans are, as Sire states, desirous to know the truth, and not just to know what works, we need standards of truth other than the pragmatic standard used by Sire. Thus, this consideration also offers no input as to why one ought to accept the Christian worldview over others.

Ironically, in offering only two non-evidential considerations for why one ought to accept the Christian worldview in particular, Sire forgets to include an important part of the Christian worldview itself; namely, the role of reason to confirm God's word. As Chesterton's fictional detective Father Brown quips, "another part of my trade, too, made me sure that you weren't a priest...You attacked reason...It's bad theology." It is clear in the Bible that there are reasons to accept Christianity, and thus, that humans don't need to just presuppose the Christian worldview. God's way can be justified through reason; thus, in Isaiah 1:18, He exhorts His people, "‘Come now, let us reason together,' says the Lord." The Christian worldview can be shown to be rational even to those who are of other beliefs; therefore, Peter commands his readers, "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have." Paul's use of reason in Athens (Acts 17:16-34), Luke's evidential concern and chariness (Luke 1:1-4), and Jesus' own rational arguments (e.g., Matthew 22) are some of the plethora of other examples spread throughout the Bible.

In order to show that ontology must ultimately be presupposed, Sire seeks to show that no "modernist," evidential epistemology will work. Unfortunately, Sire makes the all-too-common mistake of reducing all of modern epistemology down to Cartesian strong foundationalism. If an epistemology advocates indubitable foundational beliefs, then that epistemology – so the mistaken view goes – must also advocate a human ability, autonomous of God, to have certainty and infinite knowledge. Sire writes, "the core of the modern mind [is] the declaration that human reason (while known and experienced to be fallible), resting on the existence of God, whose existence is proved by that human reason, has the ability to acquire ‘perfect knowledge' of an infinitude of things" (61-62). But Sire is mistaken. Many "modern" epistemologies require certainty only in the foundations of knowledge, while allowing inductive and explanatory reasoning to justify non-basic beliefs. Indeed, Sire often seems to disregard inductive reasoning altogether; if we cannot have certainty, then we have no rational justification whatever: "...we cannot prove our worldview beyond the shadow of a doubt...So our commitment remains at least in part a matter of faith. In short, our worldview at its heart is presuppositional" (77). Also, innumerable modern thinkers have suggested epistemologies wherein humans may have knowledge through reason without suggesting in any way that they have access to infinite knowledge. Because Sire mistakenly maintains that a modern emphasis on reason necessarily leads one to support infallible knowledge of everything, he ignores the majority of modern epistemologies.

This misunderstanding leads Sire to an unjustified pessimism pertaining to human reason. Because human reason doesn't allow for certainty of everything, human reason alone can't allow for knowledge at all. Accordingly, the only way to knowledge at all is first to presuppose an ontology that allows one to have an explanation for how humans may have knowledge. But then we are back to that unjustifiable antecedent: If Christianity is true, then we may have knowledge. With no reason to accept this antecedent over a parallel statement about, for example, Islam, we are forever unable to give reason for the hope that is within us.

Jonah N. Schupbach
Western Michigan University
September 2004

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