Worldview, Secular Ethics, and Cognitive Dissonance: An Essay by Dan Tsouloufis (part 1)
“My Thoughts on Worldview, Secular Ethics, and Cognitive Dissonance” by Dan Tsouloufis
There are many people who grow up believing in God, then at some point in their life they no longer believe that God is real, and they come to the conclusion that naturalistic evolution is really the best explanation for why we are here. They confidently assert that evolution is well established and supported by the vast majority of scientists; and man’s invention of a deity was simply a means of providing a necessary framework for society to communicate its standards to everyone so everyone could agree on them. Thus, the standards from God were invented by man, not the other way around. And religion was invented by man in order to explain things he cannot understand, as well as provide a sense of social cohesion in society.
What I think these well-meaning people fail to realize is that the Darwinian evolutionary worldview lacks a premise – a foundation – and is wholly inadequate to makes sense of things, to make sense of reality. I also think that many people who hold this worldview don’t really act according to their professed beliefs, but rather live and act in a way that seems to value real objective standards as well as facts and evidence. In other words, it looks a lot like objective truth.
Therefore, while they may have come to accept that the naturalistic evolutionary worldview is the best explanation for their understanding of reality, it is likely they may not have contemplated all the ways that a coherent worldview needs to make sense of, and correspond to, reality. Moreover, it is likely they may not have detected the inconsistency between their professed beliefs in light of their actions and experience.
The following essay is my attempt to shed light on why it’s important to have a coherent worldview, and also to demonstrate why the naturalistic evolutionary worldview does not offer the best explanation of reality, due to its inadequate view of man’s nature and its inadequate understanding of ethics.
I believe that building, and maintaining, a well thought-out worldview is critical to how we make sense of things and how we understand reality. Therefore, it is imperative that our worldview is both coherent and consistent. Yet I have observed that it is quite common for people to profess a particular worldview while at the same time living in a manner that is fundamentally contrary to that worldview. This is known as cognitive dissonance, where people essentially do not live out or practice what they believe, due to the fact that their actions often contradict their stated beliefs. When this occurs, it should raise a red flag with regard to the veracity, and reliability, of their particular worldview.
To begin with, I believe a well thought-out worldview should seek to address the fundamental questions of our existence. In addition, any such worldview should offer the best explanation for reality. Thus, it should address questions such as: 1) Why are we here? 2) Why is there something rather than nothing? 3) Is ultimate reality physical or spiritual? 4) How did the universe come to be? 5) How did life originate? 6) What is the purpose of our existence? 7) Why are we significant? 8) Do we have a soul? 9) What happens after we die? 10) Is there an afterlife? 11) What is truth? 12) What is morality? 13) How do we determine right from wrong? 14) How do we determine justice? 15) Where do we derive our conscience? 16) Where do we derive our self-awareness? 17) Are good and evil real? 18) Why is there suffering? 19) Where do we derive our hope? 20) Where do we derive our fundamental worth as human beings?
I’m sure there are more questions that can be asked in addition to the twenty I came up with, but these comprise most of the primary philosophical questions that people tend to grapple with at one point or another during their lifetime. Therefore, addressing many of these questions is necessary in order to build a coherent worldview as well as analyze and assess competing worldviews. Once we’ve done that necessary work, the ultimate questions then become: which worldview makes the most sense of all these questions? Which worldview makes the most sense regarding man’s nature, taking into account the presence of sin and man’s sense of guilt? Which worldview makes the most sense in light of history? Which worldview is the most coherent and consistent when lived out from its foundational premises? And finally, which worldview offers the most compelling solution and the most satisfying answers to man’s fundamental problem and man’s fundamental need? As I stated above, if one’s actions, in practice, do not accord with their stated beliefs, it should raise a red flag regarding the veracity, and reliability, of their worldview. Moreover, since any notion of truth should correspond to objective reality, it’s imperative that we seek to know the truth in order to better understand reality.
As I mentioned earlier, it is commonplace for people to profess a particular worldview while at the same time living in a manner that is fundamentally contrary to that worldview. Here’s how I think this plays out.
Many professed atheists and skeptics clearly borrow notions of morality and justice from the Judeo-Christian heritage they were brought up in, but then they remove God and what do they replace Him with? Well, scientism and Darwinism. Unfortunately, the Darwinian evolutionary framework not only precludes any notions of morality and justice, but it actually compels the opposite. What notions of morality and justice can there be in a world determined by survival of the fittest? There would be no moral sense or moral intuition within us, but only amoral instincts protecting and promoting our own survival. Thus, any deeds of altruism would be mere accidents with no justification for being a good and noble thing. For there would be no such thing as a good and noble thing, since whatever happens just happens, without any spiritual reality imposing itself on us and compelling us to act in a way that we ought to act. This sense of “ought-ness” is precisely what’s woven into the fabric of the universe that God created, and which we are all held accountable to. This is the heart of what Paul is describing in Romans 1:18-32. Because God exists, we not only can know something about nature, but we can know something about the God who created nature, and we have no excuse for denying it. Paul here is appealing to the general revelation that all of mankind is endowed with, but which many suppress the truth due to their sinful nature. Thus, even those who do not accept the Bible as God’s special revelation are still accountable to God their Creator, since He has made His existence known to everyone. Further, since we are created in His image, we therefore bear His likeness and we have His law written on our hearts, to which our consciences also bear witness (Romans 2:14-15).
Fundamentally, what the Darwinian worldview is truly lacking is a premise, a foundation. Philosophically, it is untenable. Moreover, all of the non-traditional, secular ethical systems promoted by the Darwinian worldview are incoherent, whether it’s utilitarianism (i.e. the greatest happiness for the greatest number), or pragmatism (i.e. what works), or consequentialism (i.e. actions judged solely by their consequences), because each one of these ethical systems assumes at the outset that there is no ultimate truth and no moral absolutes. There is only “what works” based on the most useful outcome or result. But this pragmatism is based primarily on perception (i.e. knowledge derived by the senses, by experience). This is because embedded within this worldview is an unfounded assumption that evolution not only produces biological progress, but moral and ethical progress as well. The theory is, that as man evolves and societies evolve, individuals and people groups learn, by experience, how to adapt to one another and live with one another in order to both survive and to advance their society. Thus, any moral standards are determined by each society based on each society’s evolved sense of right and wrong. The better that people are able to adapt and experience how to get along and treat each other well, the better chance the society has to survive and to keep evolving. Justice is also determined by each society, as each society adapts and develops its own set of rules and punishments in order to protect the society as a whole, allowing it to survive and to keep evolving.
The moral theory I have just described is believed by millions, if not tens of millions, of well-meaning people. But the question we must ask is: is it true? Are moral standards solely determined by each society through a long process of evolution? Or do there exist fixed moral standards which transcend the individual and the society? Thus, I think there are at least five reasons why this moral theory, and the various secular ethical systems promoted by it, should be rejected. One, the Darwinian evolutionary worldview absolutely precludes any notions of morality and justice. Two, one is not able to deem something good or bad until experiencing it first and seeing the outcome or result. Three, even when it’s demonstrated that certain behaviors can lead to bad, or even deadly, outcomes, one really can’t judge the behavior itself bad or undesirable, only the outcome. Four, this worldview clearly borrows from some aspects of the Judeo-Christian heritage, but its adherents are unwilling to acknowledge it. And five, the world as it exists today, after supposedly millions of years of evolution, hardly seems to demonstrate any tangible moral and ethical progress made by humankind.
You see, in the Christian worldview, humans are hard-wired to be moral creatures, as opposed to animals who function mostly by instinct. And humans have a moral intuition that goes beyond what they learn merely by experience. Children have a sense of right and wrong very early on, even before they’ve had much life experience. And certainly children, including even toddlers, demonstrate behaviors such as disobedience, selfishness, and later on, once they can talk, lying. These behaviors don’t have to be taught or learned, they are inherited at birth. Why do you think that is? Could it be man’s inherited sinful and rebellious nature? Additionally, man’s sinful nature allows for both: 1) the ability to live according to certain standards of right and wrong including his own, and 2) the ability to break certain standards of right and wrong including his own. In fact, man inherently knows that he cannot consistently live according to his own standards of right and wrong, even while expecting others to live according to the same standards. Why do you think that is? Whatever it is, I don’t think it’s plausible that mere naturalistic evolution can account for all these dynamics in man’s nature and man’s behavior.
The world is certainly much more technologically advanced than it was a few thousand years ago, but that does not equate to moral progress. It’s just that today, man has more means at his disposal to harm himself as well as others. When we look at the world as it is, we still see massive evidence of human wreckage and misery, and fundamentally man’s nature has not changed at all. So whatever Darwinian evolution has supposedly achieved in advancing our moral progress, it has not achieved anything close to a moral utopia, nor has it eradicated many of the moral evils of the past. On the contrary, we find an abundance of moral evil and darkness, such as slavery, sex-trafficking, pornography, perversion, drug addiction, child abuse, abortion, racism, terrorism, despotism, political corruption, corporate corruption, as well as other vices such as self-centeredness and self-absorption, facilitated by our society’s obsession with social media and worship of self. With all this in mind, I think it’s reasonable for us to ask: is this the moral progress that Darwinian evolution has achieved? Or, is the better explanation that man’s nature hasn’t fundamentally changed at all, and the problem with the world – then, as today – is man’s pride, lust, envy, greed, selfishness, deceitfulness, and rebellion? In other words, man’s sinful nature as a result of the fall, as described in Genesis 3. Thus, should we accept the premise that individuals can ultimately determine their own standards of morality and justice? Should we accept the premise that seven billion people on the planet are each their own moral governor?
Philosophically speaking, there must be an objective standard by which we can know and judge something to be true, right, good, and just — or false, wrong, bad, and unjust. The utilitarian, pragmatic, and consequentialist ethical systems simply do not offer that, unless one builds their own moral framework into them, even though philosophically they have no rational ground for doing so. Moreover, the evolutionary worldview undergirding these secular ethical systems does not offer mankind any ultimate hope or purpose. We’re born by chance, we live by chance, but we die with a harsh certainty. What is the purpose of man’s existence if he merely arrives here by purposeless, directionless, random chance forces, where his primary goal is to survive and pass on his genes to his offspring? What rational ground is there for meaning, purpose, truth, and justice? The only coherent answer is silence.
The overarching problem with these ethical systems is that they’re an illusion. The reason that they’re an illusion is because they don’t address the heart, where sin and evil take root. These systems only deal with outward behaviors, but not the evil that stems from the heart. Thus, what could these ethical systems possibly have to say about sins such as pride, greed, lust, envy, or covetousness? These sins first take root in the heart before they are acted out. But these systems have nothing to say about this until such behaviors are actually acted out. But isn’t it a little late by then? You see, it’s all so utterly inconsistent, and we would never bring up our children that way. As parents, what do we seek to teach and cultivate in our children? Simple outward morality? (e.g. don’t do this, don’t do that). Of course not. We teach them about character and attitude and virtue, attributes which are cultivated in the heart and serve as a guide to help direct their behavior. So when an atheist or skeptic says something like, “Hedonism is objectively wrong because of the results it produces,” the problem is, by the time we find out, it’s a little too late. It would have been much better if the would-be hedonist had his heart changed long before his hedonism took root and began to consume him. But in his system, there is nothing to know and nothing to judge until the undesirable results are ultimately manifested. So, to ask a probing question: does an evolutionary worldview favor hedonism? Well, if one’s happiness leads to hedonism, wouldn’t that be the ultimate utilitarian ideal? It certainly appears that it would. An atheist may denounce that it would, but he has no rational explanation for his denunciation.
Therefore, our morality and our ethics need to come from an objective source, an objective standard, which of course utilitarianism and pragmatism are devoid of. Moreover, one either believes that our dignity, liberty, and rights come from God, or they come from somewhere else. What are the options? The State? The whims and fads of the culture? Common sense? If so, whose common sense? Alexander Hamilton’s or Aaron Burr’s? Abraham Lincoln’s or Stephen Douglas’s? You see the problem? Ethics must be objective, not subjective, for the well-being of society, in order to truly protect the rights of the individual. Hence, ethics must transcend the subjective self. Unless there is a basis upon which they are firmly rooted and grounded, any ethical judgments are, in reality, merely arbitrary. As G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “The Declaration of Independence bases all rights on the fact that God created all men equal; and it is right; for if they were not created equal, they were certainly evolved unequal. There is no basis for democracy except in a dogma about the divine origin of man.”
In the various secular ethical systems, there are no inherent, fundamental rights from God, so what do you have? On what basis do you call slavery evil? Or sex trafficking evil? In the atheistic Darwinian worldview, all you have is survival of the fittest, where might makes right. But right is mere semantics, since there is no right or wrong, there just is. So it is justified if people take advantage of other people, whether in the slave industry or the sex industry, just as it is justified if the stronger bear kills the weaker bear, since everything is based on impulses, urges, and survival. I realize that atheists would denounce this charge, since they build a moral framework into their secular ethical system. But philosophically they have no justification for doing so.