Two Things No One Can Deny: The External World
Francis Schaeffer liked to talk about two aspects of the human experience that every person has to wrestle with. These are constants—every person who has ever lived has encountered these two things. The first (which I will explore in this post) is the existence of the external world. The second (which I will explore tomorrow) is what Schaeffer referred to as “the mannishness of man.”
We live in the midst of a world. We can’t deny it. We keep bumping into it. It’s everywhere we look. Try as we might, we can’t see beyond it, nor can we quite manage to see it differently than it is, though we often try. We can’t get its smell out of our nostrils or its feel away from our nerve endings. It’s just there. Unavoidable. Undeniable.
Of course, people being what they are, some have tried to deny the existence of the external world. Or at least cast doubt upon its existence. Renee Descartes’ famous dictum “I think therefore I am” was the conclusion of his experiment of systematic doubt. How do I really know anything at all? How do I know I even exist? Could not my senses or some evil spirit be deceiving me about everything I’ve ever known? The only thing that Descartes could not doubt was the fact that he was doubting.
Some of the eastern religions teach that this world is nothing more than an illusion. The trick is to call it out and realize that all of the distinctions we make between individual objects (I am not you, you are not a tree, the land is not the sea) are misguided. These distinctions are illusions. So we must let go of the illusion of an external world and mindlessly meld with everything.
How do I know I exist? How do I know you’re not a figment of my imagination? We can certainly ask ourselves these questions.
But at the end of the day, we’re still living in the real world. Go ahead and believe that this world is an illusion. You still can’t escape it. You still have to follow the dictates of gravity. You still come into contact with real people. You still see things like beauty and understand things like truth. Believe what you want, but we all know—truly and deeply—that the external world is real.
Literally every thing points to the reality of the external world. As Christians, the inescapable reality of the external world works in our favor. We can have a discussion with a Buddhist, for example, about the whole world being an illusion. And we can try to convince him intellectually. He will argue against us, but then he must go about his day living as though this world is a real place. In other words, he can say what he wants, but at this point—if he wants to function in the world that exists—he must live inconsistently with regard to his stated beliefs.
Or talk to the person who denies the existence of a Creator. She will explain that the existence of God is improbable or even impossible. But then she has to face the fact that this world is here. Why should it be here? She can appeal to concepts like “deep time” and talk about what could happen when time and chance work together over billions of years, but still—something is here! Where did it come from? That question must persist like a thorn in the brain when the only available answer is, “Well, who knows what could happen when you give it enough time and chance?”
The beauty of this whole thing is that the God who gave us the gospel is also the God who fashioned the external world. And he knows what he’s talking about. So when we speak to people about the truth of the Christian worldview, we can have full confidence that our worldview matches the world that exists completely. No one else has this advantage. So we have both truth and reality on our side—both working together to point people to the truth and power of the gospel. But even more powerful than the existence of the external world is “the mannishness of man”—a concept that we will explore tomorrow.