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Is Truth Just What Your Peers Will Let You Get Away With Saying?

Sound, logical thinking is NOT the norm. Many people, anxious to remain in good standing with leaders and influencers, live quite happily with incoherence and inconsistencies

Mathematician and philosopher William Dembski offered an analysis of Christian apologetics (defense of Christian beliefs), “Making Apologetics an Effective Instrument for Cultural Engagement” at the Evangelical Philosophical Society meeting “Reasonable Faith in an Uncertain World” (November 19, 2021). His discussion raises broad issues around how a culture assesses and understands truth. Republished with permission here in four parts. Below is the second portion, “3 Giving Culture Its Due” and “4 The Worldview Audit and Its Limitations” (The first portion is “1 The Unfulfilled Promise of Christian Apologetics” and “2 Truth Is Never Enough”)

3 Giving Culture Its Due

We inhabit not merely a physical environment but also a cultural environment. Our cultural environment sets boundaries for what we may think, what we can say, and how we should live. Stray beyond these boundaries, and you’ll face a cultural backlash. Our cultural environment includes our ideas about what exists, what can be known, and what counts as evidence for our beliefs. It assigns value to our life and work. It describes what’s within and beyond the moral pale. Above all, it determines our plausibility structures — what we find reasonable or unreasonable, credible or incredible, thinkable or unthinkable.

Christian apologetics lives and moves within such a cultural environment. To be effective, Christian apologetics therefore needs to work effectively within its cultural environment. That’s not to say that it should bow to the cultural environment. Quite the contrary: in a fallen world like ours, cultural environments will always to varying degrees be corrupt, and it is the task of Christian apologists to speak truth to and transform for the better any cultural environment in which they find themselves.

Still, some cultural environments are more friendly to Christian faith than others, and a worthy task of Christian apologetics is to make our cultural environment ever more open to Christian faith. As Christian apologists, we want our cultural environment to accommodate Christian faith, though to the degree that our cultural environment eschews Christian faith, the reverse must not be true. Indeed, as Christians, we don’t want our Christian faith accommodating a corrupt cultural environment.

As a convenient gauge of how readily our cultural environment accommodates Christianity, consider its attitude toward Christ’s resurrection. As Christians, we believe that Jesus died on a Roman cross, that his dead body was put in a tomb, and that three days later he rose bodily from the dead. If we go back to the America of the 19th century, and even factoring in the Enlightenment, Darwin, Marx, and other skeptics, it was culturally acceptable to treat the resurrection of Jesus as much a part of history as anything else in antiquity (such as Alexander conquering the world, Caesar wooing Cleopatra, and Cicero giving his orations).

Of course, there have always been skeptics denying the resurrection. The apostle Paul encountered them at the Areopagus. But Christians, even in the 19th century, didn’t feel cowed by the culture. If anything, their cultural environment gave them free rein to proclaim the resurrection as a fact of history — indeed boldly, or dare I say, unapologetically.

But something changed. The cultural environment changed. The seeds of the Enlightenment continued to bear fruit in ever greater quantities. The seeds further planted by Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, etc. were also rapidly reproducing. So much so that by the 1930s, J. Gresham Machen would write: “False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the Gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion.”

I hesitated to give this quote just now because it is so overused. I’ve used it for three decades. I keep seeing it in books and articles on apologetics. Usually, it is quoted as a rallying cry, to urge that we double down on the apologetic enterprise to ensure that false ideas lose their ascendancy and that the Gospel may advance. But I suspect the real reason we quote it so much is that the cultural environment of our day has so transformed that it has become culturally acceptable to think of Christianity as a delusion, harmless or otherwise. And so, we win a straggler here and there, but the culture as a whole continues to descend into oblivion.

Machen’s point about the “resistless force of logic” is worth considering more closely. He is not here talking about the deductive form of inference that one learns in a course on formal logic, where the truth of the premises guarantees the truth of the conclusion. He is talking, rather, about the logic of a cultural environment, which is less a form of rule-governed inference than a kind of rushing flow that moves hearts and minds on the basis of ideas, intuitions, and images that hold sway in the culture at large (these are the “false ideas” with which Machen begins the quote).

Mark 12 describes an exchange between a Jewish rabbi and Jesus. The two discuss what are the greatest of God’s commandments. In the exchange, the rabbi underscores the primacy of love in God’s commandments. As he puts it in Mark 12:33: “To love [God] with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Pleased with the rabbi’s insight, Jesus responds, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

Jesus here approves of someone as being close to God’s kingdom. Such approval, it seems to me, should also apply to someone who accepts that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, namely, that such a person is not far from the kingdom of God. Of course, it’s possible to accept the resurrection and still not be a Christian. But other things being equal, it’s better to believe than disbelieve that Jesus resurrected. It seems, therefore, that one way (though hardly the only way) for an apologist to approach non-Christians with the aim of moving them closer to the kingdom would be by providing a convincing argument for the resurrection (assuming the non-Christians don’t accept the resurrection as historical fact).

Accordingly, one could then recap the arguments of Gary Habermas, Mike Licona, N. T. Wright and others about how the New Testament and history provide solid grounds for thinking that the bodily resurrection of Jesus really did happen. They are good arguments, and to a mind uninfected by Machen’s “false ideas,” they would be compelling. But they’re not compelling precisely because our cultural environment is so overrun with false ideas. A cultural environment infested with false ideas leads to minds infected with false ideas. And ideas, whether false or true, have consequences. Or as my friend Jeremy LaBorde used to say, “What you believe to be true will control you, whether it’s true or not.”

Our cultural environment is imbued with many false ideas. Especially burdened with them is our intellectual high culture. They’ve overwhelmingly embraced a materialistic or naturalistic outlook that sees the natural order, at its most basic, as simply an outworking of blind physical forces. Life, consciousness, and language, to say nothing of truth, beauty, and goodness are thus seen simply as by-products of a material world that at base knows no God, no moral structure, no telos. In such a world, what room for miracles? And in a world of no miracles, what room for Christ’s resurrection? In such a world, Machen’s “resistless force of logic” leaves no room for the resurrection. All the arguments for the resurrection, however excellent on their own terms, will thus cut no ice.

4 The Worldview Audit and Its Limitations

It’s at this point that Christian apologists are likely to suggest a worldview audit. Someone who disbelieves Christ’s resurrection is likely to believe a whole bunch of other false ideas that conflict with believing Christ’s resurrection. The task then is to burrow into that worldview and refute its false ideas, focusing especially on those that are pervasive, pernicious, and render belief in the resurrection impossible. For example, someone’s refusal to accept the resurrection might stem from accepting a materialistic worldview, and so the apologist’s task becomes first to refute materialism before making a positive case for the resurrection.

Accordingly, a different apologetic argument needs next to be recapped, this one not arguing for the resurrection directly but arguing for it indirectly by first challenging materialism. Thus the apologist might advance a cosmological or teleological argument for the existence of God, perhaps an argument for the impossibility of morality without a transcendent reference point, perhaps a design argument based on the fine-tuning of the universe or the complexity of living forms. All such arguments will attempt to show that a purely material world operating by purely physical forces makes for an incoherent worldview.

But what of the charge of incoherence? How does showing that someone’s worldview is incoherent cause them to change their worldview? Let me let you in on a secret: most people readily make their peace with incoherence. A person’s mental space is a house of many rooms, and who needs every room to be clean and organized? Indeed, people can live happy, unflustered lives even if their web of belief (to use Willard Quine’s metaphor) doesn’t hang together nicely and neatly. They can accommodate incoherence, inconsistency, and things that would otherwise make for cognitive dissonance, and do so with equanimity, provided their mental environment doesn’t challenge them too keenly.

Richard Rorty described such an easy-going attitude toward incoherence by characterizing truth as what your peers will let you get away with saying. To this, Al Plantinga astutely replied that he, as Rorty’s peer, would not let him get away with saying that. Now Plantinga was certainly right that Rorty, in asserting such a view of truth, was being incoherent (indeed, self-referentially incoherent), because Rorty’s view of truth allowed Plantinga to refute it by the mere act of verbally challenging it.

But Rorty’s larger point, it seems to me, captures an essential fact about humans as they navigate their cultural environment (or what Rorty characterized as one’s contemporaries or peers). Namely, we can allow ourselves to indulge in all sorts of absurd thinking provided the people who hold sway in our cultural environment don’t call us on it. If the marginalized or demonized call us on it, they can be safely ignored. We indulge ourselves in this way all the time, and our cultural environment often makes it easy for us to do so. The public’s easy acceptance of fake news by the mainstream media is a case in point.

Sure, by any rigorous logical standards, people should revise their thinking when incoherence in their worldview is pointed out to them. If sound logical thinking were the norm, people would reflexively restructure their worldview in the face of incoherence. But people are social creatures who inhabit a cultural environment. If they see others in their cultural environment, especially those whom they respect, continue to hold onto positions shown to be incoherent, it’s in fact easy for them to remain unmoved.

So long as challengers to some dominant view within our cultural environment can be suitably discredited, or as we would now say, “cancelled,” then it becomes easy to think of the challengers as idiots who in challenging the “consensus” or “settled” views of the culture have simply missed something (what exactly they’ve missed need concern no one). The conclusion, irrationally but convincingly drawn, is that the “smart” people who are the shining representatives of our cultural environment are probably right after all in maintaining their views and refusing to revise them (the inherent merit of the arguments presented by the challengers be damned).

This tendency of people to side with the dominant views of the cultural environment is why, for instance, intelligent design has such a hard time of it. By any objective standards, intelligent design proponents have the better argument. Intelligent design convincingly refutes Darwinism. For instance, sound information-theoretic arguments show that it cannot be the whole truth, and that it probably is not a truth at all. And yet Darwinism continues to rule the day and the culture at large regards intelligent design as intellectually substandard.

Next: 5 Worldview vs. Cultural Environment

The entire analysis is here. Here’s the first portion (Parts 1 and 2) published at Mind Matters News: What makes arguments for God convincing — or not? Is truth enough? A look at the unfulfilled promise of Christian apologetics: Christian apologetics has, in my view, mainly been in the business of playing defense when it needs to be playing offense.

William A. Dembski

Board of Directors, Discovery Institute
A mathematician and philosopher, Bill Dembski is the author/editor of more than 25 books as well as the writer of peer-reviewed articles spanning mathematics, engineering, biology, philosophy, and theology. With doctorates in mathematics (University of Chicago) and philosophy (University of Illinois at Chicago), Bill is an active researcher in the field of intelligent design. But he is also a tech entrepreneur who builds educational software and websites, exploring how education can help to advance human freedom with the aid of technology.

Is Truth Just What Your Peers Will Let You Get Away With Saying?