Apologetics and the Role of Plausibility Structures

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“Can you prove God exists?”

Although I’ve been asked that question hundreds of times since I became a Christian, how I’ve answered has varied considerably over the years. When I was young I would defer, claiming that while I couldn’t perform such a feat myself, other more knowledgeable Christians could present such proofs. As my confidence in my apologetic skills grew, my response became a resoundingly eager, “Of course.” Years of being proven wrong, however, transformed my answer into a more humble, “probably not.”

Now, however, if asked I have a more nuanced reply: I can certainly provide rational arguments for God’s existence—whether they are convincing on an individual level is another matter. I’ve come to realize that the problem lies not with the arguments but with the nature of belief itself. Belief in God, like almost all beliefs, can be rationally avoided. Skeptics can always find reasons, however implausible they might be, for refusing to concede that God exists.

Are we to conclude that apologetic arguments are therefore useless? Certainly not. For while they will not convince those whose passions rule their reason and prevent them from facing the truth, such arguments can be useful for shoring up a individual’s or a society’s plausibility structures.

Everything that we believe is filtered through our plausibility structures — belief-forming apparatus that acts as a gatekeeper, letting in evidence that is matched against what we already consider to be possible. Plausibility structures filter out claims that we believe cannot be reasonable or potentially true. They don’t necessarily tell us if a claim is true, only that the truth of the claim appears plausible enough for us to accept and that we are not wholly unwarranted in thinking it could be true. Whether we are gullible or skeptical, the beliefs we accumulate are those that have been filtered through plausibility structures at the individual and cultural level. These eventually form our worldview, which itself becames a broad strainer that filters out beliefs that we won’t even consider to be possibly true.

For example, if I were to find a box of cookies in my kitchen cabinet I would assume that my wife had bought them at the store and placed them there herself. If someone were to argue that tree-dwelling elves baked the cookies, packaged them for their corporate employer, and stashed them in my pantry, I would have a difficult time believing their claim; the existence of unionized tree-dwelling elves is simply not a part of my plausibility structure.

Plausibility structures can prevent us from forming beliefs that are inconsistent with experience and evidence. But they can also have a negative impact, preventing us from forming true beliefs about reality. This appears to be the case within a broad segment of modern science. By accepting a plausibility structure that is limited to purely naturalistic explanations, many in the scientific community have imposed self-limiting and irrational criteria for explaining reality. The same is true for the small segment of atheists who truly believe that it is implausible that God exists.

Oddly enough, while atheism is a minority view and has been so throughout the history of the world, it is assumed that pluralism requires that we adopt it as the default plausibility structure for almost all areas of human culture. Everything from science and education to politics and public policy is assumed to begin with the assumption that either God does not exist or that his existence is irrelevant. This idea that soft atheism is the neutral ground from which all sectarian matters must be addressed is patently absurd. Not only does this claim fail to recognize that atheism is not religiously neutral, it fails to acknowledge that atheism is quite implausible.

It is this implausibility that needs to be continuously pointed out and brought into the open. Apologetic arguments for the existence of God aid in this effort by pointing out that the belief in God’s existence is more probable, more plausible, more reasonable, and more rational than its denial. We should be lovingly generous to individuals who adhere to skepticism or atheism. But when these mystical and improbable beliefs are brought to the public square they should receive the utmost scrutiny and a forceful presentation of their irrationality.

The use of these arguments does not require that Christians become full-time apologists. All that is required is a basic knowledge of their structure and an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. Whether they are directly useful in leading unbelievers to Christ, they can be indirectly useful in reshaping the plausibility structures of our culture.