Plausibility Structures and Academia

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In the comments to another post on this blog, there was some debate about whether Christians are actually discriminated against in the academy, or if they merely fail to succeed academically because they are not very good scholars, they do not understand the assigned material, or their arguments simply are not very good.

That is a possibility. It would, however, seem odd that the same faith that inspired the establishment of countless major private universities in this nation now cannot produce believers smart enough or disciplined enough to succeed in the universities established by their faithful antecedents. Even so, Christians and others must be careful not to seek some sort of religious affirmative action to excuse scholarly mediocrity from criticism.

Nevertheless, there remains an issue to address: will the plausibility structures of the gatekeepers of academia permit the arguments of true-believing religious students and professors to receive a fair hearing? Will they even consider the arguments that tend to prove truths consistent with Judeo-Christian values but not with the secularist academy? J.P. Moreland touched on this point in his article, Academic Integration and the Christian Scholar:

A person will never be able to change his/her life if he/she cannot even entertain the beliefs needed to bring about that change. By “entertain a belief” I mean to consider the possibility that the belief might be true. . . .

A person’s plausibility structure is the set of ideas the person either is or is not willing to entertain as possibly true. For example, no one would come to a lecture defending a flat earth because this idea is just not part of our plausibility structure. We cannot even entertain the idea. Moreover, a person’s plausibility structure is largely (though not exclusively) a function of the beliefs he or she already has. Applied to accepting or maintaining Christian belief, J. Gresham Machen got it right when he said:

“[G]od usually exerts that power in connection with certain prior conditions of the human mind, and it should be ours to create, so far as we can, with the help of God, those favorable conditions for the reception of the gospel. False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of 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.”

If a culture reaches the point where Christian claims are not even part of its plausibility structure, fewer and fewer people will be able to entertain the possibility that they might be true. Whatever stragglers do come to faith in such a context would do so on the basis of felt needs alone and the genuineness of such conversions would be questionable to say the least. And believers will not make much progress in the spiritual life because they will not have the depth of conviction or the integrated noetic [knowledge] structure necessary for such progress. This is why integration is so crucial to spirituality. It can create a plausibility structure in a person’s mind . . . so Christian ideas can be entertained by that person.

For the critics that have been commenting on this blog, the relevant question is not whether Christian scholars on the whole have the goods to succeed in academia. The relevant question is whether they could succeed even if they do. If the plausibility structures of the overwhelming majority of academics will not even tolerate the suggestion that Christianity is true, or that common secular beliefs are insufficient to explain reality, Christians will always be excluded by such narrow-minded academics no matter how valid or truthful their arguments are.  And if that is the case, the academy is not worldview-neutral, but anti-faith.

Thus, while Christian scholars should not shy away from the opportunity to integrate their faith and their field, and they are responsible for their choice to do so, the narrow plausibility structures of academic gate-keepers cannot be held blameless of hindering the pursuit of knowledge. It is certainly no coincidence that in many top-ranked law schools in 2005, over 90% of the professors donating to political campaigns “just so happened” to donate to Democrats.  Political position is not the equivalent of religious belief, but it goes to show that academic institutions prefer to hire their own kind.

The fact that university professors are so out of step with the public is plainly the result of institutional bias and narrow plausibility structures. Academics are more impressed with their own than with those who disagree, and they naturally favor other professors who “fit in” when reviewing and hiring graduate students and more junior professors. If a religious student is hoping to break into those major institutions, it requires a great deal of fortitude for him or her to tell the decision-makers that their theories and publications are wrong. It will obviously be easier to get in by adopting their worldview, telling them how wonderful their work is, and explaining how one hopes to use that work to springboard to new areas.

Where public universities are concerned, our government school administrations ought to have very broad plausibility structures, not narrow ones.  That is not to say that individual professors should not be able to teach consistently with their worldviews.  They should.  But when it comes to allowing other graduate students and professors into the field, narrow plausibility structures have no place.  There is no reason to shut the door on scholars with new (or ancient) ideas.  One way to broaden the plausibility structures is to strictly guard against worldview discrimination in grading, not to mention the censorhip of campus speech.  Professors generally ought to grade students based on whether their conclusions follow from their premises, not whether the argument fits the status quo. 

As my alma mater’s affirmation statement emphasizes, “Truth has nothing to fear from investigation.”

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2 Responses to “Plausibility Structures and Academia”

  1. sam Says:

    Your argument regarding the conflict between Academia and Christianity is at best (logically) invalid and practically uninteresting, You describe academics as likely to hire “their own kind” and generally having narrow plausibility structures. As a result of these characteristics, you argue that Christian beliefs are not taken into academic consideration, and that it is nearly impossible for “true believers” to be inducted into academia because their beliefs are inconsistent with the general trends of academia.

    You make a simple logical error when you claim that “It is certainly no coincidence that in many top-ranked law schools in 2005, over 90% of the professors donating to political campaigns “just so happened” to donate to Democrats. Political position is not the equivalent of religious belief, but it goes to show that academic institutions prefer to hire their own kind.” You have taken a consequent, namely that professors tend overwhelmingly to be liberal, and try to deduce a cause, “academic institutions prefer to hire their own kind.” This backwards logic just doesn’t work. The statistic that you cite could be cause by a myriad of factors. I don’t deny that preferring to hire people of similar beliefs might be one, but your rhetorical over simplification of the issue is misleading. One might say with the same degree of validity that professors tend to be 90% Democratic because Democratic principles tend to be more consistent with the principles academics come to believe through their studies.

    Now, on to the meat of your argument, which is that the plausibility structure of academia does not include many Christian teachings, which is a result of narrow mindedness. From a Scientific perspective, it is physically and biologically impossible for many of the bible stories to have taken place. There is likewise no evidence for the existence of God, since nearly every phenomenon can be understood without the assumption that God exists. The bible cannot be considered a form of evidence any more than the Harry Potter books can be considered evidence for the existence of Magic. From a philosophical perspective, nearly every argument for the existence of God has failed (see objections to Descartes, Aquinas, Pascal, etc) and independently, every argument that has tried to demonstrate that God is the exclusive source of morality has failed ( see Hume, Kant, and objections to Aquinas). If the Christian faith has failed to provide compelling scientific evidence and failed to provide any convincing philosophical arguments to the Academic community, what use is there in preserving Christian beliefs in the Academic plausibility structure?

    Your crusade to integrate Christian teachings into the academic community is destined to fail by the simple fact that Christian teachings cannot stand up to the rigorous tests of the Academic community. Were the teachings to have sufficient evidence to substantiate them, they might be considered. However, as they stand, Christian teachings are not disregarded by the Academic Community because of narrow-mindedness, but rather because they are academically uninteresting to all knowledge gathering fields.

  2. Cliff Martin--Blackstone Fellow Says:

    Sam: Thanks for your comment. Here are my responses:

    You make a simple logical error when you claim that “It is certainly no coincidence that in many top-ranked law schools in 2005, over 90% of the professors donating to political campaigns “just so happened” to donate to Democrats. Political position is not the equivalent of religious belief, but it goes to show that academic institutions prefer to hire their own kind.” You have taken a consequent, namely that professors tend overwhelmingly to be liberal, and try to deduce a cause, “academic institutions prefer to hire their own kind.” This backwards logic just doesn’t work.

    You have mistaken an inductive argument for a deductive one. I did not use the “90%” statistic as a premise to prove (by deductive force) a conclusion that professors prefer their own kind. Rather, I used it as confirming evidence to support what I consider to be a pretty common-sense fact. In other words, the “90%” number is what one would expect to find if professors do hire their own kind (i.e., “it is no coincidence”). It confirms and is consistent with the premise that I have generally taken for granted. If I undertook the task of deductively proving that professors hire their own kind, my article would have been dominated by the task and could not reasonably get to the point about plausibility structures. You are free to try to prove that professors do not prefer to hire their own kind, but I expect you will get nowhere fast in that endeavor.

    My argument is simply that plausibility structures should be decidedly broad in public institutions, at least insofar as hiring and research funding goes.

    Now, on to the meat of your argument, which is that the plausibility structure of academia does not include many Christian teachings, which is a result of narrow mindedness. From a Scientific perspective, it is physically and biologically impossible for many of the bible stories to have taken place.

    If by that you mean that Biblical accounts of miracles defy what one would expect to happen by nature alone, then I agree. The preliminary question is whether miracles are in fact possible. If they are, then scientific impossibility means very little. If, on the other hand, you have decided in advance that miracles are not possible (a decision which is not, in fact, supported by science, nor can it be), you have gamed out the Bible in advance, so your thoughts about whether the Bible is trustworthy cannot really be taken seriously. You’ve started with your conclusion in your premises.

    There is likewise no evidence for the existence of God, since nearly every phenomenon can be understood without the assumption that God exists.

    By “nearly every,” you mean “not every.” See below re your assertions about “evidence.”

    The bible cannot be considered a form of evidence any more than the Harry Potter books can be considered evidence for the existence of Magic.

    You have a mistaken notion of “evidence” and you apparently don’t know much about what the Bible is. Anyone that spends much time at all learning the history of the New Testament Biblical accounts will quickly learn that the authors intended to carefully and accurately record facts. Their books are intended to be taken as true. If you think J.K. Rowling intended to record and relay historical facts, that’s news to me.

    I pulled out my Black’s Law Dictionary, 7th ed., and found just what I expected: “evidence” means “something (including testimony, documents and tangible objects) that tends to prove or disprove the existence of an alleged fact.” (Parenthetical in original.) If someone claims to have experienced some miraculous phenomena, that story is evidence, whether it is relayed to you orally or through a written account. You are free to dismiss the evidence for some reason, or just because you don’t particularly like it, but it is evidence.

    I would encourage you, in future discussions with others, not to further espouse the mistaken notion that there is no evidence for the existence of God or the truth of the Bible. That simply is not true, and when you make that assertion you exhibit a failure on your part to understand the Biblical accounts and the meaning of the word “evidence.”

    From a philosophical perspective, nearly every argument for the existence of God has failed (see objections to Descartes, Aquinas, Pascal, etc) and independently, every argument that has tried to demonstrate that God is the exclusive source of morality has failed ( see Hume, Kant, and objections to Aquinas).

    I’m sorry, but this assertion is just silly. Again, by “nearly every” you mean “not every,” and moreover, the fact that some unidentified people have objections to an argument does nothing to demonstrate the truth or falsity of said argument. There are an awful lot of scientists objecting to Darwinism these days, but I have a suspicion that you deem their objections unsatisfactory. (I have no desire to enter an evolution debate with you one way or the other; I just bring it up to note that “see objections to ____” really does nothing to further a discussion.) You’re going to have to come up with your own arguments and set them forth here.

    I will briefly state that, absent some supernatural, transcendent source (call it “god” or whatever), you have absolutely no warrant to tell me how to behave. Say we both found ourselves stranded together on a remote island, and we both assume a naturalistic worldview. On what basis could you tell me that I am obligated not to harm you? You could come up with many reasons why it might be in my interest (preferences) not to harm you, but you have no basis for telling me that I am not supposed to harm you, because there is no particular way that things are supposed to be. Things just are the way they are. If I harm you, that’s a bummer for you. But it would not violate any cosmic order or design, and certainly not any transcendent “reason” or “moral code” because we dismissed those when we adopted naturalism. You might have your own moral code, and I might have mine, but you have no business telling me what my code should be unless you’ve got a transcendent source that governs us both. Say what you want about great philosophers of the past, but no one has ever come up with any satisfactory naturalistic account of real morality. That is because there isn’t one.

    If the Christian faith has failed to provide compelling scientific evidence and failed to provide any convincing philosophical arguments to the Academic community, what use is there in preserving Christian beliefs in the Academic plausibility structure?

    Well, if that premise were true, I suppose there wouldn’t be any “use” in doing so, even if Christianity is true. Is the Academy about promoting useful ideas or truthful ideas? Even eugenics is “useful,” but it takes an altogether non-scientific field of knowledge to understand why eugenics is wrong.

    Your crusade to integrate Christian teachings into the academic community is destined to fail by the simple fact that Christian teachings cannot stand up to the rigorous tests of the Academic community.

    Well, I guess we’ll see if the crusade is destined to fail, but I doubt that. The “rigorous tests of the Academic community” are only appropriate insofar as they lead to the truth, not to the politically correct. The problem with narrow plausibility structures is that they inhibit the discovery of truth.

    Were the teachings to have sufficient evidence to substantiate them, they might be considered.

    But that is the point. If you’ve gamed the Bible out of consideration as “evidence”—without understanding what that word even means—then Christian arguments certainly will not be “considered” either. Witness your own failure to consider them in your comment.

    If Christianity is true, it is certainly worth knowing, and therefore it deserves a fair hearing. One can only hope that your decision to ignore Christianity on the basis of your unscientific and unjustified assumption that miracles cannot happen is not indicative of the state of the Academy today.

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