Christians are often accused of “denying the facts” when it comes to such fields of study in the sciences as archaeology, evolution, the age of the earth, and radioisotope dating. We simply dig in our heels and deny reality, or so the narrative goes.
But is this actually true?
Imagine for a moment that you are an ancient Roman who worships the Roman gods. You are on a battlefield and witness Apollo fighting. Apollo is a god, and all gods are immortal. But you witness Apollo get killed. An inconsistency has been introduced into your belief system. Because now you have all three of these beliefs held together:
1. All gods are immortal.
2. Apollo is a god.
3. Apollo is dead.
One cannot hold to all three of these beliefs simultaneously. One of them has to be rejected. But how do we decide which belief we reject? Do we automatically know beforehand which belief is the false one?
The Harvard philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine answers with a resounding “no”. In his book “The Web of Belief” he describes the process of how people go about revising the beliefs in their belief system. He uses the metaphor of a “web” of belief because it captures quite well how our belief systems work. Some beliefs are more closely held by us than others, so they will more strongly resist revision because they are more central to the “web”. Some beliefs are held less strongly and thus lie at the outer edge of our belief system. It does not disturb our belief system too much overall to have a belief on the outer edge rejected or adjusted; but the closer a belief is to the center of our belief system, the more adjustment will be required by other beliefs if that more central belief is changed. This is similar to how, with a spider’s web, you can break a part of the web on the outer edge without disturbing the rest of it very much, but if you break a strand that is more central it has more of an effect on the strands that radiate from it.
So which belief is the Roman described above supposed to reject? It depends entirely on how strongly he holds to those beliefs. Does he very strongly believe that “All gods are immortal” but has observed that Apollo died? Then he must reject his belief that “Apollo is a god”. Does he instead very strongly believe that “Apollo is a god” yet still observes the dead Apollo? Then he must reject his belief that “All gods are immortal.” The point is that all of these are legitimate and rational deductions in terms of these conceptual schemes, even though one person may accuse the other of being irrational. The one who takes for granted that “Apollo is a god” will accuse the other man, the one who takes for granted that “All gods are immortal”, of being irrational, or digging in his heels in the face of contrary evidence, or “denying the facts.” But in terms of their own conceptual schemes, both men are being perfectly rational. The reason for this, according to Quine, is that we assess beliefs in clusters, not individually. We assess our beliefs in terms of the web of the rest of our beliefs.
It can get even more complicated than this. If the observer very strongly believes that “Apollo is a god” and that “All gods are immortal” he in fact may deny that Apollo is dead (“It’s just an act”) or possibly even question the reliability of his own sense perception (“I was hallucinating!”). The point is all of these are all legitimate answers, rationally speaking, to the initial question of which belief we end up rejecting.
We can apply this sort of thinking to Christian apologetics. Take for example, radioisotope dating. Evidence from this field of study allegedly proves that the Bible cannot be true, because the Bible’s chronology delineates a 6,000 year old earth. When Christians do not immediately give up their belief in the Bible, they are immediately labeled “anti-science”. But Christians are being perfectly rational in terms of their own worldview or conceptual scheme. Not only this, but there is the evidence of helium diffusion in zircon crystals that definitely points to a 6,000 year old earth. So what do we do? Some evidence points to millions of years, some to 6,000. As Christians, we cannot give up our belief that the Bible is infallible, so there must be some other explanation. We will naturally, and rationally, take the zircon crystal evidence as more evidence of the truth of the Bible, and claim that the other radioisotope evidence must have some other explanation. This is not at all anti science. Christians are simply being rational in terms of their own conceptual scheme.
Quine is, of course, no friend to Christianity. But he does have some very insightful things to say about how belief systems work which is useful for Christians in apologetical endeavors. Quine himself cannot really account for why all of this is true about belief systems, ultimately, because he states in the book “Are observation sentences infallible? Nearly, if we set aside those offered disingenuously and those uttered by speakers who have not quite learned the language.” (p. 29) But this statement itself cannot be obtained by observation, not to mention that “logical consistency” is something not empirically observable; thus his whole epistemology is self-refuting. Yet what he says about belief systems is perfectly true. Quine is a good example of a philosopher who, as Van Til put it, can count very well, but cannot account for his counting.
You can get your own copy of Quine’s book at Amazon here. https://www.amazon.com/Web-Belief-W-V-Quine/dp/0075536099/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1488246772&sr=8-1&keywords=web+of+belief
Five questions I would like to ask Quine
1. You state in your book “Are observation sentences infallible? Nearly, if we set aside those offered disingenuously and those uttered by speakers who have not quite learned the language.” (p. 29) But you use concepts such as “logical inconsistency” which cannot be empirically observed. How do you account for this?
2. On what basis do you reject Christianity?
3. On what basis do you accept evolution?
4. I agree with you that beliefs systems operate this way. But you have not empirically observed everyone’s belief system, so how do you know this to be true?
5. What evidence would it take for you to accept Christianity?