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The role of plausibility and community in shaping beliefs 

Understanding the significance of worldviews

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September 30, 2022

Editor’s note: This is the second article in a series on what Christians should know about worldviews and worldview analysis. The other articles in the series can be found here.

Why do you believe what you believe?

The most common reason people will give for why they hold the beliefs they do is because those beliefs are true. If we didn’t think a belief was true, we wouldn’t believe it. We embrace this view because we intuitively adopt the correspondence theory of truth, which says that whether a belief or statement is true or false is determined by how it relates to the world and whether it accurately describes (i.e., corresponds with) reality. The statement “That is a tree” is only true if the object being referred to is a tree. If the statement corresponds to reality, then it is true, and we should believe that it is indeed a tree.

The correspondence theory is commonsensical and pragmatic. It’s generally reliable and useful for determining truth when it comes to what we can experience through our five senses. But what happens when we can’t agree on reality? 

When Jesus said, “Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice,” Pontius Pilate famously asked, “What is truth?” The answer depends largely on what corresponds to reality. Christians would say that Jesus’ statement corresponds to reality since Jesus is the truth (John 14:6). But why then did Pilate, like so many other non-believers, not believe Jesus was Lord? Because they found the claim to be not only false but also to be implausible. 

The role of plausibility structures

Plausibility is one of the most important, and yet least considered aspects of belief-formation. To believe something is true we first must believe it is believable, that is we must consider it as plausible (i.e., seeming reasonable or probable). We must think it is at least possible that it could be true before we can consider it to be probable that it’s true.  

Pilate likely had no problem believing that it was possible for a man to be a god, since the Romans considered their former emperor Julius Caesar to be a god. But the idea that a seemingly unimportant Jew in the backwater of Roman-occupied Palestine could be a god strained credibility. Today, though, the idea that a human man could also be a god is considered by many secular people to be far outside the realm of what could be considered plausible. 

 In both the case of Pilate and the modern secular person, the belief (or disbelief) is dependent on one’s plausibility structure. A plausibility structure is a belief-forming apparatus that acts as a gatekeeper, letting in evidence that is matched against what we already consider to be possible. It doesn’t necessarily tell us what is true, but it prevents us from believing claims that cannot be reasonable or at least potentially true.

Plausibility structures are essential to a worldview. As we are using the term in this series, a worldview is a fundamental orientation of the heart that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true, or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being. The plausibility structure determines which story or presuppositions we are willing to believe. 

Some thinkers claim that this function is so integral that the plausibility structure is the same thing as a worldview. Like worldviews, plausibility structures contain a collection of beliefs that are largely unexamined and merely assumed to be true. As James Sire says, one of the main functions of plausibility structures is to provide a background of beliefs that make arguments easy or hard to accept. 

Consider, for example, that you find your kitchen in disarray, with food and drink spilled all over the counter and floor. When you confront your child about who is responsible for the mess she answers, “The elves did it.” Whether you consider this claim to be true will depend on whether you consider it plausible. And whether you consider it plausible will depend on whether you think elves exist. Your view of elves is also going to be shaped in part by whether other people (besides your child) believe elves exist. 

The role of community

We like to think we are all “independent thinkers,” but the reality is that what we believe is largely dependent on what other people believe. As Tim Keller has said, human knowledge has a (1) rational/intellectual aspect, a (2) experiential/intuitive aspect, and a (3) social/pragmatic aspect. That is, we come to ‘know’ something well when (1) there are good reasons for it, when (2) it fits with our inward experience, and when (3) we find a trustworthy community that holds it too. 

Of the three, the social/pragmatic aspect is most likely to shape a person’s plausibility structure, and thus their worldview. “Facts, evidence, and data are surprisingly weak in making something believable,” says Sam Chan. “So which is the most powerful in determining belief? Community.”

Chan adds that whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not, community determines how we believe. “We think like those around us think, we behave like those around us behave,” he says, “And we believe what those around us believe.” One of the major reasons our friends aren’t Christians, notes Chan, is that they don’t belong to a community of friends who also believe in Jesus.

In the first article of this series, we mentioned that many who attend church regularly also believe in astrology, psychics, and that spiritual energy can be located in physical objects. How can they believe things that are inconsistent, if not incompatible, with Christianity? Because along with being around other church members, they are in community with people who hold worldviews shaped by New Age spirituality. 

Indeed, social media and the Internet have made it possible to find a community where almost any belief is treated as plausible. You likely wouldn’t accept the “elves did it” excuse from your child because the adults in your life believe that elves do not exist. But if you spend enough time watching YouTube videos about how “elves are real” and in Reddit forums engaging with the “elves exist” crowd, you might soon consider it at least plausible. If you come to find the community trustworthy then you are more susceptible, and perhaps even likely, to adopt the beliefs as your own. 

‘Deconstructing faith’ because of loss of faith in community

The corollary to this is that when a person finds their community is no longer trustworthy, they are more likely to abandon beliefs they once held. Take, for instance, the essential Christian belief  that Jesus was raised from the dead. Many people who are “deconstructing” their faith don’t begin by examining the evidence for the resurrection and finding it lacking. Instead, they start with the discovery that some Christians are hypocritical and abusive—they lose trust in the community that shares their belief. As Keller says, at least some folks who go from “firm, active believers” to “complete disbelievers” through disillusionment with the church had rested their belief in Jesus’ resurrection almost completely in the social aspect.

Recognizing the role plausibility structures plays in worldview formation and how much of what we believe is shaped by community can help us better understand why syncretism has invaded the church and why disillusionment can lead people to abandon the faith. 

Next, we’ll consider how worldviews function and how they help provide answers to the most important questions about life and reality.