Fitch’s Case Against Apologetics (1)

WAYM2In his book, The Great Giveaway (Baker, 2005), postmodern theologian, David Fitch, attempts (unsuccessfully, I believe) to undermine the practice of “evidentiary apologetics” – what he takes to be the “strategy” on prominent display in such popular works as “New Evidence That Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell and The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel,” as well as “Creationist science and the ‘inerrancy’ defense of Scripture” [1].

What is that strategy? According to Fitch, it involves “build[ing] a scientific case for the veracity of Scripture and the resurrection using historical and scientific evidence” [2]. This is allegedly problematic. Now, initially at least, this seems a rather curious claim. For appealing to publicly available evidence to defend Christianity goes all the way back to the apostles themselves. Thus, for example, the Apostle John tells his readers:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us (1 John 1:1-2).

Or again, the Apostle Peter: “we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). So if you’d asked the earliest disciples why they believed that Jesus was risen, they would have cited (and do cite) the empirical evidence: what they heard, saw, and touched. And if you were to ask me why I believe Jesus rose, I would cite the testimony of these very witnesses. And this is entirely appropriate (cf. Luke 1:1-3). In any event, if appeals to evidence are out of order, then Christianity really is in trouble, since we would never know that it wasn’t simply a “cleverly devised” story.

What, then, is Fitch’s problem? There are actually two problems. Both are intertwined with postmodernity, he says, but the second is a “bigger postmodern problem” [3]. Let’s take these in order, reserving comment on the second for a separate post.

The “Science Says” Problem

To begin with, we are told, the evidentiary apologists “and their strategies depend upon the hearer believing in the authority and objectivity of modern science. But that belief has waned within postmodernity.” Hence, apologetic arguments drawing upon modern science come “off sounding like an agenda-driven manipulation of scientific methods” [4]. In other words, they’re not convincing. There are a few things to note at the outset.

First, we need to be clear that the Fitch critique begins with the unargued assumption of postmodernism. That’s certainly disputable and indeed a frail reed. Paul Franks and I have argued elsewhere and at length that postmodernism is deeply flawed—biblically and philosophically. (See here and here.) Moreover, William Lane Craig has shown that it’s not even true that we live in a postmodern society (see here). Fitch doesn’t interact with any of these arguments. It’s rather difficult, therefore, to avoid the conclusion that regardless of the fine details, his overall case against evidentiary apologetics is insufficiently grounded.

The Strawman

For the sake of argument, however, let this all pass. Still, serious questions remain. For one thing, why should we think that the success of evidentiary apologetics depends on the “authority and objectivity” of science as a whole. That doesn’t seem right. For example, no serious apologist I know of has ever advanced an argument with the following form:

(1)       Science as a whole is authoritative and objective.

(2)       Science says p is true.

Therefore,

(3)       p is true.

Therefore,

(4)       You should believe p.

Say p is the proposition “Luke correctly applies the title proconsul to Gallio in Acts 18:12.” An evidential justification of p doesn’t require anything so grand as (1). In this case, we need only observe that an inscription found at Delphi (dated A.D. 52) reads: “As Lucius Junius Gallio, my friend, and the Proconsul of Achaia” ( link ). Here the evidence is indisputably particular (markings on a single artifact)—nothing like a universal appeal to the authority of science.

Further, it won’t be science (that enormously complex, variegated, ever evolving discipline as a whole) that says p is true. It will be some individual(s)—say, an archeologist—who first discovers and then reads the inscription. Strictly speaking, it is scientists (not science) who prove things. We don’t say that Exxon ran the Valdez into a reef. It didn’t; the skipper did.

There is another problem. Fitch thinks the “power of evidentiary apologetics wanes” because “the authority of scientific defenses fades” [5]. But why think that? Because, he says, science employs methods which are subject to “agenda-ridden manipulation.” Accordingly, appeals to scientific evidence in defending the bible “fail to carry weight because the ‘inerrancy’ defense assumes that there is an objective scientific basis for ‘what is an error’.” That is to say, it falsely assumes that. There is no objective basis for saying what is and isn’t an error.

Bias and Self-Defeat

Here there are difficulties along several lines. Notice, first, that it’s not the methods of science that are at fault here. It’s the fact that those who brandish them are said to be biased, subjective, and agenda-driven. Well, they can be anyway. Whether they always are is another matter—a claim Fitch doesn’t bother to defend. But let’s suppose scientists are biased. How does it follow that there is no “objective scientific basis for ‘what is an error’”? What Fitch badly confuses here, it seems to me, is two senses of the term ‘objectivity’ [6]. What he wants to say, I take it, is that scientists lack psychological objectivity–a certain detachment or absence of bias on certain questions (e.g., whether miracles are possible).

Is psychological objectivity a virtue? It can be. But if the evidence one possesses is strong enough, it can actually be a serious mistake to remain unbiased in an area. For example, is Prof. Fitch unbiased and detached in his belief that AIDS is a disease, that 7+5=12, that child slavery is immoral, or that women are not intellectually inferior to men? I should certainly hope not. The important thing to see is that this in no way precludes him from exercising rational objectivity — i.e., discerning good from bad reasons/evidence on a given topic. No doubt scientists are not wholly (psychologically) objective about, say, the question of whether there is an external world, or that evolution is a fact–just as David Fitch isn’t psychologically objective about the rights of the disabled, and the humane treatment of animals. It scarcely follows that neither he nor they can rationally assess the relevant evidence, sifting truth from error. To claim otherwise is a whopping non sequitur.

But let’s say Fitch is right. Let’s say that if I lack psychological objectivity with respect to a proposition p, then I have no objective way of knowing whether p is true or false. If that’s right, what shall we say about all those contentious claims Fitch makes about postmodernism, science, evidentiary apologetics, and all the rest? As a good postmodernist, Fitch will surely grant that he himself is no less vulnerable to being biased and agenda-driven in his approach to postmodernism (and his subsequent rejection of apologetics) than is the scientist in her application of the scientific method. But then, by his own principles, he will have no objective basis for determining “what is an error” in these matters. Thus he simply won’t be in a position to contend that the strategies or conclusions of the evidentiary apologist are in error. For of course any judgment of that sort would be the product of Fitch’s agenda-driven postmodernism—that is, unless Fitch wants to say (contra Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, and company) that his pronouncements in such matters are serenely bias-and-agenda free.

I’m afraid it’s a hopeless business.

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3 comments on “Fitch’s Case Against Apologetics (1)

  1. […] Does Apologetics Rely on the Authority and Objectivity of Science? [ link […]

  2. […] not much for the “evidentiary apologists” to worry about here. In our previous two posts (see here and here), we noted that Fitch’s criticisms are very poorly established. Some are based on […]

  3. […] a previous post (see here), we concluded that David Fitch’s initial salvo against evidence-based apologetics is wholly […]

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