December 10, 2009

Refuting Evidentialism

«The essence of evidentialism was expressed by a thinker of the 19th century, W. K. Clifford, who wrote: "It is always erroneous, anywhere and for anything, to believe something without sufficient evidence".

Since according to Clifford, we can never find sufficient evidence for religious beliefs, all who accept a religious belief are behaving in an immoral, irresponsible and irrational manner.

Here is another declaration that refutes itself. It is enough to ask the evidentialist for a proof of his assertion. As it is impossible to present evidence to prove such a thing, we have to come to the conclusion that the true irrationality is found in the evidentialist's proposition.»

- Sugel Michelén, Pastor at La Iglesia Bíblica del Señor Jesucristo, Dominican Republic.
Translated from his original blog post titled: La Ley de la No Contradicción or The Law of Non-Contradiction

17 comments:

Steven J. said...

There seems to me another fundamental problem with Clifford's dictum, at least as you interpret it: David Hume's insistence that mere facts cannot suffice to prove a moral principle. You cannot derive an "ought" from an "is." There is no amount of evidence that could show that it is wrong (or right, for that matter) to believe something without sufficient evidence.

But this suggests an alternative reading: one is not justified in believing that something is a fact (as opposed to a moral principle, duty, rule of conduct, etc.) without sufficient evidence. If we define "religion" strictly in terms of moral and/or ritual prescriptions, Clifford's dictum would no more apply to religion than it applies to itself. But it would apply to religious fact claims, as opposed to religious claims about morality or proper conduct (and, problematically, many religions support moral principles with a fact claim: that God authorizes them).

I am not sufficiently acquainted with W.K. Clifford's philosophy to say whether he would have agreed with my analysis of the quote from him.

Penn Tomassetti said...

Steven J.,

Thank you for the comment.

I see what you are saying. I only read this one quote from Clifford also, but I would say that from this quote, and from what Pastor Sugel said about him, that Clifford appears to be saying it is actually erroneous in the sense of it being irrational, and perhaps leading to the conclusion that it is also immoral, or irresponsible as well.

It seems to me that you are saying almost the same thing as Clifford in your second paragraph. That it is erroneous to hold a religious moral belief without sufficient factual evidence. I could be reading you wrong, but that's basically what you said.

Sugel seems to have been merely pointing out the fallacy in Clifford's reasoning on that particular point. It is my belief that the Bible contains both factual and non-factual claims, and that together, the factual claims support the non-factual claims. It isn't something I've actually done enough studying on. However, I have written short papers on major evidences of the reliability of the Bible, which are certainly able to support a belief without factual evidence in other areas. I'm not sure if I'm saying this correctly, but I'll leave the thought for now.

That quote comes from a series of blog posts on Christian apologetics against relativist ideas. So I'm going to have to read some more to see if he deals with the positive side of the issue.

Thank you, and I'm going to keep thinking about your answer.

Penn Tomassetti said...

Steven,
I see an error in the belief that all beliefs must have sufficient evidence to back them up, or they are must not be believed (and what constitutes as sufficient evidence is debatable as well). But the error is this: that statement by Clifford is a belief, a position he holds to, yet it is without sufficient evidence in support of its own conclusion.

I think that's the point. You can't claim things require sufficient evidence, while lacking sufficient evidence for such a claim itself.

Penn Tomassetti said...

But this suggests an alternative reading: one is not justified in believing that something is a fact (as opposed to a moral principle, duty, rule of conduct, etc.) without sufficient evidence. If we define "religion" strictly in terms of moral and/or ritual prescriptions, Clifford's dictum would no more apply to religion than it applies to itself. But it would apply to religious fact claims, as opposed to religious claims about morality or proper conduct (and, problematically, many religions support moral principles with a fact claim: that God authorizes them).

It seems I misread you when I responded by saying:

"It seems to me that you are saying almost the same thing as Clifford in your second paragraph. That it is erroneous to hold a religious moral belief without sufficient factual evidence. I could be reading you wrong, but that's basically what you said."

I'm sorry for not reading your paragraph more carefully. Although, I'm still not quite sure I follow what you mean by saying this:
But it would apply to religious fact claims, as opposed to religious claims about morality or proper conduct

Steven J. said...

Penn Tomassetti replied to me:

Although, I'm still not quite sure I follow what you mean by saying this:
But it would apply to religious fact claims, as opposed to religious claims about morality or proper conduct


My point was that Clifford's statement would be self-consistent if it meant that you are wrong to believe, e.g. that the world was made ca. 6000 years ago, or, indeed, that the world was made by God, if you had no actual evidence for that belief.

A couple of points which are important in a discussion such as this:

"Non-belief" can in principle be distinguished from "disbelief." I do not believe that there are intelligent extraterrestrial species. I do not disbelieve that there are intelligent extraterrestrial species. I have insufficient evidence on that question to form an opinion. Likewise, Clifford is not, in the quoted passage, advocating disbelief but non-belief in the face of lack of evidence.

I don't know about you, personally, but most of the people who post to Ray Comfort's blog would insist that they have some evidence for belief in God (and hence evidence for the trustworthiness of His word as they interpret it). Some insist that there is not enough evidence on either side of the question and that either belief or disbelief in God come down to faith (and they disagree with Clifford that compelling evidence is needed to justify belief, as long as some evidence is present on which to base faith); others imply that they have compelling evidence.

Penn Tomassetti said...

Steven J.,

I suppose that the question still remains for you:

By what evidence do you presuppose that anything should be believed on the basis of sufficient evidence?

I hope I'm not missing something that you said. From what I understand, you say that lack of evidence supports lack of belief. My question is, what evidence supports that presupposition?

Again, I'm not intending to miss anything you may have already stated that answers that.

Thanks.

Penn Tomassetti said...

BTW, most fundamental (for lack of a better word) Christians, who also have some form of historic Biblical education, would say that there is abundant evidence in favor of believing in God and the reliability of the Bible. It is my understanding that many of the issues arise in how the evidence is interpreted differently by differing world-views.

So I would not include myself as one who would say there is not enough evidence for faith in God or the Bible. This blog is here so that I can get your perspective, and that of other non-Christians, for a more accurate understanding on my part, of your (plural) positions.

In addition to that, I want to seek to persuade non-Christians of the evidence in support of my position, while at the same time not misrepresenting them (as many on both sides are prone to do). That only frustrates those being misrepresented.

Mintz said...


BTW, most fundamental (for lack of a better word) Christians, who also have some form of historic Biblical education, would say that there is abundant evidence in favor of believing in God and the reliability of the Bible.


Well they would wouldn't they. Similarly many Muslims would say the the Qu'ran provides abundant evidence of its reliability. They would even point to the "Black Stone" at the heart of the Kaaba in Mecca as a relic from the time of Adam and Eve." A claim of reliability is not the same as demonstrating reliability. Let me put one question to you. From your "historic Biblical education" do you conclude, and do you think there is sufficient evidence to suggest that Jesus was born in Nazareth?


It is my understanding that many of the issues arise in how the evidence is interpreted differently by differing world-views.


This lame argument is often trotted out but doesn't hold true. There are some pieces of evidence which specifically rule out certain interpretations whatever you "world view". And what is a world-view anyway? Evidence stands on its own merits and is interpreted more often than not for what it is and not what it might be if you held some particular world-view. When I look at steak on a dinner plate I'm not directly imaging without interpreting it. The steak is still on the plate and does not make any contact my brain. I can only interpret the data I receive about the steak via my brain's response to the electromagnetic radiation emitted by the sun (or a light-bulb) that bounces off the steak. It doesn't matter what my worldview is, my impression of what the steak is like won't suddenly be transformed.


So I would not include myself as one who would say there is not enough evidence for faith in God or the Bible.


The definition of faith is believe without sufficient evidence. If there was sufficient evidence it wouldn't be a matter of faith is would be an accepted fact.


In addition to that, I want to seek to persuade non-Christians of the evidence in support of my position, while at the same time not misrepresenting them (as many on both sides are prone to do). That only frustrates those being misrepresented.


Likewise, which is why I would be grateful if you would address the questions I gave you earlier.

Regards

Mintz

Penn Tomassetti said...

Mintz,

Likewise, which is why I would be grateful if you would address the questions I gave you earlier.

I'm sorry for making you wait. I would have addressed them by now if I had time, and I intend to get to it soon.

Thanks for your comments here. I'm not sure why the tone? Until I can get free to discuss more of what you have brought up on your other comments and on this one, would you be willing to answer the question brought up in the quote by Sugel Michelen? I'm interested in getting your take on the issue with that quote by Clifford and Sugel's rebuttal of it.

Thanks,
Penn

Penn Tomassetti said...

Mintz said...

(Note: My answers are in brackets [ ] between your comments.)

Well they would wouldn't they. [Of course!] Similarly many Muslims would say the the Qu'ran provides abundant evidence of its reliability. [No doubt. But their methods and evidence are far different from the Biblical evidences. Besides, the Qu'ran has a far different history than the Bible. We could examine the two and the proofs, and it would be clear there is a difference.] They would even point to the "Black Stone" at the heart of the Kaaba in Mecca as a relic from the time of Adam and Eve." A claim of reliability is not the same as demonstrating reliability. [I don't deny that.] Let me put one question to you. From your "historic Biblical education" do you conclude, and do you think there is sufficient evidence to suggest that Jesus was born in Nazareth? [I believe Jesus was born in Bethlehem as the Bible says. There is plenty of evidence for people to assume that Jesus was born in Nazareth, but there is nothing to prove it as fact. The Bible records Nazareth as the hometown of Jesus, because that is where he grew up after Joseph and Mary returned with him from Egypt.]



This lame argument is often trotted out but doesn't hold true. [Depends on how you look at it. Nobody is without bias.] There are some pieces of evidence which specifically rule out certain interpretations whatever you "world view". [That's true, so at least one "world-view" must be false. However, some evidence can be disproved, while other times other pieces of evidence are still waiting to be recovered.] And what is a world-view anyway? [How you view the world and how you interpret it. Do you view it from a naturalistic, non-theistic vantage point, or from a supernatural, faith-in-God, Biblical vantage point? I think that makes a difference.] Evidence stands on its own merits and is interpreted more often than not for what it is and not what it might be if you held some particular world-view. [It should stand on its own regardless of opinion, but it is not as easy as that. Trials use evidence in court cases, but the jury has to decide if that evidence sufficiently proves the case or not. Is that correct?] When I look at steak on a dinner plate I'm not directly imaging without interpreting it. The steak is still on the plate and does not make any contact my brain. I can only interpret the data I receive about the steak via my brain's response to the electromagnetic radiation emitted by the sun (or a light-bulb) that bounces off the steak. It doesn't matter what my worldview is, my impression of what the steak is like won't suddenly be transformed. [I'm not so sure this analogy is comparable to the issue we are discussing. Maybe it is? But from my point of view, the steak in front of me is sufficient evidence for a benevolent Creator and Provider of the animal by which the steak was made, and I would thank Him for it.]



I will answer your next point in the second post...

Penn Tomassetti said...

Continued from above...



The definition of faith is believe without sufficient evidence. If there was sufficient evidence it wouldn't be a matter of faith is would be an accepted fact. [This is your definition of faith. This is not the same as the Christian or Biblical use of the word. What you mean by faith and what I mean by it are very different. I believe my car is going to get me to work in the morning without breaking down. That is faith in my car. I have reason to believe it. The reason I have to trust God is much stronger than any reason to trust the reliability of my car. I also believe that my employer is going to pay me for my work. My trust in the faithfulness of the Bible as God's Word is much stronger than my faith in my employer. I even have a level of faith in you, Mintz. I do not have enough evidence at this moment to doubt that you are probably somewhat trustworthy enough to be reasonable with what I discuss with you. In other words, I do not believe you are going to take what I say and twist it against me in a malicious way. I don't have any reason to doubt your trustworthiness in that aspect so far, so to a degree I am confiding in you and I have faith that you are trustworthy in that sense. These human examples of faith are only small in comparison with the trustworthiness of God and of His Word, the Bible (I know I haven't proved to you that the Bible is God's word, but what I'm doing is presenting examples of the Christian view of faith. I also hope you understand that there is much more to its definition than just this).] 




Likewise, which is why I would be grateful if you would address the questions I gave you earlier. [I finally got to it. If I didn't answer anything clear enough, you are welcome to tell me. Thanks.]



Penn

Anette Acker said...

Steven J.,

First of all, thank you, Penn, for providing that quote for discussion. I would really appreciate your thoughts as well (and anyone else’s).

Steven, you said about Clifford’s dictum: "But this suggests an alternative reading: one is not justified in believing that something is a fact (as opposed to a moral principle, duty, rule of conduct, etc.) without sufficient evidence."

What I understand you to be saying is that there are different types of "truth," and factual truth is only one type. Clifford's dictum only applies to factual truth, not philosophical "truth," like his own dictum.

To clarify what I mean: When we read Clifford's dictum, we ask ourselves, "Is that true?" We don't need evidence per se to answer that question because it is a judgment call. But if we ask, "Is the world 6000 years old?" (the example you used), we do arguably need sufficient evidence to answer it because it is a factual matter.

Is that what you are saying? If so, I agree that there is a distinction.

You also said: "Problematically, many religions support moral principles with a fact claim: that God authorizes them."

You are absolutely right about this. If Christianity is not objectively true, there’s no point in believing it. If anything, it would be wrong to believe something false. However, I wonder if from an evidentiary standpoint we limit ourselves by looking at the Bible solely from the perspective of factual truth. While the Bible depends on factual truth, it is very difficult to prove many of its claims because modern convention discounts the miraculous. Generally, when several eyewitness collaborate the same story, it is considered to be true. But many people deny the gospel accounts because of the supernatural elements. Since the supernatural is at the heart of Christianity, it is very difficult to get "sufficient" evidence if we rely only on factual evidence.

But Clifford’s dictum breaks down because we don’t have to rely only on factual evidence. We can look at the Bible from the standpoint of different types of “truth”: Spiritual, moral, and psychological—as well as factual. Most Christians have faith because of the miracle of regeneration, which is an example of spiritual truth. We know it’s true because we are experiencing it (although I recognize that “spiritual experiences” prove nothing in and of themselves and can be psychological). Still, without the miracle of regeneration there is no faith.

Another example of "spiritual truth" is the fact that the Bible is theologically consistent down to the nuance, and this is what one would expect, given the words of 2 Timothy 3:15-17, which says that the Bible is “able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” If the Bible is, in fact, the inspired word of God sufficient for “salvation through faith,” the theology would have to be consistent. This is far more important than factual consistency. Even when the Bible appears to be factually inconsistent, it is theologically consistent. For example, Matthew tells us that Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” whereas Luke simply says, “Blessed are the poor.” Although factually inconsistent, the verses complement each other and represent the whole truth, as stated by Jesus in Matthew 19:24, Mark 10:25, and Luke 18:25: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Being “poor in spirit” is what matters, but it’s much harder if we have everything going for us in this life.

(Continued)

Anette Acker said...

(Continued)

Dave B. gave a list of Bible verses (courtesy of Steve Wells) on Atheist Central (December 19 post) pertaining to salvation, which seem to contradict each other. But as someone who has studied theology for years, I can say that they are wholly consistent, and I spell out how they fit together in response to a comment by Dave on my blog (December 3 post).

"Psychological truth" asks the question, "Would people act like that?" That is a good question to ask when reading the gospels, for example. I have found that the reactions that people had to Jesus in the gospel accounts are subtly accurate, and if the stories were fabricated the authors would have had exceptional psychological insight. Jesus said, “I am the bread that has come down out of heaven.” How likely is it that someone would fabricate a statement like that? And after he said it, many of his followers walked away, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (John 6:52) That is exactly how people would react to such a statement. But, going back to theological consistency, the imagery of eating and drinking is constantly used throughout the OT and NT to symbolize receiving spiritual nourishment. And that spiritual nourishment is Christ.

Furthermore (from the perspective of "psychological truth"), people often took literally what Jesus intended to be symbolic (John 3:4, John 4:15, John 3:33, John 8:52, Matthew 16:5-12), much like people do today.

Many commenters on Atheist Central have pointed out little factual inconsistencies or inaccuracies in the Bible (e.g., how Judas died). If we look at them from the perspective of “psychological truth,” we can ask this question: If Christianity was a hoax, why didn’t the early Christians edit out the inconsistencies? Obviously they must have noticed them and known that they would present a stumbling block to faith.

Finally, we can look at the Bible from the perspective of “moral truth.” An example of moral truth is, "Unselfish love is the highest virtue." The clearest portrait of the biblical God and his teachings is found in the gospels, particularly the Gospel of John. Do the life of Jesus and his teachings epitomize moral perfection? Mahatma Gandhi referred to Jesus as a “beautiful example of the perfect Man,” and when Gandhi died, one of his few possessions was a copy of the Gospel of John.

With all these different types of "truth," we are better equipped to gauge the authenticity of the Bible. We can also ask whether they reinforce or detract from each other. I’m not necessarily saying that you would reach the same conclusions that I have, but it might be worth your while to look at the Bible from these different angles in addition to the question of factual truth.

Penn Tomassetti said...

Anette Acker,

Thank you for your great comments. I'm blessed reading them myself, because I can learn from what you are saying.

My thoughts about Clifford's quote are that, from what pastor Sugel indicated, Clifford seemed to say it was morally wrong believe in something while lacking "sufficient" evidence for it, being an "evidentialist". He seemed to be making a moral judgment, which required, according to his philosophy, "sufficient" evidence to be worthy of belief itself. Since its likely he didn't provide any, his own assertion would be unworthy of believing and therefore, as stated above, self refuting.

The point of revealing the inconsistency of this argument, I believe is to show how the strictly evidentialist worldview is not really grounded in its own assertions. Besides, it would seem impractical even to try to live consistently according to such a philosophy.

In addition, as Christians we do have a basis for our moral claims, which is the evidence of the Biblical Scriptures themselves, as you very helpfully pointed out in your comments. Although we have sufficient evidence to justify our beliefs, I don't think we can conclude that it is always necessary (or realistic even) to justify everything we believe on that kind of reasoning.

Those are some of my thoughts. I can't say I have it all figured out yet, but am learning, and that the above statements are relevant to the discussions going on at Atheist Central. I think it's worth consideration. While I am a fan of logical and evidential defenses of the faith, I totally agree with you that regeneration is key to real conviction of the truth. I also think that without being sufficiently challenged, a logical person can appear to refute almost anything, especially when attempting to deny the Bible or God. That one reason why I think atheism does need to be sufficiently answered and challenged. I believe the Bible really is sufficient evidence for our faith, and that nature provides sufficient evidence for the knowledge of God as well.

Hope our discussions can continue clarifying things here. Thank you for stopping by and God bless,
Penn

Anette Acker said...

Thanks, Penn!

I also disagree with Clifford, who seems to have come up with a simplistic way to dismiss all religion. However, I'm not sure I agree with Sugel Michelén either--for the reasons given by Steven. There is a qualitative difference between a factual assertion and a philosophical statement, and Michelén's attempt to invalidate Clifford's claim doesn't quite work for me logically. But that doesn't mean that I agree with Clifford's statement that "it is always erroneous, anywhere and for anything, to believe something without sufficient evidence." We believe a lot of things without sufficient evidence. My point was simply that I see the distinction Steven identified.

We can't prove the existence of God, but we can use the rules of logic as well as atheists can in our discussions with them. Logic is objective, and as such, it is consistent with truth. I agree with you that atheism should be challenged--logically as well as biblically.

A lot of atheists/agnostics on Atheist Central make excellent points and have good questions. We should be prepared in every way to answer them.
I'm starting to see that many of them "deconverted" because of unanswered questions, and they can't "simply believe" until they work through them. Answering them is an important ministry, and it helps us as well to think critically about what we believe and have it challenged.

Thanks again for your blog, Penn!

Penn Tomassetti said...

Anette,

You are welcome to disagree. I see Steven J's point as well. That's why I'm still trying to think it over.

I certainly agree that fact claims need to have some level of legitimate factual evidence (determining what is sufficient evidence is another issue). But its true that we would need to know more about Clifford's own reasons for saying what is written above.

I just found this same quote, as well as Clifford's entire essay on the subject at this address:
http://maverickphilosopher.powerblogs.com/posts/1198524972.shtml

"Answering them is an important ministry, and it helps us as well to think critically about what we believe and have it challenged."

I agree, it is so important for our beliefs to be challenged and sharpened by the questions others raise. I can tell you have a real concern for helping atheists and other nonbelievers understand that there are many good answers to their objections. Sometimes it is only a matter of perspective. I look forward to reading more of what you have to say. I'm going to read some of your blog posts as well.

Thank you again for sharing your thoughts.

Anette Acker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.