February 2, 2010
I’ve fallen behind in my responses to jim’s series Proof of God’s Existence, but that’s okay. In fact, I’d say it’s even preferred. After all, his series is a thought experiment, which means the more we think about it, the more mental heavy lifting we’re doing. Mental heavy lifting is a good thing.
Although Scene 4: The Newspaper is pretty short, volumes could be written in response to it, especially the opening paragraph:
What is evidence? What does someone mean when they say there’s ‘no evidence’ for any particular claim? Is a claim, itself, evidence all on it’s own? Can something be rightly called evidence one day, and not the next? Is evidence automatically strengthened on the basis of multiple claimants?
–jim, Reason vs. Apologetics
Those are definitely meaningful questions, but I must confess to a certain sense of mixed emotion when I hear jim ask them. On the one hand, I believe (a)theists should ask them. In fact, I’d say if (a)theists want to get anywhere in their discussions, they’re obligated to start from common ground. Otherwise, without firmly cemented goalposts that clarify what is and is not acceptable as evidence, (a)theist discussion often descends into an unproductive shell game.
On the other hand, both jim and other atheists have sharply criticized me for similar inquiry, which makes this newfound interest in it seem a little backhanded. After all, I’ve asked jim and countless other atheists these same exact questions, only to be met with accusations of sophistry and insult!
All the while the questions remain: what is evidence? What do people mean when they say there’s no evidence for any given claim? Is a claim evidence all on its own?
As with many words in the English language, there are several valid meanings of the word evidence, each distinct and relevant to (a)theist discussion.
In my experience, most of us use the word evidence to convey our opinion that some fact supports some hypothesis concerning some unsolved question. I’d argue that this is probably the most universal or “commonsense” use of the word evidence, and we’ll call this the “everyday usage” of the word.
For example, let’s say the question is who stole the cookies. Rita sees her brother come out of the bathroom chewing, then finds cookie crumbs in the sink. Obviously, Rita would cite the crumbs and the fact of her brother exiting the bathroom chewing as evidence for the hypothesis that her brother is the one who stole the cookies. As another example, Al’s wife might interpret the fact of Al’s car being parked outside the gentlemen’s club as evidence that Al is inside getting a lapdance. Or, a lawyer might present your broken car window as evidence that you’ve been robbed by the defendant. Or, to use an example from science that we’ve talked about before, Hittorf interpreted the shadows in his experiments as evidence for cathode rays. In each case, whether layman, lawyer or scientist, the agent uses the word evidence in reference to some fact which supports some hypothesis concerning some unsolved question.
However, layman, lawyers and scientists also use the word evidence in reference to facts which support solved questions, too. Mentioning the crumbs and the observation of her brother chewing, Rita might say she proved her brother’s guilt with evidence. Or, we might say that Einstein’s equations are the evidence for relativity, In such cases, I would say the word evidence is being used synonymously or near-synonymously as proof of some hypothesis. The salient point is that when people say things like “there’s no evidence for X” they can be using the word to mean different things.
I acknowledge the epistemic distinctions in our various uses of the word proof, too. For example, I would say legal proofs are akin to a preponderance of seemingly incontrovertible evidence that vindicates the positive claimant, whereas scientific proofs are more akin to an array of tested, empirical observations cohering to predictions cast from some hypothesis. There are also what I call logical or Boolean proofs, which I argue are acceptable as 100% certainty statements. For example, it’s logically impossible for you to be in Houston and Los Angeles at the same time. Incontrovertible evidence proving that you were in Houston absolves you from all charges that you were in Los Angeles.
Is a claim evidence all by itself? Of course not. Witness testimony can corroborate or challenge pre-existing evidence, but without evidence a mere claim is typically insufficient for a conviction.
Let’s take a closer look at Al’s example. In contrast to his wife’s “getting a lapdance” hypothesis, Al’s car could also be parked at the shake junt because he sells white on the under. Now, if Al was apprehended and plead guilty to his charges, in retrospect, the fact of his car’s locale becomes evidence for his drug trafficking, not his wife’s suspicions of infidelity, which leads back to jim’s question of whether something be rightly called evidence one day and not the next. This is really just the aforementioned cathode ray dilemma: was there ever any evidence for cathode rays? Or, was there always just evidence for electrons that was being misinterpreted?
To relate this back to jim’s thought experiment, going by the definition of justified belief as “conservatively-stated beliefs or conclusions that correspond to face value observation and are not sufficiently challenged by anomalous data,” I claimed Carol’s ongoing suspicion was unjustified. However, let’s say that after the end of Scene 2, Carol had remained unjustifiably suspicious of Mary even though no new evidence came up. Then let’s say that a week later, investigators came and arrested Mary for real estate fraud, to which she later plead guilty. Then what?
Do we say that Carol’s ongoing suspicion was justified because Mary was in fact up to nefarious activities? Or, do we say that although Carol’s ongoing suspicion was unjustified, it turned out to be correct? I don’t know about you, but that’s exactly what I say, and this is why I argue that the skeptic’s penchant for justified belief isn’t much more than a psychological self-defense mechanism invoked to ward off the fear of uncertainty in a world of change. That a belief is Justified is no guarantee of its veracity and of the many things D‘s said that I agree with, everybody’s got a gris-gris. We tell ourselves we’re “rational” when our beliefs are “justified” but how many justified beliefs have turned out to be absolutely wrong or incredibly immoral? Based on the knowledge available to them at their time, our ancestors would be have been fully justified to believe our modern techno-industrial culture was impossible.
Yet here it is.