Friday, May 29, 2009

The Problem of Evidence

The Problem of Evidence

Part of the debate about reason and rationality in relationship to faith centers around evidentialism, which maintains that one must have evidence and arguments for one's beliefs (in God) to be rational.The Enlightenment created a challenge for Christian philosophers to answer the evidentialist’s objection to religious belief. Philosopher William Clifford made the evidentialist objection famous by stating the following: "If a belief has been accepted on insufficient evidence, the pleasure is a stolen one. Not only does it deceive ourselves by giving us a sense of power which we do not really possess, but it is sinful, because it is stolen in defiance of our duty to mankind.That duty is to guard ourselves from such beliefs as from a pestilence which may shortly master our body and spread to the rest of the town. To sum up: It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." (Delaney, C.F. Rationality and Religious Belief. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979), 10.

Many people attempt to apply Clifford’s objection to religious belief. However, as much as the skeptic likes to rely on the Clifford objection, it is nothing but a self-defeating statement. In other words, Clifford's objection can't meet it's own standard of acceptability. When a statement is included in its own subject matter and fails to satisfy its own standards of acceptability, it is self-defeating. Some examples of self-defeating statements are seen in statements such as “I cannot write a word of English;” “there is no truth;” and “there are no truths that cannot be verified scientifically, with the five senses."

Therefore, in the case of God, who isn't a physical object but a invisible divine being, it is imperative to clarify what qualifies as evidence. It is during these types of debates where the "hard rationalism" of many skeptics and atheists rears it's ugly head. The evidential issue is sometimes seen as the need to find some sort of infallible “proof” for God’s existence. When a “proof” is given, it is many times given in the form of a deductive argument which includes two premises and a conclusion. For example, the horizontal cosmological argument is as follows:

1. Everything that comes to be is caused by another.
2. The universe came to be.
3. Therefore, the universe was caused by another.

The form or logical structure of an argument must be valid. A good proof is a sound argument that causes another person to accept its conclusion. While theists may present what they consider to be sound arguments for God’s existence there are always those who walk away disappointed. In other words, while the theist may find an argument to be persuasive and sound, the skeptic always finds what they think is a problem with the argument But why?

As Ronald Nash says, “What tends to be forgotten is the subjective nature of proof. First, proofs are person-relative. In other words, proofs are relative, which is simply to admit the obvious, namely, that the same argument may function as a proof for one person and result in little more than contempt for someone else. Second, proofs are relative to individual persons. A person’s response to an argument will always reflect varying features such as their past and present personal history. Proofs also may be relative to persons in particular circumstances. Therefore, proofs must pass tests that are not only logical but also psychological. No argument can become a proof for some person until it persuades a person.”

But what if an individual does not have the time to examine the arguments for God's existence? Following Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, Thomas Aquinas set forth five reasons why we must first believe what we may later be able to provide good evidence for (Maimonides, 1.34):

1. The object of spiritual understanding is deep and subtle, far removed from sense perception.
2. Human understanding is weak as it fights through these issues.
3. A number of things are needed for conclusive spiritual proof. It takes time to discern them.
4. Some people are disinclined to rigorous philosophical investigation.
5. It is necessary to engage in other occupations besides philosophy and science to provide the necessities of life (On Truth, 14.10, reply).

Aquinas said it is clear that, “if it were necessary to use a strict demonstration as the only way to reach a knowledge of the things which we must know about God, very few could ever construct such a demonstration and even these could do it only after a long time.” Elsewhere, Aquinas lists three basic reasons why divine revelation is needed.

1. Few possess the knowledge of God, some do not have the disposition for philosophical study, and others do not have the time or are indolent.
2. Time is required to find the truth. This truth is very profound, and there are many things that must be presupposed. During youth the soul is distracted by “the various movements of the passions.”
3. It is difficult to sort out what is false in the intellect. Our judgment is weak in sorting true from false concepts. Even in demonstrated propositions there is a mingling of false. (1)

1. Geisler, Norman L. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids, Mich. : Baker Books, 1999, 242.

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