Wednesday, September 7, 2011

From the Archives: Evidentialism and Theistic Belief

Because I start talking about evidentialism in my philosophy of religion class today, I wanted to reprise the following post which I composed a year ago, and which stimulated quite a lot of discussion at the time. Also, I think it has bearing on an issue I want to blog about in the near future, having to do with the fundamentalist tendency to treat the Bible as "evidentially basic" in the way that most of us treat our senses as evidentially basic--and why I think that the most radical cases of "deconversion" followed by "evangelical" atheism often begin from such a fundamentalist starting point. And so, without further ado, here it is again: "Evidentialism and Theistic Belief":

One of the most important grounds for challenging religious belief, especially theism, has involved invoking “evidentialism,” that is, the doctrine that one ought never to believe any claim, C, on insufficient evidence. Taken together with the premise that there isn’t sufficient evidence in support of the claim that God exists (a premise denied by not a few theists—but that’s another matter), evidentialism entails that belief in God is illegitimate.

Probably the clearest and most uncompromising articulation of this doctrine was offered by William Kingdon Clifford in the 19th Century. In his essay “The Ethics of Belief,” Clifford argued that all of our beliefs have the potential to affect what we do in ways that, should our beliefs prove false, can be very harmful. As such, belief is not a private affair but a public one, and we have a solemn responsibility to extend belief only to “truths which have been established by long experience and waiting toil, and which have stood in the fierce light of free and fearless questioning.” Clifford thus concludes that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for any one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

Formulated in such strident and sweeping terms, evidentialism does not appear to be a tenable doctrine. Among other things it would mean that it’s wrong for children to take anything on trust from teachers or parents—and this seems a recipe for the impossibility of children ever arriving at a state in which they could actually engage in the sort of investigative activity that Clifford demands.

Furthermore, this kind of sweeping evidentialism falls prey to the following problem: In order to operate in accord with the evidentialist principle, we need to know what counts as evidence. But how do we arrive at the correct belief concerning what counts as evidence? What evidence do we use?

This is a variant on the problem of the criterion—basically, the problem of ascertaining in a non-circular way what criteria we should use for deciding what to believe. The problem can be summarized as follows: for any proposed criteria for deciding what to believe, one might ask, “Why should I believe that these criteria are the ones I should use?” If we answer this question by invoking the criteria in question, then we have begged the question. If we answer this question by appeal to different criteria, we can then ask the same question about them.

The difficulty that this poses for evidentialism can be emphasized with an example. Assume that “C” is the following proposition: “My senses are reliable.” A sweeping evidentialism would insist that we not believe this on insufficient evidence. But what is to count as sufficient evidence? How could we test the reliability of our senses without appeal to the very senses we are not supposed to trust until their reliability has been established?

This, of course, is the path to a radical skepticism which precludes having any beliefs at all. But, of course, it is impossible to actually live a human life—to make choices, to act on those choices, to form and maintain relationships, to work, etc.,—without having any beliefs. While Clifford rightly notes that our beliefs imply certain actions, it is equally true that our actions presuppose beliefs. Whenever we act, we act as if something is the case. Radical skepticism is therefore pragmatically impossible for anyone who actually gets on with the business of living (as Hume famously noted).

And in this business of living, isn’t it the case that we trust our senses unless and until we have good reason not to—unless they generate inconsistencies of various sorts? More broadly, doesn’t the business of living routinely require that we trust a range of propositions unless and until there is evidence that calls that trust into question? To put this point a bit more formally, the business of living requires that, with respect to some propositions, our “default” position should be belief (that is, we should operate as if the proposition is true unless we are confronted with reasons not to). Evidentialism, by contrast, insists that the default position for every claim C is disbelief or agnosticism. Put bluntly, then, one cannot be a faithful evidentialist of this sweeping sort and still lead a human life.

But a defender of evidentialism could seek to salvage the doctrine by making some distinctions. For example, there is a difference between what we might call “actual belief”—where you are convinced that something is the case, that you've got the truth—and “presumptive belief”—where you are merely operating as if something is the case. The criminal justice system in the US (and elsewhere) operates on the presumption of innocence. That is, if there is insufficient evidence to establishing guilt, the accused is treated as innocent. But everyone has heard stories of juries that quietly harbor the view that the accused is “guilty as hell” while delivering an acquittal. The jurors don’t “actually” believe that the accused is innocent in such cases, but they operate in accord with the presumption of innocence (at least in their role as jurors--they might in their private lives take steps to make sure that their children are kept away from the accused).

A modified evidentialist could hold that what living a human life requires is not that we actually believe that our senses are reliable, but that we presumptively do so. We operate as if our senses are reliable unless and until we encounter sufficient reason not to. And so the modified evidentialist could say that one ought never to actually believe any claim C on insufficient evidence, but that one should be free to presumptively believe a range of things, within certain limits, so long as there is no evidence against these things.

Several issues arise, however, in relation to this modified principle. First, there is the question of the limits within which presumptive belief (if not actual belief) is taken to be legitimate. Here there will be room, I think, for considerable dispute—especially in connections with “meaning bestowing beliefs about the transcendent” (religious beliefs). The evidentialist challenge to theism, then, will have to take a position in this disputed territory, making a case for the view that the class of propositions for which presumptive belief is appropriate excludes belief in God. But if this is what the evidentialist wants to argue, there are a number of important opposing arguments. Since I will be covering a number of these arguments later in my philosophy of religion class (when discussion pragmatic arguments for religious belief), I won't take up this version of evidentialism in detail at this time.

But there is another way of construing the evidentialist challenge to theism that I do want to explore a bit further here. Perhaps the evidentialist challenge to theism is merely targeting “actual” belief, while accepting the legitimacy of presumptive belief. In this case different concerns arise. First of all, as a challenge to theism it is radically attenuated insofar as it leaves space for the epistemic legitimacy of people organizing their lives around a presumptive belief in God.

But second, there is the question of the extent to which our actual beliefs are in our control. When it comes to the reliability of my senses, for example, I don’t just presumptively believe their deliverances. I really believe them. Of course, I could say something along the following lines: “Although living a human life requires that I presumptively believe the deliverances of my senses, I affirm that I have no compelling reason to actually believe them.” But saying this doesn’t make it the case that my belief here is merely presumptive. It remains an actual belief. Converting it into a merely presumptive belief seems beyond my power.

What is not beyond my power is lifting up, alongside this actual belief in the reliability of my senses, the judgment that such actual belief exceeds what is warranted by the evidence and as well as what is demanded by the pragmatic requirements of living (which only requires presumptive belief). Pairing this judgment with my actual belief might produce a kind of "functional equivalent" of mere presumptive belief.

But in that case, we would still need to ask, “On what basis should I believe this judgment about my actual belief in the reliability of my senses?” Is this belief about my belief itself an actual one or is it a presumptive one? And if it is a presumptive one, does that mean we are to act as if our belief is merely presumptive even though it is actual? This will be possible only if there is a discernible pragmatic difference between actually believing C and presumptively believing C. In other words, the behavior you exhibit when you behave as if C is true is different from the behavior you exhibit when by actually believe C is true. But in that case, in what sense are you behaving as if C is true when you presumptively believe C?

Assuming these difficulties can be overcome (and I think they can), acknowledging that what we actually believe is often out of our control forces evidentialists to truncate their evidentialist principle even further. They can no longer say that, on insufficient evidence, presumptive belief can be okay but actual belief never is. Rather, they'll have to say that actual belief can be okay too, so long as we pair that belief with a clear recognition of our fallibility with respect to it—a recognition which serves to generate the functional equivalent of mere presumptive belief.

But now, an evidentialist challenge to theism that makes room for presumptive belief will have to make room for actual belief as well—so long as that belief is paired with fallibilism. In other words, if we follow this path, we no longer have an evidentialist opposition to theism at all. What we have is a challenge to fanaticism.

I suspect very many theists would be very happy to accept that conclusion--because it isn't really a case against theism at all, but rather a case for favoring moderate forms of theism over fanatical ones. And what this shows, I think, is that in order really to have an evidentialist case against theism, the evidentialist would need to argue that presumptive belief in God is illegitimate—in other words, that it is wrong to live as if there is a God.

I think an argument of this sort can be made with respect to what I call (in my book, following Plutarch) “the god of superstition.” And there may be other specific forms of theism for which a case can be made that presumptive belief is illegitimate. But I think it would be very difficult indeed to make this case with respect to every species of theism--for example, the species which conceives of God as that whose existence would (borrowing language from my book) fulfill "the ethico-religious hope" (the hope that, in some fundamental way, reality is on the side of the good).


  1. Eric-

    "Clifford thus concludes that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for any one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

    Formulated in such strident and sweeping terms, evidentialism does not appear to be a tenable doctrine. Among other things it would mean that it’s wrong for children to take anything on trust from teachers or parents—and this seems a recipe for the impossibility of children ever arriving at a state in which they could actually engage in the sort of investigative activity that Clifford demands."

    This seems a little pat. One can posit a pedagogical method that propagates well-evidenced beliefs without re-doing every derivation and experiment oneself. It is a matter of intellectual standards- "Insufficient" is a word that cries out for some definition.

    You go on to make that seem like a circular quest. But I don't think it is. It is a meta-quest, indeed the essence of philosophy, asking how we know what we do know, what is reliable about it, and how can we extend those criteria to things we don't yet know. (Whether we want to know them or not.) We can agree that we do know some things to a very high degree of reliability. So we had best start there with the salient properties of knowledge and good evidence.

    "How could we test the reliability of our senses without appeal to the very senses we are not supposed to trust until their reliability has been established?

    This, of course, is the path to a radical skepticism which precludes having any beliefs at all."

    No, there is another way, which is to fall back on logic. If multiple methods of perception agree in a critical way in formulating a consistent public model of their object, that is a very good sign that we can rely on those senses. We can engage in mutual calibration among our senses, something that is undreamt of in the realm of mystical "knowledge".

    .. cont ..

  2. .. cont ..

    "Evidentialism, by contrast, insists that the default position for every claim C is disbelief or agnosticism. Put bluntly, then, one cannot be a faithful evidentialist of this sweeping sort and still lead a human life."

    A very interesting claim. But I think you draw with too broad a brush. Yes, we presumptively trust our eyes, till it becomes painfully clear that they betray us, by our bumping into things. Our senses are pre-engineered to be reliable to a very high degree, so we trust them and learn to continue to trust them through continued experience and calibration.

    What of other "beliefs"? One might wish to sneak religion in here, or mystical deliverances, etc. Which are, while certainly compelling in a psychological way, quite evidently not engineered to be reliable nor typically supported by later calibration (prayers are not answered, evil continues, god fails to show, the second coming is put off, etc.). These impulses serve quite different purposes if one wants to look at them evolutionarily, which are- pure optimism and a drive to continue life itself. Certainly those are useful impulses, but don't have the same epistemic nature as our outward senses. However congenial, they deserve the highest skepticism from a philosopher. What is philosophy's view of cults in general?

    As you say, if you define god to be resistant to refutation and calibration, then we have no experience that serves to either reinforce or deny it. A philosopher would call that an empty concept unworthy of the appellation "real", or, indeed, of the name "theism". It is hopefullness reduced down to the liqueur of pure emotion.

  3. Hi Eric,

    Thanks for reposting this. It's worth another visit.

    Why should I believe that these criteria are the ones I should use?

    Is this perhaps the wrong question? Saying that we should use some criterion or other requires that we explain “should: according to what” or “should: in order to”, or something like this. The same for legitimacy. Asking whether presumptive belief is legitimate or not does not make sense until we explain what criteria we use for legitimacy.

    I think that, at the end of the day, we simply decide to require evidence – or not. It is meaningless to simply ask if asking for evidence is right or wrong in some absolute terms (the absolutist trap perhaps?)

    Now, a belief held without any evidence is just that, an invention, a product of our imagination, a story, as Bernard has pointed out many times. The question is: what claim has such a belief to be “true” in any meaningful sense? (Except to claim that it does not contradict what we know from elsewhere.) Certainly the usual methods of science are of no avail: experimentation, observation, and so on. It rather seems that any claim to a connection with reality is a very flimsy one.

  4. Hi Eric

    To follow on from JP, and to repeat myself somewhat. The argument you make is fine so long as we are then careful to distinguish between types of belief. There is, it seems to me, a world of difference between saying 'I believe this is true in the sense that it stands as the best current model available, and as yet nobody has been able to produce a model that outperforms when it comes to matching the data and generating novel and accurate predictions' and saying 'I believe this is true in the sense that it just feels right to me, but of course it may well not feel right to others, and hence may not be true for them.'

    Of course one can believe any constructed narrative one wishes, but to fail to make the distinction between this, and a belief forced upon us by the nature of our interactions with the physical world (the child approaches the ledge, we pull them back, don't we?) is surely disingenuous.


  5. Eric,

    One often discusses the merits or limits of epistemic principles such as “one should not believe in anything without sufficient evidence”, or “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, etc, in the context of theism. One thing though I find rarely happens is to turn the table and apply the same principles to naturalism. Thus there is no evidence for naturalism I know of, whether scientific or not. I can’t even imagine how evidence for naturalism might look like. Such an exercise forces one to see that one has evidence for some hypothesis when the same evidence does not fit equally well some competing hypothesis. – Also naturalism makes many really extraordinary claims, such as that, say, mass causes spacetime around it to warp, again without any evidence whatsoever, let alone extraordinary evidence. (Physics only describes how spacetime around massive bodies is warped, but says nothing about what causes that warping.)

    What I am saying is that one learns a lot about epistemic principles by actually applying them to their entire field of potential application.

  6. Hi Dianelos

    I've always liked this example, because it encapsulates so well my own taste for the scientific mix of evidentialism and agnosticism. (There may well be some naturalists of the type your parody suggests, but I've never met one, not even Dawkins entertains this type of physical fundamentalism).

    I like the way we moved from problematic observations regarding the speed of light, to a re-imagining of our time space geometry, to a careful mapping of those implications into general relativity, and then ultimately, through the awkward implication of mass bending light, a novel experiment that was able to falsify one theory and leave another standing as the best, not yet falsified explanation.

    Had we not embraced this type of evidence based testing, then what would there be to stop us from simply splintering into Newtonian and Einsteinian factions, hurling insults and charges of heresy at one another down the ages?

    The fecundity of general realtivity as an intellectual framework for discovery, plus the open acknowledgement that future evidence may always force us to amend, reinterpret or even abandon it, captures well the great advantage of insisting upon evidence where it is available. It allows us to decide between alternatives and progress.

    When no such evidence is available we are, as ever, free to make up any old thing that makes us happy. And we all do. So long as we acknowledge this is what we are doing, this strikes me as a commendable and healthy approach.


  7. Bernard,

    It is important to distinguish between the mathematical description of physical phenomena that physics gives us, and naturalism’s hypothesis about what kind of reality produces said phenomena. My issue is not at all with general relativity which with great precision and generality describes gravitational phenomena, including the surprising bending of massless light near massive bodies. Nor do I have any problem with general relativity’s model that spacetime is warped near massive bodies, which explains the phenomenon of the bending of light. Nor of course do I have any problem with the scientific method which has proven very successful in the physical sciences’ project of modeling physical phenomena.

    Rather my contention is with naturalists’ claim that it is mass which causes the warping of spacetime around it. This is *not* entailed in general relativity. This is just how naturalists *interpret* general relativity. For, clearly, something is causing that warping, and in naturalism there is nothing else but matter itself which might be causing it.

    I don’t know of any naturalist who thinks that it is not matter but something else which is causing that warping, and thus I don’t understand what the “parody” you mention is. I suspect that when you study a physical science you assume some kind of scientific realism as a given, and further assume some kind of naturalism as a given, but neither is really a given. Indeed, I question both. I don’t see why I should believe in the occult power of mass to warp spacetime around it. Again, there is nothing in physics that says anything like that, and the very idea strikes me as a call to sheer magic.

  8. Dianelos

    Yes, and again, I know of nobody who believes in this power in the way you hint. It is a straw man.


  9. Bernard,

    You write: “ Yes, and again, I know of nobody who believes in this power in the way you hint. It is a straw man.

    There must be something I fail to communicate here. Let me try to find out where:

    You agree that spacetime around massive bodies is warped according to general relativity’s equations, correct? (Indeed the measure of that warping is a mathematical function of the distribution of mass.)

    You agree that something or other is *causing* that warping, correct?

    You agree that according to naturalism it’s the massive bodies themselves which cause that warping, correct?

    You agree that there is nothing in physics that says that it’s the massive bodies themselves which cause that warping, correct? After all, general relativity would correctly describe and predict gravitational phenomena even if it’s not the massive bodies but something else which causes that warping.

    Assuming you agree with all the above, what exactly is it you contest?

    Perhaps you don’t like my use of the concept of “power”, as when I wrote that “according to naturalism mass has the power to warp spacetime around it”. If so, would you prefer the following wording “according to naturalism mass has the property of causing spacetime around it to warp”?

    Or, perhaps, you contest to my use of the concept of “occult”, as when I wrote that this property of matter is an occult one, for there is nothing about it in physics itself (nor therefore in the data that physics uses). If so, what other word should I use to express the idea that naturalists claim something that goes beyond what is stated in physics?

  10. Hi Dianelos

    Nice to converse again.

    In my experience, scientists are very careful to limit their beliefs to the type of 'this is our current best explanation.' Now, in the case of general relativity, we have a model (and I'm no expert on this at all, so may well express it poorly, or indeed inaccurately) that says something along the lines that if we consider space and time from the perspective of a spacetime geometry, a sort of 4D rendering of a phenomenon we naturally think of in 3D, we get a set of predictions regarding physical phenomena that is more accurate than the more instinctive Newtonian approach.

    One of the resulting implications of this mathematical treatment was indeed a bending of light by mass, but this is a loose way of expressing it. Do we mean the mass causes the bending? That's a convenient expression, a useful metaphor, but doesn't reflect the deeper belief set, in my experience. The belief is rather, the model predicts that when light passes mass, we should observe this bending. And we do, so that's a opportunity for the model to have been falsified, and it wasn't, so for now let's keep using this model. Because causation itself can never be observed, only coinciding events, causation itself need not be part of the model.

    We naturally use the language of causation because that's the sort of folk psychology our mind is attuned to, and there's no harm in doing that. It could well be that a bus hitting a car does not cause the crumpling, maybe fairies do that, intervening at the site of car crashes. It is enough to believe that the expectation that bus hitting car will be accompanied by crumpling is a good one.

    Push any so called naturalist on this point, and I think you'll find they're more than happy to retreat to the model level of their explanation. To borrow the quote JP provided (was it Haldane?) 'the world is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.' Most scientists seem happy to simply chip away at aspects of the mystery, never imagining they will uncover the underlying truth. Or so I have found. Clearly some may fall for the trap you point out, the very trap their attachment to evidence warns them against. But even when I spoke with Dawkins, I didn't get any sense he would want to push it this far (he just gets prickly when he senses conflict and overstates).


  11. Hi Dianelos

    My reply dropped off. Let me know if you didn't see it and I'll try again.