Why do I believe? Part 2 – A little epistemology

Bible with magnifying glassOK, so here’s my first abuse of an “ology” word.  Before I get into what leads me to believe the way I do, I feel it necessary to establish at least a rough view of the rules of evidence as I’m using them.  The term of art here is “epistemology,” which is usually defined as how we know (or think we know) what we know.  In this I’m obliged to reiterate that I don’t claim to be a philosopher or a logician.  Those who have made either of those fields their life’s work, if they were to bother with my thoughts at all (improbable), can likely find a lot of reasons I’m wrong.  That’s OK with me, because one of the things that I hold quite dear is the conviction that no one can really believe–nor ought they be asked or commanded to believe–something that they have no hope of comprehending (which was actually one of my objections to the Nicene Creed).  “I know better than you, just trust me” is equally invalid whether the “me” demanding trust is a theologian, a pastor, a philosophy professor, or a rationalist atheist.

I guess I’d call myself somewhat of a free thinker, except that some group of decidedly un-free atheist thinkers has co-opted that label for themselves (and yes, I just read an article a couple days ago by professor of philosophy Eric Walther, who concluded Thomas Paine “was not a free-thinker” in matters of Deism for no other reason than because Paine found atheism more incredible than First-Cause deism).  So since I’m evidently not free to think of myself as a free-thinker because the Free Thinkers Club has determined that only atheists are free, I guess I’ll have to avoid that label.  Anyway, I do think we ought to exercise our freedom to think through the implications and foundations of our own thoughts, which seems to be something neither fundamentalist atheists nor fundamentalist Christians like very much.

In examining my own epistemology, there are two completely opposed positions that need repudiating.  On the one hand, Christian fundamentalists have at times encapsulated their standard of truth as “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”  I have made my thoughts on this approach pretty clear throughout my blogging years, I think, not least with my thoughts on Biblical inspiration (summarized here).  Suffice it to say, for now, that very little that fundamentalists claim God has said, did God actually say, even by the standard of the very Bible from which they purport to derive their doctrines.

Examining more closely my own belief system, the key is that while I believe the Bible to be authoritative for Christian life, it is not a foundation FOR faith.  What I mean by this is actually quite simple:  the Bible lacks authority as anything other than one among many ancient texts, until the reader has already accepted that the God of the Bible is, in fact, God.  From an evidentiary point of view, the Bible is inadmissible until the God of the Bible makes the text relevant. This is not to deny that people have found faith in God through reading the Bible.  I know people who have.  But I have little time for people who try to argue an atheist into the kingdom by quoting the Bible.  The only valid reason to quote the Bible to an atheist is to correct any misconceptions s/he may have (or misrepresentations s/he may make) regarding its contents.

On the other epistemological end, however, I’m going to borrow a quote from the above-referenced Freethinkers, specifically the 19th-century British philosopher William Kingdon Clifford:  “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”  I bring this point up largely to point to how ridiculous it is on its face.  For starters, of course, the statement itself is obviously itself a belief, and if anyone has ever presented evidence for the “wrongness” here advocated with such finality, I at least haven’t seen it.  Circular logic of this sort is common among fundamentalists of all stripes.

A second problem with Clifford’s maxim is the “always, everywhere, and for anyone” part.  I doubt Clifford, or any of his many disciples, would dispute that among the “anyones” to whom he refers, are people of a wide variety of intellectual capacity and exposure.  Few of them (and I’m not one of the few) have either the training or perhaps even the intellectual horsepower to understand the process by which electrons travel through a resistive-conductive filament, exciting some of the atoms within that filament and driving their electrons to an elevated energy state, from which they then cascade down emitting photons that are visible to our retinas.  I may not have even described this process correctly, and yet I still believe that electricity flowing through a light bulb produces the light I see in my room right now.  Is it wrong for me, or for someone who understands far less science than I, to believe this?  Of course not.  But why, actually, do I believe it?  Because people who do understand the science, and whom I trust, have said so.

Herein there lies a dangerous precedent.  Some (I do not say all) rationalists would suggest that science provides clear answers to a variety of questions, derived through the scientific method of hypothesis and test, that non-scientists ought to accept as true on the strength of the scientists’ work.  Even casual inquiry will reveal, however, that the vast bulk of society understands very little of the scientific method.  Not only do people not comprehend the work of most scientists, many  appear incapable (and maybe they are) of tracing a series of measurements and observations through to a conclusion, or of evaluating whether the conclusion presented to them actually follows from the observations described.  These people, then, if they are to believe what the scientists tell them, are ascribing to those scientists the same sort of authority others have ascribed to theologians, mystics, and divines.  Replacing the priesthood of traditional faith with the priesthood of the scientist is not intellectual progress, it is merely redirected superstition.

Finally and most importantly to my own thoughts, from Clifford’s maxim I look at the question of “insufficient evidence.”  This is a criterion that needs careful definition, for even in the purely secular world, we actually ascribe vastly different criteria to the sufficiency of evidence in different contexts.  We need look no further than the court of law to illustrate my point.  I have served on two different juries, one for a criminal case and the other a civil case.  In the criminal case, the law required that we only return a verdict of “guilty” if all twelve jurors unanimously found that the evidence presented by the prosecution convinced each of us that the defendant was guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  In the civil case we had a much lower bar:  the case would be decided if a majority of the jurors concluded that “the preponderance of the evidence” came down for or against the plaintiff’s case.

Even the evidence we were presented in both cases took on different forms.  Some was physical evidence found at the scene of the criminal case.  Some was written records–from the drug lab in the criminal case, from the financial books of two companies in the civil.  And some (most actually) was verbal testimony by witnesses.  To weigh each bit of evidence, the jurors had to evaluate not only the facts themselves, but the credibility (as we saw it) of each person presenting the facts.  Even the physical evidence of bags full of crack cocaine required the testimony of a chemist to say they were crack, the testimony of the officer who found the bags in the defendant’s car, and the testimony of the defendant and his character witnesses against all of the above.  There was no single bit of evidence that was indisputable, conclusive “proof” of the defendant’s guilt.  Nevertheless, we the jury found (rightly I still believe) that the defendant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

By contrast, in the civil case the jury found ten to two in favor of one plaintiff and against another, but judged the damages claimed by the plaintiff to be completely not credible and awarded only token damages, which were completely offset by a finding in the opposite direction on another claim.  Without describing the whole case, I think that we found justly, and though the criteria were different in each case, I believe that the right verdict was rendered in both cases upon which I served.

What does all this mean for apologetics?  It goes to the standard of proof for belief.  When a theist or an atheist advocates for their claim (and unlike the agnostic, both atheists and theists are actually making affirmative claims, just on opposite sides of the existence of a god), not only their evidence, but also their standard for adjudging the sufficiency of the evidence presented, needs to be taken into account.  As I’ve implied above, I think fundamentalists in both theistic and atheistic camps make claims with a certainty that neither’s evidence warrants.  My own faith is not that certain.  I believe, and will attempt to show in future posts, that a preponderance of the evidence supports the existence of God, and that further evidence pushes me to the Christian interpretation of what that God does and wants.  But I don’t claim to have an airtight case.  It’s not true beyond a reasonable doubt … in fact I think my own doubts are quite reasonable, as have been those of many before me.  Will the evidence convince anybody else?  I don’t know, nor is that my purpose.  As I said in my introductory post, I’m explaining where I land, not trying to argue anyone else to my position.

5 thoughts on “Why do I believe? Part 2 – A little epistemology”

  1. Dan McM

    Good post, Dan. I think you and I tend to analyze things in a similar manner, though we tend to focus in on different details.

    If “free thinker” doesn’t work, I might say go with “independent thinker” I actually like that one a little better anyway. “Free thinker” almost implies that the belief system tied to absolutely nothing, whereas “independent thinker” invokes an image (to me anyways) that there are ties to particular thoughts, but not a reliance or submission to them — my beliefs are independent but related to certain trains of thought.

    I have pet peeves as well with the same “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” nonsense, and though I’d never heard it before, the “it is wrong, always and everywhere, for anyone to believe upon insufficient evidence”. The former puts on air of authority that makes look foolish, while the latter sounds intelligent but makes no sense, as you point out. Not only is Clifford’s statement not proven, but if it were true, it completely invalidates itself, which was your point……

    Interesting that you bring up the comparison to a court case and evidentiary burdens in relation to the proof of God. Being a mathematician, I tend to think of it in terms of the mathematical/logical proof concept, but I’ve inadvertantly adopted the “preponderance of evidence” stance while agreeing that no one has an airtight proof beyond reasonable doubt on either side.

    Good stuff! Thanks for sharing…..

  2. Mark Carlton

    Hi Dan. I appreciate your thought. Like you I believe the case for God offers evidence that proves his existence by a preponderance of the evidence, and in reaching out to atheists that’s the case I seek to make, and I have had some success with it. However, there are certain elements in the evidence that I think can be demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt.

    I especially appreciate your critique of Clifton. Nice thinking.

    I do take some exception to this point: “From an evidentiary point of view, the Bible is inadmissible until the God of the Bible makes the text relevant.” I would just suggest that a document need not be divinely inspired to be or to contain truth. And even a document that has some error in it still may have evidentiary value. Whether jury who hears the testimony must decide how much weight to give to its evidence, but it can still be used to make logically consistent and cogent arguments. For example, as a former juror you know that some of the documents you used had errors in them. But they still were admissible as evidence. The weight of that evidence was determined by the triers of fact, the jury.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      Fair enough, Mark. If I read you correctly, you seem to be saying the Bible has historical, literary, and philosophical value whether or not one believes it to be “true” as such. Not only do I agree, I believe many rational atheists would as well. What I intended to call out was the various ways zealous Christians try to establish their faith *TO SKEPTICS* on the basis of the truth of the Bible. I see that approach as hopelessly circular.

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