From: email@example.com (Russell Turpin)
Subject: Religious evidence (was: Carl Sagan)
Summary: Testimony does not provide the same
quality of evidence as direct observation.
Date: 21 Dec 89 02:51:36 GMT
References: <firstname.lastname@example.org> <email@example.com>
Organization: U. Texas CS Dept., Austin, Texas
In article <firstname.lastname@example.org>, email@example.com (Charley Wingate) writes:
> The is an abundance of evidence for and about religion. The problems are
> (a) that taken as a whole it is inconsistent, and (b) it is by and large not
> scientific evidence. And at least for the major religions, the
> possibilities are right there. We do not need to make them up. We have
> religions and we have the testimony behind each one.
It is a common ploy by those who lack evidence for their beliefs
to draw a false dichotomy between "scientific" evidence and
"religious" evidence. The issue is not the subject under study,
but whether the proposed evidence passes critical examination.
If a religious argument cannot meet the common standards which
apply to historical, legal, and philosophical arguments (as well
as medical, chemical, and astronomical ones) it indicates that
the religious argument is empty, not that we should make an
exception for its subject matter. Testimony can be good evidence,
but it can also mean that someone else made something up.
> The fact is that evidence for religions comes in basically two flavors: (a)
> that the supernatural only appears when it chosses to (and that it has made
> such appearances), and (b) the suprnatural can be approached in "altered
> states" of religious experience. I'm not going to deal with the second
> here. But the first represents a real problem. Let's say that you are
> Thomas and you actually do get to meet the risen Jesus and put your finger
> in his wounds. Well, that's pretty convincing evidence, right? OK, now you
> are Russell Turpin, trying to make sense of this account. Should you
> believe it? Well, this is a very different problem. The scientific
> apporach simply isn't available to you. ...
This is where Mr Wingate is greatly wrong. Evaluating the
testimony of others is a problem that arises in almost all
fields, and it can indeed be approached critically. There are
many pertinent questions that must be asked. In historical
cases, as with Thomas's, the first issue is whether or not we
have an accurate account of the testimony and know of who gave
it. Other questions arise even when the witness is before us.
Are there factors that support or undermine the suppositions that
the witness is reliable and honest? Do the events, even if they
occurred as testified, mean what the witness thinks they mean?
Is there other evidence that supports or undermines the witness?
Depending on these and other questions, testimony can either be
very strong evidence, or no evidence at all.
> ... Well, you could also start rationalizing. For instance,
> there is the ever-popular "I should disbelieve in miracles until
> one is forced down my throoat." ...
I don't know that argument, Mr Wingate. What I do know is what I
wrote before: there is an infinity of possibilities, and the
rational person does not believe that an event occurred, that
something exists, or that a conclusion is correct until
sufficient evidence is presented for it.
> ... But this is a rationalization, and an anti-scientific one
> at that. If we really respect science, we will not elevate the
> subjectivity of our own experience over anothers as scientific
> proof. ...
This is a strange view of evidence, and an even stranger one of
science. It contradicts an obvious fact, that some people have
evidence and knowledge that is not accessible to others.
Examples are easy to create. (1) The explorer who discovers a
rosetta stone for Linear A can quickly learn historical facts of
which the rest of us have no evidence. If an earthquake buries
the discoverer and destroys the stone before the news is brought
to the rest of the world, this knowledge may permanently
disappear. (2) Another explorer comes face to face with the Loch
Ness monster. Unfortunately, the camera fails, the monster is
the last of its species, its physiology and environment are such
that it and its ancestors leave no discoverable remains, and the
explorer had previously been caught exagerating evidence. Under
circumstances such as these, other people, unlike the explorer,
do not have evidence for the Loch Ness monster and do not have
reason to believe it ever existed. [See footnote 1.]
> ... It wins points only by being passed through fewer hands.
The number of hands through which a piece of evidence passes is a
very important consideration. Each time evidence is interpreted
by a person, and *only* that interpretation passed on, there is
opportunity for error to creep in. Each transition must be
examined, and the quality of the evidence is limited by the
weakest link. (Those who had first hand access to earlier points
in the chain have different evidence from those who do not.)
> ... Indeed, the word "discover" is question-beggin in itself.
> DO you discover it, or does it hunt you down? You will find
> lots of christian writers taking the latter view.
The issue isn't whether one discovers something by active search,
or whether circumstances conspire to bring one up against it, but
how one can know of what it is evidence. Mr Wingate has failed
to show why religious questions should be exempt from the usual
criteria, and as I showed above, the problems that he claims are
unique to religious evidence are actually much broader in scope.
Mr Wingate has pointed out the thread-worn possibility that the
gods reveal themselves to some, while concealing themselves from
others. This does not present particular epistemological
problems: it just means that some people have evidence that
others do not. As I noted above -- and contrary to Mr Wingate's
strange view of science -- the testimony of those who claim such
knowledge is not as strong evidence to the rest of us as would be
witnessing the events ourselves . In fact, when such
testimony is critically examined, it would appear that the gods
-- if they exist -- have carefully conspired not just to reveal
themselves only to a select group, but to do so in such a fashion
and under such circumstances that this group provides extremely
weak evidence for the rest of us.
There is the interesting question why a god with the supposed
moral caliber of the Christian deity would behave in this
fashion. The common answer, that if god were to provide evidence
of himself this would overwhelm human free will, is trite
rubbish. People have been known to believe in the Christian view
of heaven and earth, but to side against the Christian god they
believe exists. To state the obvious: knowledge and assent are
different. Evidence can mandate the former, in the sense that
people with commitment to rational belief will be swayed by it,
but the latter remains a matter of will.
 I do not claim that the Loch Ness monster does not exist;
it just provides an easy example.
 There are circumstances where someone else's observation
provides stronger evidence (in some ways) than one's own
observation, for example, when a medical examiner testifies about
the cause of death to a person who lacks the same kind of
training. But even here, the issue is complex. If an expert
witness testifies that the victim was beheaded, it would be
stronger evidence for the average person to personally see the
corpse, since knowing that a body is decapitated does not require
expert knowledge and seeing the body firsthand removes any
lingering uncertainty about the testimony.