How Should I Be A Sceptic -- evidence and the burden of proof

[Introductory note from Jason Pratt: the previous entry in this series of posts can be found here. A continually updated table of contents for all entries so far can be found here.]

At the end of my previous chapter, I demonstrated that metaphor does not necessarily need to mean something less than its imagery suggests; and that to immediately presume otherwise is a common fallacy in the discussion of religious propositions. Incidents and claims should be taken on a case-by-case basis, and filtered through an already developed philosophical position.

So, to return to my example of Jesus' Ascension into heaven: what you or I believe this imagery can mean, is constrained by what you or I have already decided is, or is not, possible. If a supernatural God does not exist, then Jesus cannot have moved from our Nature to a Supernature while exhibiting the extent of His divine authority and/or existence. The story must reflect some other set of objectively real events: for example, perhaps the story was invented for any of a number of purposes; or perhaps aliens levitated Jesus to a throne-shaped craft.

If, however, God does exist as the supernaturally transcendent Sentient Independent Fact--what can we say about the story?

Frankly, such a belief does not automatically exclude the forgery explanation--or even the alien-superscience explanation!

But it does include as a live possibility (to be strengthened or refuted on further grounds and evidence) that the traditionally 'orthodox' or reading of this passage is true. I have not yet begun to argue positively for the truth of a reality where the 'orthodox' interpretation could (much more would) subsequently also be true. But I have now reached the question of the principles of 'evidence', for such an inquiry.

When we are attempting to prove or disprove metaphysical and/or historical claims (and for convenience I am limiting my discussion here to religious issues), we all apply to 'evidence'--if we can. 'The burden of proof' comes to the forefront. In the case of purportedly historical claims (especially claims exhibiting circumstantial characteristics which match characteristics common to other historical claims we have found to be trustworthy), the burden of proof is almost always placed on the detractor who wants to discredit the purported historian.

This is a widely recognized principle of historical inquiry, and its widespread authority can be accepted as a practical affair by anyone who understands the principle involved: either we must assume that most of the time people are not only telling what they believe to be true but that they have a certain amount of accuracy in their reports; or else we will have no presumptive grounds for believing that any historical data can be recovered from documents--including modern ones. [See first comment below for a deferred footnote here.]

On the other hand, when the accounts conflict drastically with what we have already established to be 'the way reality works', then we have quite reasonable grounds (whether or not we are in fact correct about our philosophy!) for an initial scepticism of the claim. In that case, I suggest the burden of proof for the claim should fall on the purported historian and his defenders.

Thus, I do not begrudge the sceptics who demand more than a document (or other account) as evidence of real historicity for a claim. I am no different from them. Neither, I will add, are almost all of my brethren. The most fundamentalistic Bible-based 'faith-only' Baptist preacher would suddenly turn quite a different eye upon a conflicting claim from, say, the specifically Muslim or Mormon or 'Christian Scientist' documents. And he would do so for at least the reason I have just given: he can tell the claims are quite different from the way he thinks reality is (historically and/or metaphysically). He would require the burden of proof to be on the adherents of Islam, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or the 'Church of Christ, Scientist'.

At the same time, and for the same basic reason (along with perhaps other reasons), a Jewish rabbi, or a member of the Internet Infidels, or even a Muslim Iman, will look to this preacher (and his supporters) for burden of proof.

I do not think this necessarily indicates sinful obstinacy by anyone involved. It might instead be a prudent (and loyal) recognition that the new claim conflicts strongly with what the resister accepts as a true underlying philosophy or history; although the resister may not describe it quite that way, of course.

Let me emphasize, before you misunderstand me, that I am not saying the burden of proof must always be put on the shoulders of one definable side of an argument. Historians do generally agree that the burden of proof should fall on the detractor, but not because there is some intrinsic property of being a 'detractor'; rather, because most of the time underlying metaphysical positions are not being called into question by historical analysis.

But when core beliefs are challenged, then I think the burden of proof ought to be placed on the shoulders of the asserter. This would mean, ideally, that in a dialogue entered into freely by two sides, both debaters should be ready to shoulder the burden of proof! But in the case of an intrusion by a detractor into the life or lives of asserters (i.e. where the detractor is also the initiator), then the detractor (mere politeness suggests it!) should not expect the established and assaulted position to sortie out onto his ground (so to speak), nor see a refusal to do so as a tacit or explicit surrender. [See second comment below for a deferred footnote here.]

Very well then; but in a situation like this--in a discussion or argument about what the Final Reality is and what He or It (or She?) has done--what type of 'evidence' is appropriate? I think the answer to this question is all-too-often oversimplified by believers and sceptics alike.

An acquaintance of mine once told me (quite seriously, I think, and not at all in a hostile manner) that she would believe the Devil existed when he appeared in front of her. If I had replied that I would believe 100,000 galaxies existed in the universe when someone shows me a picture of them and counts them out for me, she would have thought I was merely being funny. And she would have been right!--but only because my conclusions (and thus my beliefs) about reality allow quite easily for the real existence of 100,000 galaxies. I don't need much evidence or argument to believe they may well exist. If I was being careful and fair, of course, I would need some strong arguments (and I also suppose some strong evidence) before I staked a conclusion on the required existence of those galaxies. My friend's understanding of reality, however, does not easily allow for the possibility (much less the actuality) of the existence of a massively powerful and thoroughly hostile supernatural creature. She would not be favorably persuaded (much less convinced) with minimal evidence and argument; and rightly so. (Let me add, by the way, that we were discussing a literary topic, and not official debating metaphysics.)

I may have taken her by surprise with my actual response, though: I would not necessarily believe I was seeing the Devil in front of me in that situation, and I do already believe he exists!

Do you see how this fits with what I have said earlier? My belief that the Devil exists (and that he can perhaps do things on occasion like pop into view in front of people, through various methods) does not automatically mean that I would (or should) take such a situation at face value. I might be suffering from a brain tumor. I might be hallucinating after eating a batch of bad shrimp. I might merely have had an especially annoying dream. Someone who thinks about such issues as much as I do (and such themes are also prevalent in the fantasy literature and computer games I enjoy, although of course the metaphysical rationales are often very different) would have plenty of imagery to draw on by association in the case of a naturally occurring mental disturbance--even if we grant the Devil's existence and abilities. At the same time, granting his existence and abilities, he might also manifest himself to me through the manipulation of such otherwise natural events! But I would need something other than that mere appearance before I concluded (and thus believed) it really was the Devil.

This example illustrates a factor of supernatural operation which sometimes escapes sceptics who demand hard proof: the character of the proposed event would very probably dictate that some kinds of 'natural' explanations could similarly be proposed to explain the event--even if the event truly was supernatural in character. (Of course, other sceptics are not only quite aware of this, but robustly--maybe even a little too robustly!--make use of the principle. I will be discussing them presently.)

Let us pretend (what I do not claim) that I can create a cloud in the sky through supernatural power. What type of evidence and/or abstract arguments could a naturalist fairly accept, concerning this claim? (I am presuming the naturalist is an honest sceptic.)

First, I am not sure he would be obligated to accept any argument or evidence, if he had already responsibly concluded 'There is no such thing as supernatural power'. That type of conclusion is a core belief, which has deductively necessary consequences about what should and should not be accepted as true. Steadily mounting evidence to the contrary might suggest a prudent consideration on the naturalist's part that he should perhaps recheck his logical math; but that is not the same as abandoning his belief. He might conclude (after doing the logical math again) that one of his most basic conclusions was wrong; but I am not sure at what point it would be proper for him to reject his core belief, where the rejection was only based on apparent evidence to the contrary around him (not bearing directly on his overarching philosophical grounds). It would, at least, have to be extremely good evidence to overturn a prior philosophical conviction. And that kind of evidence is manifestly not usually forthcoming.

I am assuming, of course, that this particular naturalist--call him Chase--is a fairly stable and intelligent person with some training in how to discern these issues; and who either has no strong emotional stake for or against 'changing his views', or who recognizes that he feels strongly about the issues and nevertheless resolves to try thinking them through fairly and clearly. [See third comment below for a deferred footnote here.]

So, what kind of evidence (within or against Chase's philosophy, either one) can I produce for him?

Let us say I supernaturally create a cloud, and then call Chase over to see it. What does he see?

A cloud.

Is he likely to believe my claims from this? I see no reason why he should, especially in regard to his opposing philosophy. I might be a liar (or, more politely, playing a joke on him). I might be insane. I might be mistaken in some other fashion. There are no other options for Chase to choose from, as a naturalist. And even given supernaturalism's truth, any of those might still have been the proper explanation--not supernatural power.

[Next time: now let us say Chase has a friend, Reed, who is a supernaturalist...]


Jason Pratt said…
.......[first deferred footnote here]

The archaeological study of artifacts as artifacts does not (so far as I can tell) require this presupposition; and since documents are also artifacts they may also be analyzed archaeologically. The years since the mid-19th century, have seen the rise of a broad range of documentary analyses built on this concept. Such studies are often very useful and informative; but when historians resort primarily to such methods at the expense of necessarily ignoring what the document purports to say in itself, they tread on dangerous ground. After all, these historians themselves write books and articles that purport to clarify what has happened in history; and they can be deconstructed and dismembered with equally efficient facility through the lens of intrinsic historical scepticism.
Jason Pratt said…
.......[second deferred footnote here]

This applies just as much to secular historical revisionsists who are making claims about the transhistorical meanings of documents: they should also shoulder the burden of proof. In my experience, such revisionists can be at least as 'fundamentalistically' inept about this (often moreso) as any uncritical religious conservative.
Jason Pratt said…
.......[third deferred footnote here]

This has to be a somewhat idealized example, because there isn't much point for me to offer suggestions on how, when and why someone should change views if, for instance, he is suffering a fit of despair--no one thinks very clearly in the middle of such pain.

Also I am restricting this hypothetical example to a question of supernatural effect. 'Chase' and I might both be atheists in this example; or we might both be theists. The question of supernatural effect in Nature is technically not the same as theism vs. atheism, remember. But for ease of imagination, it would be okay to assign me the role of supernaturalistic theist and 'Chase' the role of naturalistic atheist.

Popular posts from this blog

Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesus, Jonah and U2’s Pride in the Name of Love

How Many Children in Bethlehem Did Herod Kill?

How Should I Be A Sceptic -- belief and reason

Bayes Theorem And Probability of God: No Dice!

Kierkegaard's Knights of Faith and the Account of Abraham

On the Significance of Simon of Cyrene, Father of Alexander and Rufus

The Criteria of Embarrassment and Jesus' Baptism in the Gospel of Mark

The Meaning of the Manger

Distinguishing between moral ontology and moral epistemology