Responses to No-Evidence Arguments

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This is the the sixteenth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear.

As with the other no-evidence argument posts in this series, some of my presentation is influenced by the chapter by John Hawthorne called "Arguments for Atheism" in Michael Murray, Reason for the Hope Within. This post in particular also takes a good deal from Peter van Inwagen's "It Is Wrong Everywhere, Always, and for Anyone to Believe Anything on Insufficient Evidence" and "Quam Dilecta"), which are two different presentations of the same core paper, expanded upon differently for different audiences (I assume).

In previous posts I've tried to make the strongest case for arguing that we shouldn't believe in God, on the grounds that there isn't enough evidence. There are a number of points that I'd like to make in response. This post will look at how standard responses to skepticism of any sort can enter into this debate, given that the no-evidence argument is very much like the arguments for skepticism (see the end of the last post). I have a few other points to make after considering the responses to skepticism as applied here, and those will follow in the next post.

Evaluating the first premise

Recall the structure of the No-Evidence Argument:

1. It is wrong to believe something without sufficient evidence.
2. We don't have (and shouldn't expect ever to have) enough evidence for belief in God.
3. Therefore, we should not believe in God.

I've spent a good deal of time on the second premise two posts ago, and I tried to motivate the first premise in the last post. Now it's time to look at the various ways people try to show that the first premise isn't really motivated after all. Do you need evidence at all? One tactic to respond to the No-Evidence Argument is not to insist that there is enough evidence but to say we simply don't need evidence to believe. These responses parallel the responses to skepticism in an interesting way, since they're just responses to skepticism about God. See the last couple posts for how the argument is basically the same argument with God added in instead of the external world, scientific laws, or whatever else someone might be skeptical about. In some ways the content might mkae all the difference, but the parallel in form means the same form of response might be worth considering.

Pragmatism about belief in God

William James says you can't live a normal life if you follow Clifford, since many beliefs have no evidence (e.g. moral, political views). If you already find yorself believing something on an issue on which you need to take a stance when there are only a few options to choose from and on which there isn't widespread agreement, then there's no reason not to believe it. This is like pragmatism, which doesn't admit to knowledge of God but won't care. It's ok to believe even without any evidence. Maybe we can't help believing. Maybe it's worthwhile for the benefits. Maybe it's morally right (or even morally necessary). Maybe we don't really know but it's ok to say we know, or whether we know varies from context to context, because we might be having religious experiences that we know something about even if it's not knowledge about any reality behind the experiences.

This doesn’t satisfy many theists, since it doesn't ground the belief in reasons, arguments, or reasonableness, but if it's right then it gets theists out of the charge that belief in God is irrational. The effect of value judgments on how we evaluate evidence (which I'll say more about in the next post) fits with Clifford's picture. If your whole view of the world, including what you value, leans one way or the other, why not stick with it? There's no point giving up many of your beliefs over evidence that has an alternate explanation.

Pascal's Wager

Pascal’s pragmatism goes further. Pragmatists normally say it's not irrational to believe, but they won’t say it's rational either. Blaise Pascal offers an argument that he thinks gives rational reasons to believe. If you don't believe, then it's either neutral or infinitely bad. You simply die if you’re right, or you go to hell if you're wrong. If you do believe, it's either neutral or infinitely good. You simply die if you're wrong, or you go to heaven if you're right. So the rational choice is to believe, since it’s better or equal either way.'

Some point out that there may be other options. Maybe God lets everyone go to heaven. At this point in Pascal's writing, he's already given arguments that Christian teachings are the only open option besides atheism (in its traditional, exclusivist form), but since we don't have those in front of us for the sake of just this argument, let's assume he has nothing to say about that. Pascal can still say there are two options. If there's a God who does send some people to hell or if there isn't. Then there are still two options (believe in God or not) with two possibilities (there's a God like that, or there isn't). So the wager still stands.

But maybe there's even an evil God who sends everyone to hell if they believe in God. Pascal doesn't address this problem (to my knowledge), but he could say that this is unlikely given the actual claims we're evaluating -- the claims of actual theists who believe in a God they think has revealed himself through some piece of scripture. So this situation doesn't seem as likely and isn't considered as much a worry as the more likely items in the wager.

The other main objection is that this doesn't seem like a good motivation to believe. It's even hard to say that it would be real belief. Could you just make yourself believe something? Pascal is aware of this charge, and he says people need some reason for investigation, and this is a great reason to look into it. When you look into it openly, you can learn to see things from the believer's perspective, and the world changes around you so you can see God’s hand at work. Then you gain the correct motivation and real belief.

A priori knowledge

John Hawthorne has a different strategy. (This response is in the chapter by John Hawthorne called "Arguments for Atheism" in Michael Murray, Reason for the Hope Within.) He says theists may be able to know a priori, without information from our senses, that God exists, like how I know mathematical truths or the truth that I exist. If we could have a priori knowledge, then belief without evidence would be grounded. Why would we have such knowledge about God? If God does exist and created us, might not God make this knowledge available to genuine seekers? Or maybe all have the ability, but some resist it because of their value systems that include perspectives fundamentally opposed to what theists often believe (see the next post for more on this issue). It's hard to argue against this a priori possibility, but Hawthorne hasn't argued for its truth either. He calls this the “gift of faith”, though ‘faith’ is misleading, since for contemporary Americans (though this isn't true historically) faith is totally ungrounded belief, and this has a grounding since its origin would be God, the most reliable source of all. This would be an ability, not necessarily shared with others, to see truths. Some may know that God exists if God gave them this ability, and those who don't have it (or don't use it) shouldn't claim that others' belief in God is ungrounded. So the no-evidence argument doesn't show that it's irrational to believe in God without evidence.

Reliabilism about God

Alvin Plantinga gives a similar argument that ends up being more based in reliabilism. The reliabilist says we don't need to know or prove that our senses are reliable. They just need to be reliable, and then we can rely on them and end up knowing things. If all it takes to know something is to have a reliable method of arriving at that truth, then the theist has an interesting response to the no-evidence argument. If God exists, and if we can interact with God through trusting God, worship, prayer, study of scripture, following a way of life, and engaging in a community of faith, and that is a reliable method to come to know God, then we could have knowledge that there's a God without having any evidence. If the method is reliable, and the belief is caused through a genuine connection with God, then people know it, even if they can't show that the method is reliable. Then theism may well be perfectly rational, and atheists or agnostics who haven't explored this method aren't in a position to say otherwise.

The "you haven't explored it" issue gets a little more complicated than this, but I'll come back to that in the next post, along with the issue of values affecting how you see others' beliefs on this issue, and I also want to look at the overall standard required for religious belief to see if people who endorse no-evidence sorts of arguments will apply the same criteria consistently to other domains of knowledge. For now, I simply want to observe that there really do seem to be some things a theist can say to defend against the charge that it's irrational to believe in God without evidence. Most of the standard replies to skepticism seem to have versions that apply to skepticism about God. That leaves me thinking the no-evidence argument is pretty poor if the people who endorse it think it shows that no one can have knowledge of God, unless they're willing to admit that hardly anyone has knowledge of anything. This doesn't show that anyone does have knowledge of God. That's not the point. The point is that those who insist that such knowledge is impossible without evidence are making quite a radical claim whose implications they probably haven't explored fully. I'll say a little more about that in the next post, along with the value issue and "you haven't explored it" argument.

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9 Comments

"...we could have knowledge that there's a God without having any evidence."

exactly how would you define evidence? I think I am getting lost in the different meanings. If evidence is some fact that supports a belief then I am not sure why you are saying that under the reliablist view we have knowledge of God without evidence. The reliablist seems to be promoting experience as evidence. Simply because the skeptic won't admit it as evidence doesn't mean that it is not evidence does it? If I sit in a chair I will have evidence that the chair is able to support my weight without collapsing. My action led to belief through the experiencal evidence I obtained. In the same way the action of my faith leads to belief in God as I experience the results of those actions. Heb 11 seems to imply this when it says that faith is the substantiation (or in the NIV, evidence) of things not seen. The Greek word and construction used here is very interesting. It seems to be implying that our faith in action is what leads us to see/know with certainty the things not seen by our eyes.

Evidence for one theory as opposed to another would have to be the sort of thing that one theory can explain that the other can't. If two theories equally explain the evidence, then it's not really evidence for one of them but not for the other. In that sense, reliabilism says you don't need evidence to know anything. You do have the experience, but the experience is consistent with all sorts of views and therefore isn't evidence for God or for naturalism any more than it's evidence for an external world as opposed to the Matrix. The evidence is consistent with all such views, according to the mindset I'm assuming here. Your sitting in the chair is evidence that the chair seems to support your weight against the thesis that it wouldn't seem to support it. This is all how things seem. If you haven't ruled out the Matrix, the evil demon, the dreaming hypothesis, or hallucination, then it's not evidence that the chair is even there as opposed to some other theory that doesn't accept the existence of the chair.

What reliabilism then says is that if one of the theories is true then it's ok to believe that theory, as long as the processes that bring you to that belief are caused in the right sort of way, i.e. by reliable processes that are connected to the thing that the belief is about. You wouldn't be able to prove that they are reliable processes, but all that's needed for knowledge is that they are reliable.

This is a very strong argument. And everyone is intitled to their own oppion. But wheither you believe it or not, dosn't change what is. There is a God out there. And if you do not honor him, he will not honor you. And eternal life in hell isn't worth anything in the world. If you really did do you're homework on this you would know that:
1. The bible actually IS a historical referance.
2. There were REAL people who experienced the teachings of Jesus first hand.
3. You would know how acurate the bible actually is. And that the chance of the birth of a child from a virgin is impossible. And it DID happen. weither you like to believe it or not.
4. There are higher powers no matter what-In goverment, at work, at school,and in life. WE are not the highest power to ever exist.

And common seriously. Do you really think that we just came here out of no where? From a monkey? From a Dolfin? From bacteria? Well where did all those living things come from? How did THEY get here? Out of no where?

You're argument here is not strong enough. The devil wants you to believe that there is no God- Because if you don't believe that God is there, how would you know to look for him? Right....

Anna, if you really did do your homework you would know that I believe those things already. I talk about many of them regularly all over this blog. I'm not sure what you're trying to accomplish by preaching basic evangelical beliefs to a strongly committed evangelical Christian, but I find your comment a bit insulting. It would be like showing up at a Republican gathering and trying to convince them that they should stop trying to implement socialized medicine or appearing at a Democratic gathering and trying to tell them that they should change their views on abortion and decide to keep it legal. I think they'd be a bit annoyed at your assumptions about them.

If you had paid attention to what I say in my post and to its context in the series, you would recognize that this post is merely making one small point among a number of other points in order to show what can be said philosophically about a certain set of issues, and that one point has no bearing on what I might believe on a number of other issues, including the ones you list. The small point of this post is about what might be said if it turned out that there was no evidence one way or the other, and I think something could still be said for theism even if that were so. That doesn't mean I think it is so. I never said I do.

In light of that, I can't figure out where I might have said anything that would give anything close to an impression that I might not believe the things you're treating me as if I don't believe, and it's a little ironic that you're accusing me of not doing my homework when a little homework would refute quite a number of false assumptions you've made about me.

Great survey of the arguments. I don't think any of the arguments work (I think they're instances of special pleading), but I your summary is clear and concise.

I'd like to see an argument why you think they're all special pleading, because I don't see it. Special pleading involves excusing oneself from a true principle by appealing to an irrelevant consideration. I'm not sure how the issues raised in each defense might count as irrelevant. Short of an argument with more specific charges, I'm not sure what else I could say.

I found this post that presumably Doctor(logic) was coming from. It gives some context to the special pleading charge, and I thought I'd copy my response there to this discussion, since the same complaint occurred here.

The reply to the special pleading charge is fairly straightforward. First of all, it doesn't do to pretend that Plantinga is giving an argument for theism or that he's giving an argument that theism is rational. Rather, he's responding to an objection against theism. The charge is that theism is irrational, because there's no evidence. One way to respond would be to provide arguments based on things anyone could agree with. He does support arguments for the existence of God in other places. But what he's doing here is challenging the other premise. One need not have evidence to have a perfectly rational belief. He isn't arguing that this is true of theism, just that for all the atheist or agnostic knows it might be true.

So his conclusion is that, for all the atheist knows, theism might be rational. He supports that claim by giving an account of how it might be that theism could be rational without any evidence, and that account is fairly straightforward. God created human beings with capacities that, when activated, will reliably lead to true beliefs about God. This happens through actually interacting with God through prayer, reading scripture, associating with a community of faith, and so on. He doesn't argue that this account is true, just that it's a possible account of how someone could know God and therefore know that God exists, all without any evidence. It's merely a reliable process to form true beliefs, and thus by reliabilist criteria, which is becoming the dominant epistemological position among philosophers today, it's knowledge.

I'm not sure how that's special pleading at all. Special pleading is when you make an exception to some general principle without giving any account of why the thing you're making an exception really deserves to count as an exception. If that's true here, the person making the charge needs to explain what the general principle is, what exception Plantinga is making, and why he hasn't given an account of why it is a genuine exception. I suspect that once you try to do that you'll have to pretend Plantinga is making a stronger claim than he's actually making, but I'm open to seeing what you come up with.

The links to "Quam Dilecta" are no longer working. Do you know of any other place to get the articles online?

I found another location for Quam Dilecta.

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