The Two Euphemisms of ‘Reason’ and ‘Evidence’

Posted on 2011/11/23

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Feature Image - The Two Euphamisms of Reason and Evidence

If you’re a Christian or other theist, don’t get too excited. I’m not going to do you that much of a favour. What I am going to do, is to offer a stronger case for the opposition.

If you are a non-beliver, I predict that you are likely to disagree with what I am about to say. Indeed, that is the point of the article.

To humbly offer a comparison, in 2007, Sam Harris spoke to the Richard Dawkins Foundation on ‘The Problem of Atheism‘. Invited to speak to “a room full of people who are more or less guaranteed to agree with [him] on the subject of religion”, Sam chose to offer up a topic that had greater chance of finding disagreement. After all, it was a conference; not a pep rally.

In his speech, Sam suggested that non-believers do not call themselves ‘atheists’ and said his concern with the use of the term ‘atheism’ was “both philosophical and strategic”.

Similarly, my concern with the use of the words ‘reason’ and ‘evidence’ is both philosophical and strategic. I think these words are often used as euphemisms and sometimes with philosophical sloppiness. But more importantly, they are employed in such a way as to have no impact upon those with which we debate.

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With an increasing number of groups carrying these words in their titles or mission statements (the ’Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science‘ and Sam Harris’ Project Reason as two examples), many non-believers have fallen into lazy patterns of speech. I believe the current use of these words discredits our position.

Let me give you an example.

“Whereas you believe in faith, I believe in reason and evidence.” How often have you said something similar, or heard it said by a fellow non-believer?

Used in this way, ‘reason’ is is a euphemism to mean ‘I am reasonable’ – and thus implying ‘you are crazy’. It is used to question the soundness of someone’s judgements – although it is not clear whether their moral or scientific faculties that are under scrutiny.

As non-believers, we are not required to explain ourselves, nor should we be expected to have prepared sophisticated arguments against religions. Yet, if one of us engages in debate or discussion, there is a presumption that we have something to say. This does not mean we need to advance any beliefs (remember, non-belief is not a belief), but we must at the very least attempt to show what is wrong with the opponent’s assumptions or logic.

The non-believer who has nothing to say, but speaks of ‘reason’ in this form, might well be called ‘aggressive’ by the opposing side – but we must then recognize that both have resorted to name-calling.

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Here is perhaps what the majority of non-believers mean when they employ these terms:

  • ‘the use of reason’ is a declaration of the value of logical consistency and logically valid arguments.
  • ‘the use of evidence’ is a declaration that questions concerning the world can only be answered once ‘evidence’ has been acquired.

There is a problem with claiming that these ideas add unique value to our position. This is because, taken as read, most believers also think they adhere to them.

Who doesn’t think they have logically consistent beliefs and present logically valid arguments? William Lane Craig certainly does – he boasts about it all the time. Saying you believe in logical consistency is thus rather banal.

As for the appeal to ‘evidence’, you’ll notice how many of the religious think they have heaps of the stuff. They’ll happily start reading from the good-ole’ King James whenever someone doubts this. The disagreement, of course, depends on standards of evidence, and an understanding of the role of evidence in scientific inquiry.

However, notice that although, with this additional clarification, these words are no longer offensive, they instead present platitudes to the believer. They are seen as statements worthy of no reply, exactly because they are too vague to be understood. The disagreement is negated with these terms.

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Lastly, I would like to address some issues regarding the philosophy of science.

When one speaks of ‘evidence’, most non-believers reject Biblical scripture intuitively. However, if one is to invoke the value of evidence, it would be wise to understand its role in scientific inquiry.

For every day observations – say, noticing there is a cup on your desk – everyone  has a good grasp of what ‘evidence’ is to mean (with the exception of some philosophers). If you claim you have a cup on your desk, you could show me the cup, and the desk, and we can both get on with our lives.

For these sorts of daily observations, we might call this ‘evidence’ or ‘proof’. Yet, we are not always afforded evidence of this kind.

When one reads about Henry VIII, it is important to understand how affirming his existence is different from your (now famous) cup and desk. With an historical claim, we cannot make the same direct and intuitive observation. We rely on documented witness accounts, some relics and buildings.

Unlike your cup, you might have been fooled or in error about Henry VIII. You are right to doubt his existence in a way in which you wouldn’t doubt the cup.

Ultimately, you might not care too much if Henry VIII exists or not, just as I didn’t give a hoot about your cup. Scientific inquiry is unaffected by the ontological status of English Kings or ceramic vestibules.

Yet, when it comes to Jesus, and the miracles he is supposed to have performed, it brings into question the fundamental values of science.

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Much of physics is concerned with finding simple patterns of the universe, in order to predict and control it. These patterns are guessed from a small number of observations and then tested with further data. I say guessed - and I mean it. That is the best we can do. When we make an assertion to a universal hypothesis, we have not ‘proved it with evidence’. We could never do that.

For instance, take the following hypothesis. Throughout the universe, gravitation works with the pattern of Einstein’s General Relativity.” We are obviously practically incapable of knowing this about the entire universe. The human condition prevents it. However, we can guess it is so and test to see if it is false.

If we find it passes all our tests, that doesn’t assure it is true. It doesn’t mean we have proved it. One day in the future, it might fail a new test. The history of science is ripe with examples of theories that have failed eventually, as we advance closer to the truth. Newton’s gravitation was good, but Einstein’s was better.

To claim the Jesus story is true is to assert that even the most basic patterns (for example, buoyancy) have been transgressed. While scientific inquiry rests of direct and repeatable observation, we are being asked to accept that our best patterns are in error – based solely on accounts within historical texts of unrepeatable miracles.

This is the gulf between scientific inquiry and Biblical literalism.

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It is often not recognized that many results that appear to be single pieces of data actually rests on a large number of these ‘universal hypotheses’. For example, the assertion that the Earth is 4.54 billion years old depends on the universal hypothesis of radioactive decay. Similarly, to say the Universe is 13.7 billion years old, rests on most of our hypotheses of gravitation and quantum physics.

We have not proved these results, any more than we have proved the universal hypotheses on which they rest. There is no ‘evidence’ in the same way there was for the cup on your desk.

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In light of what I have said about scientific inquiry, proofs of the existence of God can be placed into two categories.

First are the ‘arguments’ that misuse logic to learn something about the world. After all, assertions about God are claims to know something about the world.

Scientific inquiry is the recognition that logic alone cannot achieve this goal. It simply isn’t what logic is for, when making claims about the universe. One must find things out with experiment, make guesses and test them. Logic is used to determine the inconsistencies between your ideas, or to determine unknown consequences that you can test.

To think that logic is a method to acquire knowledge is a mistake.

Secondly, there are the flat-out assertions about God’s character and wishes. If there is no hypothetical experiment that has a possibility of showing these claims to be false, one could conclude that they has no value to scientific inquiry. We can assert that they are unfalsifiable and unknowable. This is a much stronger assertion than saying there is ‘no evidence’ for the claim.

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To conclude, I am advocating the removal of the words ‘reason’ and ‘evidence’ from religious debate.

To replace these words and phrases, I recommend the following:

  • Rather than talk of ‘evidence’ for scientific claims, point out the ‘unknowable’ (or ‘unfalsifiable’) nature of a believer’s ideas.
  • Rather than promote our use of ‘reason’, demonstrate the misuse of logic, the inconsistencies between ideas and the invalid nature of a believer’s arguments.

This alternative approach ensures we do not oversell our position, while offering sound clear criticism of our opponents’ beliefs.