Saturday, June 14, 2008

Everitt on Standards of Proof and Non-Belief

Nicholas Everitt in The Non-Existence of God has some relevant comments about reasonable standards of proof that are relevant to some of my recent posts:

“But we should not approach this search for reasons with unrealistically high expectations. We need to recognize that reasons can vary in strength. At one extreme, there will be those which provide absolutely conclusive support for (or against) a position. At the other extreme, will be reasons which raise (or lower) by only a minute amount the probability that our conclusion is true. In between, there will be reasons which can be ranged along a spectrum of strength. In ordinary life, we recognize the existence of this spectrum by deploying such locutions as:

A proves B beyond all doubt.

A is overwhelming evidence for B.

A is very strong evidence for B.

A makes B more likely than not.

A is good evidence for B.

A is fairly good evidence for B.

A makes B a really possibility.

A suggests that B.

A is some evidence for B.

A is weak evidence for B.

A marginally increases the likelihood that B.


The reason for emphasizing this spectrum is in order to remind ourselves that in the philosophy of religion, as elsewhere in daily life, being guided by reason does not mean demanding ‘proof’ before we can accept anything as true. The term ‘proof’ can of course be interpreted in many ways, but we rightly (i.e., reasonably or rationally) believe many things which we cannot prove. For example, I believe that my car will start when I next turn on the ignition and starter switch. This is a rationally defensible belief (the car has been very reliable in the past, it is regularly serviced, it is kept in a locked garage so is very unlikely to be interfered with, etc.). But the evidence that I have, good though it is, cannot be said to prove that the car will start next time. Nor would I be being rational or reasonable if I said, ‘I cannot prove the matter either way, therefore I cannot form any defensible view on the matter.’

In a similar way, being guided by reason in debates about God does not consist in refusing to accept anything until it can be proved. It is adjusting one’s beliefs in the light of the evidence that is available.” (The Non-Existence of God 13)

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is a nice application of a continuum of evidence attitude, but the "Nor would I be being rational or reasonable if I said, ‘I cannot prove the matter either way, therefore I cannot form any defensible view on the matter," is a non sequitur or a self-refutation. He just trotted out a spectrum of proof-synonyms and then denied the rationality of a perfectly sane skeptical stance derivable from all but the first reason-description. If I cannot prove P about matter G (under any of the synonyms proposed, except for the first), then I have no defensible view on G. I may have a view on G but it is not defensible in any sense beyond that intended by the reason-synonym implied.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks Anonymous. Interesting point. I am pretty sure that Everitt intends that it would be unreasonable to say about the your car starting, given that you have so much evidence in favor of it, that you can't form any reasonable conclusion since you lack "proof." Certainly someone who merely has some evidence for B, from the list, is in a position where it would be reasonable to suspend judgment.

Note that this passage is on page 13 of his book. So what he's expecting is that someone will go through the next 300+ pages with him where he systematically analyzes most or all of the most important arguments for God and dismantles them. Once you understand all his arguments, and provided you are sympathetic with his points on enough counts, then you would be justified in concluding there is no God.

I can't speak for Everitt, but I find that a lot of the foot dragging among agnostics is disingenuous. They've heard and even acknowledge lots of powerful arguments in favor of atheism, but they still insist, "Oh, I can't draw any kind of conclusion because I don't have proof." That's a bit like the evangelicals still insisting that we shouldn't believe evolution because it hasn't been proven. The standard of proof that is being invoked here to reject atheism isn't used in any other cases in their lives. So one wonders why the special exception here, if not because of some lingering hope and affection for the God idea. But again, Everitt is much more careful about all of this than I tend to be. I highly recommend the book.

MM

Steve D. Owen said...

"If I cannot prove P about matter G..., then I have no defensible view on G. I may have a view on G but it is not defensible in any sense beyond that intended by the reason-synonym implied."

The problem is the use of the word "prove." Do we mean something like certain proof or reasonable proof?

Certain proof about probabilistic events is in principle impossible.

So it's absurd to say that one does not have a defensible view about their car starting although they have plentiful empirical proof that it has started all year long.

I am justified to believe that my car will start in the morning (probably) because of the high probability it will do so -- not because of some impossible and fictional desire for an absolute fact or formula that does not exist in the world.

Skepticism and blind faith are really just flip sides of the same bad coin.