Monday, August 3, 2015

You Can't Prove It

Sometimes I marvel at the clever and creative ways theists come up with arguments to prove their cases in support of theistic beliefs or against naturalist beliefs.  They always find ways to disguise logical fallacies in such a way that they are easy to overlook, and so present an argument that appears valid.

Take, for example, the point that Victor has been trying to make about evidentialism.
He seems to be saying that evidentialism is incoherent because in the final analysis, it requires proof, and at the same time rejects proof without proof of the proof.  Twice recently he has made posts that emphasize this point.  First, he cited an article by Maverick Christian that discusses the "regress problem" for evidentialism, and then he cited a comment to one of his own earlier posts by Gregory that also makes the claim that evidentialism is incoherent because of the fact that "first principles" can't be proven.  Because of the manner in which Victor presents these statements, I assume that he agrees with what they say.

In my previous post regarding the first of these articles on the "regress problem", I pointed out that the need for absolute proof is a red herring.  There are foundational beliefs that provide a basis of epistemic justification for an evidentialist.  But without some foundational information that is known to be absolutely true, there is no ability to prove anything, regardless of what your epistemology is.  I think that it is generally agreed that there is no such foundational information, and therefore, there is no ability to absolutely prove anything.  And Victor has acknowledged this.

Why then, do many theists think that evidentialism is incoherent, when all kinds of epistemology suffer from the same problem?  The fact is that there is no absolute proof of anything, and this is independent of any epistemology.  But one thing I noticed about both of these objections to evidentialism is that they rely on a confusion between the terms "sufficient evidence" and "proof" in order to make their cases.

I criticized Maverick Christian for dismissing the possibility of an evidentialist having foundational beliefs, but I overlooked his apparent reason for doing so.  He defined a foundational belief as
something that is not believed on the basis of “sufficient” evidence. 
In so doing, he excludes the possibility of an evidentialist having such beliefs.  But is that true?  I think (and most people would agree) a foundational belief is something that is believed without proof, not something that is believed without sufficient evidence.  In fact, we do believe that there is sufficient justification to accept foundational beliefs in the absence of proof - otherwise, they wouldn't be foundational beliefs.  So what Maverick Christian has done is to use the term "sufficient evidence" in an equivocal manner.  In one case, he uses it to mean what an evidentialist means as justification for belief.  In the other case, he uses it as a substitute for "proof".  And in citing this article in his post, titled Why the Prove-It Game can't be won,Victor conflates the terms (perhaps without realizing it).

In a similar manner, in the other citation that Victor makes, Gregory uses the terms "proof" and "sufficient evidence" interchangeably. 
Whatever criterion is used to measure the sufficiency or insufficiency of "evidence", by the very nature of the case, it is not something that is susceptible to evidential verification. Rather, such criterion are "brute" principles by which we must assess the adequacy or inadequacy of evidence. It [first principles] cannot be "proven". Therefore, Clifford's approach is self-stultifying and/or incoherent.
In this way, he concludes that Clifford's evidentialism is incoherent.  But in fact he is conflating two terms have different meanings.  So here again, there is a logical fallacy Gregory's argument.  It is worth noting that evidentialism does not require proof for belief.  Evidentialism is about having justification for belief.

By cleverly concealing these fallacies in their arguments, theists can manage to take a statement that is practically self-evident and turn it into an apparent logical absurdity.  The question in my mind is whether they do this deliberately, or whether their cognitive bias blinds them to the fallacy they are making.  I think it's the former, but I can't prove it.


  1. "By cleverly concealing these fallacies in their arguments, theists can manage to take a statement that is practically self-evident and turn it into an apparent logical absurdity."

    Of course it's deliberate. A person with a bona fide PhD as Victor appears to have, and not one from a religion sponsored institution, would simply not be able to plead ignorance to cognitive bias.
    Christians have been desperately attempting to justify belief in supernatural superstition, a thoroughly epistemologically-free zone, for millennia. Supernatural superstition by its very character, equally, has no ontologically-grounded, let alone any epistemologically-grounded basis for genuine intellectual scholarship. That is why apologetical-driven biblical studies is being routed from legitimate institutions and schools of higher learning right across the country.

    1. One wonders how they can take this approach to philosophy and still be considered serious scholars. To me it seems infantile. Take this comment from Kairos: "All hangs on what evidence is. I think we'd all agree that if 'evidence' just means 'empirical evidence', then that's going over-board. But CE can apply to non-empirical evidence as well. ..."

      So he declares that it is unreasonable to limit ourselves to objective, visible evidence, but we should consider our inner feelings as valid reason to believe what we can't see. Talk about rigging the rules of the game. It's no wonder there are calls to abandon the teaching of Philosophy of Religion. I think that at least they should reform the academic field. They desperately need to carefully examine their silly biased approach, and start listening to serious philosophers who have rightly criticized their philosophical methods.

    2. "So he declares that it is unreasonable to limit ourselves to objective, visible evidence, but we should consider our inner feelings as valid reason to believe what we can't see."

      Of course he does. Because the whole Christian edifice is predicated on the mythos of ethereal impregnation, virgin births, post mortem revivification, and physical levitation into the blue beyond. How would one justify these nonsense claims without recourse to 'feelings', to the 'inner witness of the holy spirit', and a whole raft of other shamanic ideas, with accompanying incantations and sacrificial rituals, used to summon up that 'spirit' as and when needed, most particularly on Sundays.

      The bizarre nature of religious content and belief is becoming increasingly apparent as science and reason ineluctably chip away at its phantasmic foundations.