Monday, November 18, 2013


Sometimes disagreements occur simply because individuals have different meanings for the same terms.  Then they can wind up talking past each other and get frustrated just trying to understand what the other person is saying.  And in responding to comments to some of the ideas I have expressed in my blog, I have used a number of terms that often get thrown around in discussions about religious and secular beliefs.  So I think it might be helpful to clarify what I mean by those terms.  This isn’t just a “housekeeping” essay, though; I do have a few points to make along the way.  And as I have indicated before, I’m always “open game” for any comments, so long as you keep it civil.

Truth.  There are several different forms of truth, actually.  And I think there is some value in briefly reviewing some of those.  To my way of thinking, the primary form of truth, the way we normally think of it, what I would call Truth with a capital T, is how the world actually is.  Are there four and only four basic forces in nature?  Is there such a thing as free will that allows each of us to override the laws of nature?  I don’t think we can ever know the Truth in that sense.  And in fact our understanding of what is True has changed considerably over time.  But I do believe that we will continue to draw closer to the Truth, just as we have in the past.  The notion that the earth revolves around the sun is surely a better approximation of the Truth than the notion that the sun revolves around the earth. 

A variation on basic Truth is historical truth, a description of a past event: John F. Kennedy died on November 22, 1963.  Man first walked on the moon on July 20, 1969.  Jesus rose from the dead on the Sunday morning following his crucifixion.  These events either happened or did not happen.  They are either True or not True, and we can have a certain level of confidence in their occurrence.

Then there is logical truth.  Consider the following syllogism: All geckos are green.  George is a gecko.  Therefore George is green.  The last statement, the conclusion, is true within the context of the meaning of the sentences and the rules of deductive reasoning, even though none of the statements may be True in terms of the actual world.  This is sometimes referred to as deductive truth, and I often think of it as mathematical truth, since mathematical systems are prominent examples of logic systems that employ deductive truth.  

I point this form of truth out because it is sometimes easy to confuse logical truths with basic Truth.  Consider the following syllogism:  Statements by the pope are infallible.  The pope has stated that the use of artificial forms of contraception is a sin.  Therefore it is sinful to use artificial forms of contraception.  As a matter of logic, this syllogism is true.  But unless both the first and second statements are actually True, then we cannot say that the conclusion is either True or not true.  

In this regard I also wanted to say a few words about “revealed truth.”  This is simply a statement that is considered True on the basis of the authority of the source of the statement.  In that sense, revealed truth is simply an example of the confusion of logical truth with basic Truth.  See, for example, the syllogism above.  Here’s another: Everything stated in the Bible is literally true.  The Bible states that the world was created in six days.  Therefore the world was created in six days.  

Belief.  Belief is accepting that a proposition is True or that it at least represents our best understanding or approximation of the Truth.  Belief may or may not be based on evidence.  Virtually all cosmologists now believe the proposition that our universe began in a “big bang” around 13.8 billion years ago.  And they make the statement on the basis of evidence that consistently, overwhelmingly supports that proposition.  This consensus among cosmologists, by the way, wasn’t always the case.  As recently as 50-60 years ago, there were two main camps on this subject (the alternative theory being a “steady state” universe), but over time the evidence in favor of the big bang theory came to dominate.  And the scientific community shifted to accept the theory that best supported and explained the evidence.  As our understanding of the world continues to advance, our beliefs will also evolve, just as Newtonian physics eventually gave way to one that incorporated relativity.  

I think it is OK to say that I believe something based on the evidence, but understand that that belief is subject to change as new evidence is presented.  So right now I state that I do not believe in God because in my opinion there is no evidence in support of God’s existence.  But if I were presented with evidence that I thought compelled belief in God’s existence, then I would change my belief--and not be embarrassed by the change.  In the scientific community change in belief occurs continuously as new scientific studies provide new evidence, as in the field of cosmology.

Faith.  Faith is perhaps a trickier term.  What I mean by faith is belief in something for which there is no (or insufficient) objective evidence.  It’s not proper to state that biologists have faith in the reality of evolution.  The vast majority of biological scientists believe in evolution, not on the basis of insufficient evidence but on the basis of overwhelming objective evidence.  

Many Christians argue that their faith in Christ is based on evidence, but this is not, in my view, a proper use of the term “faith,” since faith is belief despite the lack of evidence.  It would be more proper for them to say that their “belief” in Christ is based on evidence.  Having said that, it may be that Christians who refer to faith based on evidence may be tacitly admitting that their belief in Christ is based not on the evidence but despite the lack of evidence.  There’s nothing wrong with having faith as I am using the term, but it should be recognized for what it is.

Evidence.  I think the distinction to be made here is between objective and subjective evidence.  

A number of my friends have told me that their belief in God is based on the fact that he has spoken to them, that he has revealed himself to them through prayer or a simple sense of his presence and love.  They argue that I only need to open my heart to God or to Christ and I would understand what they mean.  One friend let me know that if I have not accepted belief in God it is because I have closed my mind to the work of the Holy Spirit.  Essentially, they are saying that there is convincing evidence of God’s existence; it is in the hearts of those who believe.  But that is where, I believe, the problem lies.

There is a difference between objective evidence and subjective evidence.  Objective evidence is Information based on facts that can be established through analysis, measurement, observation, and other such means of research.  It is independently verifiable by others.  One of the propositions of general relativity is that light is, in effect, bent by gravitational force.  And a test of this proposition during a solar eclipse in 1919 was one of the critical early confirmations of Einstein’s theory.  Of course, there have been many other experimental confirmations of general relativity since then.

Subjective evidence, on the other hand, is evidence based on the testimony of the internal experience of an individual.  By its nature, subjective evidence cannot be tested or verified by a third party.  It is not subject to empirical confirmation or disconfirmation.  It has to be either accepted or denied.  An example would be the testimony of a Christian to God’s existence because of a subjective experience.

This doesn’t mean that subjective evidence is not real to the one who experiences it, but all sorts of internal experiences may be “real” from a subjective point of view, including false memories, misunderstandings, and delusional beliefs.  Because such experiences are private, they are not subject to empirical, objective investigation or confirmation.  As a result, their value as evidence for a proposition is, in my view, severely compromised.

Here’s the other problem I have with subjective evidence in support of religious belief.  One can say either that such an experience has a supernatural cause or that it is simply a physical state of the individual’s brain resulting from all of the factors and events leading to that point.  I prefer the second alternative, because it is more parsimonious in terms of the number of assumptions to be accepted as given.  This is known as Occam’s Razor and is a heuristic that the scientific community relies on in sorting out possible explanations.  This is something that needs to be discussed further--in a future essay.

If you’ve made it this far, Congratulations.  I have no training in philosophy--my curriculum at Andrews University, the Adventist college I attended, was limited to classes in the church’s religious theory--and I’m afraid my analyses may be pretty crude.  So I would welcome your thoughts and refinements to the ideas I have tried to outline here.  Have at it.

© 2013 John M. Phillips


  1. Regarding the definition of Faith, Peter Boghossian in his newest book states "A difference between an atheist and a person of faith is that an atheist is willing to revise their belief (if provided sufficient evidence); the faithful permit no such revision."

    1. Yes, because faith is not based on evidence but is belief in the absence of evidence. That is why I continue to ask those of faith what, if any, evidence they would accept that would lead them to change their belief regarding the existence of God. If the answer is "Nothing; my faith is unshakeable," then I would argue that their belief is not based on reason. Rather, it is based on an emotional dependence on what religion provides, which from their perspective can be substantial in terms of community and peace of mind.