Wednesday, October 12, 2016

THE QUALITY OF EVIDENCE AND THE END OF AGNOSTICISM

Whatever happened to Zeus?  He was a big deal to the Greeks, but for the past couple thousand years he has essentially been a no-show.  Oh, sure, we still use his name, but he has been relegated to just another mythical character.  So here’s my first question: Does it make sense to say that we are agnostic regarding the existence of Zeus?

Here I am defining agnosticism to mean the idea that we cannot know whether or not something is true.  In the context of Zeus, agnosticism would mean that we cannot know if Zeus exists or does not exist.  I’m guessing that at this point the reader is willing to concede that Zeus does not exist.  But why?  After all, couldn’t he still be lurking somewhere out there?  How do we know that he doesn’t exist?

Hopefully I’m not getting myself too deep into the weeds by pointing out that this definition of agnosticism raises the question of what we mean by the term “knowledge.”  If by “know” we mean with the same certainty that we know mathematical truths or other propositions within systems of deductive logic, then clearly we cannot know whether or not Zeus exists.  But proving a mathematical theorem is not like proving or disproving a proposition about the real world.  In general we do not know things about the world based on deductive logic.  Rather, our knowledge of the world is based on inductive reasoning from available evidence and is a matter of degree of certainty.  An example would be the proposition that the earth is round rather than flat.  We could be wrong about that proposition, but no educated person (except a few flat-earthers) any longer doubts its truth value at this point.  The evidence is overwhelming.  So how certain are we that the earth is round?  Sufficiently certain that we don’t talk about it anymore.  We are no longer agnostic about the shape of the earth.

But that brings up one further point:  Knowledge is based on evidence.  Clearly, there are different types of evidence, and this is important because these different kinds of evidence can be conflicting and can lead us to different conclusions.  Here I want to mention three types of evidence: evidence based on objective observation, evidence based on internal experience, and evidence based on authority. 

Objective evidence is information established through observation, measurement, analysis, and other such means.  It is independently verifiable by others and is subject to disconfirmation.  An example would be the proposition that the planets of the solar system travel in elliptical orbits around the sun.  Objective evidence is not infallible.  In fact, it is constantly subject to challenge, refinement, or refutation.  But at the same time it has proved to be by far the best evidence for furthering our knowledge of the world.  Its greatest strengths are that it is corroborative and is subject to checks and balances.

Subjective evidence is evidence based on the testimony of an individual as to her or his internal experience.  An example would be the statement, “I can feel God’s presence in my heart.”  By its nature, subjective evidence cannot be tested or verified by a third party.  It has to be either accepted or denied.  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 perceptions and memories, misunderstandings, and delusional beliefs.  Because such experiences are private, they are not subject to objective investigation or verification.  I don’t want to discount the value of subjective evidence entirely.  After all, something is happening to the experiencing person.  But subjective evidence has proved to be very unreliable in furthering our understanding of the world.  When objective and subjective evidence have conflicted, objective evidence has nearly always proved to be more reliable and accurate. 

Evidence by authority is evidence based simply on what someone has stated.  Most of us gain much of our understanding of the world through evidence by authority.  For nearly all of us, our belief that the planets travel in elliptical orbits around the sun is based, not on our own direct observations and analysis, but on reading what others have observed and concluded.  The fact is that evidence by authority is only as strong as the objective or subjective evidence on which it is based.  So a claim that the planets travel in elliptical orbits is based on direct objective astronomical observations.  An individual’s claim that God speaks to him or her, on the other hand, is based on the subjective experience of the person making such a claim. 

Based on the foregoing, I think it is reasonable to say that at the present time it no longer makes sense to be agnostic regarding the existence of Zeus.  But what about the Christian god?  While there is no credible objective evidence for such a god’s existence, hundreds of millions of individuals continue to report subjective evidence for that existence.  And these same individuals support the credibility of written evidence in support of such a god's existence.  This subjective and written evidence serves to create enough uncertainty to sustain agnosticism as to the existence of a Christian god.  

But, just as with Zeus, as the lack of objective evidence for a Christian god continues to mount, in my view there will come a time when, as a matter of practical certainty, agnosticism as to such a god’s existence will no longer make sense.  And the Christian god will join all the other deities, from Zeus to Neptune to Thor, in a pantheon of has-been gods relegated to mythology, no longer worthy of the designation of agnosticism.


© 2016 John M. Phillips

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