Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Why I am not an Evidentialist

Why I am not an Evidentialist


There are many available epistemologies. One that is popular in many circles is the epistemology of evidentialism. This epistemology is the favored approach by many, and can be summarized as the view that one believes what one believes because that is what the weight of the evidence indicates is true. I am not an evidentialist, and I believe that evidentialism is a fundamentally flawed epistemology.

The Attraction of Evidentialism

Despite the fundamental weaknesses of Evidentialism, Evidentialism has blossomed in popularity. The primary reason for the attraction is that evidentialism typically presents itself as Science.

Those who dare to challenge Science are viewed today as fools or Luddites: locked in the middle ages and flat earth geography. Scientists are regarded as the most intelligent portion of society, busily improving life on earth through the application of the Scientific Method.

If Science says, "X," that is enough for many people to believe it. Thus, for example, you will hear arguments in public fora that it is absurd to call Homosexuality a deviant practice rooted in mental and spiritual illness, because the science of Psychiatry has not listed homosexuality as a mental disorder in its most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

One will hear that a young child in his mother's womb is not a person, because the science of biololgy has labelled the child a "fetus." One will likewise hear that the Great Flood could not have happened as described, because Science says otherwise.

Appeals to Science are becoming an entrenched part of the fabric of public discourse. The use of DNA evidence in court has led people to place even more confidence in the ability of Science to provide truth.

On the coattails of this popularity, evidentialism in its most popular form, Naturalism, arrives. Naturalism claims to be the result of scientific investigation, and holds nothing to be known unless it has been verified scientifically. Their opponents are not arguing with them, they will say, but with the evidence.

Some Christians, perhaps even without thinking, have adopted to one degree or another the same epistemology and suggest that they hold what they hold, because the weight of the evidence supports it. Thus, for example, one will hear of apparently Christian apologists claiming to be able to prove that the balance of evidence proves that there is a God, or that the world is intelligently designed, or that rules of morality are good.

Evidentialism and the Scientific Method

As noted above, evidentialism has gained ground because it purports to be scientific. The usual way that something has been viewed as scientific is by whether it applies the scientific method. The scientific method is normally thought to proceed:

  1. Guess/Hypothesis/Formulation/Theory

  2. Testing/Data/Empirical Analysis

  3. Theorization/Verification/Validation/Canonization or Rejection/Rewriting/Reformulation/Revision/Invalidation

The Scientific Method, thus, begins with uncertainty, and proceeds toward (at least this is the goal) greater certainty. The more testing a hypothesis has undergone, the stronger its verification, until it is eventually validated or even canonized as a scientific principle or law. The Scientific Method is also usually cyclical. A guess can turn into a hypothesis, and then a theory.

Evidentialism tries to imitate this principle. It begins with a hypothesis, and then attempts to validate the hypothesis by testing. Thus, evidentialism seeks to wear the mantle of the scientific method, even when some of its hypthothesis are not scientifically testable in the usual sense of the word.

The Scentific Method, despite its foundation on guesses and hunches, gives its holders an aura of objectivity. The reason why this is so, is that the Scientific Method has been used with great success in the applied sciences: engineering and medicine. People assume that technological success is the result of discovery of truth, and consequently they believe the Scientific Method to be a revealer of objective truth.

Presuppositions in Evidentialism

One reason that Evidentilists pick Evidentialism is a belief that by choosing that epistemology, they are beginning with a blank slate. This is false. There are presuppositions in Evidentialism. One standard presupposition of Science, for example, is Naturalism.

Specifically, science normally presupposes that every cause is the result of a purely natural effect. Usually, scientists do not consider this a very problematic presupposition. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that it is a presupposition.

There are other presuppositions as well: that the world is orderly, that there is a connection between perception and reality, that experience is transitive, and a host of other presuppositions. These presuppositions are not items that can be either established or rebutted by evidentialism, whether in the form of science or in any other form.

A response from a typical beaker-filler or spectrum-analyzer is often to blow off this issue, as though it were not an epistemic weakness: "So you're saying that experience might not be transistive?" Such replies are simply belligerant, they do not defend the choice of presuppoisitons - nor (more importantly) recognize that the entire Scientific, Naturalistic, and Evidentialist epistemology is piggy-backed on a presuppositional epistemology.

Result of Adherence to Strict Evidentialism - No Beginning

The result of adherence to strict Evidentialism, denying whatever cannot be proved by appeal to sensory experience and other evidence, is to deny the fundamental presuppositions of Evidentialism. Evidentialism cannot prove (or even test) that experience is transisitive, that the world is orderly, or that the natural is all that there is.

In short, Evidentialism is self-contradictory. Because Evidentialism, strictly taken, is self-contradictory, it is an improper and invalid epistemology from the very beginning. Evidentialism cannot stand on its own to ensure that it has started from the right place, and consequently the Evidentialist can never have any knowledge that has the confidence of a foundation.

Result of Adherence to Strict Evidentialism - No Certainty

The results of Evidentialism are always tenuous; its adherence have no certainty that what is a law today will be a law tomorrow. Newton's laws are a prime example of this phenomena. Until Einstein, Newton's laws enjoyed widespread general acceptance in the scientific community. Now, Newton's laws are viewed as a helpful approximation under certain conditions. There is no reason to fill this account with more examples, though certainly more could be given.

The historical fact is that Science's body of knowledge has always been in flux, and that not even the greatest scientist is unable to be corrected. Aristotle's Physics was a widely accepted work for many centuries, but later Science rejected it, and you will find it rare than any college class (in Physics) will spend more than an hour on the entire body of Aristotle's work.

With such a track record, an Evidentialist might have a hunch that he could could verify by testing that the body of Scientific knowledge at the beginning of each decade for the last hundred years has been different from the body of Scientific knowledge at the end of each such decade. Upon that ground, an Evidentialist may conclude that there are numerous unknown items that are Science today, but will be labelled "error" in the scientific community tomorrow.

Result of Adherence to Strict Evidentialism - No End

Not only can Evidentialism not assure its adherence that it has started from the right place or that it is in the right place now, it cannot assure its adherents that it is converging to the right answer. Because Evidentialism cannot see the end in sight, Evidentialism cannot assure its followers that they are converging to the truth. Evidentialism may currently be converging toward something, but there is no way for the Evidentialist to be sure that this something is the truth.

What Guess has not been Made?

This is the nagging question in evidentialism. Until Einstein, no one had presented his own hunch about the way the universe is supposed to operate. Einsteinian descriptions of the world are very useful, but are they correct? Is there a better guess about the universe that has not been investigated? This is the nagging question that distracts from the beauty of any "truth" of Evidentialism.

Evidentialism tries to silence this nagging question as unfounded speculation. Evidentialism teaches its advocates that the prevailing wisdom should simply be accepted. At the same time, and conflictingly, Evendentialism rewards skeptics who can come up with guesses that test better than the guesses in the prevailing position.

Fundamentally Dishonest

The claims of Evidentialism are fundamentally dishonest: the beginning of Evidentialism must be borrowed from a presuppositional (or similar) framework; it promises truth but delivers constantly changing guesswork; and it promises improvement without any reason for supposing that can provide improvement.

Open to Skepticism

In addition to narrow skepticism regarding particular scientific theories, Evidentialism is open to attack by general skepticism. If there are two ways of interpreting evidence, it is impossible for Evidentialism to decide between them.

Evidentialism tries to resolve this problem by resort to Occham's razor. Occham's razor states that the simpler explanation should be accepted over the more complex explanation. There is, however, no Evdiential reason to adopt Occham's razor. Instead, the mechanism is yet another stop-gap presupposition.

Evidentialism also tries to resolve the problem (sometimes in combination with the razor above) that the more probable of the explanations should be accepted. There is a real problem, however, with this approach. It is often (if not always) difficult to assign a priori probabilities. Accordingly, the resort to probabilitic arguments frequently ends up with mere emotive arguments or, worse, arguments that make up the probabilities from thin air.

Responses to Skepticism are Self-Destructive

Whatever approach Evidentialism takes in responding to Skepticism is self-destructive. An appeal to a presupposition that favors simple explanations betrays the non-evidential underlying epistemology; an appeal to probability betrays both uncertainty and weakness at arriving at the alleged probability.

In short, Evidentialism cannot stand on its own two feet against the Skeptics.


One objector might object that I myself use evidentialist techniques! I'm not afraid to apply the Scientific method to everyday life, when my car breaks down, my faucet drips, or my dog gets ill. That's certainly an objection with a touch of truth. I do use the scientific method in such circumstances.

I do so, however, recognizing that it is piggy-backed on my dogmatic presuppositionalism. I know why I can trust my senses and the scientific method: because God has revealed Himself to be an orderly God and the world to be a place run by law.

Another objector may complain, "If you can't trust your senses, you can't trust the Bible!" This frequent objection is misplaced. I can trust my senses - I know that I can because the Bible tells me so. God has revealed the truth of His Word to me, and consequently I know that I can trust it. From that, I can deduce that I can also trust my senses, to a degree.

Another objector will argued that if I can use evidentialist techniques, I am not in a position to forbid Evidentialists from doing so. My response is that Evidentialists do not have an epistemic basis for their use of the techniques; they cannot know anything certaintly, and consequently cannot know whether they know anything at all.

Yet another objector might assert that that the Bible uses an evidentialist epistemology. Such an objector would point to the reliance of certain authors in Scripture to tangible evidence. Nevertheless, as the Apostle Peter explained, all the writers of Scripture spoke according to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. They spoke the words of God. And the most frequent appeal by all the prophets and apostles is that they are speaking the Word of the LORD, the Gospel. Their appeal is to the authority of God, and their epistemology is dogmatic and revelation-based.

One last objector may state that he considers himself an Evidentialist, but that he grounds his reason for believing "evidence" in "transcendentals." This is not true Evidentialism, but a slightly modified form of Evidentialism that I will deal with, God Willing, under the separate head of Van-Tillianism / Transcendentalism.


1 comment:

Turretinfan said...

Kepha wrote:

Is the historical-grammatical hermeneutic Evidentialist?


I respond:

I'm inclined to think that it is epistemically neutrally. I would tend to view any hermeneutic as existing at a different noumic layer.