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Apologetics Articles

Evidentialism 101

This post was written by philosopher Cody Hug. Check out his ministry at Daily Bread International

Evidentialism, the final frontier as it may seem. It’s hard to define due to its myriad of applications, but let’s give it a shot. Hume once said, “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.” This basically means, a belief is only rational and justified if the evidence supports it. The philosophy of evidentialism also covers other “doxastic attitudes” (don’t worry if that term sounds like Greek to you…because it is! Doxa means “opinion” or “belief.”). Doxastic attitudes include disbelief, doubt, scepticism and the likes. Therefore, no matter what your doxa is or position towards the proposition (P) is, your position is only rational and justified by your evidence.

So why can the atheist or agnostic apply evidentialist attacks to the theist and think they can escape it themselves? Does the atheist and agnostic need to propose evidence for their position as well? Simple answer: Absolutely! If they don’t want to supply evidence to justify their doxastic attitude of disbelief towards the proposition of God’s existence, then logically the theist doesn’t have the obligation to supply evidence either. When the non-theist tries to avoid the grasp of evidentialism, their practicing not only bad philosophy, but are being utterly and totally intellectually dishonest.

“Oh, but atheism isn’t a belief.” If only I had a dollar every time I heard that! Again, we go back to the definition of a doxastic attitude and of evidentialism. One needs evidence for any doxastic attitude towards a proposition (P): believing in P, not believing in P, suspending judgment about P…etc. The only person that can logically escape the holds of evidentialism, is the person that holds a non position. Basically this is someone who literally has no position towards the proposition. Maybe because they never actually entertained the thought of the proposition. However, the atheist and agnostic has “entertained the thought” about the proposition of God, and therefore cannot be deemed a non position. Simply put: yes. Atheism is a belief, by definition, and requires evidence.

Then there’s the oh so popular “You can’t prove a negative.” This is used as a scapegoat to not having to provide evidence for atheism or agnosticism. But is it true? This argument cannot possibly help the non theist. That’s because, on each of the two possible ways of interpreting what it actually means to “prove” something, it is generally false that you cannot prove a negative (and mostly true that you can’t prove a positive). First, let’s look at the type of proof that gives certainty, like that in mathematics or logic. Proofs for negative existence claims such as the claim that there is no greatest prime number. One can also prove with certainty that there are no X’s whenever the concept X can be shown as incoherent (an example would be a round square, or 2pm on the sun). Then there’s the proof that tries to establish the probable truth of something. This results from empirical investigations. With this type of proof, it’s easy to prove a negative! For example, there is no pizza on my head, there aren’t any snow-capped mountains in the Sahara desert…etc.

Here’s another phrase you’ll probably hear quite often: “The burden of proof is upon you, because you’re the one who believes in God.” Here we go again, with the typical scapegoat from accountability. Whenever I hear this phrase being used, I tend to ask the non-theist, “Define burden of proof for me and do you know its proper application?” Burden of proof, or in the original Latin, Onus Probandi (if you want to sound fancy) is something that goes back to the courts of the Roman empire. It’s even still used to this day within legal theory. The original, and truly the only logical application of onus probandi is within a court system. Who has the burden of proof is a decision made by a judge and not just some random Joe Bloggs you speak with while sharing the gospel on the street. However, onus probandi is also used within a debate environment, mainly formal in nature rather than informal. The reason why this is used better in formal debate formats, is because there’s a judge or moderator who has the authority to rationally determine who has the burden of proof. When it comes down to informal debates, civil discourses, average discussions…etc. it becomes quite difficult to try and figure out who has the onus probandi. It’s also a test of personality to see who is going to elevate themselves to a judge position and show their Jupiter sized ego while doing so. Then there’s the terrible misapplication or rather, incorrect definition of onus probandi. Many think that it’s a matter of logic. Rather, the burden of proof is a methodological or procedural concept. It is, in Nicolas Rescher’s words, “a regulative principle of rationality in the context of argumentation, a ground rule, as it were, of the process of rational controversy.” Some say that the onus probandi is on the person who makes a positive statement. This isn’t necessarily the case. Positive statements can easily be written as negative statements, and vice versa. Sometimes it’s the negative statement that requires the onus probandi. Statements like: “there are no atoms” or “coincidences don’t exist” require evidence, while the opposing positive versions of these statements would not have the onus probandi. With this being said, when it comes to informal debates, especially those on the street or just with friends, the burden of proof is best left out of the equation. It’s way too complicated of a concept to be adding in in an informal environment without a proper judge or moderator. The best thing to do is to simply follow the rules of evidentialism, where all doxastic attitudes require evidence. Technically, the onus probandi really doesn’t help the non-theist anyway. In many ways, it can make it worse for them.

What about the oh so popular Ockham’s Razor? “Is that a new shaving device?” No, it’s the principle of parsimony associated with the medieval philosopher and monk, William of Ockham. His principle is often proposed as, “Do not multiply entities beyond necessity”. The idea here that the non-theist is assuming, is that if a conception of reality without any divine being contains the resources necessary to explain everything that needs explaining (a proposition Ockham would have vehemently denied!) then Ockham’s Razor licenses us to exclude all references to the divine in our explanations of accountability. But could this really justify atheism without evidence?
No. The trouble is that Ockham’s Razor is of little use in disputes over whether some entity (X) exists. That is because it is typically an open question in such disputes whether everything that needs explaining can in fact be explained without (X). Theists believe, or at least I would assume as much, that there are features of reality which are inexplicable without appeal to a divine being: the existence of a contingent universe, the fine-tuning of physical constants, etc. We need not decide here whether a divine being is needed to explain these things: what is important is just that the Razor itself can’t possibly decide on these matters. It comes into play only assuming that a complete explanation of the relevant phenomena is possible without (X); at which point it licenses us to eliminate (X) from our ontology. But theists will not accept that a complete explanation of reality is possible without appeal to a divine being, so long as no compelling case for that claim has been made. So Ockham’s Razor can have no persuasive force in this debate. To be honest, it can also go against the atheist/agnostic position when you apply the system of Reductio Ad Absurdum (RAA) to the claims made by the atheist/agnostic. It shows that these non-theistic positions are using extra “add-ons”, if you will, when explaining certain things. This makes the whole claim more complex than it really needs to be. Even when using Ockham’s Razor, it all leads back to the original problem. It’s just a long form of “begging the question” that’ll lead back to the doxastic attitude of atheism needing to have evidence to support it.

All in all, when it comes to having a discussion about God and the ontology (existence and being) of God, all doxastic attitudes (whether it be an affirmation or negation and everything in between) are required to have evidence to support them. If a non theist says to a theist “prove it…burden is on you” that’s when you stop, and point out that they’ve just assumed a position of evidentialism. Then go into what evidentialism entails, and ask the non theist if they’re going to be intellectually honest and practice good philosophy by sharing their burden of proof for their position. If they don’t feel like they have to do so, then why should you? If they don’t want to be intellectually honest, then all I can say to you is do this:
1. Give your apologetic. Show them that you can support evidence for your position while they cannot.
2. Then leave. Matthew 7:6 style! Don’t cast your pearls unto the dogs nor before the swine.

Lastly, remember that we’re all image bearers of God. Romans chapter 1 teaches that all of creation knows He exists. Be humble and polite in your approach to the atheist and agnostic. Love them, and yet be firm in your faith. Apologetics is easy. God is with you, so whom then shall you fear?

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