Evidence-based faith vs. evidence-free faithAugust 30, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
My post on The Greatest Agnostics of All prompted an interesting discussion in the comments section, when our friend Challenger Grim wrote:
Wow, can’t believe no one here got even the most basic point.
We know that “evidence” … is superior to faith alone
Is based ultimately on faith. You cannot “reason” that Reason is preferable. You cannot use logic to prove logic, because both sides must accept (or “have faith in”) logic and reason in the first place.
The discussion wandered a bit from there, but a few points came out that are worth a separate discussion, because it really exemplifies this whole “atheists have a faith-based worldview” argument that you sometimes hear from apologists.
First of all, notice the strawman re-casting of my argument. Grim objects that you cannot reason that you cannot use reason to prove that Reason is preferable. That, however, is not what we are doing. We use reason, not because there is some logical argument that proves that logic is valid, but because the evidence consistently demonstrates both that reason is reliable and that it is superior to the irrational alternatives, at least as far as real-world truth is concerned. And, as the icing on the cake, the superior validity of reason is consistent with the principle that truth is consistent with itself. Reason and logic are simply the self-consistency of the truth, expressed as a pattern of consistent rules describing how truth relates to itself.
So we do know that evidence and reason superior to faith alone, not because we base our reasoning on some abstract, logical argument about the superiority of reason over irrationality, but because the real-world evidence is so overwhelmingly consistent with this outcome that even those who wish to argue about it cannot help but try to construct a reasonable argument against reason (!). The argument against reason, however, is not valid, since it appeals to the fallacy of the False Dichotomy: i.e. that either you must prove Reason by reason alone, or your faith in Reason must be based on faith alone. Grim does not seem to have realized the role that evidence plays in determining whether or not Reason is reliable, and thus all of our arguments went over his head. Because we declined to buy either of his two false alternatives, he simply repeated that we were missing the point.
You cannot use logic to prove logic, because both sides must accept (or “have faith in”) logic and reason in the first place.
But we do not use logic (alone) to prove logic. The value and validity of logic is demonstrated by the results it produces when applied to real-life situations, including situations like arguing about whether or not relying on reason and evidence constitutes having a “faith-based” worldview. Grim tries to construct a logical argument against using logic alone, because he knows from experience, as we all do, that reason is what works. Abandon reason, abandon the self-consistency of the truth, abandon the real-world foundation for the very concepts about which we argue, and you no longer have any possibility of even describing your arguments in meaningful terms, let alone providing others with a valid basis for concluding that you are correct. The self-consistency of the truth, on which all reason is based, is an inescapable and inherent characteristic of reality itself. We do not invent it or derive it, we merely discover it.
Grim’s next attempt to find a reason for universal agnosticism is to dip into the turbid waters of philosophy.
How do you know the information you receive is true? How do you know what your senses perceive is correct?
There are two answers to this, though if you’re not a philosophy fan you may want to skip ahead a couple paragraphs. In the first place, the self-consistency of the real world is so superior to the self-consistency of any alternative “truth” that, if our real-world observations cannot be trusted, the alternatives must be even less trustworthy. But more than that, the real world that we perceive provides the conceptual foundation for everything we know. Every concept, including concepts like “true” and “existence”, must have some kind of direct or indirect referent in order to be meaningful. Consequently, the “truth” of our perceptions can only be defined relative to the information that is being generated by the external, objective reality which we are experiencing. Since the question can only be defined relative to this objective experience, the answer is only going to be meaningful within the context of that reality.
We would not know what it means to exist if we did not have some experience in the real world that showed us the difference between existence and non-existence. We have no concept of “truth” other than what we can derive from seeing things that match the real world and things that don’t. (Try it: see if you can come up with a meaningful definition of “truth” that does not rely in any way upon your experience of objective reality.) Even if the objective reality which we all experience were “fake” somehow, it’s still the reality within which all our experiences, perceptions, needs, actions, and consequences take place. If you go for weeks with no food, on the belief that your hunger is an illusion, the rest of us will see you starve to death. That’s what matters to us. Any “reality” which we can neither perceive nor influence is simply an irrelevant “reality.”
But really, that’s a tangent. There’s no point in arguing in favor of solipsism, because either you’re wrong, or you don’t have anybody else to argue with. Meanwhile, back in the real world, commenter Jim has an excellent reply to Grim’s argument that “Reason and logic are based upon a faith IN reason and logic.”
Reason and logic are the way our minds interface with the world. With our minds, we construct models of reality, take them apart, see how they works, and act upon our conclusions. Our ultimate success will depend on the quality of our reasoning. Through trial and error, our ‘mapping’ becomes better, more sophisticated and precise, as we learn to depend on what seems to work consistently. We gain ‘faith’ in our worldview, if you will, to the extent that our reasoning seems to line up with what we perceive to be reality. Thus faith is not the antecedent of reason, but emerges from reason itself.
If you missed that comment, you should read the whole thing. My only quibble would be that the “faith” we have in reason and logic emerges not from reason itself (i.e. from reason alone), but from reason coupled with real-world application and evidence. (Which of course is essentially what Jim was saying, but I just wanted to make it explicit.) In other words, our “faith” in reason and logic (and evidence, which Grim keeps leaving out of the equation) is evidence-based faith, as opposed to gullible faith, or evidence-free faith, i.e. the things you believe despite the evidence.
This, ultimately, is the heart of the issue. Apologists want to make the argument that skeptics also have “faith,” meaning faith in the ability of logic, reason, and evidence to give reliable results. The goal is to be able to say, “You have your faith, and I have my faith, you say ‘to-MAY-to’, I say ‘to-MAH-to’.” But it’s a bogus argument, because evidence-based faith has a proven track record that makes it vastly superior to evidence-free faith. It’s not to-MAY-to, to-MAH-to, it’s apples and asphalt. I have confidence in reason and evidence because of its proven track record, and if you want to call that “faith,” you need to point out what kind of faith it is, because not all faiths are equal.
All of us, including apologists, know from experience that reason and evidence are what it takes to draw reliable conclusions, which is why apologetics exists in the first place. If it were really true that evidence-based faith were no better than evidence-free faith, apologetics would be a complete waste of time, and in fact would be counter-productive. Apologists know that evidence-based faith is superior, but they try and belittle it and cut it down because the evidence is not on their side. Think about it: if the facts supported the Gospel, would apologists be so anxious to argue that one kind of faith is as good as another, and that there’s no advantage in basing your beliefs on evidence and reason?
Whether or not Grim can win his argument, the fact that he even needs to make it tells us all we need to know about the “truth” of the Gospel.