Evidence-based faith vs. evidence-free faith

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.

This:

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.

 
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Posted in Unapologetics. 20 Comments »

20 Responses to “Evidence-based faith vs. evidence-free faith”

  1. Nemo Says:

    I refute it thus.

  2. Nemo Says:

    Hmm, lemme try that again…

    I refute it thus. <kick>

  3. jim Says:

    I agree, Deacon. The argument is all about muddying the water, so that everybody’s positions come off looking equal from a philosophical standpoint. The problem is, the apologists want their evidence(sic) derived arguments to look superior. So after the ‘faith-is-faith-is-faith’ opening gambit, they’ll launch their ‘reasoned’ theological arguments into the gap they think they’ve created, ironically rendering the ‘faith based logic’ debate superfluous. It’s really more about debate positioning than a real search for the truth. But when you’re stuck with a basically untenable position, you say what you must, I guess.

  4. Crafty Witch Says:

    A distinction that I’ve seen drawn on many skeptical blogs is faith vs. trust. What you are calling evidence based faith would be called trust on those blogs with the importance of the distinction being that trust is based on experience, or if you will, evidence.

  5. PalMD Says:

    hmmm…

    Really, it’s a typical strategy for all denialists, altie med cults, antivax cults, etc. It is the claim that “your reasoning is faulty because it isn’t mine” and “all truths are co-equal (but ours is better)”.

    The moment you descend into the pit of the origin of logic, you have shown your original argument has no merit. If it requires abandoning logic, it’s not worth your time.

  6. Brad Says:

    Faith and trust are a little bit different, at least in my understanding of their normal usage. You can’t trust something you don’t know is there, but you can have faith in it. You can trust your friends, but you cannot trust unicorns. You don’t even know if unicorns are there to trust at all.

  7. Eshu Says:

    Perhaps the difference is the answer you get when you ask – what would convince you that this faith is unfounded?

  8. Ric Says:

    People who resort to this argument are really admitting that basing conclusions on faith is undesirable. I thought Xtians were proud they had faith. Apparently not.

    It’s ultimately a tu quoque.

  9. Galloway Says:

    ” You cannot use logic to prove logic, because both sides must accept (or “have faith in”) logic and reason in the first place.”

    Look who’s talking. How many times have xtians tried to use the bible (both sides must accept it as true, right?) to prove God’s existence?

  10. Janus Says:

    Ric, PalMD & others,

    I’m not one to post here, but I thought you might be interested in some of the developments concerning the tu quoque argument.

    The tu quoque is rightly applied to forms of rationalism that sees justification as “Rational”; “. . . that there is an essential logical limitation to rationality: that rational defense and examinational of ideas must, for logical reasons, be terminated by an arbitrary and irrational appeal to what may be called dogmas or absolute presuppositions.” (W.W. Bartley, Evolutionary Epistemology, p 317) So, there’s either (1) an infinite regress of justification made to an authority, or that (2) one step in the regress is held dogmatically.

    I think the only form of rationalism that has successfully skirted the tu quoque would be W.W. Bartley’s Comprehensively Critical Rationalism.

  11. bipolar2 Says:

    ** the way out involves axiomization **

    Your discussion pits two under-educated persons against one another. Nothing emerges but confusions, long cleared up over the last 150 years in the foundations of mathematics and formal logics.

    Here’s an appropriate quote (rather than a vanity quote) from Einstein: “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”

    Put differently, mathematics applied to nature provides models of nature (“are not certain”). Not unassailable descriptions of nature as it is; even less ontologically irreplaceable explanations of nature. Mathematical theorems supply so-called irrefutable truths (“are certain”) since they may be derived from a distinct, coherent, and finite set of axioms.

    The geometry of Euclid and that of Riemann differ over the famous “parallel postulate (axiom).” There are no dogmata at issue concerning the axiom sets; the road divides over the status of parallel lines — either they are or they are not.

    Each axiom set gives rise to a perfectly sane (self-consistent) idealized space. As alternative geometries, they rest comfortably side by side. But they can’t both be representations of space-time; they offer incompatible models of the world.

  12. cl Says:

    This was a great post / thread and kept my wheels going for a good day or so. Overall, if we’re discussing the real world, evidence-based faith triumphs IMO. I actually ended up writing a full response on my own blog, which would take up way too much space as a comment. Even so,

    “[R]eason is reliable..”

    This is only correct to the degree to which it is sound. Reliability is not an intrinsic feature of reason or reasoning; reliability does seem to be an intrinsic feature of pure reason or true reasoning.

    “Any ‘reality’ which we can neither perceive nor influence is simply an irrelevant ‘reality.’

    This is false and very similar to Carl Sagan’s hypothetical dragon-in-the-garage argument which I’ve always thought was quite short-sighted. This is tantamount to saying only that which is empirically perceptible or amenable to influence can have value, worth or relevance, and I object on at least three grounds:

    1) I object logically because of the out-of-scope quantifier any.

    2) I object philosophically because to say a construct is irrelevant is to assign a value to said construct. How can one assign any reasonable value to something they can neither influence nor perceive? Hence, this is a hidden given, a free lunch, a breach of cogency. Imperceptibility and influence-ability are not intrinsic or necessary properties of relevance.

    3) I object empirically because such is not born out in the real world. Before the discovery of Pallas, Juno, and Vesta, the concept of asteroids as intra-space objects that could collide into Earth was 100% imperceptible and 100% beyond influence – yet also 100% relevant to the point that we could not debate the relevance of asteroids without them. Similarly, prior to its discovery, plate tectonics was also 100% imperceptible and it still remains 100% beyond influence, yet plate tectonics is certainly a relevant reality.

    So we can easily see that imperceptibility and influence-ability are not intrinsic or necessary properties of relevance, and that at any given time, relevant things exist that are both imperceptible and beyond influence.

  13. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Thanks, good points. I think I misspoke when I said “things we can neither perceive nor influence.” I should have said “things which are imperceptible and which do not influence our experience in any way.” What I’m going for is the idea of relevancy. If there existed, say, some “spiritual” realm that was irretrievably isolated from our existence, such that this realm could never interact in any way with the realm we exist in, then that spiritual realm would be irrelevant to us. Asteroids and plate tectonics are not irrelevant, because they do have at least the potential to impinge on our experience, in the form of earthquakes and catastrophic impacts.

    My context is not rigorous philosophy, and you’re right, I’m oversimplifying things a bit here. But the main point I’m shooting for is that there’s a connection between evidence and truth. To argue that all evidence is derived from faith (i.e. from belief unsupported by evidence) is to claim that truth is ultimately unknowable. If that were the case—if there was never any interaction between reality and our experience sufficient to impart some knowledge of the truth to us—then the truth would be simply irrelevant. If it’s never going to affect us in any way, why bother discovering the truth? But we bother, because truth does affect us and therefore is relevant.

  14. cl Says:

    Good trades :)

    I got a busy week ahead so this may have to be my last..

    ..there’s a connection between evidence and truth.

    Certainly. I agree 100%. However, to cast faith as an (alleged) truth that is 100% evidence-free is a bit inaccurate, though, even amongst the non-theist religions. I really do think many devout or believering have evidence-based aspects to their various faiths. For example, the Buddhist can hypothetically test the principal of Right Livelihood by harmonizing it with his or her life, and observing the results. A Christian or believer of any other stripe could likely do similar within the particular tenets of their faith. When the Wiccan spell fails, will not the practitioner seek to determine the reason and try again next cycle? In fact, if faith or religion were 100% evidence-free, it would be impossible to successfully evaluate them as individual participants. If there were no possible test, observation or thought process I could rely on to ascertain whether my faith or religion had value, its implications might still certainly be relevant, but I would lack any rational foundation upon which I might evaluate my faith or religion.

    To argue that all evidence is derived from faith (i.e. from belief unsupported by evidence) is to claim that truth is ultimately unknowable.

    Well, yeah and no. I think where Erik’s argument breaks down is in casting two different categories of object as equal to support an argument that both kinds of trust are equal. I freely admit believing in gravity is much more ostensibly justifiable than believing in a spiritual realm. Continuing with ID and Galileo, of course we have to trust or ‘have faith’ in empiricism, but nonetheless we can demonstrate tanglibly that Earth circles the sun. We cannot demonstrate tangibly that whenever science proffers a potentially inadequate hypothesis, such is any sort of ‘proof’ that God created the universe.

    ..if there was never any interaction between reality and our experience sufficient to impart some knowledge of the truth to us—then the truth would be simply irrelevant.

    I agree, but I think where I keep getting hung up is with irrelevant, and I currently can’t think of any better word to use. Non-existent fails, because perception is not a prerequisite of existence, either. I want to say something like, “—then the truth would be simply not ascertainable via reason, or something. Does that make any sense at all? An imperceptible truth can still exist and be relevant, but it cannot be evaluated, confirmed, accepted or rejected.

    “things which are imperceptible and which do not influence our experience in any way.” What I’m going for is the idea of relevancy. If there existed, say, some “spiritual” realm that was irretrievably isolated from our existence, such that this realm could never interact in any way with the realm we exist in, then that spiritual realm would be irrelevant to us.

    Although imperceptible and beyond influence, asteroids and plate tectonics do interact with the real, tangible world, so I grant that much, but even with the amendment, I still disagree. Perception is not a prerequisite of relevance. Even if a spiritual realm existed that was 100% isolated from our biological existence, such still cannot preclude relevance. It could very well be, for example, that the realm in question is our post-mortem destination where our actions on Earth determine our status. In such a case, wouldn’t such a realm be 100% relevant?

    IMO, where your statement (and Sagan’s dragon) hold up 100% as worded is in the arena of science or falsifiable matters. Something imperceptible and exhibiting nil authentic interaction with the real world does seem irrelevant in science.

  15. cl Says:

    Oops. I said,

    ..I think where Erik’s argument breaks down

    Grim’s argument, I believe is what I meant. Sorry Erik.

  16. Deacon Duncan Says:

    I don’t think I would make the argument that faith is 100% evidence-free, because that would engage any number of quibbles over what is and is not “evidence.” We’ve been looking at Geisler and Turek’s book for a while, and even though their major premise is that there’s more evidence for God than for atheism, so far they’ve been presenting material composed of superstition, speculation, rationalizations, fallacies, and so on—all of which they would call “evidence.”

    Instead, I would prefer to focus on being able to demonstrate that one’s conclusions are more consistent overall with themselves and with the real world. If you claim to be able to know something, you ought to be able to demonstrate (a) how it is possible to know it and (b) that it can, indeed, be known (as opposed to merely believed just because you want to or because somebody told you to).

    Regarding relevancy, I think it’s a good term because it pinpoints the important aspects of the question. A spiritual realm which never interacts with our experience is irrelevant to us because it never interacts with our experience. A spiritual realm which is going to interact with our experience after death—like an unknown asteroid that is going to smash into the earth one day—is relevant precisely because it will interact with our experience at some point.

    The argument I’m addressing here is not that there is or is not evidence for God, the argument I’m addressing is the claim that everybody lives in some kind of faith-based existence, a là The Matrix, in which all conclusions have to be based on faith, because our perceptions are fallible, and thus we have no way to know anything at all about reality, really. Everything is just a belief, based on our 100% evidence-free decision, by faith alone, to choose to view the world in a certain way.

    My response to that argument is that a world which everything must be based on faith is a world in which reality is simply not relevant, because if it were relevant, it would impinge on your experience in some way that would provide you with evidence as to whether your faith was consistent with the truth or not. And since the real world does impinge upon our experience in precisely that way (*cough*subprime mortgages*cough*), we know that we do not live in a world where everyone has to live by faith alone. The “everybody lives by faith” argument is simply a last-ditch effort to avoid the inevitable conclusion that one’s faith is not consistent with the evidence.

  17. jim Says:

    Your last sentence…

    ” The “everybody lives by faith” argument is simply a last-ditch effort to avoid the inevitable conclusion that one’s faith is not consistent with the evidence.”

    …says it all. It doesn’t take much thought to realize this free floating faith that’s being posited doesn’t really exist. Contrary to the old biblical maxim ‘faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’, faith is always grounded in some kind of evidentiary claims, even if those claims start and end with holy scriptures or magic voices in the head. To just say “I believe” is meaningless. The pertinent question is “what do you believe IN?”, answered by an offering of specific assertions backed up by supposedly supporting evidence.

    And there’s the problem. The real world evidence for a theistic god is very, very poor, and the theists know it. Furthermore, even the argument cobbled together to support this flimsy evidence are poor. Again, the theists know this. So, in lieu of being offered anything substantial, skeptics are offered this end around ploy of pleading to unsubstatiated faith, a thing that doesn’t actually exist. Theistic apologists realize that in the face of overwhelming odds, their only chance to win is to move the battle off the ground, and into thin air.

  18. cl Says:

    ..being able to demonstrate that one’s conclusions are more consistent overall with themselves and with the real world.

    Such is noble IMO.

    A spiritual realm which never interacts with our experience is irrelevant to us because it never interacts with our experience. A spiritual realm which is going to interact with our experience after death—like an unknown asteroid that is going to smash into the earth one day—is relevant precisely because it will interact with our experience at some point.

    Good distinction, I understand and appreciate the difference. Even if I granted such a realm existed, I would still disagree. Any time we’ve made a life decision based on an idea, that idea is relevant whether what the idea describes or purports to descend from exists or not.

    ..the argument I’m addressing is the claim that everybody lives in some kind of faith-based existence.. My response to that argument is that a world which everything must be based on faith is a world in which reality is simply not relevant

    I understand and agree. I don’t think everybody lives in a faith-based world. We all have beliefs, that’s about as much as I’ll say. And I love what you said about solipsism leaving one without anybody to argue with. That cracked me up aloud!

  19. Jo Says:

    If one goes back to the root of christianity and study the teachings of God from His word, the Bible, I feel a lot of “muddy” water will clear up for you.

  20. Deacon Duncan Says:

    I heartily agree. In fact, that’s part of the process that helped me to realize that Christianity is a false religion.