Lessons From an Atheist About Evidence

May 16, 2012 — 16 Comments

The past couple of weeks in my D.Min. program have included some fascinating readings, lectures, and conversations. Dr. Alvin Plantinga’s newest offering, Where the Conflict Really Lies, kicked things off. In the book, he makes the argument that there does exist deep conflict between science and religion, but it is not the conflict that one ordinarily supposes.

Plantinga appeals to Newtonian and Quantum physics, microbiology, astronomy, and cosmology to show that what conflict does exist between Christian theism and science is superficial at best. He then uses those same fields to show deep concord between Christian theism and science, and deep conflict between science and naturalism. Scientific theory is agnostic about metaphysical and theological questions. Naturalism, however, is not.

Yet to follow the science, Plantinga asserts, one is forced to conclude vis-à-vis a naturalistic interpretation of the evidence that the trustworthiness of one’s cognitive faculties is very, very low. Why? Because a naturalist’s commitment to unguided natural selection as the driving force of evolution necessarily entails that only those functions which aid in reproduction and evolutionary adaptation have a high probability for selection and preservation in the future generations of a given species. Rational cognition, it seems, fails to meet the evolutionary adaptive criteria.

Plantinga asserts that one cannot reason one’s way to a scenario of unguided natural selection resulting in the development of trustworthy reasoning skills. The probability is just too low. So the naturalist is caught in a bit of a pickle. On the one hand, he claims that all that can be known about our existence comes through rational reasoning. But on the other hand, that same reasoning leads to the conclusion that the ability to reason could not have come about through the process of unguided natural selection. That, in turn, forces a move by which the naturalist must conclude that if his processes of cognitive reasoning have led to such an fundamental, untrustworthy conclusion, the process itself must be untrustworthy and all conclusions based on that process are subject to being jettisoned.

If you are confused by the above paragraph, you’re in good company. It is a circuitous argument that includes a lot of philosophical shorthand that I had to read and re-read to attempt to understand. (If I’ve missed anything here, I’m sure my colleagues will note it in the comment thread below.)

In all, Plantinga does a decent job of describing how much of the debate between atheists and Christians is on the order of superficial conflict. It is to the areas of deep concord and deep conflict that the discussion should turn. Yet as long as one side can get a rise out of the other by dwelling on matters of superficial importance, that turn will be waylaid. Critics of Plantinga say that his argumentation succumbs to confirmation bias from the outset and are happy to dismiss the volume altogether. While it does seem, at times, that Plantinga leans heavily on assumptions supporting Christian theism, he does so to the same degree that Dawkins, Dennett, and the other “New Atheists” employ assumptions supporting their respective theses.

Alongside Plantinga, I was reading and listening to Dr. Peter Boghossian, a professor of Philosophy at Portland State University. Dr. Boghossian was gracious enough to join us for our cohort’s weekly chat and let us put some questions to him about why he adheres to his particular methodology for atheism (or, I think he would say, skepticism). Again briefly, Dr. Boghossian holds that faith is a “cognitive sickness” that results in holding widespread delusions. He asserts that all faith claims are necessarily objective knowledge claims about the world and defines faith as “belief without evidence.” He claims that he is willing to revise any belief he currently holds, provided that he is presented with sufficient evidence to warrant a change of belief.

In his public lectures, Dr. Boghossian can come off as intentionally confrontational toward his dissenters (indeed, he thinks that “people of faith” have been the recipients of too much intellectual hand-holding), which serves for quite an engaging talk but can limit civil debate. In our chat, however, Dr. Boghossian was an absolute gentleman, kind and attentive, honest and straightforward (though I couldn’t help but wonder if he didn’t feel a little like the only sane man in an asylum—all the rest of us are clearly delusional).

My point of contention with Dr. Boghossian begins with (what I perceive) is an intentionally vague understanding of what constitutes “evidence” and a corresponding bit of rhetorical sleight-of-hand that allows him to redraw what kind of evidence is admissible for inclusion in a given debate regarding faith claims. It is easy to take for granted that all parties at the table agree on the same working definitions for the basic concepts being discussed. However, disagreements in these basics often lead to two or more parties talking past one another.

So, I posited a simple question to Dr. Boghossian during the chat: “Peter, I am hoping for some clarification around your evidence base. You often say that you are willing to reconsider any belief you hold if there is substantial evidence to warrant reconsideration. You seem to hold an assumption that there is a commonly shared understanding of what constitutes ‘evidence’ and what does not. Evidence in science presumably has a narrower definition than it does in, say, law. So, my question is simple: What does/does not count as ‘evidence’ warranting a belief’s consideration?”

Now, if you’ve ever been in a text-based chat before, it can be disorienting. There are often several streams of conversation occurring simultaneously as one scrolls back and forth between locations in the chat thread. I was not surprised, therefore, when the question went unanswered. It might have simply gotten lost in the shuffle.

So I posted it a second time. Still, no response from Dr. Boghossian, though there were a couple affirming, “good question, Andy” comments from others in the chat room. Finally, I posted a third time. This third posting elicited the tongue-in-cheek pleas of my colleagues to have the question addressed (my friend Russ quipped, “Peter: Please, oh please, for the love of … god? … answer Andy’s question or he’ll get cranky…). Dr. Boghossian graciously apologized, saying that he was typing as fast as he could in order to address as many questions as possible. 

His brief response was to say, “It’s not possible for me to respond to ‘what constitutes good evidence,’ as this is a radically contextual question. I’d have to know what, exactly, is the claim in question before I could even begin to answer this.”

So it seems, on the whole, that Dr. Boghossian’s evidence base is a moving target, open to the inclusion of some types of evidence at some times (historical testimony, perhaps) and closed to that same type of evidence at others.  I also noted that he modified my question by adding the word “good” as an adjective describing “evidence.” I was not asking what constitutes good or valid or convincing evidence. That is a second order concern. First, we must all understand what we mean when we say “evidence” in the first place.

Why does this matter? Because Dr. Boghossian’s entire diagnosis of faith as a “cognitive sickness” rests on what does and does not constitute valid evidence. By his definition, a narrow evidence base necessarily results in a greater population of deluded people than a wide evidence base. What I may want to bring “to the adult table” (a phrase he often employs in referring to discussions about faith based on the presentation of evidence) may include things that I find out, upon arriving at the adult table, are inadmissible to those already seated. Were that to happen, I would be banished back “to the children’s table” (the corollary pejorative he uses in the same breath) to sit and think about what I’d done.

I think it would be fascinating to continue discussions with Dr. Boghossian around the question of evidence. If the bounds of an evidence base are fluid, then so must the definition of faith be fluid. One cannot have static understanding of faith based on fluid definitions of evidence and belief (though we did not, in our discussion, broach the question of what qualifies as belief). This may all sound like silly semantics, but if the stakes are sufficiently high, then semantics are important.

Are the stakes sufficiently high? As a person of faith, I think so. But leave my faith out of it for a moment. Dr. Boghossian is working with one of his students (or former students, the exact relationship is unclear to me) on a proposal that would have the DSM-IV (the standard of mental disorder classification) revise its definition of delusion so that the current religious exemption is removed. Presently, a diagnosis of delusion has three criteria: certainty, incorrigibility, and implausibility. All that simply means is that the person is certain of the content of the delusion, is unwilling to consider evidence to the contrary, and the content of the delusion itself contains beliefs that are highly implausible. There is also a common understanding that religious beliefs, while they may seem to present these three criteria to the skeptical observer, are different than delusions, falling more in line with things like memory, illusion, or perception.

So, I think the stakes are high. Before we go about clinically diagnosing people who hold religious beliefs (especially those we don’t find particulary appetizing) as mentally ill, we need to be quite certain that we’re all on the same page with how we are going to define things like “evidence.” If we can do that, I’m game for whatever discussions come next.

Anderson Campbell


  • Nathaniel

    Hi Anderson. Could you propose a definition for evidence which you could use to justify belief in the a god through sufficient evidence instead of faith? Without obscuring the general understanding of the word, something along the lines of: Facts used to judge truthfulness. To keep this consistent with Dr. Boghossian’s arguments this definition can not contain faith, because he defines faith as belief without evidence. If someone can do so your question is relevant, if not it is relatively unimportant.

  • Joe Burnham

    First, Andy, fantastic post … or perhaps two posts blurred into one. The opening was mind-numbingly delightful, but quite profound.As for Dr. Boghossian, I think you have an excellent question, and you’ve already begun to answer Nathaniel’s by pointing to historical testimony. Specifically, I’m thinking of the early Christian argument that said, “If you don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead, go ask those thousand people who saw it.” or even John’s Epistles (or Peter’s, or Paul’s, or …) talking about what they saw and experienced. This testimony (much like Biblical authorship) worked for a couple hundred years before being written off as dated and questionable.Now, I wouldn’t say that we should embrace all historical testimony, after all, somebody has testified to just about anything and everything under the sun at some point in time, however, there should be some mutually agreed upon criteria that would academically establish the veracity of such testimony (I’m thinking something more along the lines of Larry Hurtado’s work on Early Christian witness concerning the deity of Christ as opposed to the Jesus Seminar voting on what Jesus did and didn’t say).I’d like your thoughts on other forms of evidence. To me, the challenge is that many forms like archeology and extra-Biblical historical accounts are more intimately linked to supporting the Bible itself rather than the person of Christ, and would therefore support the legitimacy of something that points towards the object of our faith rather than the object of our faith himself.

  • Pete

    It would really help to read the actual conversation you had. Can you post it or tell us where to find it?

  • Nathaniel

    But how would that be evidence of existence of the Christian god? You could imagine any number of sufficiently powerful beings who could resurrect someone or you could imagine a natural explanation. Just because a fact does not contradict a belief does not make it evidence of the accuracy of that belief.

  • Joe Burnham

    Thank you for identifying plausibility under any number of scenarios and undermining the delusion diagnosis.Beyond that, the unique feature of the Christian God is the resurrection of Christ, so really, what other evidence is worth pursuing?

  • Nathaniel

    I am not trying to define admissible evidence and I am not trying, at least here and now, to say you should not have faith in your religion. I am essentially asking what you believe to be sufficient evidence to know that your belief in your religion is true without faith.What I was saying in my previous post is that claiming that testimonials of Jesus’ resurection, even if taken to be true, leads to the conclusion that the Christian god exists is simply incorrect.

  • Joe Burnham

    From what I can see, you’ve asked for a definition of the evidence that can be used, how historical evidence concerning the resurrection is valuable, and what evidence sufficiently supports belief. Or perhaps I’m missing your argument.So, for the sake of clarification, can you offer an answer to your questions based on what you believe to be true?

  • Nathaniel

    Yes, you did miss the arguments. I am not trying to devalue your beliefs, Dr. Boghossian can do that, I am saying, and I hope you’d agree, they require faith, something separate from evidence. The facts available are compatible at best but also frequently conflicting with those told in the bible. I was not attempting to belittle testimonials, I was arguing that your reasoning is invalid. And finally, I was rephrasing my first question in a way I felt was a bit more reasonable, so instead of requiring a working definition, you could continue giving examples of things you think should be considered. My belief on the subject, to make it more implicit, is there is not sufficient evidence to warrant belief in a god, so I have no reason to believe it.

  • Joe Burnham

    Given your response, I don’t think you’ve followed me either.I never took you as trying to devalue my beliefs or belittle testimonials. Nor do I think that just because those testimonies exist that the Christian story must be true. Rather, much like you, I’ve looked at the evidence available to me and, as you described it initially, judged truthfulness. Is there faith in that process? Absolutely. Is it faith sans evidence? No.All that being said, I can see where the conversation diverged from your original point on a working definition of evidence. I did notice it when I first responded, and my goal then was not to offer something concrete, but simply affirm what Andy had started and suggest some of the other roads Christians tend to run down might be a slippery slope away from what really matters (as evidenced by the Creation Museum).Both then and now I’m curious how he’ll answer the question you posed to him.

  • Anderson Campbell

    Nathaniel and Joe, thanks to both of you for engaging in such spirited conversation here.N-to your original question, I don’t think that the burden is on me to supply a definition of “evidence” to support Dr. Boghossian’s formulation of a working definition of “faith.” As it is his definition, the terms are his to clarify. Were it my definition of faith, the burden would be mine to explain what I mean by “evidence” (or “belief,” for that matter).It is unlikely that one will go around looking for evidence to contravene one’s own beliefs (or non-beliefs). I’m quite sure that Dr. Boghossian doesn’t spend his free time trying to find evidence to support the brand of theism in which I believe. However, he has invited any of us to “bring evidence to the table.” So the clarification I’m asking for is still, “what counts as evidence?”This is an earnest question, not rhetorical or semantic. I’m genuinely intrigued by the opportunity to sit at the adult table and discuss my beliefs, but I want to make sure I bring the right things with me. I will concede, upon further reflection, that perhaps we need to pick a specific belief and then circumscribe what is admissible as evidence and what is not. But it needn’t be a religious belief. It could be any objective claim, could it not?Perhaps we could start with what I had for breakfast yesterday. I can tell you that I had two pieces of toast, a French press of coffee, and a grapefruit. That is an objective claim I am making. But what evidence could I offer you that would convince you that the claim I just made is true? Maybe if we start with small, relatively simple examples we can begin to develop a methodology for approaching some of the questions that are a bit more, shall we see, touchy?Thank you, Nathaniel, for reading and commenting. I’m enjoying the engagement you’ve offered thus far. (And, if you happen to be in or around the Portland area, perhaps we can grab coffee or a pint for some of this conversation as well?)

  • Nathaniel

    Thanks for the response Andy. First I should say that I do agree that the definition of admissible evidence should come from the person asking for the evidence. I would be compelled to say that anything you feel is relevant is admissible, but I do not think Dr. Boghossian would agree. Of course this evidence would still be subject to to scrutiny, and, from the evidence should come a valid inference that the belief you claim to be true is true. No evidence would allow me to know, with 100% certainty, that you are telling the truth about what you had for breakfast. Even if I was there. If I was there or had a video or something of that sort with meta-data containing the date, I could make a valid inference that you are telling the truth. I would hold the belief that it is true with only the evidence available now on the grounds of trust. You could consider this faith, but there are a few key differences between this and faith in a god. One, this claim that you had toast, coffee, and grapefruit for breakfast is in no way extraordinary. Second, the truthfulness of this belief has a very minimal effect on my perception of reality, other beliefs, and decision making. By the way, this is not an attempt to derail discussion. Just thoughts on justification of belief in terms of the example you gave. And thanks for your offer to meet and discuss this sometime, I am in the Portland area and would be interested. I added you on google plus and you can contact me through that. I cannot guarantee I will be able to meet in the next few weeks as finals are coming up soon and I have procrastinates so studying and writing essays will take up a large part of my time that isn’t already devoted elsewhere.

  • Anderson Campbell

    Thanks Nathaniel. I can agree with you on the dubious nature of proving ‘certainty’ and the role of trust in belief. One of the things that Dr. Boghossian rightly points out is that we assign a ‘confidence value’ to our beliefs. I’m sure you are aware of this, but it is interesting to note that the etymology of ‘confidence’ means ‘with faith’. I am more than willing to tailor my use of the word ‘faith’ and widen the use of ‘hope’ if it helps unmuddy the waters. I think that Dr. Boghossian recently gave a talk on the difference (as he sees it) between faith and hope. I’d be interested in hearing those comments. As for the whole breakfast example, I agree with you. There is a big difference in the scale of impact when you compare the truthfulness of my breakfast claim with the truthfulness of a God claim. The stakes are different, as is the scope of application. Too often, however, I think we jump right to the God discussion before attempting to access parallel, yet different, examples of faith/hope/belief/trust. I look forward to aligning our schedules so we can meet, whenever that might be. Best of luck in your upcoming finals and as you wrap up the essays you have left!

  • Rodger McEachern
  • Rodger McEachern

    Andy – interesting…and for the record with you I think Dr Boghassian has to clarify what type of evidence is permissible and the significance of such evidence that would constitute a reasonable or pausible conclusion re a knowledge claim [which I understand he includes faith claims in this category as distinct from hope claims]…

  • Chris Marshall

    “vague understanding of what constitutes “evidence” and a corresponding bit of rhetorical sleight-of-hand that allows him to redraw what kind of evidence is admissible for inclusion in a given debate regarding faith claims. It is easy to take for granted that all parties at the table agree on the same working definitions for the basic concepts being discussed. However, disagreements in these basics often lead to two or more parties talking past one another.”This was well-spotted, so hard to have the conversation if we’re not talking about the same thing or if the definition of ‘admissable’ is too narrow to allow for the other voice.

  • Michael Ratliff

    Andy, With Chris, I agree about your observation related to words and definitions. I’m working on a post dealing specifically with several of the recurring terms we’ve heard/used during the last several weeks. It is difficult to synthesize understandings when they are based on differing foundational definitions.Your comment about superficial conversation – “…Plantinga does a decent job of describing how much of the debate between atheists and Christians is on the order of superficial conflict. It is to the areas of deep concord and deep conflict that the discussion should turn. Yet as long as one side can get a rise out of the other by dwelling on matters of superficial importance, that turn will be waylaid.” – identifies much of what I saw with Boghossian in the video, podcast, and our time with him. When, a topic moved beyond the definitions that were a part of his rhetoric, he was dismissive. This is true, I think, in his resopnse to your question as well. A working definition of “reasoning” apears to be needed here as well.