I had an online discussion yesterday about how we go about deciding what to believe – the person to whom I was speaking believed that evidence was the only factor. Years ago, I would have agreed with him completely. But I’ve been forced to admit that there are a great many things in life that we just don’t have any way of knowing – yet still have to make a call.

The logical response for this idea that evidence is the only factor (it is properly called Evidentialism, hence my title) is that it is self-contradictory.

The idea itself is not evidenced, and therefore fails on its own terms. For most, of course, the practical issue is the bigger matter.

As much as it makes one feel like a champion of rationality to demand evidence for things, I’m realizing that humans aren’t logic machines. We should be as clear in our thinking as possible, but really do have to start with basic ideas taken as given.

Some would call this “faith”, others “axioms”. Either way, I’m trying to really work out what core assumptions are: to make them few in number and consistent with one another.


4 responses to “Evidentialism

  • Stephanie Ann Foster

    An admirable aim. Thanks for sharing.

  • kohshadya

    Two thoughts occur to me on this:

    First, the belief that evidence should be the only factor considered when choosing beliefs is itself an axiom. Generally initial assumptions cannot be proven by the systems built upon them, unless you get into some very complicated mathematics. I wouldn’t discard Evidentialism simply because it cannot prove itself. More so, often assumptions which quickly prove themselves are examples of circular reasoning and should be regarded with suspicion. I’m sure you consider evidence to be very important in your decisions, however I suspect that the hidden assumptions Evidentialism makes concerning what can be considered evidence may not agree with your world view.

    I applaud you desire to have as few founding leaps of faith as possible so as to minimize logical errors. Seems like that’s another example of how logic defies real world experiences though; usually a structure is stronger on a broader foundation than more narrow. Then again, for both logic and architecture a firm foundation gives the most reliable results.

    That sparks my second thought: If our initial axioms/postulates/faith/guesses/etc cannot necessarily be evaluated by usual reasoning, how best can they be tested? Granted a sound logical path that leads to invalid results must have a false assumption, but is that the only way we can test our foundation?

    I think perhaps that our axioms should be tested against our goals and intent. If you want to create a philosophy where you only make conclusions that are provably true, then Evidentialism may have real value. On the other hand, if you want a philosophy that will help you navigate uncertain situations where a lot of information is hidden from you Evidentialism might be more of a hindrance. Of course there’s no reason you can’t have more than one philosophy or tool to use, just try to grab the right one for the job. I think knowing what your goal is helps evaluate your assumptions if you look at them in that context.

    If nothing else, I can conclude from this that the weight of evidence seems to prove that I should really write these posts out in Word first, as every time my finger slips to the Back button I have to rewrite this. >.<

  • Jeremy C.

    If you are still interested in this topic, I would be glad to talk about it with you. However, I prefer to talk over Google Hangouts or Skype rather than this thread. I currently take the position that we don’t have to make any assumptions in order to come to the conclusion that evidenced-based methods of justification are accurate and useful for us to find the truth about our reality.

    • Debilis

      Well, you can see from timing how often I check this blog.

      As to your comment, I’m also a big fan of consulting evidence. I’m suspicious that we might have a different view about what constitutes evidence and conclusions can be logically extrapolated from that evidence. But I agree insofar as this goes.

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