Standards of Evidence

Suppose I were to tell you that I didn’t believe the theory of evolution. After getting past your initial incredulity you might as why that is, given all the evidence and scientific research that has been done.  I would respond that while there is certainly evidence, it doesn’t come up to a standard that I would accept. I would tell you than in order to believe it, I would have to personally witness it. That is, I would have to witness with my own eyes, a species mutating into another. If you’re familiar enough with the evolutionary process you would tell me that simply was not possible. As it would take far, far more time than a single human could ever live on this earth. I would respond that nonetheless, this is what I require in order to believe it.

Read on and I’ll explain.

Now, of course, I don’t actually require this level of evidence to believe almost anything. Like many people, I believe things without having to personally be witness to their existence or truth. I believe that the country Turkey exists even though I have never been there. I also believe that it exists where the Byzantine Empire once existed despite the impossibility of my seeing what was lost to conquest many hundreds of years ago. I also believe many smaller and less important things simply because someone has told me so. Things such as the ingredients of store bought food, the process used to manufacture office paper and what is considered an important daily vitamin intake.

I am often told these things whether related to the history of the Austrian Royal family or the chemical composition of a rubber chicken that turned out to be totally wrong. Sometimes I hear people confidently make a statement that I know to be completely wrong and I don’t always correct these mistakes. After all, what if I’m the one that is mistaken and this person actually knows better? This isn’t always going to be the case but it could be.

The point is, most people believe things they don’t actually have good evidence for and not just for trivial daily concerns. The more trivial, the more likely it will be that you can change your mind with better information. And conversely, the more important, the less likely it is that you’ll so easily or readily be able to do so.

I’ve brought up aliens in a previous post and pointed out that people will quite readily believe in the existence of life unknown beyond the solar system. This despite there being no direct evidence of any such life existing. But this doesn’t mean I don’t believe aliens exist. I’m actually agnostic on the subject and I think the serious arguments put forward for the existence of aliens are reasonable enough to be taken seriously.

One more further thing to note is the tendency for those who otherwise consider themselves skeptics to be unquestioning when it comes to other beliefs such as statism.

Let’s now bring in God and religion (assume Christianity as always). which I know readers must have assumed I would be coming to from the beginning. Now when it comes to religion, it is usual for the standards of evidence to shoot straight up. As I believe Christopher Hitchens said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Some might say that this is all that needs to be said with regard to religion. I might agree depending on the specific religion being discussed but I don’t think that is always the case.

Coming back to what I opened with, evolution itself is an extraordinary claim. Natural selection is easy enough to observe as is artificial selection. Evolution though, is a process stretching back billions of years and even late in the process is far beyond recorded human history. I could quite reasonably ask for evidence more extraordinary for such a long process than hypotheses based on what I’m told is an extensive fossil record. I don’t really make such demands though, especially since evolution is no more important to my daily life than the bus schedule in Mombasa. The truth of it doesn’t matter but I would say that requiring the standard of evidence I opened with is unreasonable.

Take miracles as a more ridiculous example. Now a miracle by it’s very definition is a extraordinary and unrepeatable event. Yet, a highly skeptical person would require that it is repeated before it is believed. Were that possible, it would certainly be believable but it would also cease to be a miracle.

I have many reasons for believing the truth of Christianity. There is the personal experiences I’ve had in life, my observations of and experience as a human being. Knowledge of my own and the sinfulness (or imperfection) of others. The monuments to God built over thousands of years, many which stand despite the state of Christendom and the world in general. I also hold more academic reasons. The clear evidence of Christianity within history along with the recorded claims of those who lived at or soon after the time of Christ. The rapid spread and transformation of the ancient world and then Europe as it grew. The fact that Jews still exist and the Hittites and Babylonians do not. I could obviously go on.

So when it comes to religion and specifically Christianity, I don’t believe it requires extraordinary evidence. No angel, the blessed mother or Christ himself have ever appeared before me. and yet I believe it. The bar for acceptable evidence can be set high or low but setting it consistently requires blocking out an awful lot more. An atheist or skeptic may snigger at “blessed are they that have not seen, and have believed” but the truth is, we all do this, all the time.

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