The Big Questions: Evidence

On Sunday, January 11th, I had the great good fortune to be in the audience for a filming of The Big Questions. The topic for this episode was, ‘Does evidence undermine religion?’ A great deal arose from the comments of the various panelists for this, and I will address those in part 2 of this blog (after the episode has aired, January 18th). In this installment, though, I’m going to take a look at the concept of evidence with a particular emphasis on how it relates to religious claims.

For a discussion on whether evidence undermines religion it was unfortunate that the definition of ‘evidence’ was not discussed. Then again, that would make a much less interesting hour-long show. So, in a show such as The Big Questions, it is to be expected that the focus be on the big AND interesting questions. This being said, a working definition of ‘evidence’ (such as the one below), provided to the panelists ahead of time, might have produced quite different results (or lead to the less interesting episode I just mentioned).

There is a vast difference between folk theories (or so-called common-sense) about what constitutes evidence, and scientifically and philosophically literate theories of such things. In the context of a discussion, panelists can only start to get an understanding of what the other panelists’ positions are on that underlying question. Whilst one is assessing that position, and until one has accurately deduced it, one is necessarily talking past the other. Over the course of this essay I will explain why, by referencing what different individuals tend to consider appropriate as regards evidence, and the impact of interpretation on evidence, after the fact. The best place to start is with a (Chambers) dictionary definition, but, rather than evidence, let’s start with what it means to be ‘evident’:

Evident: that can be seen; clear to the mind; obvious…*

Dictionaries generally order their definitions such that the most common usage is first, and subsequent definitions can add clarity, whether by comparison or contrast. This is well illustrated with the above. Firstly, “that can be seen” has a modern, scientific, empiricist slant. By comparison, “clear to the mind” is an older, but still relevant, philosophically rationalistic view (indeed it calls to mind Descartes’ extended discussion of “vivid and clear” mental imagery from ‘Discourse 2’). Finally, “obvious,” which is problematic. What is obvious to one person may not be obvious to another, and for a whole host of reasons. I think it fair to say that, in a discussion about science and religion, the more scientific, and those (like me) with a passing understanding of the history of philosophy, are working with the first definition, and sometimes the second. The more religious tend to use the last two. Some religious people might take umbrage at my saying this, so let me be clear, I used the word ‘tend’ for a reason, and I would point to the ‘evidence’ for God using testimony and ‘the witness of the holy spirit’. (See Christian apologist, William Lane Craig’s defense of the Christian God “by the self-authenticating witness of God’s Holy Spirit” and arguments against that.) The use of the word “witness” is itself problematic, as it is a witnessing that seldom involves senses – there is no earwitnessing or eyewitnessing – indeed one might suggest that miracles are the provision of corroborating external sense data. Unlike miracles, witnessing is an emotional (and internal) experience. As such, something that is “clear to the mind” certainly is obvious – to you – but not necessarily obvious to anyone else. So you’ll need some other kind of evidence:

Evidence: that which makes things evident; means of proving an unknown or disputed fact; support (e.g. for a belief); indication; information in a law case; testimony; a witness or witnesses collectively…*

Evidence is that which makes something evident, but as discussed, what is evident to one is by no means evident to another. As such, witnessing and testimony, as employed in religious circumstances (and indeed in legal ones), is not proof of the claim, but proof of the witness’s belief in that claim (assuming that they’re not lying, but we’ll touch on intentional falsehood later). Does belief prove an unknown or disputed fact?

Psychologist, Elizabeth Loftus has shown us that a witness’s testimony can be affected by something as simple as the way in which a question is asked about an event. For example, in a famous experiment (Loftus & Palmer, 1974), participants were shown footage of an automobile accident. After being shown the footage, participants were assigned to answer one version of the question, “About how fast were the cars going when they (smashed / collided / bumped / hit / contacted) each other?”. The resulting estimates varied between ‘contact’ (the lowest estimate, at around 32mph) and ‘smash’ (the highest estimate, at around 41mph). The participants’ responses were biased by the version of the question they saw, such that their estimates varied by around 25% (which I’m sure you’ll agree is quite a lot considering they viewed the exact same footage, not merely the same event). This serves to make the point about memory and, without being diverted by too much further detail, human cognition is riddled with similar flaws of receiving, processing, understanding, and recalling, of information, as highlighted in the work of Amos Tversky, Daniel Kahneman (1974), and many, many other psychologists.

It’s likely that the fact of these flaws in cognition is exactly why science has been so very successful in describing the natural world, as compared to other methods that rely on human cognitive faculties. Instead of developing folk theories about a phenomenon, or asking someone else about their folk theories, we have sufficient humility to ask the universe itself. We attempt to re-enact the scenario in which the relevant phenomenon occurs (or predict its occurrence and observe it more closely), and measure the outcome. That measurement, as objective as we can make it, is evidence.

The fact of evidence, even where it is agreed upon, does not mean that differences of interpretation can’t occur, even between incredibly smart people. The Einstein-Bohr debates at the birth of quantum mechanics make that evident. But, just as the way in which a question is asked can alter the answer given (and without the respondent being aware), so too, can exposure to ideas change the way in which you receive subsequent information. The Bible, for example, has variously been used to support slavery, mostly in the past, as well as condemn slavery, more recently. As such, if one considers the Bible to be evidence (rather than the claim), what has changed is the set of extra-Biblical facts (or at least beliefs) that the Bible-believing populace hold to be true. This is, in effect, hermeneutics (the interpretation of texts), and it is instructive that hermeneutics was born out of Biblical textual analysis. It was subsequently recognised (first in philosophy, and then in Biblical criticism) that hermeneutics had to include an understanding of the “social, historical, and psychological world”* of the time in which the original text was written (I’m sure Professor Stavrakopoulou – one of the panelists – would correct me if she happened to read this, and I happened to be wrong on that latter point).

The Bible, very generally, is a collection of testimonies about events, claims about the nature of reality in light of those events, and claims about the impact of that reality on the social world, and so on. As such, within the Bible, there is a great deal of interpretation of prior work that is also within the Bible – there is no clear distinction between older and newer writing. My understanding is that the Qur’an contains a great many of the stories that are contained in the Bible, and this seems likely to be due, at least in part, to the impact of the Jewish and Christian knowledge of Muhammad’s cousin-in-law, Waraqah ibn Nawfal, and others, in interpreting and writing down Muhammad’s revelations (themselves the product of the social and religious environment of the time).

In the case of the Qur’an it is often said that it must be read in the original Arabic, and no translation is a true Qur’an. Much the same was said of the Bible, when it was still in Latin, and attempts to translate the Bible into English were met with death threats. This is no longer the case, and as such there are now hundreds of versions of the Bible… and all of them are at least subtly different.

The Bible and Qur’an are, at some level, claims made by people about events. In the case of the Bible, those claims are voiced either by the authors themselves, or by the protagonists in the Bible story in question – as such there is at least one or two levels of interpretation involved. The Qur’an, by contrast, is a claim by one person, Muhammad, about the nature of a set of revelatory experiences, which may or may not have been recontextualised by the input of various scribes, family members, and followers, depending on their own knowledge of the Torah, Tanakh, and Christian Biblical writing, and other socially relevant historical matters. Needless to say, depending on the impact of the knowledge of Jewish and Christian scripture on the Qur’an, the layers of interpretation may move from one layer deep, to three, four, five, or more layers deep. These interpretations of interpretations of interpretations are presented with a human voice (as opposed to a divine one), and they are about very human concerns, such as life, love, death, and meaning… and this fact leads me to my final point.

Most people take other people at their word, unless they have reason not to. The reason not to may be because the individual has been found to be a false witness in the past, but bearing false witness is different from being mistaken. I am often surprised by how readily people who claim deep religious faith will call someone that makes an opposing claim a liar – calling someone a liar is very different from saying ‘I disagree with you.’ Likewise, saying someone may be mistaken in their interpretation is not the same as calling someone a liar.

As discussed above, religious texts have very strong human themes, and as such it is unsurprising that some people will engage with these in a very human way, especially if they have been raised to do so. If you’ve been raised to not contradict your elders and, by extension, to accept religious authority, with little or no question, then the issue is the way in which you are engaging with the evidence. If your continued exposure is to a limited subset of religious claims, delivered emphatically by a priest or imam, then your engagement with the claims will continue to be social and emotional, not rational.

“As Loftus puts it, ‘just because someone says something confidently doesn’t mean it’s true.’ Jurors can’t help but find an eyewitness’s confidence compelling, even though experiments have shown that a person’s confidence in their own memory is sometimes undiminished even in the face of evidence that their memory of an event is false.”

In this modern scientific age, even the most ardent believer will have been affected by their exposure to both science and technology – not least the democratisation of information on the internet. With this exposure, and access to both good and bad information, skepticism is a necessary skill. The realization that a modern teenager knows far more about how the world works than the authors of any ancient holy book did, should give believers pause for thought, whether they believe humans were conduits for, or interpreters of, the divine word.

Nice people treat people they meet with respect until given cause to do otherwise. Extending this courtesy to long-dead people who were short on good, evidenced information does not make one nice, it makes one gullible (which is nice, if you’re a sociopath looking for people to use). Where individuals use their belief in the words of the long since deceased as the basis for being rude to someone that is right in front of them rather makes a mockery of the religious claim to humility. Assuming that your assessment of the claims of the long-since deceased is correct, and that someone else’s assessment of other, contradicting evidence is therefore wrong, is arrogant. Of course, most religions suggest humility in the face of evidence. Unfortunately for many believers, what constituted evidence at the time those words were written has changed because we now know how fallible we humans really are… then again, doesn’t your omniscient being of choice know that, too?

*Definitions of both ‘evident’ and ‘evidence’: The Chambers Dictionary (13th Ed.)

*Definition of ‘hermeneutics’ and related quote (“social, historical, and psychological world”): Blackburn, S. (2008). Hermeneutics. In Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (Second Edition (Revised), p. 165).

For an excellent read about human memory I recommend Charles Fernyhough’s Pieces of Light: The new science of memory


About COEXISTential

I'm a psychology graduate, about to undertake a Masters. I did my first degree at 36 for various reasons, and am contunuing in my education for better reasons. The focus of my research is the psychology of morality, and thus also religion and politics. The focus of this blog is to apply my learnings from this research to the tricky problem of fixing the world. I am a progressive liberal, humanist, and agnostic-atheist, but the individuality of my principles is more important than the labels under which they broadly fall. So let's talk about life, the universe, and everything, and how best for us humans to exist within it.
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