In several posts last month Dr. Torley and I led a spirited discussion on the nature of “evidence.” See here, here, here and here. Those discussions revealed there is a lot of confusion about this topic. This is especially the case when it comes to the purpose of evidence. Many of our materialist friends seem to believe that unless evidence compels belief it does not count as evidence at all. Worse, they seem to believe that merely by advancing an alternative explanation for some proposition, they have caused all of the evidence for the explanation advanced by their opponents to magically turn into non-evidence. This is simply not the case.
Let’s go back to the dictionary. Evidence is “the available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid.”
The critical word there is “indicating.” To be evidence a fact need merely indicate that a proposition is true. It need not compel belief in the proposition. As I stated in one of my posts, a jury trial is a good example of this. In every jury trial both sides submit evidence to the jury. But in every jury trial only one side wins. Does that mean the losing side’s evidence was not evidence because the jury did not believe it? Of course not. Again, evidence “indicates.” It does not compel.
Consider Dr. Torley’s example of the evidence for the alleged levitations of St. Joseph of Cupertino in the 1600s. Dr. Torley states:
The records show at least 150 sworn depositions of witnesses of high credentials: cardinals, bishops, surgeons, craftsmen, princes and princesses who personally lived by his word, popes, inquisitors, and countless variety of ordinary citizens and pilgrims. There are letters, diaries and biographies written by his superiors while living with him. Arcangelo di Rosmi recorded 70 incidents of levitation
I had never heard of St. Joseph of Cupertino prior to reading about him in Dr. Torley’s post. I did a little investigation and found out he was a real person and in fact to this day he is the patron saint of air travelers, aviators, astronauts, test takers and poor students.
Frankly, however, I remain incredulous about the reports of levitation. Does that mean I believe Dr. Torley failed to adduce any evidence at all that St. Joseph could levitate? Of course not. All of those reports to which Dr. Torley alluded indicate that belief in the proposition that St. Joseph could fly is valid. Again, the key word is “indicate.” To indicate means to point to a possibility. Sure, there may be other possibilities (for example, the reports might be false). An indication does not compel belief. It merely supports it. And that is what evidence does; its supports belief. And that is the case even if that belief turns out to be false. When a jury is presented with conflicting evidence they weigh all of the evidence and do their best to come to a reasonable conclusion. If they reject evidence, that does not mean it was not evidence. It means they found the evidence unpersuasive.
Thus, when I say I am disinclined to believe that St. Joseph could fly, I am not saying there is no evidence he could fly. Of course there is. I am merely saying I am not inclined to believe the evidence. There is a huge epistemic difference between “there is no evidence” and “I personally find the evidence unpersuasive.”
Some of our atheist friends, on the other hand, seem to think that the word “evidence” means “that which I personally find persuasive.” As astounding at it may seem, they actually believe that if they personally find evidence to be non-persuasive they are justified in claiming it is not evidence in the first place. And of course that is just plain stupid. They are entitled to their own evaluation of the evidence. They are not entitled to change the meaning of words to suit their argument.
A word of advice to our atheist interlocutors. You are entitled logically to say to a theist, “In my judgment your evidence is unpersuasive.” But you cannot logically say “I have defined your evidence as non-evidence merely because I found it unpersuasive.”
Claiming evidence does not exist because you don’t find it persuasive is at best intellectually lazy; at worst it is dishonest.
Why am I belaboring this point? Because I hope our arguments with atheists on this site will be challenging and interesting. And responding to stupid arguments like “there is absolutely no evidence for the existence of God” is tedious and boring.