I love Legos. My wife says I only wanted kids so that I could buy Legos “for the kids” and play with them. That’s false, of course. I also wanted to buy video games. But Legos were truly my favorite childhood toy. Nowadays, one fun game I play with the kids is when we each grab a handful of Legos from the box and see what we can build. We may end up with some of the same pieces–a 2×4 brick, a 6×10 plate–but our “sets” will be unique. Thus, our creations turn out unique. There’s an interesting parallel when it comes to forming beliefs. Evidence, and the conclusions we build from them, resemble Lego creations.
Evidence is Relative
In a previous post, I mentioned 5 sources of evidence. 3 based on experience: perception, testimony, and introspection. And two that aren’t (directly) based on experience: memory and inference. These 5 kinds of evidence provide the “building blocks” of belief. Testimony is when you get second-hand information from another person, like when your insensitive friend blurts out a spoiler about a Stranger Things episode you have yet to watch. Perception is first-hand experience of the world, physical or otherwise. Memories are just mental records of past experiences. Introspection is when you notice things going on in your own mind, like when you find yourself longing for chocolate donuts. Inference is when you put “2 and 2 together.” You see the torn up pillow, you see the fuzz in your dog’s mouth, and you infer that your dog ate your pillow.
The building blocks we have in our set differ for obvious reasons. I’m looking at the glass of juice on my desk, and you aren’t. You remember what you ate for dinner last night, and I don’t. The ones that differ most among people are the experiential ones. Our experiences are unique and hard to share.
- seeing a green tree in my yard
- tasting an apple at the cafeteria
- feeling depressed
- “seeing” something as morally wrong
- sensing God’s presence on a mountain top
- feeling a pain in my knee
I can tell you about my experience of the apple (testimony), but it’s impossible for me to exactly duplicate the experience in your mind. Especially if you’ve never tasted an apple yourself! But it’s no argument against the reality of color that I may struggle unsuccessfully to explain color vision to someone with only black-and-white vision.
Evidence and Religious Experience
This means that you and I necessarily possess different sets of total evidence, and thus the conclusions we draw and are justified in making will also be different. I’ve spoken to more than one skeptic who says, “Well, I can see why you believe in God, but I’ve never had an experience like that.” Exactly. And I don’t (epistemically) blame the skeptic who lacks some vital bit of evidence that would enable her to finally form a belief in God. My testimony should count somewhat, but it doesn’t come close to the weight of first-hand experience.
Sometimes you and I possess the same sub-set of evidence on some subject, and so we ought to arrive at roughly the same conclusions, unless the evidence is ambiguous. If we both watched season two of Stranger Things, [MILD SPOILER ALERT] then we ought to both believe that “Steve” is still alive. Some disputes about evidence are purely public (and thus easy), but many aren’t, like religious belief. There is public evidence for religious belief, but private experience often constitutes a critical building block in the support system.
Bogus or Question-Begging?
Some may object, “But religious experiences are bogus! So they can’t count as good evidence for belief in God.” There is a potential problem with this objection. Suppose we argued about whether Elvis is still alive. I believe he is, but you ask me for my evidence. I say, “I saw him yesterday.” You may doubt my seeing-claim for a host of reasons, but it would be rotten logic to reply, “Well, that isn’t good evidence because Elvis is dead!” That’s begging the question in philosophical parlance. Similarly, if Peter believes in God, and part of his evidence is that he’s had an experience of God, it won’t do to say, “Well, that doesn’t count, because there is no God!” You would have to offer other reasons (“defeaters“) to doubt the veracity of his experience, without assuming God’s non-existence. I.e., something like “even if God exists, you should doubt the veracity of your experience because you were tripping on acid at the time,” or “because you were having an epileptic seizure,” or something like that. Alternatively, you could offer arguments against God’s existence, such as the problem of evil, but simple denial of God’s existence won’t do. So, in the absence of a good “defeater,” experiences are rightly taken to be legit and a healthy part of a complete set of evidence.
The upshot of all this is simple: don’t be surprised or upset when a friend who is, by all accounts, reasonable and intelligent, just doesn’t see things your way. The disagreement doesn’t mean one or both of you wrenched yourselves off the rails of logic. It probably means you’re working with different sets of evidence (like Lego sets), and some of it may be incommunicable. Evidence is relative. Your set may logically support one conclusion, and theirs another. This doesn’t mean you both believe something true, of course, it only means that you may rationally disagree.