An article donated by
Editor Susan Humphreys:
What is sufficient evidence to justify belief?
In my previous essay about “The Ethics of Belief” W. K. Clifford stated:
“it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”
I wrote that this raises the question of what constitutes sufficient evidence and that I’d address this question here.
I realize that what constitutes sufficient evidence for some may not be sufficient evidence for others. It may be impossible to come up with a standard that everyone can agree on especially when it comes to religious beliefs and beliefs about right and wrong. However, that doesn’t mean that we should ignore the question.
I have said in other essays that Wisdom -- wise words -- stand or fall on their own merits. They need no claims of divine authorship or revelation or scholarly credentials to prove their worth. The Sermon on the Mount is a beautiful piece of work no matter who wrote it. The same goes for the Upanishads, the Tao teh Ching, the writings of Black Elk -- an American Indian Spiritual leader -- and many other (too numerous to list) writings. These pieces seem to touch something within us that show those of us that are open to what they have to say their value, worth and universal Truth.
But what “evidence” do I have to prove they are worthy of consideration? None, other than the fact that they have withstood the test of time, and seem to contain a universal truth that is cross cultural and timeless.
If many people across cultures and time epochs claim that something is true make it true? NO. Truth as well as falsehoods are passed down through the generations. AND we know that masses of people can easily succumb to “group think” and be swayed by the emotion and excitement of the moment, when if alone a person might take the time to question and challenge what they hear.
So the number of people proclaiming something is insufficient evidence to establish its truth or falsehood. It works both ways.
How do we decide which “authorities” are worthy of our trust, worthy of our belief in the truth of what they have to say? How can we tell if we are being used, conned, manipulated for another person’s gain at our detriment?
The old adage “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” is still sound advice!
When I hear someone say “believe me, I know what I am talking about” I don’t! Self-proclaimed experts should always be questioned and challenged. Check their credentials. In this day and age you can find a wealth of information about many folk especially academic and public figures online. Is a Biologist qualified to spout opinions on Economic Theory? Or vice versa, should we trust an Economist to tell us the truth about environmental issues? NO.
This doesn’t mean they are totally ignorant about areas outside their immediate professional area of expertise, it just means that we should question and challenge what they have to say. We should find some other corroborating sufficient evidence to support or discredit their opinions.
“We may believe the statement of another person, when there is reasonable ground for supposing that he knows the matter of which he speaks, and that he is speaking the truth so far as he knows it.”
What constitutes “reasonable ground”? That is the same as asking what constitutes “sufficient evidence”? Is it left up to what each individual believes or disbelieves?
There are formal rules of logic that we can use to analyze a statement. Basically the simplest logic is: "If A equals B and B equals C than A equals C." Arguments are rarely stated so simply. They are often very convoluted and it is difficult to unravel the various parts to determine whether the basic premise A actually leads to conclusion C.
All arguments start with some basic assumption or assumptions. If we can identify these basic elements we can decide if these basic assumption/s are true or false. If false their whole argument fails.
We can also look for corroborating evidence or evidence that disproves an opinion. The Internet is a great tool for this. We can google all kinds of questions and find a great variety of articles that address our question. This is called research -- investigating the issue on our own. Fact checking, looking at pro and con arguments, following leads (some may lead down blind alleys, some may lead to more questions). This is also called doing due diligence, being a responsible citizen.
When someone resorts to name calling and/or making demeaning or belittling comments about another person’s character it tells me they probably don’t have “sufficient evidence” to support their opinions/beliefs.
In the end it is up to us to decide whether we believe we have sufficient evidence to support our beliefs or whether we don’t! We may find that we still have major disagreements with others over what is or is not true, what is or is not right or wrong. However, we can at least claim that we investigated, that we didn’t accept something on “blind faith” or out of a misguided sense of obedience to an authority figure.
We will have done our moral and civic duty, our due diligence, our responsibility as citizens of a Democracy to check the accuracy and honesty of statements from preachers, pastors, presidents and other figures of authority, as well as those we talk to in online chats or in person. And most importantly we can cite the evidence we use to support our opinions/beliefs.
Originally posted: 2019-JAN-22
Latest update: 2019-JAN-22
Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys