I often struggle to discuss religious matters with most of my friends and family, both because I don’t often share the same views as them and I don’t dream up ways to get into arguments with people I want to respect. Arguments are not negative per se, but religious conversations where I’m from can go from placid to stormy in less than a sentence. Many times I’m surrounded with speakers and media (books, videos, etc.) that essentially consist of arguments based solely on biblical sources. Coincidentally, the problem most non-believers have with this centers on the assumed veracity of the Bible. That is, the people relying on the Bible often do not recognize that not everyone thinks the Bible can sufficiently support the believer’s claim.
In law school, discussions involving evidence (granted, legal evidence but the principles do apply in philosophical and argumentative discussions as well) often could get mired in questions of relevancy and weight. Evidence
is something “which tends to prove or disprove something[.]” Relevant evidence means the evidence is going to make the proposition under discussion more or less likely to be believed. The “weight of evidence” simply means how much the evidence will affect the decision to believe the proposition. To use an analogy, picture some scales, equally balanced, nothing on them. Relevant evidence is what gets to go on the scales, selected from all the evidence laying around. Weight of the evidence determines how much what goes on sways the scales. Don’t believe the evidence is persuasive? Put a feather on. Think the evidence is highly determinative? Put a fifty pound weight on there.
Recently I read a well-written article about how people should focus on the harm beliefs cause rather than if it was done with good intentions. Down in the comments section was an exchange between several people demanding evidence to support a claim(link supra, starting with Esther O’Reilly, June 13, 2014 at 9:35 am). The blog entry illustrates a good example of relevancy and the referenced comments illustrates the concept of “the weight of evidence.”
1. Relevant evidence
Although I’m using the term from a legal perspective, relevancy can be a useful concept in any persuasive discussion (debates, arguments, fights, swearing contests, forum exchanges, etc.). Knowing if support for a proposition is relevant can help a person know whether he or she should spend mental energy examining a thought. For example, if I’m trying to prove the existence of space aliens, and I cite water balloons as proof, people will know that water balloons aren’t relevant. From there, people can ignore me, ask for clarification, or mercilessly mock my position.
Sometimes it isn’t all that clear whether evidence is relevant. From Godless in Dixie’s post, he used an analogy to argue that teaching children about Hell can be harmful. In that analogy, a man named Fritz scared his kids every night with tales of “giant feces-covered wasps.” It gave the kids nightmares sometimes, and Fritz went through all this trouble because he wanted them to avoid being unpatriotic. The author then argued that regardless of why Fritz did what he did, he was hurting the kids, and all inquiry should center around that issue.
Later he dismisses the objection to his argument that asked “What if Fritz is right?” Hypothetically, Fritz’s super-nationalism might be founded on some sort of provable principle. This question comes from a standpoint of belief (because of what it is an analogy for), and probably is asked in earnest by people who believe Hell exists. It could even be an objection if Hell is real and if people frighten children only to keep their eternal souls safe, right?
The answer to that question is no. Even if one assumes Hell exists, the point the author made is that harming people with your beliefs is not okay. To put it another way: the harm Fritz’s children would suffer is the same whether or not the wasps are real, and those children should not suffer for it. Thus, reality of belief does not change the conclusion, and therefore the objection is not relevant to the discussion.
But wait, what if the question makes an underlying point more or less likely to be true? Okay, it would be relevant to making that point then. But here the danger is that whatever someone is building up to must address the issue under discussion. Or, going back to the example, we need to make a point that it’s either okay to emotionally scar children or that there is no harm being caused.
(As an aside, the more levels of relevancy a person has to go through to make his or her evidence relevant makes the evidence less desirable. If I have to link my evidence to a sub-point, and that sub-point to another sub-point, and then to a point, to the final conclusion, I run a serious risk of losing people if I’d just kept it simple. So, if one is trying to convince someone of something, shorter is better.)
2. Weight of the Evidence
Like relevancy, misidentifying discussions about weight of the evidence can lead to some spectacularly absurd exchanges. If you read the blog post I linked and skimmed the comments I mentioned, you’ll find those comments consist of bald accusations of insufficient evidence. I don’t think that’s what’s really going on though.
Weight goes to how persuasive a piece of evidence is, but not whether it is evidence. Sometimes evidence can have so little weight as to render it meaningless, but that doesn’t stop it from being evidence. So, when someone says the quoted source isn’t good evidence, or even sufficient evidence, the real issue could be weight or relevancy. If it affects the conclusion, makes a point more likely to be true, or makes a point less likely to be true, then it’s relevant. If it’s relevant, then the issue is really about weight.
From the example I linked, the issue there is whether the Bible or other sources are “sufficient” evidence to prove Hell is real. I put quotes around sufficient because people are asking for evidence “sufficient to conclusively prove the existence of Hell.” If the evidence offered has little or no weight, it won’t meet that standard. Since it won’t meet the standard, people will reject it, and it can leave the person offering it quite frustrated. And then it’s time to abandon the discussion and make personal accusations.
I see a lot of discussions devolve like this, though. It’s understandable because to a Christian, the Bible is persuasive evidence. To me, an Atheist, the Bible is so unpersuasive that oftentimes I describe it as meaningless. But seeing these discussions reminds me that I’m being imprecise, and that perhaps more precision could cure the misconception and keep myself on topic. So, I should allow that the Bible is relevant evidence, that is, it is testimony that tends to make the existence of Hell more likely to be true.
However, I do not have to allow that the Bible has any weight of evidence. Inconsistencies, how the book came into existence, unproven claims, fantastic claims, vague language, and author bias are some of the many reasons I can doubt the truth of any assertions in the Good Book. It carries no more persuasion in it for me than a tale about Zeus.
Refuting reasons I list for not giving evidence weight does not make the evidence more persuasive, either. Conversely, my disbelief in the evidence does not mean other people have to give it the same weight. All it means is that we can’t agree on whether something is persuasive. If that is freely admitted, then both sides can still provide their reasons, and let an audience, if any, make up its own mind on the matter.
3. In Conclusion…
I hope this humble and potentially confusing post is helpful in recognizing the pitfalls one can stumble into when talking about important beliefs. Making these realizations in the past has helped me (both in argument with lawyers and in personal discussions with friends and family).
Ultimately I am writing this for two reasons. The first is as a reminder to myself that I can and should talk to people with respect, keeping aware to avoid diminishing the dignity of the people I talk with. Secondly, I hope if this contributes to more people finding truth for themselves then the entire effort has been worth it.