Is it always wrong to believe without evidence?
It’s currently fashionable to disparage belief in God as irrational and lacking sufficient evidence. Most of the discussions focus on the philosophical evidence we have and whether it qualifies as sufficient. But understanding the evidence is a complex task. It requires detailed knowledge of a broad range of philosophical topics.
Even for those who do undertake it, they find there is no conclusive test of what qualifies as sufficient. It is difficult for the intellect to make a decisive judgement, many conflicting possibilities are reasonable to believe.
This is a predicament for anyone who isn’t inclined or equipped for the task. Most of us don’t have the required philosophical knowledge or the ability to obtain it. Are the skeptics right that the most reasonable attitude in these circumstances is to withhold judgment and remain agnostic on the question of God?
To answer this, we should start by questioning the assumption we need sufficient evidence for our belief. It seems common sense that we shouldn’t believe things without reasons to think they are true. But is this evidence requirement appropriate in all circumstances? Is it a universal law of logic which applies to all questions in life, or are their nuances involved which we need to consider?
These questions were discussed over 100 years ago by the eminently sensible philosopher, William James. In his 1896 lecture, The Will to Believe, James argued the idea it is always wrong to believe without evidence was the “queerest idol ever manufactured in the philosophic cave.” James was a pragmatist, he thought that a belief was true if it works, or is useful. He said, “The truest scientific hypothesis is that which, as we say, ‘works’ best; and it can be not otherwise with religious hypotheses.”
This doesn’t mean James rejects the need for evidence. But he also recognizes there are two aspects to our need for evidence. Not only does it help us find truth, it also helps to avoid falsity. And it is only the latter that skepticism can achieve. Refraining from belief cannot give us truth, it can only stop us believing something false. James says, “We may regard the chase for truth as paramount and the avoidance of error as secondary; or we may, on the other hand, treat the avoidance of error as more imperative, and let truth take its chance.”
What type of choices need evidence?
James asks us to consider a choice between two possible hypotheses. The choice can be forced or avoidable. A forced option is one in which there is no possibility of not choosing. This is an either-or situation. To refrain from choosing is practically equivalent to choosing in the negative.
Imagine a medical graduate who has the opportunity to work on a research project investigating a cure for cancer. The choice to participate or not is a forced one. She can’t refrain from choosing either yes or no. If she abstains from choosing and doesn’t reply to the offer, she won’t get the job as surely as if she had chosen to reject it.
The choice can also be momentous or trivial. A momentous option is one where the opportunity is unique, the stake is momentous, and what you choose now will exclude you from the opportunity in the future. Our medical graduate is also faced with a momentous choice. The opportunity is unique, there won’t be another identical research project. And rejecting the offer now precludes her from participating in the future.
Let’s apply the maxim we shouldn’t believe things without sufficient evidence to our medical graduates’ choice. Is she irrational to accept the offer? To do so she must believe a cure may exist, but she believes it without having evidence it is, in fact, true. More than that, she can’t find the evidence unless she undertakes the research project. It is only by first believing the cure does exist that she can obtain the evidence.
She can avoid being wrong by withholding her belief in the existence of the cure and not undertaking the research project. But she cannot find the truth that way. Surely the only reasonable action in these circumstances is to consider the “chase for truth as paramount and the avoidance of error as secondary”. And in so doing, she will believe the cure exists without sufficient evidence. We see in this circumstance, our evidence maxim doesn’t apply because the choice has the features of being forced and momentous.
What about the question of God?
What sort of choice is the religious choice of belief in God? We see at once it’s a momentous decision. James notes, “We are supposed to gain, even now, by our belief, and to lose by our non-belief, a certain vital good.”
The religious choice is also a forced option. We can’t avoid the question by remaining skeptical and waiting for more evidence, because that is practically equivalent to choosing in the negative. By refraining from belief, we can avoid being wrong if religion is false, but we cannot gain the truth. By inaction we lose that vital good as surely as if we had chosen to believe God does not exist.
James says, “To preach skepticism to us as a duty until ‘sufficient evidence’ for religion be found, is tantamount therefore to telling us, when in presence of the religious hypothesis, that to yield to our fear of its being error is wiser and better than to yield to our hope that it may be true. It is not intellect against all passions, then; it is only intellect with one passion laying down its law.”
James also notes the religious choice has another characteristic that makes it more illogical to refrain from belief. He says, “The universe is no longer a mere it to us, but a Thou, and any relation that may be possible from person to person might be possible here. We feel, too, as if the appeal of religion to us were made to our own active good-will, as if evidence might be forever withheld from us unless we met the hypothesis half-way.”
The outcome of all this is that we must believe God exists if we are to ever find the truth about it. Who are you? What is the meaning of the world? What should you do? These are questions we must all answer in some way or another. If we decide we cannot answer, that is also a choice.
Whatever choice we make, we live by that choice. We must each do the best we can with the resources we have available. In good faith and by the dictates of our conscience, we must with courage choose what seems right to us.
As James says, “In either case we act, taking our life in our hands. No one of us ought to issue vetoes to the other, nor should we bandy words of abuse. We ought, on the contrary, delicately and profoundly to respect one another’s mental freedom.”