Belief without Evidence is Crucial for Knowledge
by Lenny Esposito
Being a reasonable person is a great goal; no one wants to be thought of as foolish or gullible. But does being reasonable mean one needs to have reasons for all of one’s beliefs? I’ve run onto many people who would answer “Yes” to that question. I mean, even the word “reasonable” contains the root of “reason!” How could one be reasonable without having reasons for one’s beliefs?
This kind of thinking is prevalent in the online conversations I have with atheists. I recently offer one in this example. But not only is my interlocutor unreasonable in asking for evidence for what would be rather benign claims (like a person’s academic achievements in casual conversation), he is wrong about what constitutes reasonable belief at all.
Principle of Credulity
In the introduction of his book The Evolution of the Soul, Philosopher Richard Swinburne lays out some key principles we all use in our reasoning. The first is the Principle of Credulity. Swinburne defines it as “in the absence of counter-evidence probably things are as they seem to be.”1 This principle holds that we should basically trust what our senses tell us. While sometimes our sense can be wrong, we trust them to tell us true things about the world, for that’s simply how we observe the world. As Swinburne points out:
Without this principle, there can be no knowledge at all. If you cannot suppose things are as they seem to be unless further evidence is brought forward—e.g. that in the past in certain respects things were as they seemed to be, the question will arise as to why you should suppose the latter evidence to be reliable. If ‘it seems to be’ is good enough evidence in the latter case, it ought to be good reason to start with. And if ‘it seems to be’ is not good enough reason in the latter case, we are embarked on an infinite regress and no claim to believe anything with justification will be correct.2
This is the key point in when debating with a person who will only accept something based on evidence or that evidence only counts if it is scientifically testable…
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