A Note on Evidence (Part One)

A Note on Evidence (Part One) February 28, 2021


James, Mark, Russ, Debbie, Dan, and Richard Lloyd Anderson
On 10 February 2017, we finished two days of interviews with Richard Lloyd Anderson (1926-2018), the great pioneer scholarly authority on the witnesses to the Book of Mormon. Shown here at the conclusion of the interviews: Richard Lloyd Anderson, seated. Behind him, from left to right, James Jordan, Mark Goodman, Russell Richins, Deborah Peterson, and Daniel Peterson
(Pella Media photograph)


There is a zealous atheist who comments multiple times daily on my blog.  (He’s entirely welcome to do so, by the way.  He’s polite and — by social media standards, anyway — quite respectful.)  One of his recurring themes is that there is no evidence at all to support the claims of theism.


I find that assertion deeply problematic and difficult to take seriously.  As I’ve said here several times before, I can understand people who say that they find the evidence insufficient or unpersuasive.  To say that there is no evidence at all, however, is merely hyperbolic rhetoric.  It’s not true.  There’s evidence for all kinds of things.  Very often, in fact, there’s contradictory evidence.  The daily “rising” and “setting” of the sun, for example, was long reasonably thought to be evidence for a geocentric cosmos.  Giovanni Schiaparelli’s 1877 observations of Mars were plausible evidence, in their day, for what he called canali or “channels” (somewhat misleadingly rendered into English as canals).  There is evidence for the wave nature of light and for its particularity.  There is often evidence pointing to both the guilt and the innocence of a criminal suspect.  There is evidence for William Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays attributed to him, but there is also some intriguing evidence that Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, might have been the author.


One problem is that my blog’s resident atheist appears to conflate evidence with proof.  But they are quite distinct.  Or, perhaps more accurately, proof seems to me to be a subset of evidence — a smaller Venn diagram circle, if you will, within a much larger circle.


There can be valid evidence that points toward the truth of a proposition but that may nevertheless fall short, and perhaps even far short, of demonstrating that proposition to be true.  Examples are not at all difficult to find or to imagine:  For example, a witness comes upon Frank, who is bloody and kneeling beside the dead body of Bob and with the fatal knife within easy reach of his hand.  It may be that Frank is actually guilty of Bob’s murder, of course, and the scene witnessed by the observer would certainly count as evidence tending in that direction.  But other evidence might come forward to suggest, or even to prove, that Frank had in fact been trying to save Bob.  That’s why he was kneeling.  That’s why he was covered in blood.


The available evidence may or may not be sufficient to “coerce” a single conclusion.  Accordingly, juries are instructed to find a defendant “not guilty” — even in cases where most if not all of the jurors suspect that he did it — if the evidence doesn’t demonstrate his guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  They’re told to find against a plaintiff in a civil suit if his complaint is unsupported by “the preponderance of the evidence.”  The standard is not “beyond any doubt at all,” or “decisively proven by every piece of evidence without exception.”


The same is true not only in courtroom procedure but in such rather related areas as history.  Often, conflicting evidence is on offer regarding an event in the past.  Historians must make judgment calls, and they will often differ with regard to the judgments they make.  That is why historiography continues.  That’s why new biographies and histories continue to appear.  But decisions about how to weigh various pieces of evidence in the absence of definitive proof continue to be made by individual scholars and scientists in fields like psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics, and, yes, even particle physics and cosmology.  The late philosopher William Barrett, in fact, makes a strong case in the first portion of his book The Illusion of Technique for the existence of subjective human factors even in the apparently purely rational field of symbolic or mathematical logic.


There’s much more to say about such matters, of course, but I would like to move on to another of my atheistic guest’s major and recurrent themes:  The only evidence that really counts, he declares, is “tangible evidence.”  The rest is just “stories.”


(He seems, frankly, by the use of that word, to be obscuring — for illicit rhetorical advantage — the crucially important difference between fictional yarns like those about Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe, and historical narratives like Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War and William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.  And, whether he intends to do so or not, his disdain for “stories” appears to entail the conclusion that, unlike (say) geophysics and plant physiology (which deal in tangible evidence), history and courtroom witness testimony and similar things are not and cannot be sources of genuine knowledge.


But this would be an exceedingly eccentric and perhaps unintentionally self-destructive principle, if it were to be widely adopted.  Fortunately, it hasn’t been.  (Even my atheist friend, I’m sure, doesn’t accept it in his real life.  It’s simply a rather whimsically adopted weapon to deploy against theists.  But it’s a sword that, to coin an absolutely original expression, cuts both ways.)


In courtrooms and in historical research we routinely use “stories” (including those told by witnesses) as evidence.


There is relatively little tangible, physical, material evidence, for instance, for details of the reign of Caesar Augustus or for the age of Justinian and Theodora.  Fortunately, we have such writers as Dio Cassius and Suetonius and Procopius.  Obviously, such sources have to be weighed and judiciously used (particularly in the case of Procopius!).  The memoirs of Albert Speer, a leading figure in Hitler’s Third Reich, are extremely valuable even if sometimes very self-serving.  They must be used with care — as must Flavius Josephus’s narrative of the first Jewish revolt against Rome, in which he was an important and (to my taste, anyway) a very problematic participant.  To dismiss them as worthless because they’re merely “stories” would be silly.  And if that rule were followed very widely, it would utterly destroy most of our understanding of ancient and medieval history.


In legal proceedings, it’s difficult but far from impossible to obtain murder convictions even in the absence of a corpse — the most obviously relevant “tangible evidence.”  See, for example, the articles “Murder conviction without a body” and “List of murder convictions without a body.”


My atheist commenter is, of course, taking particular aim at my claim that the testimonies of the Book of Mormon witnesses have strong evidentiary value.  He has never seriously considered them and knows little or nothing about them, but his response, sight essentially unseen, is that their testimonies have no evidentiary value whatever.  They’re just “stories,” he declares, rather oddly adding to that blithe dismissal the claim that they “can’t be examined.”  But,  of course, they can be examined, and they have been examined.


The best starting point for such examination, incidentally, beyond studying the official testimonies of the Three Witnesses and the Eight Witnesses themselves as they’re reproduced in the front matter of the Book of Mormon, is Richard Lloyd Anderson’s Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, which he supplemented over the next few decades with other vitally important articles.  And many other significant studies can be recommended thereafter.  In fact, we hope that our new Witnesses of the Book of Mormon website will become an indispensable resource for materials from and about not only the Three and the Eight but also the very important informal or unofficial witnesses, as well.


To be continued.



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