Do We All Have “Sufficient” Evidence to Believe?

Do We All Have “Sufficient” Evidence to Believe? April 28, 2021

This piece will in some sense be a linguistic piece, and in other senses will have quite a big theological impact.

I have been having an ongoing argument over whether or  not God is unfair in unequally distributing evidence over time and place in the world, thus giving people unequal opportunity of access to belief in God, of access to God and God’s love. Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong, and lately (presumably theist/Christian) philosophical commenter Verbose Stoic (VS), have both made the claim that there is sufficient evidence for everyone to believe:

Armstrong stated:

I think God does provide sufficient evidence (of all sorts) for every human being, but human beings have various mechanisms by which they rationalize such things away or reject them. If it’s not efficient enough to bring about belief (I’m not a Calvinist and believe in human free choices and free will) then one can either criticize God or point out that perhaps the person involved has an irrational demand. The fault can conceivably be on either side. God’s not to blame for everything (as many of His critics seem to think).

And VS stated:

If God provided evidence that should be sufficient for everyone, then the person would still be responsible for rejecting it (and that some DO find it sufficient is reason to think that at least in theory everyone should at least be able to come to that belief based on that evidence, and that the difference between you and them is due to personal things about you that you can potentially impact and change).

Let me analogise.

Proposition: I have a litre of petrol. It is sufficient fuel to get me from Portsmouth to Southampton.

Scenario 1: I put the litre of petrol in my Ford Focus, the only car I own, and drive from Portsmouth to Southampton. The proposition is true.

Scenario 2: I put the litre of petrol in my Ford Focus, the only car I own, but the car has a fuel pump leak. I get halfway from Portsmouth to Southampton. The proposition is false.

Scenario 3: I put the litre of petrol in my Volkswagen Passat diesel, the only car I own, and attempt the drive. The car breaks down. The proposition is false.

Scenario 4: I put the litre of petrol in my Humvee, the only car I own. The vehicle gets halfway there. The proposition is false.

Scenario 5: I have no car. I am going to walk and use the petrol as fuel. I drink the petrol and die. The proposition is false. Or I don’t drink it and try to walk. But I can’t do it because I have multiple sclerosis. The proposition is still false.

The proposition that I have sufficient fuel to get me from Portsmouth to Southampton is true if and only if (considering these scenarios) I can drive, have a working Ford Focus, put the fuel in that car, and drive that vehicle. In all other scenarios, I do not have sufficient fuel to get from Portsmouth to Southampton. Therefore, the blanket use of “sufficient” is erroneous.

Which is to say that the term “sufficient” is context-dependent. It would be special pleading to use Scenario 1 as a benchmark for all realities, thus claiming that 1 litre of petrol is sufficient fuel to get me from Portsmouth to Southampton.  It can do it, but it won’t always do it. There seems to be this nebulous, arbitrary, and special pleaded theoretical sufficiency, so these two implore, holds.

VS later said:

Let me us this example: we can agree, I think, that there is sufficient evidence available in the world to show that the world is round, not flat. We can say this despite the fact that some people do not agree that there is sufficient evidence to show that. Given this as epistemic fact, we can say that anyone who does not accept that the world is round and believes that the world is flat must either have not sought out the evidence that they can attain or that there is something about them that is causing them to reject the evidence and what it shows despite the fact that it is clearly sufficient to show that the world is round.

Thus, given the evidence we have, we can say that the evidence is sufficient so that any reasonable person will accept that the world is round.

Cynthia, in the thread rightly replied:

What if a person was raised in a community of flat-earthers? If someone never learned some of the basic math and science needed to understand the proofs, if they weren’t exposed to anyone who had flown, if they were sheltered to the degree that the people closest to them said “flat earth” and they didn’t have any personal connections to those who said otherwise – would it be a choice?

Also, non-Christians could perhaps better be described as people who simply don’t have a firm view on the shape of the world and maybe don’t think about it much. If someone lived in a society where they didn’t fly or sail beyond the horizon or know about the round earth teaching, there may not be a reason to think about it.

Eric also chipped in:

The differences are:
1. We don’t expect this level of understanding from the very young or those who are not exposed to the evidence, including past people such as those living in the stone age, etc.

2. We do not send literally everyone who doesn’t believe in a round earth – including the very young, those who have not been exposed to this evidence, people living in the stone age, etc. – to eternal torture for not having this understanding.

#1 is a failure of Christian theology to recognize that not everyone has “sufficient” knowledge of the Christian God to make an informed belief choice. It’s one of the problems JP is alluding to.

#2 is downright immoral, given #1. Which is why many fundie Christians claim #1 is wrong, and (they claim) literally everyone has this understanding, and that those who claim insufficient knowledge of God’s existence (such as atheists) are just plain lying so they can continue in their wicked sinful ways.

Indeed, as I originally responded to Armstrong:

This is actually contradictory. “Sufficient” does not entail a range. Sufficient means “enough for a particular purpose”. If I need to put oil in my car for the engine to run, then I put in, say, 1 litre. Ceteris paribus, this is sufficient. Of course, if my car has a hole in a pump somewhere, then this is not sufficient. To get to the next town, I need to put in 2 litres to overcome the leak. 2 litres is the sufficient (i.e., required) amount. 1 litre is not sufficient. It should be sufficient if we made inaccurate assumptions about my car by comparing it to another car of the same make and model, but without the leak.

Ceteris paribus.

All other things remaining equal.

But…all other things are not equal. They almost never are.

So, a sufficient amount of oil will change from car to car (as well as the type of oil).

Sufficient evidence (and type of evidence) will change from person to person, no matter what the belief you are talking about.

What Dave is erroneously saying is that 10 units of evidence that the moon landings never happened is sufficient for Harry to believe in the conspiracy theory; therefore, 10 units of evidence is sufficient for Julie.

But Julie is a scientist and a skeptic whose uncle worked on the NASA team. 10 units simply isn’t sufficient for her.

This is skeptical thinking 101.

Dave’s contradiction is obvious:

I think God does provide sufficient evidence (of all sorts) for every human being, but human beings have various mechanisms by which they rationalize such things away or reject them.

should be translated as:

I think God does provide sufficient evidence for every human being, but all humans are different meaning that the evidence isn’t actually sufficient.

Or A ≠ A.

Which he almost begrudgingly accepts, and then says of the entity who knowingly created and designed everything in existence in the full knowledge it would do what it would do because he designed it that way:

The fault can conceivably be on either side. God’s not to blame for everything (as many of His critics seem to think).

I utterly contest that claim. He needs to explain that in light of classical theism and OmniGod. See:

VS does go on to expand, and hints at the arbitrary benchmark he implied:

My counter, then, is exactly that. If the evidence God has given is sufficient so that any reasonable person can accept that God exists (which many theists claim), then you’d be demanding more evidence than a reasonable person would need to believe in God, and we cannot demand that by “fairness” God simply give more evidence to people who are not being reasonable. So you’d have to argue that God does NOT provide that amount of evidence, but then that ends up being that God does not provide AT ALL sufficient evidence for anyone reasonable to believe in His existence, and so the argument about you specifically needing more evidence (or others) is no longer relevant.

What he has done is to assume scenario one above in the car analogy holds for everyone. He assumes that everyone has a working Ford Focus or equivalent. In his example, this scenario is embodied in the phrase “a reasonable person”. In other words, I assume, he thinks that the world is made up overwhelmingly of reasonable people and is, given their ability to be reasonable, they should end up believing in the Christian god. Of course, the interesting corollary of this is that this also implies that every single person who hasn’t and doesn’t believe in God is, by definition, not reasonable.

In a sense, that is quite an insult to a good many people.

VS is perhaps also begging the question. He assumes that, to be reasonable, you would believe in the Christian god. I could turn this the other way: I am reasonable and I do demand more evidence. Furthermore, I would be so bold as to add that I demand more evidence precisely because I am sufficiently and arguably proficiently reasonable.

So given that there is a range of 0% to, say, 99.9% evidence for the Christian god, from an Amazonian tribesperson living 2500 years ago to Thomas poking the resurrected Jesus’ body, somewhere in that range is a theoretical sweet spot where every “reasonable person” should believe in the Christian god.

Of course, this is a very Christocentric (or VS-centric) way of looking at things. We can also apply this to every single other religion in the world, and atheism. Which rather invalidates his whole argument. I literally think there is theoretically ample enough evidence for people to disbelieve in any god. However, people have different brains and very different contexts: all environmental and biological factors.

So, everyone should believe in a spherical Earth…if they were like me. And if they were so much like me that they were effectively synonymous with me, then they would believe. But not everyone is like me, sadly enough. People are very different and contexts are wildly different.

So someone who was brought up in a staunchly Islamic household (A), or a very atheistic household (B), will require different levels of evidence to believe in the Christian god than someone who was brought up in an evangelical household in Bible Belt America (C). This much should be pretty obvious. The evidence sufficient for C is vastly different than for A and B.

Don’t forget that someone like Verbose Stoic might have a broadly similar neurological setup to me. I mean, we both believe the world is spherical. However, we have hugely different contexts and, although we have the same amount of “evidence” for the Christian god, we both believe antithetically about the proposition that such an entity exists. We evaluate that evidence incredibly differently. We both have different desires about whether a god exists, and we both have different functional requirements resulting from the different contexts of our lives concerning such an entity. This is basic psychology of religion stuff. It might not be so different between VS and myself as it will be for someone in war-torn Islamic Middle East and myself, but there will still be a difference. God is functional and when we replace a god with other things that do the same functional job, we have no need for a god in a psychological sense. In this paradigm, VS and myself are no doubt at least a little different.

And out of our desires and functional requirements emerges confirmation bias. A, B and C will evaluate exactly the same evidence with very different metrics and outcomes.

Again, I cannot stress this enough, that same amount of evidence is not sufficient for those three different people above. In this case, it is sufficient for C but not for A and B.

Theoretical sufficiency is simply not a robust enough benchmark to apply across humanity. When both of my interlocutors here talk about “sufficient”, what they really mean is “theoretically sufficient for someone who is just like me”.

The world doesn’t work like that.

For lots of other ruminations about the god of classical theism, please grab a copy of my very reasonably priced book The Problem with “God”: Classical Theism under the Spotlight. [UK]

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