Bolt on Evidence and the Need to Take a Claim Seriously
The statement of mine which Bolt has seized upon is the following:
If there is no evidence for a proposition, there is no need to take it seriously.
Justin stated: “There is absolutely no evidence that he universe will start acting chaotic the next second…”
Chris: “This is irrelevant to the problem, though I think Dawson would disagree with me in this.”
Me: “Yes, I do disagree. Knowledge (objective knowledge, that is) is built on factual evidence, not on hypotheses which are arbitrary in nature (rightly understood – see OPAR pp. 163-171). If there is no evidence for a proposition, there is no need to take it seriously. If someone tells you that he has a dragon living in his garage but can produce no evidence for it, there’s no need to take that claim seriously. Feel free to disagree, Chris.”
In the leading statement, Justin Hall points out to Bolt essentially what I had stated: On the Objectivist view, if a proposition has no evidential support for it, there is no need to take it seriously. Of course, a skeptic (someone whom Bolt says we “must” take seriously) may come along and claim that our projections of future happenings are inherently unreliable because the universe could suddenly start behaving chaotically in the next moment. Justin’s point was that, if there is no evidence to support the supposition that the universe could start behaving chaotically in the next moment, it is not worth our attention. It is clear that Bolt does not think one should require evidence to take such proposals seriously. That may “work” in his faith-based epistemology, but Objectivism has more important tasks for its theory of knowledge.
To inform my point, I cited the fact that objective knowledge is built on factual evidence rather than on arbitrary hypotheses. In addition to this, I gave a reference which further expands on what I mean here. I also gave an example to illustrate my point.
In his blog, Bolt seems anxious to discredit the principle which I stated, but has a very hard time doing so. A noteworthy deficiency in his analysis is its glaring ignorance of the content of the source which I cited to back up my position. It is clear from what Bolt has written, both here and elsewhere, that he has no informed understanding of the Objectivist position to which I alluded. He has attempted to interact with my position without knowing “the fullness thereof.”
In challenging my statement, Bolt raised four concerns, beginning with the following:
First, there needs to be a definition of “evidence”. Different people consider different things to constitute evidence. One needs to know what type of evidence one must require in order to take a proposition seriously.
Second, there needs to be evidence provided for this proposition itself. Since the proposition is not self-evident, and since no other evidence for accepting the proposition is provided with the proposition, then there is no reason to take it seriously according to the proposition itself.
Bolt’s next concern is:
Third, it is not clear what is meant by “no evidence”. An individual having no evidence for a proposition is a very different matter from there being no evidence at all to be had by anyone at anytime for a proposition. An individual may have no evidence for a proposition and hence not take it seriously when there is in actuality evidence for the proposition to be taken seriously. There may actually be no evidence at all for a proposition, but how a limited subject would come to know this might become a problem depending upon the proposition.
Last, Bolt writes:
Fourth, if there is evidence for a proposition then one presumably needs to take it seriously. It would need to be explained why anyone would “need” to do so, however, and this without appealing to other evidenced propositions lest an infinite regress be the result.
Next Bolt focused on the example which I gave to illustrate my point:
If someone tells you that he has a dragon living in his garage but can produce no evidence for it, there’s no need to take that claim seriously.
Unless the term refers to varanus komodoensis or some of its relatives that may share the label, dragons are known to be mythical creatures and therefore would not be found living in garages. This is the real reason someone might not take the claim in question seriously. There are problems with the statement quoted above even if we substitute a non-mythical entity into it. Consider, “If someone tells you that he has a llama kushing in his garage but can produce no evidence for it, there’s no need to take that claim seriously.” Is this statement true?
Not at all. Just because an individual cannot produce evidence for some claim does not mean that the claim is false, nor does it mean that there is no evidence for the claim. It may be that the claim is true and that there is evidence for accepting the claim but the individual making the claim cannot produce said evidence. It has been said, “A lack of evidence is not evidence of lack”. There is no reason to not take such a claim about a llama kushing in a garage seriously, even when the individual making the claim produces no evidence for it. Please note that taking a claim seriously and accepting the claim as true are two different things.
Bolt apparently thinks we do need to take it seriously, though it is unclear why he thinks this, as this is the point he is trying to make in regard to the claim that “he has a llama kushing in his garage.” Now of course, llamas do exist, and if I understand what “kushing” is supposed to mean, I suppose this is an action possible for llamas to perform. Even given these premises, it is unclear why anyone would consequently have a need to take this claim seriously. But supposing we do choose to investigate it, but when we go to this fellow’s garage we find no evidence of a llama, and he is unable to produce evidence for any llama, why suppose anyone has a need to take his claim that he has a llama in his garage seriously any further? Bolt does not explain this.
Bolt states that simply because the claimant is unable to produce evidence for his claim, this does not mean that there is no evidence for it. That’s fine. But of course, I did not argue this. Bolt draws from this scenario that “there is no reason not to take such a claim about a llama kushing in a garage seriously,” but this too is not what I argued. I specifically stated that there’s no need to take such a claim seriously. A person may have no need to take a claim seriously, but still think of reasons for deciding to take it seriously. For instance, perhaps you’ve always wanted to see a llama kushing. One may see this as sufficient reason to pursue the claim further. Other reasons could be conceived as well. But what I have stated does not rule out such possibilities. Indeed, he may have evidence that there is a llama kushing in his garage, but this in itself is insufficient to imply that we have a need to take it seriously. Bolt fails to demonstrate any need to take such claims seriously, thus my statement remains intact.
Then Bolt quoted another statement of mine:
To affirm a possibility, one needs at least some evidence to support it, and no evidence against it.
What was stated previously regarding propositions might be applied now to alleged possibilities. An individual having no evidence for an alleged possibility is a very different matter from there being no evidence at all to be had by anyone at anytime for an alleged possibility. An individual may have no evidence for an alleged possibility and hence not take it seriously when there is in actuality evidence for the alleged possibility to be taken seriously. There may actually be no evidence at all for an alleged possibility, but then how a limited subject would come to know this might become a problem depending upon the alleged possibility.
Is the individual expected to say to himself, “I know that I have no evidence to support this alleged possibility, but there may be evidence that I’m not aware of, so I should take it seriously anyway”? Wouldn’t he need at least some evidence for the supposition that there may be evidence that he’s not aware of? Or is his ignorance itself supposed to be taken as sufficient evidence? Wouldn’t this lead down to an argument from ignorance? Is the individual not allowed to go on the facts that he has discovered and validated?
Now it should also be borne in mind that the principles which I have affirmed in no way prohibit an individual from expanding his knowledge as he makes discovery of new facts. Context is vital here. For it is within the context of the knowledge which we have already validated that we integrate newly discovered facts.
Also, it seems that Bolt has missed the second half of the principle which I stated, namely “and no evidence against it.” If someone is told that something is possible, and he is given no evidence to support it, knows of no evidence which supports it, and in fact has evidence against it, then he is right to reject it. But perhaps Bolt doesn’t like this either. That’s too bad. For him.
Take for example the claim that the Christian god exists. What Christians proffer as evidence to support the claim that it exists continually turns out under examination not merely to be insufficient, but often to be contrived, misconstrued, or simply empty. Meanwhile, there is ample evidence against the alleged truth of god-belief claims (such as the primacy of existence). Given this context, one is more than justified in rejecting the Christian’s god-belief claims. This entails the fact that one can only accept god-belief claims by ignoring, or in fact denying, the over-arching context which the primacy of existence provides for knowledge in the first place, since the primacy of existence is axiomatic, undeniable, and inescapable. The theist himself assumes its truth, while his theism denies its truth.
Bolt then produced a hypothetical example of someone considering the claim that the earth is not flat presumably without the benefit, for example, of modern technology (such as trans-oceanic seafaring, space travel, and the like):
Consider the Objectivist man living long ago who observed the flatness of Earth about him. When presented with the alleged possibility that Earth is not flat, no evidence was found to support it. His observations of the flatness of Earth about him were taken to be evidence against the alleged possibility that Earth is not flat. He therefore could not affirm even the possibility that Earth is not flat. Rather, he exclaimed, “On my worldview, I work from the evidence, not from hypothetical ‘possibilities’ which are essentially no different from fantasies posing as considerations which need to be taken seriously”. The man never came into contact with what he would consider evidence to support the position that Earth is other than flat and thus could not affirm the possibility that Earth is not flat. He even thought he had good evidence against the possibility. His conclusion was that it is impossible that Earth is not flat. Perhaps the man was mistaken due to the Objectivist view of possibility he adhered to, or perhaps it is impossible that Earth is other than flat. The latter conclusion is false and the former is true. The man was mistaken due to the Objectivist view of possibility. The view is seriously flawed.
In the present case which Bolt asks us to consider, it must be noted that, in order to make an evaluation of the would-be Objectivist’s reasoning concerning the claim that the earth is flat or possibly flat, we would need to know what specifically he was told. The claim that the earth is not flat does not exclusively entail the understanding that the earth is spherical, for instance. One could deny the earth’s flatness, but affirm that it has the shape of an undulating wave, that it is curvedly polyhedral, or that it has the shape of a turtle’s shell (I’m reminded of The Portable Presuppositionalist, p. 134.n15). Again, context is vital here. When this individual was “presented with the alleged possibility that Earth is not flat,” what specifically was the alternative indicated? Why wasn’t evidence provided in support of it? What indicators accompanied the claim that the earth is not flat? The scenario which Bolt presents here tends to require us to consider knowledge claims in a sterile environment, when in fact we each bring an enormous context to the knowledge claims we are asked to consider. I’d think even a presuppositionalist could appreciate this.
If Bolt is supposing that there was no evidence available to the peoples of the past to support the inference that the earth is in fact spherical, he’s wrong. Aristotle cited ample observational evidence – for instance, the visibility of certain constellations given one’s latitude on the earth’s surface, the shadow cast by the earth on the moon during an eclipse – that the earth is in fact spherical. (As a side note, Rand herself would probably argue that the Objectivist of the “long ago” past was Aristotle, as her philosophy is predominantly influenced by Aristotle.) Subsequent observations added to this body of evidence. Ironically, for instance, it’s where the earth is “flattest” – such as on the surface of lake or sea – that its curvature is most apparent. Ships on the horizon, for instance, appear to displace significantly more water (i.e., sit lower in the water) than they are known to.
It should also be pointed out that the earth as a whole is not perceivable in its entirety to anyone standing on its surface. So an individual cannot reasonably be expected to know automatically things about its overall shape – whether flat or spherical or something else – that would be confirmable only from such a vantage. In biblical times, for instance, it was generally assumed that the earth was in fact a flat surface resting on pillars. In Isaiah 40:22, for instance, we read of what the author calls “the circle of the earth.” Curiously, many Christian apologists cite this verse as evidence that its authors were aware of the fact that the earth is actually spherical in shape. But a circle is not a sphere. A circle, like a disc, is flat, not spherical.
In his conclusion, Bolt states the following:
In any event, given Dawson’s rule, “If there is no evidence for a proposition, there is no need to take it seriously” there is no reason to take his statement “To affirm a possibility, one needs at least some evidence to support it, and no evidence against it” seriously. It may be that it should not even be considered possibly true.
(a) the axioms, especially the axiom of consciousness (consciousness is consciousness of something),
(b) the primacy of existence (existence exists independent of consciousness),
(c) the integration of (a) and (b) – i.e., the implications which the primacy of existence have in regard to knowledge, e.g., the task of consciousness is to perceive and identify its objects, not create them or dictate what their identity should be, etc., and
(d) the fact that concepts are ultimately formed on the basis of perceptual input.
These problems are just the tip of the iceberg if he wants to dispute my position.
By Dawson Bethrick