Monday, October 11, 2004

Clifford, Van Inwagen, Evidentialism, and the Difference Thesis

W. K. Clifford is famous for his evidentialist thesis that "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence." On this way of thinking, someone who fails to apportion belief to evidence violates the ethics of belief. Although Clifford had religious beliefs in his sights, his thesis, by its very wording, applies to every sort of belief. Why then do people tend not to apply it to non-religious beliefs? Why do they hold religious beliefs to an exceedingly stringent standard, but refuse to do the same with political beliefs, say? Why the double standard? One employs a double standard when one imposes a strict requirement upon something one does not approve of while imposing a rather more lenient standard on something one does approve of -- when there is no justification for the differential treatment.

Peter van Inwagen raises these questions in his essay Quam Dilecta. Granting that there is insufficient evidence for the truth of such claims as that God exists, that there is an afterlife, and the like, is it not also the case that there is insufficient evidence for the truth of such claims as that justice demands capital punishment for certain offences and that wealth redistribution is a legitimate state function? That there is insufficient evidence for the truth of propositions of the latter sort is clear from the widespread disagreement they elicit among sincere, intelligent, and well-informed people. For if the evidence were sufficient, then one side would be able to convince the other – again assuming that both parties to a given dispute are sincere, intelligent, and well-informed, conditions that are admittedly not widely met.

The point is that for a typical religious claim R and a typical political claim P, there is what I will call evidential parity: R and P are on a par with respect to the question of whether or not there is sufficient evidence for their truth. Therefore, either there is insufficient evidence for both R and P, or there is sufficient evidence for both R and P. What cannot be allowed as true is what van Inwagen calls the Difference Thesis, namely, that religious claims are different from non-religious claims in respect of their belief-worthiness. Accepting the Difference Thesis is just to employ a double standard. One sets religious beliefs a test they cannot possibly pass, all the while exempting our other beliefs from this exacting standard.

There are few if any political skeptics. People typically maintain and promote their political convictions with a zeal and tenacity that takes the breath away. They blog, they vote, they agitate, they protest. If they are justified in their political convictions – if they do not violate the ethics of belief in holding them – then why are they not equally justified in their religious convictions?