Evidence and Existence

Red Herring

Image by LaurelRusswurm via Flickr

In college I took a course called “Foundations of Christian Thought,” which aimed to teach Christian students about non-Christian worldviews and the rational foundations of the Christian faith. The professor built his own system of “tests” for competing worldviews such as pantheism, naturalism, and theism. The three tests were: 1) evidence, 2) logical consistency, and 3) existential repugnance. Even as a Christian at the time I remember thinking something was fishy about this worldview evaluation system, and looking back I realize it had mostly to do with the third “test.”

We all hold beliefs about the world and our place in it, and we hold those beliefs for various reasons. I submit that the two main categories of reasons why people maintain their beliefs are: 1) evidential and 2) existential. (My professor broke out evidence and logic into two separate categories, but I think they can safely be considered as one.) Understanding the differences between these two categories is important as I aim to illustrate below.

Evidential reasoning can be as basic as fundamental logic (“If he’s a bachelor he must not be married.”), or it can be borne of a combination of observation and deduction (e.g., “This patient is suffering a cardiac arrest.”) They can also be more complex, such as intellectual assent to the biological theory of evolution by natural selection, which is founded upon a massive body of diverse empirical evidence. Thus the evidential category of reasoning is the territory of logic, observation, and verification.

Conversely, existential reasoning is the stuff of emotion, intuition, and personal credulity. Here are a few examples of assertions that would fall into this category:

  • “We must have been put here for a reason.” (personal incredulity of naturalism)
  • “I believe because of the inner witness of the Holy Spirit.” (personal revelation)
  • “Existence without god is meaningless.” (personal bias)

Propositions such as these are not supported by evidence, whether it be logical or empirical. Instead, they’re based on emotion or unverifiable claims.

Why do I feel the need to stress this distinction? Because I’ve noticed over the years that it’s tempting to substitute existential propositions for evidential ones, or to supplement evidence with emotion, especially when the evidential going gets rough. Existential propositions, though they can serve to explain belief, cannot be used to justify it rationally. Posing existential propositions as if they carry evidential (or justificational) weight is fallacious reasoning. Such a tactic amounts fundamentally to a logical fallacy known as an appeal to emotion–a kind of red herring. No wonder things smelled fishy in that lecture hall 15 years ago.

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One comment on “Evidence and Existence

  1. Louis
    March 6, 2011 at 2:26 pm #

    I should qualify this post by recognizing that conversations about the existential nature of worldviews are worth considering on their own terms. Part of my inspiration for this blog was in fact to attempt to dispel the notion that nihilism follows from naturalism.

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