“That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”
- Christopher Hitchens
Such brazen remark would seem highly provocative at first instance, as it tackles a particularly sensitive component of epistemology – evidence. There are numerous debates surrounding the study of evidence, being undoubtedly controversial due to the contentious definition of knowledge. Nevertheless, it does not mean to say that the subject matter does not render any possible resolutions, albeit the debate will carry on as various schools of thought hold different stands on knowledge.
This study will seek to prove the correctness of Hitchens’ remark. A literature review of epistemological articles, both supporting and challenging the position of evidence, will give notable reflections on the subject matter. Defining evidence is an important first step in this study. The debate between rationalism and empiricism will provide a backdrop on the controversy at hand. Discussions on knowledge as justified true belief and its contradictory premise from Edmund Gettier – through his “Gettier Problem”, which tackles intuition, will give further weight favoring Hitchens’ premise. The appeal to ignorance (argumentum ad ignorantiam) fallacy will also constitute an essential part of this study. Evaluation of disciplines such as religion and science will form the application portion of the study, further upholding the favorable stand of the study on Hitchens’ quote.
Evidence is the one used for justifying or reasoning out beliefs (Kelly, 2012). In treating a belief as truth, it is important to take note of evidence to gauge relevant justifications. When finding the truth in certain cases becomes difficult, the first thing that could come to the mind of investigators is the need to search for evidence. Similarly, evidence is useful for theoretical debates, for its emergence could introduce immediate resolutions to those problems instantly. Hence, evidence could serve as the way to knowledge through its measurement (Kelly, 2012), but is not the sole condition to such. Further discussion on that will follow.
Rationalism versus Empiricism
The rationalism-empiricism debate centers on the concept of sense experience. For rationalists, sense experience is immaterial in establishing knowledge (a priori), while empiricists claim that knowledge needs support from evidence (a posteriori). Rationalists establish knowledge by way of either intuition (inductive reasoning) or deduction (deductive reasoning). Intuition works by seeing certain observations as facts while deduction tests those facts through argumentative premises. The essence of sense knowledge for empiricists justifies their use of evidence in gauging truth (Markie, 2012). Since from the foregoing, pure reasoning could establish certain propositions as facts, it would appear that Hitchens is right with what he said. The absence of evidence asserted within one rational proposition could stimulate questions not necessarily using evidence to establish truth claims. Logical thinking could prove convincing answers that do not require any evidence, as long as the reasoning process finds the satisfaction of all relevant premises. From there alone, there is a strong leniency towards Hitchens’ argument.
The Gettier Problem and Intuition
The first case finds Jones sitting in the lobby of the hotel where he resides and focusing his attention on a point a few feet in front of him on the floor. For no particular reason, Jones begins to wonder if the floor at that point will support him, as it has so many times before, or if he will go crashing through the floor if he walks across that point. Having nothing better to do, Jones attempts to answer his query by watching people, many of whom are obviously heavier than he, tread across this point. After several hours without seeing a plank bow or hearing one creak despite heavy traffic, Jones walks over to the point, cautiously tests it by tapping his foot, then confidently walks across it. The second case is exactly like the first in every relevant detail except that it occurs at a different place and time, our man is named Smith, and that when Smith begins to walk across the observed point, owing to some freak accident, the floor caves in. Engineers later attempting to find the cause of the accident are unable to explain the structural failure.
An earlier rejection of the Gettier Problem by Almeder (1974) states that evidence must be enough for knowledge in order for it to entail truth. In his premise, Jones, in the example, could not have known what he has known to be true because of what happened to Smith. For him, Jones’ knowledge of the proposition that the floor will support him is false because Smith caved in during his turn. Hoffmann (1975) held Almeder’s argument illogical, since Jones knew that the floor would support him because of the evidence that he has. Smith’s usage of the same evidence and his subsequent failure renders the truth about the floor inconsistent to the belief generated by the evidence, thus being contrary to that of the first case. Yet, it does not mean that what befell Smith should affect the knowledge of Jones. Therefore, the classic assumption that evidence enough for knowledge does not entail truth prevails.
The foregoing reflects the multifaceted aspect of evidence, as it enables a person to know but it does not necessary serve as a condition for any underlying truths. Thus, it is now easier to argue in favor of Hitchens, since intuition characterizes a person’s ability to know based on evidence, as noted in the preceding section. In fact, Hitchens’ example does not include the presence of evidence. It is only that the primacy of intuition is apparent from the foregoing. Applying Hitchens’ argument, when an assertion without evidence emerges, a person could use a priori intuition to support or debunk it. In that scenario, it is even more difficult to reject an evidenced assertion intuitively without evidence.
The Fallacy of Appealing to Ignorance
It is fallacious to claim that one is true because there is no argument exposing its falsity, or that one is false because nothing has proven its truth. The materiality of evidence in this fallacy is thus high, as those who argue using this fallacy implicitly remark that there must be evidence for or against a belief first before one considers it as truth (Introduction to Logic, n.d.). Said fallacy debunks the credibility of sufficient reason as an evaluator of truth. At the same time, it stands for practical purposes particularly in highly objective fields such as science, wherein lenience towards empirical proof provides much sense to assertions therein (Introduction to Logic, n.d.). The appeal to ignorance fallacy benchmarks Hitchens’ argument, in that reason could debunk an asserted reason if it is logically sound and coherent.
Science and Religion
For highly objective fields such as science, the application of Hitchens’ argument might generate controversial outcomes, in that scientific assertions require evidence for proof. Reasoning, however, plays a major role in analyzing certain scientific phenomena, yet evidence prevails (Markie, 2012). Religion, constituting mostly beliefs, involves heavy usage of reasoning to justify beliefs as truths. Doctrines of religions would use both intuition and deduction for upholding their reasons, although occasionally some would try to attempt to use empirical applications. Hitchens’ argument may find some application in science, albeit limited by the requirement of evidence for claims; discussions on religion could heavily use Hitchens’ argument, as there is much reasoning therein to reckon (Markie, 2012).
Hitchens is correct in saying that reasons not based on evidence could debunk assertions not based on evidence as well. His argument lies on the use of rationalism in establishing knowledge and truth, and such has an immense role in putting sense to particular arguments. The nature of evidence as being sufficient for knowledge but not necessarily for truth reflects the importance of intuition in rational argumentation. That knowledge through evidence not necessarily being a path towards the truth exposes reasoning not as a faulty tool, but rather as a multifaceted one that could span several but coherent possibilities, with some possibly leading to the truth. The appeal to ignorance fallacy means that proving or disputing evidenced or non-evidenced claims does not necessarily require the use of evidence. To make sense of the claims, reasoning proves to be the answer, although evidence could provide strength to reasons. Hitchens’ argument could find application in both science and religion – two disciplines cited for this study. Reasoning through intuition and deduction could provide better sense in argumentation, regardless if the confronting problem involves evidence or not.
Almeder, R. (1974). Truth and evidence. The Philosophical Quarterly, 24(97), 365-368.
Argumentum ad ignorantiam. (n.d.). In Introduction to Logic. Retrieved from http://philosophy.lander.edu/logic/ignorance.html
Kelly, T. (2012). Evidence. In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2012/entries/evidence/
Hoffmann, W. (1975). Almeder on truth and evidence. The Philosophical Quarterly, 75(98), 59-61.
Markie, P. (2012). Rationalism vs. empiricism. In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2012/entries/rationalism-empiricism/