On eye witnesses testimony as evidence
In the comments section of my post outlining my requirements for talking about god, someone by the name of Scott Rassbach left a question I frequently encounter.
What constitutes evidence?
For instance, eyewitness testimony is allowed as evidence in a court of law in the United States, as are historical documents. Of course, for a court of law, the question is usually simpler than philosophical discussions. For the purposes of discussion with you, are these considered evidence?
If not, what is considered evidence?
This is usually asked as an attempt to lend credence to the witnesses in the bible to Jesus’ resurrection. Scott may not be doing it for that reason, but that’s usually where this type of question is headed.
The answer to Scott’s question is that lots of things count as evidence, though some are better than others. As far as eye witness testimony goes, there are two types: second-hand testimony and personal, first-hand experience.
1. Second-hand testimony
This is the kind used in a court room (the judge/jury didn’t see what happened, so they rely on someone else). This is the worst kind of evidence available to us, and we rely on it only when multiple people saw an event (so as to cross-check their personal experiences, more on that in the next section) and when other types of physical evidence are unavailable. And if the eye witness testimony contradicts the physical evidence (like DNA analysis), then the physical evidence is always given primacy.
What’s more, the outlandishness of the claim must also be taken into account. As Carl Sagan famously said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. So consider you have an eye witness making the following claims:
1. “I saw a car.”
2. “I saw a nuclear missile.”
3. “I saw a sixty-foot worm come out of the ground and eat my car.”
It’s easy to accept the first one because lots of people own cars. It would take a little more evidence to accept the second, since nuclear missiles are hard to come by. For the last one, we should not listen to the eye witness without a bunch of complementary evidence since sixty foot car-eating worms are not known to exist.
Consider how this works with religious claims. Christians will often cite that hundreds of witnesses in the bible saw Jesus rise from the dead and Muslims will cite the thousands in the hadith who saw Muhammad ascend into heaven aback a buraq (winged horse). But the claims these people are making are akin to the sixty-foot worm. They’re even worse than that in terms of reliability because the worm doesn’t violate any human knowledge – we just have never seen one. In the case of eye witnesses to someone rising from the dead, they’re flying in the face of modern medicine which tells us that once the brain is electrically dead, then that person will not come back.
On top of that, we don’t know who wrote the gospels – though it was certainly not anybody who knew Jesus (Mark, the earliest gospel, was penned around 70 AD). So we cannot verify if they were a reliable source (perhaps they made up the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, as you surely believe the authors of the Hadith made up the witnesses to the buraq). So we’re not relying on hundreds of second-hand witnesses – we’re relying on one second-hand witness delivering the opinions of third-hand witnesses.
What’s more, even if we had a couple of hundred witnesses we could query, we should still demand higher evidence. After all, we have that and more today right here in the 21st century in the form of Sathya Sai Baba, who has millions of people attesting to his miracles. You can even find videos of Sai Baba performing miracles on youtube (I use the word ‘miracle’ very lightly in this case, but it’s enough to convince millions of people). And yet nobody with their standard checks for gullibility in place is convinced (it doesn’t even merit ten minutes on the Discovery Channel). Yet when you transpose this scenario to a time when magic was given much more serious consideration, people suddenly deem unquestionable witnesses as told by a single author to be reliable.
So the answer to your question in the sense of second-hand eye witness testimony is that yes, it is evidence. But that it must be scaled with the starting probability that of the claim being true and must not be in conflict with the more reliable forms of evidence, like physical evidence. In the case of god, I’m unaware of any witness to his/her existence that meets this criteria.
2. Personal experience
The other kind of testimony is one you personally have. I will go ahead and concede that all evidence in the subjective sense boils down to personal experience. All the facts you have ever acquired were achieved this way, every lesson you learned was learned by experiencing it. Even every piece of physical evidence you encounter is transferred to your brain via personal experience. The problem is that our senses are not always reliable, so we have to cross-check our experiences to make sure they’re reliable/accurate.
As an example, look at this image of two tables.
(Image: Roger Shepard’s ‘Turning Tables’)
Your personal experience will tell you that the tables are different sizes, but you would be wrong. They are the same size, and you may utilize tools such as a ruler or tracing paper to confirm this. Afterward, you will still perceive them as different, but any rational human will grant primacy to the cross-checked result, not to what their senses are directly telling them. So we must conclude that entirely subjective personal experience can be improved upon. To graft this example onto Christianity, the personal experience is that a Canaanite Jew who rose from the dead has spoken to a person. However, the tool-checked facts of the matter support a different conclusion: that people do not rise from the dead.
Like second-hand eye witness testimony, the reliability of personal experience scales with the bizarreness of the claim as with my earlier example of the car, the missile, and the giant worm. If you saw a car on the road, that’s a pretty reliable experience. But what if, for instance, if you saw/heard a fish talk? Would you assume the fish really spoke or would you look for other explanations consistent with reality? Would you look for a hidden microphone? Would you check for other people in the house? Would you even go to a psychiatrist first to see if you were going crazy? I’d argue that a reasonable person would.
We can also check our experiences against consistency with others. If we’re all looking at a particular tree, we could all agree on the details of said tree: its height, graininess of the bark, color of leaves, etc. But we do not have this type of agreement with the details of god from people claiming to experience god directly. In fact, we have tons of people all over the planet giving contradictory accounts of god speaking to them. They cannot all be right. In fact, if Jesus is the one true god, then all the rest, the vast majority, must be wrong. So if the vast majority are wrong about hearing god’s voice affirming their beliefs, what keeps me from lumping the Christians in with them?
So to answer your question in the sense of personal witness, yes, it is evidence, but it must be tempered to ensure reliability. I would argue that all believers in god relying on the defense of personal experience have failed to do this.
The overall answer to your question, as I stated in the beginning of this comment, is that there are lots of different kinds of evidences. I simply go with the most reliable. An evidence of god that would satisfy all that I’ve written above would be if every human being on the planet saw a message in the sky, in a language they understood, which read:
Jesus really did die for your sins. Change your ways, [insert your name here] . Within the next year, humans will discover how to travel at the speed of light. Here’s a hint: [insert hint].
This would raise some serious questions about god’s fairness (why didn’t people in the past get the same message and were left with a proposition that would require a surrender of rationality to believe?), but it would be sufficient to convince me (and therefore, I think if someone weren’t convinced then they would be being unreasonable).
Special thanks to Richard Carrier, from whom I acquired the scale of claims argument as well as the talking fish argument.