Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Scenario One

"Can you suggest to me why Flaubert should be considered a better writer than Dickens?"

"Well, perhaps his novels weigh more?"


"Could it be that they are more positively charged?"

"What are you talking about?"

"Well, we need evidence to argue this point! Things that can be measured and quantified!"

"No, you are confused: that's what science treats as evidence. What we need here is literary evidence: characterization, plotting, imagery, symbolism."


Scenario Two

"My dear, I'd like some evidence that you still love me."

"All right, attach these electrodes to my head, and take this blood sample for analysis."


"Well, we need hard, scientific evidence, don't we?"

"For science, yes. But you are confused... in a relationship, I need evidence like you buying me some flowers, or taking me out to the movies, or kissing me goodbye in the morning."


Scenario Three
Bob Murphy's offers an entirely reasonable bit of religious evidence: a personal testimony.

His critics dismiss this, and demand scientific evidence. They are confused.

Perhaps the proper response is to demand religious evidence from them for science. "Did physics bring you enlightenment? Bring you into a personal relationship with Jesus? No?! Then it must be nonsense!"


  1. I appreciate the point, Gene, but I think you are just playing into their hands. "A ha! They admit belief in God is just about feelings. Total defeat!"

  2. I was not among those who dismissed it because it was testimony - indeed, I pointed out that that's the only sort of evidence you can have of a relationship.

    But I would caution that we need to be realistic about where that really gets us. A three year old can provide testimony about her relationship with an imaginary friend. That testimony is meaningful for some things - certainly it's meaningful to get an understanding of why Bob believes what he believes. But even leaving this issue you raise of science entirely aside (I don't particularly care about "scientific evidence", although I'm not quite sure why God should be allowed to elude it), that doesn't make it evidence for anything other than Bob's own perceptions and experiences.

    This is not a slight on Bob, it's simply a reality. This is all testimony can ever provide, and some people may personally find that persuasive or inspiring.

  3. "I don't particularly care about "scientific evidence", although I'm not quite sure why God should be allowed to elude it"

    Well, if one looks constantly on the ground and fails to see the sky, that is no evidence that the sky doesn't exist! Similarly, science deliberately restricts itself to looking at the material world. (Which I think is fine, and is, in fact, its job!) But then of course all it will ever see is material reality.

  4. Bob, the sort of person who, for instance, declares "consciousness is an illusion!" and who declares love is just an evolutionary trick will not be convinced by anything. But for more thoughtful participants in the discussion, e.g. commenter number two here, it may prove a useful way to look at things.

  5. Dan, think of this: history "eludes" scientific evidence: there are no repeatable experiments, the facts it discovers are rarely quantitative in any important sense, it discovers no universal laws, and so on. Yet there is plenty of good evidence for the findings of historians, but it's historical evidence, not scientific evidence. Different modes of thought, different kinds of evidence.

  6. Since when has science been exclusively about experiment?

    Science is about empiricism, not experimentalism, and history provides much of the empirical input of economic science.

    And since when is "science" of necessity the same as "quantitative" or "universal laws"?

  7. I readily admit that "science" is a contested word. Would this be more agreeable: "The sort of evidence that history demands is different than that of the experimental, physical sciences"?


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