Assumptions, Biases and Evidence…Oh My! (Recent Reads)

What assumptions and biases do you bring with you as you approach evidence?

I got to thinking about that question as I read a few articles recently by Stanley Fish.  These articles were on the place of evidence and trust in our belief systems. First was “Citing Chapter and Verse: Which Scripture is the Right One?”  In the past most people put their trust in religion and religious pronouncements.  How is this different then putting trust in scientific pronouncements, since most people have not taken the time to do the research themselves?  Richard Dawkins’ response, during a recent forum, was that the difference is that with science you can cite a study, in other words (his words), you can cite “chapter and verse”.

With this proverbial phrase, Dawkins unwittingly (I assume) attached himself to the centuries-old practice of citing biblical verses in support of a position on any number of matters, including, but not limited to, diet, animal husbandry, agricultural policy, family governance, political governance, commercial activities and the conduct of war. Intellectual responsibility for such matters has passed in the modern era from the Bible to academic departments bearing the names of my enumerated topics. We still cite chapter and verse — we still operate on trust — but the scripture has changed (at least in this country) and is now identified with the most up-to-date research conducted by credentialed and secular investigators.

The question is, what makes one chapter and verse more authoritative for citing than the other? The question did not arise in the discussion, but had it arisen, Dawkins and Pinker would no doubt have responded by extending the point they had alreadymade: The chapter and verse of scriptural citation is based on nothing but subjective faith; the chapter and verse of scientific citation is based on facts and evidence.

The argument is circular and amounts to saying that the chapter and verse we find authoritative is the chapter and verse of the scripture we believe in because we believe in its first principle, in this case the adequacy and superiority of a materialist inquiry into questions religion answers by mere dogma

Fish goes on to argue that all people look at the world with a set of assumptions.  We all have presuppositions – “original authority” or “basic orthodoxy” that we begin with.  These assumptions are the lens through which we look at evidence.  If the evidence fits in with our belief we accept it and if it contradicts our belief we ignore it.

The second article was a follow-up, “Evidence in Science and Religion, Part 2“.  In this he replies to some of the responses garnered from the first article.  He is not saying science and religion are similar in every way, simply that they are mediated.  They both “work” in different areas.  While the certainty religion gives us can change, so too can the certainty science gives us as its claims have changed over the years.

Yes, the apostle of science will reply: that just shows that science is progressive and can correct its mistakes, while religion lacks a mechanism for detecting and purging error. This argument (made by many posters) assumes that when science “changes its mind,” it is because more precise and powerful techniques have given it a better purchase on the world it had previously perceived only dimly (“Now we see through a glass darkly”). The world has stayed still; only the devices of perception have changed and brought us closer to it.

But this Baconian model of scientific progress in which data sits waiting to be revealed by superior instruments is now, the Princeton philosopher Thomas Kelly tells us, “universally rejected by philosophers” (“Evidence,” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). “It is now appreciated,” Kelly continues, “that at any given time, which theories are accepted … typically plays a crucial role in guiding the subsequent search for evidence which bears on these theories.”

Shortly after this he makes what is the clearest and vital point: theories determine what will count as evidence.  The idea that we sift evidence with an open-mind and believe where it leads is simply false.  We all bring theories (assumptions, biases) to the evidence.

The very act of looking around is always and already performed within a set of fully elaborate assumptions complete with categories, definitions and rules that tell you in advance what kinds of things might be “discovered” and what relationships of cause and effect, contiguity, sameness and difference, etc., might obtain between them.

We all look at the world through a lens.  Some of us approach the world with the belief that a Creator is behind it all, others approach the world with the belief that it all came about through time and chance.  Whichever approach you take will influence what you count as evidence in any discussion.

This is why people can make statements like:

“I have never seen any evidence God exists”

“I see evidence God exists everyday”

One couple in financial trouble can talk about how God blessed them and they made it through.  The believe in an active God which influences how they interpret the evidence.  Another couple in financial trouble can talk about how they got lucky, had help from some kind people, and made it through.  They don’t allow God into the equation.

So often in discussions and debates we talk past each other because we do not focus in on the assumptions people have.  Everyone brings their assumptions into a discussion.  No position is bias neutral.

I have a lot of thoughts swirling in my head about this.  The one thing I will write is that this is why you can’t just throw “evidence” at people and expect them to change their minds.  Or, to think of some very popular evangelical books, the evidence may demand a verdict but depending who you are, certain verdicts are ruled out before even approaching that evidence.

Back to Fish.  I love how Fish closes the second article, in response to those who say religion is a sort of debate-ender:

Finally, I cannot forbear noting the picture of religion assumed by some of the most caustic commentators who say that religious experts “don’t engage in … debate” (chuckwagon), that when a religious truth is announced “no further inquiry is permitted” (Kevin Brady), that “religious dogma brooks no debate” (Prakash Nadkarni), that the only argument believers have is “The bible says so” (Kevin Grierson) and that “Faith requires a belief system by fiat”(drdave). It is hard to know what to say in the face of such pronouncements, except to recommend a course of reading to those who make them. They might begin with The Book of Job, Augustine’s Confessions and Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress.”

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