What does evidence mean?

“No doubt, it has occured to some readers that the word evidence is a rather slippery term. Can Plantinga sharpen the focus of the term? As a matter of fact, Plantinga’s earlier discussions of evidentialism did leave some of his readers confused for pricesely this reason. Plantinga now distinguishes two kinds of evidence:

(1) propositional evidence
(2) the evidence provided by direct experience

By propositional evidence, Plantinga means an argument. Propositional evidence is inferential in the sense that one draws, derives, or infers one proposition (the conclusion) from one or more other propositions (the premises). The inferential process may be either deductive or inductive.

It is important to see that Plantinga understands the evidence from direct experience to be non propositional and noninferential. For example, my belief that I had Wheaties for breakfast this morning is based on certain experiences that produce the belief immediately, that is, without my inferringthe belief from premises. While such experiences may serve as a ground for memory-beliefs (like “I had Wheaties for breakfast”) or beliefs about present perceptions (like “I see a book on the shelf”), these experiences typically do not function as part of any reasoning process in which I infer “It’s a hot and muggy day” from other propositions. My belief that it’s a hot and muggy day is produced or triggered immediately and noninferentially from certain experiences.

To summarize, sometimes we use the word evidence to mean evidence from direct experience; sometimes we use it to mean arguments or proofs. When Plantinga objects to evidentialism by stating that belief in God can be rational in the total absence of evidence, what he means is evidence in the propositional sense (i.e., arguments). In other words, the rationality of belief in God does not depend on the believer’s ability to supply proofs or arguments. But Plantinga does think that belief in God (like a great many nonreligious beliefs) may be related in noninferntial ways to certain experiences.”

(Nash, Faith and Reason, 74-75)

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