Evidentialism’s Fatal Flaws

“This is an appropriate occasion to unveil evidentialism’s two fatal flaws. Let us remind ourselves of W.K. Clifford’s misguided claim: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence” (taking the word to mean argument or proof).

  1.  Numerous critics of Clifford have pointed out how his view, if accepted, would undercut all epistemic activity. There are countless things that we believe (and believe properly, justifiably, and rationally) without proof or evidence. We believe in the existence of other minds; we believe that the world continues to exist even when we are not perceiving it. There are countless things that we not only believe but have a right to believe even though we lack proof or evidence. If we followed Clifford and eliminated from our noetic structure all beliefs for which no proof or evidence is supplied, we would lose our right to affirm a large number of important claims that only a fool would question. And so it is clear that we have a right to believe some things without evidence or proof. Since belief in God turns out to belong to the same family of beliefs, we also have a right to believe in God without supporting evidence or arguments.
  2. Clifford’s thesis is self-defeating. For Clifford, it is immoral to believe anything without proof. But where is the proof for Clifford’s claim? What evidence does Clifford provide for his belief that it is immoral to believe anything in the absence of evidence? First, Clifford warns his reader against acting immorally with respect to his epistemic activities. But then he turns around and acts “immorally” by advancing a thesis for which he provides no proof or evidence. Clifford is confronted by a dilemma of his own making. Either evidentialism is false, or it fails the evidentialist’s own test of rationality. If it is false, then believing it is an irrational and immoral. If it fails the evidentialist’s tests, then (on his own grounds) believing it is an rational and immoral act. Either way, evidentialism is in big trouble.

    (Nash, Faith and Reason, 73)

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