Originally posted on the Cambridge Skeptics Blog – April 29th 2019. Again I have made a few small updates to the graphics for this post.
So I recently watched a YouTube debate between Matt Dillahunty, atheist and magician, and Mike Winger, associate pastor at Hosanna Christian Fellowship, on the question “Is Belief in the Resurrection Unreasonable?“. It was an interesting discussion that I recommend you check out, as well as Matt’s follow up video looking at standards of evidence, and it got me thinking. When it is reasonable to accept a claim? Here are some of my thoughts on the matter.
Before I go any further I should make it clear how I am using the word “reasonable” here. I want to be clear that what I am not saying is that if you believe a claim that I find “unreasonable” that your belief is in some way unacceptable, or intolerable. No, instead I am going to look at whether it is sensible or rational to accept a given claim based upon the nature of the claim itself, and how many degrees of separation there are between you and it. With that in mind let’s look at a couple of claims.
Claim 1. My friend Tom says he has a pet dog, and I have seen it myself.
So, in this example the claim being made is entirely every day. We know that dogs exist, we have highly compelling evidence to that fact, and we also know that some people keep them as pets. As such Tom’s claim that he is one of those people is in no way unusual. Yes, he could be lying, but nothing about it claim requires us to re-evaluate anything we already believe to be true about the world. Furthermore, we have seen the dog for ourselves. We have direct, first hand experience of the claim in question. As such, given this combination of an every day claim and direct first hand experience, I would argue that it is entirely reasonable to us to accept that Tom does in fact have a pet dog. Ok, next claim.
Claim 2. My friend Ian says he has a pet cockroach, and I have not seen it myself.
Now straight off this claim is a bit more unusual. Yes, again, we know that cockroaches exist, but most of us would never consider them pet material. As such, when encountering a claim that someone has one as a pet we might find ourselves a bit more skeptical that we would be with Tom and his pet dog claim. We would probably find ourselves saying things like “really?” and “can you keep those as pets?” and “what kind of cockroach?” in order to waylay our doubts. Add to the somewhat unusual claim the fact that we haven’t seen it ourselves and are having to work on testimonial evidence and we would have good reason to be a bit skeptical. But, at the end of the day, most of us would probably accept this claim. While not as common as pet dogs people do keep cockroaches as pets, and while you may not have encountered this before there is plenty of evidence out there to support this practice. Furthermore, we generally place a good deal of trust in eye witness testimony for things we have not witnessed ourselves. Most stories we ever hear are about things we did not witness ourselves, and yet for the most part we are happy to rely on the word of those who did witness them as evidence that they actually took place. We might, and should, take the exact details of the claim with a pinch of salt, given the fallibility of both human perception and memory, but again I would argue that it is reasonable to accept an unusual claim based upon a second hand account, even if we do so with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Claim 3. My friend John told me that his friend Dave told him that he has a pet dragon. Neither John nor myself have seen it.
Straight away this claim is an entirely different animal…specifically a dragon. Now whilst there have been claims about dragons for millennia there really is no evidence that they actually exist outside of fiction and folklore. As such the claim that someone keeps one as a pet should immediately be treated with a heaping helping of skepticism. Add to this the fact that the claim is coming to us third hand. In a court of law reporting events that you have experienced yourself is considered eye witness testimony. Reporting events that you did not experience, but which were told to you by other people, is considered hearsay, and this is not admissible in court. This is because there is no way to check the validity of such claims. If the person telling you the story is not the person who witnessed the events then it is really difficult to gain further evidence beyond what the person relaying the tale knows themselves. Again, this kind of third hand account should always send up a ping on your skeptical radar, and combined with the extraordinary claim makes it unreasonable for you to accept it.
So, with these three claims in place we can put together the following table, that I like to call The Grid of Reasonableness (patent pending).
Now, how exactly you divide up your skepticism on this grid is ultimately up to you, but you should always find that every day events that you experienced personally are always the most reasonable to believe, whereas third hand accounts of extraordinary claims are the least reasonable to believe. Let’s have a quick look at some of the other boxes on this grid that we haven’t examined so far.
Third Hand Accounts of Every Day Claims – As mentioned above third hand accounts are generally considered hearsay and so should be considered less trustworthy. However, if the claim being made is an every day one (My friend John told me that his friend Dave told him that he has a pet dog) then it is reasonable to believe that claim, unless you have evidence not to.
First Hand Accounts of Extraordinary Claims – Now this is the big one in my book. How do you decide whether it is reasonable to believe an extraordinary event that you witnessed yourself? There you are, walking along, when suddenly you see a dragon fly overhead. Is it reasonable for you to believe that? Well I would say yes, but with some massive caveats. It is entirely reasonable to you to accept that you have had an extraordinary experience and it is also reasonable for you to believe that what you experienced could best be described as a dragon. However I would argue that that is where the reasonableness ends. Without good evidence supporting the existence of dragons it is not reasonable for you to believe that what you experienced was, in fact, a dragon. It is also not reasonable for you to rule out the possibility that what you experienced was a trick of your mind, a total misunderstanding of what you were seeing, or someone purposefully trying to fool you. And it is downright unreasonable to expect anyone else to believe that you saw a dragon without some very good evidence to back up your claim.
So there you go, those are some of my thoughts on the subject of whether it is reasonable to believe claims or not. Why not come up with some claims of your own and test them out against the grid, maybe even use some of the ones covered in the video that prompted this post. I am also sure that the grid of reasonableness could be improved in many ways, so if you have any suggestions please let me know. And hey if you disagree then definitely let me know how and why, I would love to know. Thanks and Take care.
Pet Dragon Image created by Magweno