Wednesday, July 15, 2020

On evidentialism and coincidence

On evidentialism and coincidence

(Originally published at What's Wrong With the World. Link to original post at 'permalink' below.)

Okay, chaps, the world is darned depressing and frightening for us traditionalists and Christians, and even just for sane and sensible people, and instead of blogging about Bob Woodward, which I momentarily feared I had a duty to do, I'm going to blog about evidentialism as a position in Christian apologetics.

Recently I was corresponding with someone about evidentialism and Plantingian proper basicality. My correspondent was asking some questions about religious experience and what role I think it plays in grounding Christian belief. In the course of the correspondence, one thought occurred to me that, it seems, might be of value to a wider audience.

Consider for a moment some coincidence that might happen in a Christian's life. Suppose, for example, that you pray for patience or peace and then find yourself more patient or feeling more peaceful after doing so. Or suppose that you run into a complete stranger sitting at a cafeteria table, fall into conversation with him about spiritual things, and discover only afterwards that this conversation has prevented him from committing suicide. You and your church pray that a friend might be healed, and he does get well, though not in any dramatic fashion.

No doubt all of us who are Christians have experienced coincidences of this kind. What do we do, what should we do, when they occur? It seems quite obvious that we should thank God for them. Screwtape comments shrewdly that the Devil would like nothing more than to prevent us from doing so, creating a lose-lose situation for God when it comes to answering prayer:
[S]ince your patient has contracted the terrible habit of obedience, he will probably continue such "crude" [petitionary] prayers whatever you do. But you can worry him with the haunting suspicion that the practice is absurd and can have no objective result. Don't forget to use the "Heads I win, tails you lose" argument. If the thing he prays for doesn't happen, then that is one more proof that petitionary prayers don't work; if it does happen, he will, of course, be able to see some of the physical causes which led up to it, and "therefore it would have happened anyway," and thus a granted prayer becomes just as good a proof as a denied one that prayers are ineffective. (Screwtape Letters, pp. 126-7)
Phew! That hits home. Okay, so we, as Christians, have to thank God.
Does it therefore follow that all such coincidences (remember, we are not talking about very remarkable coincidences but only about fairly ordinary ones) constitute noteworthy evidence, perhaps some kind of "private evidence," for the truth of Christianity? If we thank God for what has happened, if we conclude that God has in fact been working providentially in these circumstances, does that mean that such ordinary, sometimes experiential or emotional, coincidences should be important to the grounding of our own personal faith?

When we stop to think about it, we realize that none of these events is very unlikely given purely natural circumstances. No doubt adherents of many incompatible religions feel peaceful after praying, for example. One hates to concede anything to Screwtape, but in fact it is true that a feeling of peace after praying could have been due to a placebo effect, nor is this highly improbable in itself. Or take the friend who was ill. Let's assume he was under medical care and recovered after the normal sequence of care. Well, then, doesn't that account for it? The chance meeting with the suicidal man is more difficult, but to some extent that difficulty is mitigated if the Christian who met him was the sort of person who is often looking to strike up conversations with strangers in hopes of being used of God.

Do I sound like a skeptic? If I say all of this, doesn't this undermine my previous injunction to thank God for such events?

Surprisingly enough, it doesn't. To understand why, we need to grasp the difference between the conclusion we draw about some event, based on all our evidence, and the value of the event by itself as independent evidence for Christianity. Let us assume for the sake of understanding this distinction that my own Christianity is based on some strong, independent set of reasons. In that case, I have reason to believe that the Christian God exists, that God has told me to pray for my needs, that God sometimes answers prayer by intervention and sometimes by subtler providential means, that God has in the past healed the sick, brought souls to himself, and given peace to those who call upon him. If all of that is truly well-supported, then on that same basis I may quite justly conclude that the coincidence that has just happened is no coincidence at all but a gift of God, and I should thank God accordingly.

However, for the reasons already cited which make the coincidence not very improbable in naturalistic terms, it may provide only quite weak evidence, perhaps very little evidence at all, in itself as an independent argument for Christianity. Therefore, such experiences and coincidences should not be an important ground of my faith. They are too weak a reed in themselves. In themselves they can be explained away too easily. Rather, they should be received gratefully as gifts from God by one who already knows, for other reasons, that God exists "and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him."

I think that this distinction removes one, possibly unspoken, worry about evidentialism: Will evidentialism destroy or undermine a Christian's daily relationship with God? The concern may be that, if we don't value such experiences and coincidences highly as evidence (though possibly only "privately accessible" evidence or only evidence that can be "seen by faith" or some such category) we are not valuing them at all, full stop. In other words, there may be a sneaking suspicion that as Christians we are obligated by an evidential approach to apologetics to turn into ungrateful, cynical skeptics who never accept anything as answered prayer or as a providential gift unless it meets an overwhelmingly high evidential standard such as would convince an unbeliever. It might seem that, if we have one standard for an unbeliever's conclusions and another standard for a believer's conclusions, we are acquiescing in precisely that sort of "You have to see with the eyes of faith" epistemology which the evidentialist eschews.

But that's not true. From an evidentialist perspective, it is the other evidence that I have for Christianity which is carrying the weight, or the great majority of the weight, and allowing me to draw a different conclusion from the conclusion an atheist or agnostic would draw about the peace in my heart and the healing of my friend. I have a relationship with God because I know that He exists on independent grounds, which makes me rational in drawing a non-skeptical conclusion about an event that I otherwise might attribute to chance or purely natural causes. In probabilistic terms, once I have solid, independent evidence for Christianity, the prior probability that the peace in my heart after prayer is an answer to prayer is far, far higher than it would be otherwise.

Perhaps I'm wrong to think that this issue has ever bothered any number of people, even tacitly, concerning the apparent "hyper-rationalism" of an evidential apologetic. But it seemed an interesting point in any event.

And a lot more interesting and less depressing to discuss than Bob Woodward and the White House...


Unknown said...

Dear Lydia,
I myself once again benefited enormously from your argument. Although I had worked intensively through and discussed Ola Hössjer's book "Becoming a Christian" with him before - and although, as a theoretical chemist, I am well acquainted with probability theory. As born-again Christians we sometimes let ourselves be taken over by doubts all too easily when it comes to assessing personal experiences before ourselves. As you show, it is important to stay intellectually awake in order to rationally feed our impressions or feelings. The following sentence is the quintessence for me: "In probabilistic terms, once I have solid, independent evidence for Christianity, the prior probability that the peace in my heart after prayer is an answer to prayer is far, far higher than it would be otherwise." I translate important contributions of yours into German as good as possible (not so easy) and discuss some of them in prayer or discussion circles. Evidentialism and coincidence are long runners! God bless: Rüdiger!

Lydia McGrew said...

Thank you, Rudiger!