In the comments for my essay “Please rescue me lest I drown: On the fear of losing faith” Jag commented:
“I would say the reasonable person is the one who requires a threshold of evidential and logical support which is in proportion to the importance of the proposition under consideration. Authority opinion can be a pointer to evidence, but it is not evidence itself.”
The first sentence describes what we can call “Jag’s Maxim for Good Reasoning”, or just Jag’s Maxim, or just JM. I admit that JM sounds nice, don’t it? But then, so did that pyramid scheme that I bought into in high school. So we shouldn’t put our money down until we’ve thought this through.
And let us be clear. We’re not dealing with small potatoes here. If JM is true then it is of enormous importance because it is a global maxim which would apply to all our beliefs. Since many of those beliefs are important it follows that JM is likewise important. Some beliefs could lead to the untimely death of innocent persons, others could lead to the perpetuation of global warming, or a rise in Type 2 Diabetes, or nuclear holocaust. And so any maxim that purports to guide us through the minefield of belief is enormously important. In fact, since JM operates as a gateway for all other beliefs you might say that in an epistemological sense beliefs do not come any more important than this.
Next, let’s underscore once more for good measure that JM is indeed a belief. It is a statement that can be affirmed as true or denied as false (or about which we may remain agnostic). And this means that JM applies to itself as surely as it applies to any other belief.
This brings us to the conclusion. If JM is true then before any reasonable person believes it they should first be provided with evidence of the very highest order imaginable. Evidence which is simply overwhelming, which immediately grabs both the academic and the dullard and persuades all by its unimaginable height and breadth and depth.
At this moment I feel like a cop working on the dock who was led to believe by his commanding officer that the vast warehouse at the end of the dock is jam packed with evidence of a crime in progress. I turn the knob, burst into the building … and find a vast empty space. No evidence at all.
The only evidence Jag provides us for the truth of JM is his own testimony of its truth. And this is where things take a turn for the comic, for Jag immediately adds that (in his view) testimony is not evidence. Ouch! Looks like somebody shot himself in the proverbial foot.
But perhaps all is not lost. Jag says testimony isn’t evidence, but it can point to evidence. Of course that begs the question: where is Jag pointing?