In “Books on heaven and evidence for heaven” I offered a response to individuals who have challenged the legitimacy of my book on heaven by demanding that I provide evidence for heaven (that is, evidence to satisfy them). I gave the following illustration:
“Imagine … that I write a book titled Electronic Voting and the Crisis of Democracy. In the book I aim to show that the increasing dependence on paperless electronic technology is imperiling a healthy, functioning democracy. Now imagine that folks coming upon my book were to object: but why accept democracy? Where do you justify democracy? The fact is that I am not obliged to defend democracy before I write a book critiquing the impact of electronic voting on democracy. And it is simply mistaken to think otherwise.”
In other words, the author of Electronic Voting and the Crisis of Democracy accepts the truth of democracy to other times and places (and persons). There is nothing wrong with accepting democracy and then, based on that acceptance, of offering a book exploring one aspect of democracy. Likewise, I noted, there is nothing wrong with accepting Christianity and then, based on that acceptance, of offering a book exploring one aspect of Christianity, in this case, heaven.
One of my readers, john (adj), has decided to dispute this point. He wrote:
“This paragraph by Randal:
“Second, those making the request generally seem to be of the opinion that the legitimacy of the discourse depends on the provision of independent evidence to persuade them. In other words, a book on heaven is only justifiable if independent evidence to persuade the skeptic of heaven’s existence is provided alongside the book.”
“is muddled. A book on heaven that offers no evidences on heaven is as justifiable (what is meant here) as a book on any other possibly fictional local. It’s like an artist’s depiction of Troy based on the scripture of Homer.
“If you write a book on heaven which offers no evidences for heaven or the afterlife, and then on international radio programs claim that peer-reviewed literature supports your conclusions about an afterlife’s existence, don’t be surprised when people are interested and ask you what specific cases you find supportive of your assertions. If your book offers no examination of evidences, just say so.”
In fact, I’m not “muddled”. On the contrary, I’m thinking very clearly. I provided an analogy quoted above which john (adj) has chosen to ignore. And if anybody is muddled, it is john (adj).
To begin with, john (adj) attempts to distance my book from the Electronic Voting and the Crisis of Democracy example by suggesting an alleged disanalogy. And what is that difference? Heaven, he says, is a “possibly fictional local [sic]”. So presumably one can generally undertake a line of enquiry set against a background set of belief. But this is no longer permissible if that background set of belief includes a locale that is “possibly fictional”.
So what is it about “locales” in particular that makes it impermissible to assume beliefs about them in a line of inquiry? Especially when it is fine to accept an entire set of possibly false beliefs about a political theory like democracy? Perhaps john (adj) would like to illumine the genesis of this principle. Unless he can provide some reason to limit his principle to geographical beliefs (good luck with that!), I will conclude that what he offers is a token example of a more general principle:
Unrestricted Evidentialist Principle: it is impermissible to undertake a line of enquiry that assumes background beliefs which could be wrong (i.e. which are possibly fictional).
Consider, however, that this unrestricted principle undermines all critical enquiry in the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities since lines of enquiry in all these disciplines assume background beliefs which are possibly false. If there was ever a principle worth rejecting it surely is this one.
So what if john (adj) replies by insisting that his principle really is limited to “possibly fictional locales”?
Geographic Evidentialist Principle: it is impermissible to undertake a line of enquiry that assumes background beliefs about a locale that might not exist (i.e. which is possibly fictional).
That might look hopelessly arbitrary, but let’s consider the implications of pursuing this response for a moment. The problem here is that in my book I point out that “heaven” is properly understood to refer to the redemption of the universe. Thus, for john (adj)’s principle to be effective at marginalizing discourse about heaven, it must be extended beyond “possibly fictional locales” to include “possibly fictional future states of the universe”. Perhaps the best way to think about this is that we are adding a second particular evidentialist principle:
Future Universe Evidentialist Principle: it is impermissible to undertake a line of enquiry that assumes background beliefs about the future state of the universe which might not obtain (i.e. which is possibly fictional).
Alas, the Future Universe Evidentialist Principle undermines the discourse of natural science which also assumes background beliefs about the future state of the universe which are at least possibly false (e.g. the sun will rise tomorrow; gravity will continue to operate in the future as the past; the universe will suffer a heat death).
Let me offer an analysis of what is going on here. Like so many putative skeptics, john (adj) is an occasional evidentialist. That is, when a truth claim lies well outside his plausibility framework then he attempts to impose evidentialist demands to marginalize the legitimacy of that discourse. Alas, his evidentialist demands aren’t consistent. Indeed, they’re indistinguishable from the painting of targets around arrows. Moreover, they are wholly arbitrary and ad hoc. Even if he were able to retool these two principles in a way that wasn’t obvious false, it wouldn’t mean anybody else was obliged to accept them.
A real evidentialist needs to do two things. First, they need to identify a set of consistent and possibly true principles that stipulate the conditions under which evidence is required. Second, they need to provide some reason for other people to accept those principles. Unfortunately, like so many so-called skeptics john (adj) is a mere dabbler, and his evidentialist demands are protean, inconsistent, unreflective ad hoc demands that do little more than outline the boundaries of his own personal incredulity.