Thursday, July 05, 2007

Faith, Evidence, and Convictions

In a comment to yesterday’s post, “Mike” suggested that Frank Walton could defend himself from the accusations that I had made against him by declaring that I had accused him of violating the principles of logic (specifically, of committing the “No True Scotsman” fallacy). However, Mike suggests that Walton could deny that the rules of logic are applicable, and that Walton could appeal to faith as a legitimate defense.

I would like to look at the merits of such a defense.

Assume that you are on a jury trial. The accused, in this case, has been accused of driving with a blood alcohol level above the legal limit and reckless endangerment. They pulled the accused over, gave a breathalyzer test, had him try to walk a straight line, and all of this was recorded on the squad car camera.

Then, during opening arguments, the defense attorney approaches the bench. He says, The only thing that the prosecution will show you in this case is evidence. But what justifies all of this faith in evidence? They will show you a breathalyzer test that indicates that my client had a blood alcohol level of .38. From this, they will ask you to infer that my client actually had a blood alcohol level of 0.38. However, this is an inference based on data collected from a machine – an inference based on evidence.

I will argue that, in spite of what the evidence says, that my client had a blood alcohol level that was below 0.08. This will not be proved on the basis of evidence. Instead, my argument will be grounded on faith. I will present three witnesses who will tell you that they prayed with the accused before leaving the bar. The accused prayed to God to see that he got home safely. We could, perhaps, infer from this that God answered this prayer by allowing my client to drive with a blood alcohol level of .38 without putting others at risk. However, that would not have allowed my client to get home safely. Getting home safely means not being guilty of violating the state’s law against driving with a blood alcohol level above 0.08. So, we infer that my client must have had a blood alcohol level below 0.08, not on the basis of evidence, but on the basis of faith.

Besides, what is this evidence-based thinking anyway but just another form of faith. The prosecution in this case has faith that God did not lower my client’s lood alcohol content. They have faith in the reliability of their experiments and tests. This is really nothing but a contest between two different systems of faith. If you cannot prove that the prosecution’s faith in evidence is better than the defendant’s faith in God, then you are obligated to vote not-guilty. After all, the accused is to be presumed innocent unless proved guilty beyond a benefit of the doubt. It is not my client’s responsibility to prove that his faith-in-God system is better than the prosecution’s faith-in-evidence system. The prosecution must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that their faith-in-evidence system is better than my client’s faith-in-God system.

In my previous post, the one where Mark argued that Walton could use the “faith defense”, I was, in fact, making an accusation. I did not claim to be able to prove wrongdoing, but I did seek to describe the relevant facts that were not yet known. I argued that Walton either (1) lacked the mental competence to understand the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy, or (2) he could understand it and was not aware of it, or (3) he could understand it and was aware of it but had a morally culpable disinterest in avoiding fallacious reasoning. In addition, when considering the second option, I argued that Walton had an obligation as a writer to make himself aware of possible objections. His failure to do so in this case either represented negligence on his part, or was an innocent mistake. If the latter, we still have reason to expect some sort of acknowledgement that he allowed a mistake to enter his writing that he should not have allowed – something that can be communicated through a sincere apology and an active attempt to prevent repeating that mistake.

This description is complex, but it is still quite similar to making accusations against a drunk driver. The alleged drunk driver was either not guilty by reason of insanity, was not aware of the fact that he was drunk (either culpably not aware or perhaps non-culpably unaware because he had no way of knowing that a particular drink had been spiked with alcohol), or was aware but indifferent towards the wrongness of his actions.

The ‘faith defense’ clearly is not an acceptable defense in the case of drunk driving. Anybody who claimed this defense would still be convicted of drunk driving based on the available evidence. Similarly, the ‘faith defense’ fails in the case of intellectual recklessness in using the No True Scotsman fallacy. If we have sufficient evidence of wrongdoing, we have everything we need for a conviction.

In fact, if we look at the cases where ‘faith’ is used to argue against evidence, these are cases where the person making the argument would instantly abandon his own standards, if he were ever in jury – or would be considered incompetent to be on a jury.

Using the same language, we have more than sufficient physical evidence to discover that ‘the body’ (that is, the earth) in a particular cosmological investigation, is about 4.55 billion years old, that the onset of living organisms occurred shortly thereafter, that it was infested by dinosaurs up until 65 million years ago, when blunt-force trauma caused the extinction of the dinosaurs and brought the age of mammals. Somebody who looks at the evidence, and concludes that the case has not been proved, must have a standard of evidence that would not allow him to convict any person of any crime in any real-world situation. Quite often, the evidence is not nearly as good as it is for a 4.55 billion year old earth.

We also have more than enough evidence for a verdict of ‘guilty beyond a reasonable doubt’ against the charge that ransom genetic mutation with natural selection is responsible for the presence of intelligent life on Earth. Again, anybody who would doubt this argument is somebody who would either have to abandon his standards of proof if he ever got on a jury, or would have to vote for the acquittal of any defendant based on the evidence, because the evidence would never be as strong in a court as the scientific evidence for evolution.

All of these examples, from our hypothetical case of drunk driving to our real-world examples of intellectual recklessness, the age of the Earth, and evolution, are examples where the evidence in favor of a conviction are overwhelming. Using ‘faith’ in any of the latter three cases is as absurd, as foolish, and even more life-threatening than allowing people to use ‘faith’ as a defense in the drunk driving case.

So, yes, Frank Walton may want to use the claim that faith-based thinking is better than evidence-based thinking to defend himself from my accusations. Yet, I strongly suspect that, if he were sitting on a jury, he would not allow the accused to get off by using the same type of argument you recommend he use here.

Now, I need to make it clear, Walton did not actually use this defense, and it would be neither honest nor just to accuse him of using a defense he did not in fact use. What we are talking about is a hypothetical defense that Mike suggested for Walton to use. It is a defense similar to that which many people do use when they defend their favorite views regarding such things as the age of the earth and evolution. It is a flawed defense that even those who use it find objectionable in cases other than those where they find it convenient. Yet, it is not a defense that Walton, himself, actually decided to use. Its consideration here was purely hypothetical.

However, even a hypothetical case of the faith defense can help to illustrate the fact that, where faith is allowed as a defense, absolutely nothing, no matter how horrendous, that becomes indefensible.


Psychols said...

Frank Walton has posted an Imposter Alert on his blog.

anticant said...

Imposter Alert? Can there really be a REAL Frank Walton?

tn said...

Thanks, psychols, for the heads up. Whoever is masquerading as him needs to grow up. There's already enough belligerent sock-puppets out there.