Debate: Evidence and Faith


The beginning of the debate discusses the relationship between evidence and faith. Faith has been seen lately as an irrational leap over the probabilities; that faith is exercised in spite of evidence. My assertion states that the way we know things is by using a combination of evidence and faith. Dan O’Brian (myself) will be arguing the affirmative. Ydemoc will be arguing the negative.

Dan O’Brian:

No evidence for factual things reaches 100%. For instance, when you want to cross the street you carefully look both ways to see what your chances are. And, assuming that a car driving at excessive speeds is not coming along, your chances of getting across the street are about 80% (give or take) of doing so with your arms and legs intact. But, it’s never 100%. What you really do is combine the evidence at the level that it exists with faith. Faith is jumping the gap from the evidence to certainty. And, most people when they cross the street take 100% of themselves along, not 80%. They do not leave an arm or a leg behind. Our decisions in life are a combination of evidence and faith. If you act on anything, you have faith. This is completely unlike the modern idea that faith is something in the absence of evidence, and that the two are opposite methods of knowing the world. But, as we have seen, both are necessary for purposely doing anything in the world.

(For an extended treatment of this view go here)


Your very first sentence reads: “No evidence for factual things reaches 100%.” This is quite a claim. I’m curious: Does this assertion also apply to the claim that “[n]o evidence for factual things reaches 100%?” Can you prove this with 100% certainty or is this claim of yours, that “[n]o evidence for factual things reaches 100%,” somehow exempt from the very claim you make? Or would you maintain that faith is required to even to accept *that* claim?

Dan O’Brian:

Initially I would say that my statement does apply to itself. If, in the world, one observes that things don’t reach 100% certainty, that everything is vulnerable to doubt in some way, and the most obvious truths can be called into question; then in order to believe with certainty this observed condition of reality, one must reach that certainty by faith. Thus, it takes faith to believe my statement. No one is required to believe it, or anything really. And as long as one believes, for instance, that he or she exists, that belief was reached by faith, since even that can be cast upon with doubt.


This certainly seems to be the concession that one would have to make — at least in the interest of remaining consistent. But your concession merely scratches the surface in highlighting but *one* problem with your statement. Upon closer inspection, the problems are manifold and run much deeper.

Consider: If propositions are preconditions for the formation of any beliefs, and concepts are preconditions for the formation of any propositions, then this means that concepts are more fundamental than “beliefs,” more fundamental than propositions, and need to be accounted for.

In other words, your propositional statement above is an integration composed of concepts, and it can only have truth-value by virtue of the truth-value of the concepts which happen to inform it. So where would you say the concepts which you’ve strung together, come from? By what cognitive process did you form or acquire them? How would you validate them? Define them? What, if anything, would you say concepts such as “evidence,” “factual,” “things” and “percent,” refer to in reality?

You certainly seem to be relying on the validity of each concept you’re using, i.e., counting on the fact that the concepts you’re using to inform your statement have a basis in reality (i.e., that they have immediate referents or are hierarchically based upon concepts that can ultimately be reduced to referents in reality). Yet at the same time, the content of your claim attempts to undercut all this.

But if we were to accept the basic premise of your statement, it could be rephrased as follows: “No evidence for factual things reaches 100%, including for the very concepts I, Dan O’Brian, am using in my statement, such as: ‘evidence’ ‘factual,‘ ‘things,’ and ‘percent,’ as well for as any and all referents subsumed by them.” This would leave the truth-value of your proposition completely untenable at the most fundamental level.

If we are able to form concepts based upon the perceptual input of objects, and these very objects serve as the basis for a concept (for instance, the objects that would serve as the basis for the formation of the concept “chair”), then why would anyone claim that “no evidence for ‘chairs,’ (i.e., “factual things”) reaches 100%”!? What rational basis would there be for such a claim? And on what grounds should anyone take such a statement seriously? Blank out.

If this is the sort of thing you’re asserting with your statement (and I don’t see any way around it), then what you are doing is engaging in what Ayn Rand identified as the Stolen Concept Fallacy, which is: Ignoring the genetic roots upon which a concept depends, (in this case, denying the basis for the concept “evidence”). “Factual things” **are** “evidence.” They are the very basis upon which we form the concept “evidence.” “Evidence” is defined as “facts tending to (or that) prove or disprove a conclusion.” And evidence begins with the realm of facts, i.e., the realm of existence.

Later in your response to me, you make an appeal to “faith,” writing that: “everything is vulnerable to doubt in some way…” and that “one must reach… certainty by faith.”

Where did you get the concept “faith”? Please explain, in detail, what purpose “faith” serves, as you understand it, in mitigating the problems that I’ve raised about your statement above? What role does “faith” play in the formation of concepts? How, precisely, does it curb the “doubt” which you — without any rational basis whatsoever — claim “everything is vulnerable to in some way”? Could you connect these dots for me?

Also implicit in your statement — something that I would find particularly troubling if I were a Christian — is the following: If, as you say, “no evidence for factual things reaches 100%” and if “faith” is considered to be one of those “factual things,” then wouldn’t this mean you’re essentially saying, “No evidence for ‘faith’ reaches 100%”?! (To have some real fun, try adding “God” in there as a “fact,” along with “faith”!)

Ayn Rand addresses this, in detail, in her book Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. You might find it (and her other works) helpful when considering my inquiries. In the meantime, here’s a brief quote: “When in doubt about the meaning or the definition of a concept, the best method of clarification is to look for its referents — i.e., to ask oneself: What fact or facts of reality gave rise to this concept? What distinguishes it from all other concepts?”

You continue: “If, in the world, one observes that things don’t reach 100% certainty…”

Given my presentation thus far, I’m sure the numerous questions that follow won’t come as any shock to you. However, your answers to them will undoubtedly help to clarify your position for me.

Where “in the world” would I “observe that things don’t reach 100% certainty?” What kind of “things” do you have in mind that wouldn’t “reach 100% certainty” when one “observes” them? How do you go about determining that “what one observes” *doesn’t* “reach 100% certainty,” and what standard are you using? You’re statement is a little unclear to me, so can you please explain it and maybe give some examples?If you have in mind examples like: “a desert mirage,” “a stick in water appearing bent,” or any other so-called optical illusions, these are thoroughly dealt with throughout Objectivist literature.

Also, can you tell me what you mean by “observe”? What facts of reality (if any) would you say give rise to this concept? How would you validate it? How would you form it? What are you relying on (if anything) in your use of it? How would “faith,” as you define it, be helpful at all in forming or validating the concept “observe”? How is the role that “faith” plays any different than how the imagination works? Any different than wishing?


The discussion will continue in the next segment. However, all those desiring to participate in the debate can do so in the comment section.


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