Street Epistemology: Jehovah’s Witness on Evidence

Was downtown for work early today and there were two Jehovah’s Witnesses on the street corner with copies of Watchtower and I couldn’t resist a quick chat for some SE practice. I’m paraphrasing this completely from memory, but immediately following our conversation. I found Elizabeth to be more honest than I expected.

I broke the ice with some pleasantries about being out early in the morning – Elizabeth and her companion (who didn’t speak) were out there for a couple hours before work; I remembered to introduce myself by name as well. I listened politely for a couple of minutes as she talked about ‘usefulness’:

Elizabeth

In this technological age, the Bible is useful for helping us deal with day-to-day life.

 

Derek

So you feel the Bible is useful to people – separately from it being “true” or not, is that right?

 

Elizabeth

Oh, yes definitely. Being true is a different and more difficult question.

 

Derek

So, the Bible could be useful without being true then?

 

Elizabeth

Yes.

 

Derek

Cool, I agree with that. I’m inclined to want to believe true things, whether they are useful or not.

 

Elizabeth

So what is your interest in talking today?

I sensed she was getting skeptical about my motives here.

 

Derek

I really like to have conversations with people about how they come to high confidence in their beliefs; I think it leads to some interesting conversations. If I were to ask you on a scale of 0 – 100, where 100 is complete confidence that your belief is true without any doubt, and 0 is full of doubt, where would you place yourself?

 

Elizabeth

What belief? That the Bible is true?

Rookie mistake. I stupidly did not get specific on the exact belief to discuss. I started this off wrong and then pick the belief for us (but fair enough since this isn’t a ‘random’ conversation given they are on the street specifically to talk about their god.)

Derek

Good point! Well, let’s pick something, like that the God of this Bible is true.

 

Elizabeth

So do you believe yourself? 

 

Derek

Oh, well, I don’t see evidence of that, but really I’m interested in how people come to their beliefs – not just god beliefs, but it could be karma, or anything. I know devout Muslims, my wife is Hindu… So, I’m just interested in you personally, where you would put yourself on that confidence scale.

 

Elizabeth

Oh, 100%, completely.

 

Derek

Ok, so really high then! And what puts you at that level? What’s the number one thing that brings you to 100% confidence?

 

Elizabeth

For me, the evidence. For example, there must have been a designer – look at my watch, it must have been designed. When we look at cells and [other biological examples] there must have been a creator, right?

That’s right. She really used the original watchmaker argument.

 

Derek

Ok, so for you it is evidence that brings you to a high confidence, not just faith alone. I’ve talked to other people who say their confidence is at 100% with faith alone. Actually I should ask what your definition of faith is?

 

Elizabeth

Faith for me is belief in something you can’t see, but with evidence. Like at night I can’t see the sun, but I believe it will come up in the morning. Or the wind – we can’t see it.

 

Derek

Ok, cool, so evidence is very important to you, that’s great. Wind is something we can measure though… That’s really interesting, I’ve heard very different answers, like I said, some not needing evidence to get to 100%.

So, let’s say for example that I was able to show you to your complete satisfaction, that a designer wasn’t in fact required for life. Would that lower your confidence in the belief? 

I mentioned measurement to put the thought in her head but decided not to go there, and she didn’t pick up on it either. I wanted to keep on her claim that her belief hinges on evidence. If it does, that’s great because then at a future date maybe we could discuss a particular piece of that evidence.

Elizabeth,

Oh yes, for sure! 

 

Derek

That’s a really honest answer, that’s great! As I mentioned, people sometimes don’t lower their confidence. Well, I really enjoyed chatting with you today Elizabeth, have a great day!

 

We shook hands and parted. I was really glad for the practice and was happy with the result. I was caught fairly off-guard, not expecting Elizabeth to admit that her confidence would be reduced if a piece of “evidence” could be shown to be false. I had to get to work, but there are a number of directions we could have gone from there. For example, I could also have said something like: “That’s great – you sound open to contrary evidence that could lower your belief. Though, if we acknowledge the possibility that in future information could come to light that invalidates some of the evidence upon which you depend, wouldn’t it be more accurate to say you’re at something like 95 or even 99% confidence? Just to express that you have the room for contrary evidence like you said?” Also fun would be to directly tackle the confidence in the sub-belief that evolution is false.

While progress with more cult-like sects such as Jehovah’s Witnesses can seem impossible, there are some great tips and recordings if you want to engage them.

 

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