What is evidence?

by Matt Slick

Evidence is an interesting concept. If I were sitting at a table with you and I placed a small, smooth, black stone on the table between us and I asked you, "Is this evidence?", I suspect you would say something like, "Evidence for what?" That would be the right question. You see, something becomes evidence when we say it is evidence. The rock on the table between us is simply a rock. Is it evidence that the earth is billions of years old? Is it evidence that the man sitting at the table to your right just robbed a bank? Is it evidence that God exists? Is it evidence that truth is knowable? Or, is it evidence that rocks are hard? It depends on what we are looking for.

Something takes on its property of being "evidence" when it is assigned such a value because it helps answer a question or it supports an idea. Therefore, the concept of evidence is an abstraction, a mental proposition imposed upon an object or phenomena.  Evidence is subjective since it is something that must fit a person's criteria and presuppositions.

Now, generally, evidence is used to prove something more than to disprove something. Generally, there is evidence "for" something, not "against" something. Many people consider a fossil to be evidence that supports the theory of evolution. But such a fossil is said to be evidence because the concept of evolution cannot be maintained without any intellectual support - without any evidence. Therefore, because people have a need to believe something, they look for justifications for that belief based on evidence. But an object, a phenomenon, or an experience becomes evidence when it fits a certain intellectual need, i.e., support for the theory of evolution. But, let's say there was a single fossilized tree that stands vertically through 600 million years of rock strata. That would be evidence that contradicts the theory of evolution. So, that tree fossil would not be considered evidence for evolution, and it would be dismissed.

So, a fossil becomes evidence when it meets the intellectual need of supporting evolution. It is not evidence when it doesn't support it. What's more, that very same fossil could become evidence for supporting creation by God. It depends on what we are looking for. Generally, what we accept as evidence is what fits our needs, our assumptions, and our ideas. Of course, sometimes the evidence contradicts our assumptions and we have to change them. That is good when we let the evidence guide us.

If I return home from a week-long stay in the hospital and I find that my front yard has been mowed, that is evidence that my son, whom I requested to mow the lawn while I was in the hospital, did, in fact, mow the lawn. The mowed lawn becomes evidence used to validate my assumption. But what if it was my neighbor Bob who actually mowed my lawn and not my son? That same evidence of a mowed lawn could then be misinterpreted because my initial assumption narrowed my solution-field too much. Since I asked my son to mow the lawn, and it was mowed, I did not need to look any further for other explanations. My assumption was satisfied because I found the mowed lawn I wanted to find.

If I had not asked my son to mow the lawn, then when I came home from the hospital and saw that it had been mowed, I would then have to wonder who did it. In this case, the mowed lawn causes me to ask a more broad question, "Who mowed my lawn?", instead of, "Was it my son who mowed the lawn?" A broader question is asked when we don't have a narrowed field of expectation and we are then open to more possibilities.

This works when we consider something proposed to support or deny God's existence. If a person operates from the position that God does not exist, then all phenomena will initially be assumed to support his position; if they do not, he will have to either dismiss them or change his position. But change is not easy, and people get uncomfortable when their worldviews are shaken. This is why evidence is so often subjective, as it is subject to the preferences and needs of the person considering it. Again, it is the person's assumptions that need to be examined, because those assumptions govern how phenomena are to be interpreted.

So, in the first scenario where I asked my son to mow the lawn and I found it mowed, I assumed that the mowed lawn supported my assumption that he did as I asked, so I stopped my inquiry. But as I said just a bit ago, if I had no prior intellectual commitment (i.e., I had not asked my son to mow the lawn), the evidence would then raise a more generic question; namely, who mowed the lawn? Therefore, I would be open to more possibilities.

Again, in the context of considering God, I think this illustrates the idea that when we come across a phenomenon, event, or object, we need to remain as objective as possible when we consider what it is and whether or not it can be classified as evidence for or against a position. Otherwise, we might draw incorrect conclusions due to our assumptions.

So, who mowed my lawn? To my surprise when I got home from the hospital it was not my son who mowed the lawn, nor was it my neighbor. It was my wife. I had assumed that my wife, whose habit is to take care of the inside of the house while my son and I take care of the outside, would not have ventured beyond the front door to push around the loud and awkward machine. But, I was wrong, and I had to adjust my worldview just a bit.


About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.