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iamthemob's avatar

Can you base an assertion or a belief on the fact that the opposing argument or arguments does not have clear evidence to support it, and that fact alone (DETAILS FOLLOW)?

Asked by iamthemob (17147points) September 19th, 2010

Sometimes, we state a thing as fact or as our belief when we don’t have clear evidence to support it. The only thing we have is evidence that shows, we believe, that the arguments on the other side of the issue don’t have anything clearly supporting them.

In many ways, this is what our criminal justice system is based on…the fact that we’re innocent until proven guilty. When the jury comes back with a “not guilty” verdict, it is (or should be) a statement that the state did not present evidence showing clear guilt. In essence, they are saying “We find that the defendant is not guilty because there is not enough (or no) evidence that he is guilty.”

Do people find this applicable in other situations, or types of arguments, in their lives? If so, how strongly should we support or hold these beliefs? Further, can such a thing ever be an assertion (meaning that it is accepted as fact that something is true solely because there is no supporting evidence of the contrary)?

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17 Answers

CyanoticWasp's avatar

Criminal convictions (at least in the US) are a binary thing: guilty or not guilty. No shading.

So a jury that returns a “not guilty” verdict has reasonable doubt about the charge (the exact charge that they’re given by the judge prior to deliberation) as it applies to the defendant. It doesn’t mean “we don’t think he did it”. It can even mean “we think he did the act, but we don’t think he had the intent that has been ascribed to make it the exact charge that was given” (such as first degree murder, for example).

So that’s a special case.

In other cases, and let’s take religion (since the thread would have gone there soon enough anyway), you can’t say that just because there’s no clear evidence of God that that’s proof that there isn’t one. (I know, some do, but I think they have looser ideas of Truth than I do.) So I can’t say, “Since you haven’t proven the case for God, then I declare that there is no God.” That would be a refutation of a bad argument with an equally bad assertion on the other side.

Tropical_Willie's avatar

A poor response by the other party does not prove that your side of an argument is correct.
It MAY just show that the other party does not understand your side of the concept.

wundayatta's avatar

We need to look at evidence for something in order to make a case of any kind. We can not prove something is not the case, because no matter how many examples we have of something not being true, we can’t rule out a situations where it might be true. Most people say “you can’t prove a negative.” I.e., you can’t prove God does not exist. There is always a possibility, no matter how remote, that some evidence will turn up some day somewhere.

Beliefs should always be provisional. The current explanation (model) for some phenomenon is supported by a lot of evidence, although it doesn’t explain everything. Eventually, another model (explanation) will come along that better explains the evidence. So it’s best not to get to attached to any particular explanation.

Getting too attached to an explanation is what I call “belief.” It makes you more invested in the truth of your explanation than in the evidence. It closes your eyes. There are a lot of reasons why people may come to “believe” things instead of letting all knowledge be provisional. One big reason is that careers have been made on the “belief” and the people who run that show don’t want to give up power, nor admit they were wrong.

They weren’t really wrong. Their explanation was fine at the time. What was wrong was refusing to change when a better explanation came along.

People base assertions and beliefs on all kinds of things. But once you have stepped away from the evidence, you are pretty much lost. You can not see the world clearly again, until you start to look at evidence, not what you think should be the way things work.

To see explanations as an argument between two sides is to completely misunderstand the way the world works. There are many possible explanations for any type of behavior. Maybe two people will argue that they each have the only possible explanation for something. One will point to the other and say, “you don’t have any evidence for your explanation, so mine must be right.”

This assertion is based on the idea that there are only two sides to an issue. However, if one explanation is not supported, or is only a theory, that does not mean the other explanation is very useful, either. Right and wrong are not helpful ways of looking at explanations. There may be useful explanation in parts of many different explanations.

We start with theory. Theory is a explanation of how things work that is made up by a person who has studied these phenomena. From theory, come hypotheses, which are specific phenomena we expect to see if the theory is right. We test the hypotheses to see if they help explain things. If they do, the evidence supports the theory. If no, the theory may be useful, but it still has no evidence to support it.

Every theory, no matter how batty they might seem, could be possible. We could never rule it out. However, many have no evidence to support them, and anyone who uses an explanation of the world that is not supported by the facts is much more likely to get killed by that sabertooth tiger that they do not believe is there.

ETpro's avatar

Just to add to the excellent answer that @wundayatta provided, no theory currently held completely explains life, the universe and everything. Our two best explanations of the world around us right now are applied to two different aspects of the Universe. On the large, macroscopic scale we see with our eyes or tools that assist our eyes to see further; the Theory of General Relativity is a fantastic tool. It has predicted a whole host of hypotheses which, when tested, proved to be true. On the microscopic level that we can only see with tools to magnify things or measure very small things, the Theory of Quantum Mechanics has likewise yielded a host of hypotheses that proved to be accurate. However, there is a problem. The theories cannot be reconciled one with another. Even though the macroscopic world must be controlled by the actions of microscopic particles, Quantum Mechanics gives inconsistent results when applied to macroscopic observations. And likewise, General Relativity fails to describe accurately what we observe on a microscopic level.

It is likely that both theories will need to change in the future. But for the time being, they are tremendously useful. General Relativity has given us space travel, the ability to predict a great deal about the Universe, satellite GPS and much more. Quantum Mechanics unlocked the power of microelectronics. We are using it to carry on this discussion.

Now, specific to your question, no. A belief can be true even though there is no evidence to support it. The idea of a heliocentric solar system (Sun centered instead of Earth centered) was first brought forward by as a possible explanation for the motion of the planets by Aristarchus of Samos nearly 2,400 years ago. It was right, But the tools to prove it were not at hand. Unfortunately, a clever mathematician named Ptolemy put forward a competing theory about 500 years later. It also fit data man was able to observe with the unaided eye. And it also was flattering to man, placing us at the very center of the Universe with everything going around us.

The Ptolemaic Model of the Solar System persisted into the 1600s when Galileo, using the newly invented telescope, discovered that it could not possible describe the motions of the previously unknown outer planets, or the moons of Saturn and Neptune. Newton’s discoveries of the laws of motion added great understanding to the model of the Solar System Galileo gave us.

But even that model failed to perfectly predict the orbit of Mercury. Something was a little off. It was not till the 20th century that Albert Einstein gave us the key to understanding the variance of Mercury’s orbit with his General Theory of Relativity. He predicted, and later observation confirmed, that the huge gravitational well created by the Sun distorted the orbit of Mercury due to its proximity to the sun.

So in reality, neither Ptolemy nor Aristarchus, Galileo and Newton were exactly right.

Jabe73's avatar

Outside of physical evidence the one exception (for a single individual him/herself) would be empirical evidence. If you personally seen a certain individual commit a crime with your own eyes but another person was accused of the crime (because of circumstantial/or some physical evidence against this person) would that still change your view on who with your own eyes you’ve seen who really commited the crime? Everything comes down to the belief that has the most evidence rather than an absolute certainty and this can vary depending on circumstances.

flutherother's avatar

As a matter of interest courts in Scotland can give three verdicts, ‘guilty’, ‘not guilty’ and ‘not proven’. Most things we think of as true are not conclusively proven. Crows we believe are black because every crow we have ever seen is black but that does not rule out the possible existence of a red crow. Just because we have never seen it doesn’t mean it is impossible for it to exist.

iamthemob's avatar


I’m not exactly sure what you’re getting at…

JustmeAman's avatar


I guess then by your senerio of the question the world was flat many years ago and that it changed because popular belief was proven wrong? Tell me what would they have done to someone when the belief that was so strong about the world being flat said that it wasn’t because he had been there?

iamthemob's avatar


What the WHAT? (sorry…not really clear what you’re asking)

JustmeAman's avatar


Never mind just a train of thought went by.

ETpro's avatar

@Yetanotheruser And in just 10 million years we’ll work out what that means. :-)

iamthemob's avatar

unless, you know…space highway

Jaxk's avatar

Most of what we believe is based on what others have told us. I have no personal knowledge that Pluto even exists. I assume it to be true because everyone says it is but honestly, I’ve never seen it nor have I paced off the 5.9 billion kilometers to it’s orbit. Nonetheless, I have no problem believing it is there nor any reason to investigate further. I’ll leave that to others.

ETpro's avatar

@Jaxk That’s why the concept of falsifiability is so vital to the scientific method. You haven’t seen Pluto, and for that matter, neither have I. But those who claim Pluto exists have given us a clear description of its orbit and its orbital period. Literally millions of astronomers, astrophysicists and amateur sky watchers with telescopes have tested the purported existence of Pluto and found it to be there. None have succeeded in falsifying the assertion of Pluto’s existence. Further, if Pluto were to exist in its asserted orbit, its gravitational pull would have a calculable influence on nearby objects such as Uranus, Neptune; and the larger planetoids of the Kuiper belt such as Haumea, Makemake and Eris. So the assertion of Pluto’s existence is not only falsifiable, it is predictive. If it’s true, then certain other falsifiable things must also be true. When we observe, indeed they are affected exactly as predicted by Pluto’s existence.

When we know an assertion has survived the brutal assault of fellow scientists trying to disprove it after it is stated in peer-reviewed scientific journals, we can have a reasonable level of confidence it’s not just someone’s wild-assed guess. It is in fact a falsifiable assertion that nobody has been able to falsify. It is predictive, in that if it is true, certain other facts must follow, and they, too, have been tested and found to be true.

It’s unfortunate that so much of the general public thinks that the word theory as used in science and as used by the ancient astronaut “theorists” on the “History” Channel are synonymous with one another. Nothing could be further from the fact.

Jaxk's avatar

If you build it, they will come.

ETpro's avatar

@Jaxk Yes, my right-wing friend, I am afraid you are right about that.

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