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“That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” – Christopher Hitchens. Do you agree?

As human beings, when we first hear this quote we instantly agree to it and make a correlation with science. But when we actually listen to this quote and ponder about it, we figure we cannot entirely agree with this quote or disagree with it completely. This quote brings about various knowledge issues and in some cases you agree and some cases you cannot. The knowledge issues that come up are – science, history, human science, religion, belief, and faith.

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    Dec 30 2012: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..."
    Apparently, not all things asserted without evidence are dismissed, although, they, certainly, can be. Perhaps, evidence is needed when we seek factual truth, but we often seek other things - justice, comfort, safety, trust. Often, there is no evidence other than words. Often requiring evidence would undermine our goals (e.g. when we seek trust with someone). Often, dismissing an assertion is unacceptable for safety reasons (e.g. a bomb threat).

    The saying is nothing but rhetoric, IMHO.
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    Dec 27 2012: reading the comments, i finally classified this statement as "deepity", as defined by daniel dennett: "The term refers to a statement that is apparently profound but actually asserts a triviality on one level and something meaningless on another."

    if we take the literal meaning of "can", the statement carries no relevance. we also could say "that which can be asserted on monday, can be dismissed with an umbrella in hand". anything can be asserted or dismissed in a multitude of ways.

    the other meaning, the implied meaning is indeed relevant, but it is false. it suggests that if a statement has no proof, the negation of that statement is just as good as the original statement. the story goes back to logical positivism. it states that every statement can be one of two categories: either verifiable by observation (synthetic), or logical statements that are tautologies and axioms (analytic). analytic statements bear no relevance about the world, axioms are freely chosen, and tautologies are just rehashing of axioms. hitchens taps into that territory, redefining analytic as useless, and synthetic as the way to go. and it is wrong on two levels.

    first, logical positivism is self-contradicting. take the statement "all statements are either analytic or synthetic". is this analytic or synthetic? it can be neither, since there is no evidence to it, but supposed to bear relevance.

    second, bearing no relevance about the physical world does not mean useless. one would not call logic or math useless, just because they are abstract. we do have to deal with analytic statements, and they can be wrong, only the definition of wrong comes from other sources than observation. using the usual definitions, 2+2=5 is wrong, 2+2=4 is right, though none can be proven experimentally. but the first leads to a logical contradiction, while the second can be shown to be in line with the axioms. we have logical arguments on the side of creationism. they need to be shown incorrect, not dismissed
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    Dec 19 2012: assert -
    verb [ reporting verb ]
    state a fact or belief confidently and forcefully: [ with clause ] : the company asserts that the cuts will not affect development | [ with obj. ] : he asserted his innocence | [ with direct speech ] : “I don't know why she came,” he asserted.
    • [ with obj. ] cause others to recognize (one's authority or a right) by confident and forceful behavior: the good librarian is able to assert authority when required.
    • (assert oneself) behave or speak in a confident and forceful manner: it was time to assert himself.

    dismiss -
    verb [ with obj. ]
    order or allow to leave; send away: she dismissed the taxi at the corner of the road.
    • treat as unworthy of serious consideration: it would be easy to dismiss him as all brawn and no brain.
    • deliberately cease to think about: he suspected a double meaning in her words, but dismissed the thought.
    • Law refuse further hearing to (a case): the judge dismissed the case for lack of evidence.

    "That which can be stated as fact or belief confidently and forcefully without evidence, can be treated as unworthy of consideration without evidence".

    In spite of your quibbling over semantics the statement in it's entirety stands true….
  • Dec 27 2012: What constitutes evidence?

    Taking the Statement at face value I have to agree with it. I don't pretend to be as smart as all the other commentators that are trying to tear the statement apart piece by piece.

    I would like to amend the statement by Mr. Hitchens to "That which can be asserted without evidence may be dismissed with the reasoning being that there is no evidence to support the assertion". In order to make an assertion please first present the evidence and then draw the conclusions, that make the assertions.

    The question I would like to ask, does logical reasoning constitute evidence?
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    Dec 18 2012: I see two flaws in this statement. First, many hypothesis are presented on a whim that there may be a plausibility to the hypothesis even though evidence is lacking. In further investigation, it may be proved that the hypothesis is false, but this is not always the case. As an example, the man who first proposed plate tectonics was laughed out of the room by his peers.

    The second is when evidence is not observable or comprehensible. There are people of faith who have had spiritual experiences that are so profound that they cannot dismiss it. It has brought them to a realm of consciousness that is not common to all. They cannot provide evidence other than in personal testimony.
    On the same note, there are many stories of paranormal experience. The people who encountered these experiences admit that they were in total denial at first. It was not until all explanations failed that they had to consider the plausibility of realities that fall outside the physical realm. Many still deny that any of these stories are true.
    By the same token, there are many people of faith who deny evolution because the evidence is incomprehensible to them. It isn't that there is no evidence, it is that they are incapable of seeing it for what it is, which to them, makes it no evidence, and therefore, easy to dismiss.
  • Dec 28 2012: I think that obsession with evidence can sometimes negate empathic argument.
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    Gord G

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    Dec 26 2012: That which can be dismissed without evidence can be asserted without evidence.

    The evident is scarce in the universe, so the statement supports faith in scientific theories and religious beliefs.
  • Dec 19 2012: Every time I read this quote, the words "can be asserted" causes a brain bump. I wonder if these words were carefully chosen. Any statement can be asserted without evidence. When considered literally, out of context, the quote is meaningless, or nearly so.
    • Dec 26 2012: Seriously? I think the words chosen were spot on. It is a statement of fact. Without evidence it is only possible to have a childish "yes it is" "no it isn't" type argument... if you wish your assertions to be strong enough to stand against rebuttal and rejection then you must have evidence. It is a sublimely clever quotation with perfectly chosen words.

      Dwell on "can". That doesn't mean "should" or "will".

      You CAN assert anything you like.
      (Many people may agree with you)
      But without evidence behind your assertion IT IS POSSIBLE THAT (can) one person in your audience will dismiss what you say.

      I actually take it further, though, as it suggests (and you may have read it this way) that in a rational World where we seek truth we probably OUGHT to dismiss all assertions without evidence. I go with the weak and strong readings of this statement completely but actually the weak version is all he said, as you can see by substituting "it is possible to" for "can":

      Would you agree with

      Anything that it is possible to assert without evidence is by its nature possible to dismiss without evidence.

      • Dec 26 2012: You are making my point. If we have to discuss what the quote means, it was poorly stated.

        The word "can" has too many meanings. The phrase "can be asserted" can be interpreted in different ways. "Can be dismissed" does not mean "can be refuted". In any case, whatever meaning you might like to give these phrases, every interpretation is obvious and trivial.

        I fully agree with Edward. The quote is a linguistic train wreck.
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        Dec 27 2012: Re: "Dwell on "can". That doesn't mean "should" or "will"."

        Dwell on "dismissed". As Barry mentioned, it does not mean "refuted".

        Re: "World where we seek truth we probably OUGHT to dismiss all assertions without evidence."

        We do not always seek truth. Sometimes we seek safety, comfort, trust, or justice, for example. When someone yells "Fire!" or calls in with a bomb threat, such statements are taken seriously and the dreaded burden of proof is NOT on the one who makes the statement. Nobody questions the famous "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,..." and no evidence is required to prove this statement.

        Sometimes we OUGHT to do the opposite - believe without evidence. It's not just about religion. Regarding when we ought to believe what, I would refer you again to http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-belief/ .
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    Dec 18 2012: what about this statement itself? is there any evidence to it? because if not ...

    edit after a day and some dozen comments: maybe someone would be kind enough to answer my question?
    • Dec 20 2012: I think my first comment was sufficient answer, but I will try to be more specific:

      As I said, any statement "can" be asserted without evidence. So, according to the quote, any statement can be dismissed without evidence. When viewed in this way, I think it is safe to say that the quote is useless.

      Evidence to support the quote would consist of examples of statements that can be asserted without evidence and then dismissed without evidence. As Edward pointed out, to dismiss an assertion is not at all the same as falsifying the assertion. So any statement could be used as "evidence" that the quote is true. Evidence to falsify the quote would consist of examples of statements that can be asserted without evidence, but could not be dismissed without evidence. My logic indicates that no such statements exist. So based on evidence, you could claim that the quote is true.
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        Dec 20 2012: okay, i did not say, but i wanted someone of those that agree to the statement to reply :)

        btw i disagree with your analysis, although i understand that it is not entirely serious. but i am, and the thing is, with the second "can", he does not mean "able to" but rather "we don't make a mistake with" simply stating that our mouths can form some words is not enough big for hitchens.
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    Dec 29 2012: There is an irony to your question. To justify the statement without evidence to support the justification is as relevant as the statement itself. Non?
  • Dec 20 2012: In my mind, lets call a spade a spade; without digging into deeper meanings or assuming certain social criteria, the basis of the quote might be "it is what it is".
    To me it is nothing more (or less) than a philosophical view of what an idea is - an active thought process that can have legs, or wither away.
    In the most basic sense, the quote is self-supporting. Period.
    It is an idea not meant to be analyzed or taken apart.
    As innovators we must resist the urge to tear down or "de-risk" things, and see them at face value, with the emphasis being on "value".
  • Dan F

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    Dec 20 2012: I agree with Hichens especially in way he used it.

    This comment does have context. The comment was made in response to believers and promoters of blind religious faith.

    Hitchens was not a scientist, but a journalist and an author. His position on biology was that of an atheist. Ideally, a journalist is expressing opinions based on the weight of the evidence to justify an honest judgement. It is possible for those looking at the same empirical evidence to disagree. Most reasonable people accept this fact in a democracy. There are biologist who are religious, but it is the exception far from the rule. There is a reason for this. They are all playing by the same rules. It is possible to analysis the same physical evidence differently, but the facts have a way of floating to the top.

    Blind religious faith is just that. It can be asserted as true, but in doing so effectively, the promoters play by different set of rules. The new rules for evidence is... the word of God, authority figures, tradition, popularity, influence and power, etc. Rather that accept these new rules as deserving special recognition, Hichens responded with the classic comment cited above.

    Hichens actually took his evaluation of the facts a step or two beyond atheism in the publication of "God is Not Great" by expressing how religion poisons everything. He was not exactly a neutral figure in search of a mystical belief system. He was clear in message and was an articulate debater and obviously controversial.
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      Dec 27 2012: Re: "Blind religious faith is just that. It can be asserted as true, but in doing so effectively, the promoters play by different set of rules. The new rules for evidence is... the word of God, authority figures, tradition, popularity, influence and power, etc. Rather that accept these new rules as deserving special recognition, Hichens responded with the classic comment cited above."

      This is a very good point. Religion and science operate in completely different domains. Applying rules of science to religion or rules of religion to science just does not work. Debating against religion as a whole using science does not seem reasonable to me.
      • Dan F

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        Dec 27 2012: "Religion and science operate in completely different domains."

        If you get completely elemental for a mystical claim, I agree - more. The problem is religion is elaborate in its description and in its explanation of how it is and why things are the way they are, and that slops into being contentions that have been shown to be factually untrue, or subject to differing views in a more enlightened and modern real world.

        Hitchens dismissed religions (all religions) as man made. He didn't debate this subject as a scientist, but as a journalist. To some extent he fought fire with fire and in my mind that explains this clever response during a debate on the subject.

        An old saying comes to mind, "You can't cheat an honest man." Anyone that questions the discipline of the thought process regarding Hitchens intellect owes it to themselves to tune into his many debates on this subject on Youtube. This was one cerebral individual no matter your convictions.
  • Dec 18 2012: It makes perfect sense.
    Yet, when logic is more deeply examined, many times one finds it can be riddled with holes that only the initial acceptance filled up and kept from being found out.
    The more I watched and listened to Christopher Hitchens, the more holes I found. I am no where near intelligent enough to see these things immediately, and he not only could find them in the arguments of others, but his manner of delivery could even scorn a listener or observer, much less the one to whom he was opining to.

    Philosophy is playing at talking.

    By the time Christopher Hitchens was close to death, I found him to be as deep as a puddle, even though, if I had to take sides, I would more readily agree with the side he took. I don't believe in a God but I am not an atheist. I am a faitheist and I believe in what I know. I have faith in what I know. I trust what I know and that trust is unconditional, absolute and complete. I don't know much, but that's good. It's like having a few rules to follow instead of so many that people cannot function because of all of them.

    He debated with people, so winning a point was very important to winning the debate. It wasn't necessarily true.

    Later on, when there is more time to look at it,
    you find flaws flying around
    like on a fresh pile of shit.

    What can be dismissed with evidence is the trick,
    and C.H. dismissed himself with nothing but rhetoric.
    No one pointed this out, but he made it very clear
    During the Big Four debate, but no one seemed to hear.
    When asked if he would like to see
    the end of faith and churches empty of attendees,
    he said, "no", because he
    only wanted something to argue against.

    In his debate with his brother Peter, he disqualified himself from debates, (again no one pointed it out)
    by enlisting the very same criteria the Big Four agreed were grounds for disqualification, "that things have always been that way, so I accept them as being the truth and over look the real evidence that points to something else.
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      Dec 18 2012: Random, foregoing the character assassination of Christopher Hitchens, can you cite a "hole" in the statement or an instance where the statement doesn't make "perfect sense"?
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    Dec 28 2012: Well, I think that you need to provide evidence, so as to definitively show WHY the assertion is incorrect; otherwise, it quickly devolves into " You're wrong...No YOU'RE wrong, no YOU'RE wrong.." ad infinitum
  • Dec 27 2012: This is an excellent question. Blind faith applies to many things: science, religions, politics, and so on. I think to discard an idea because it has no evidence is a valid point, however, at a deeper level, the idea itself my have merit if it is examined objectively. Than the question becomes when to discard an idea that has no evidence. Some very obscure ideas such a gravitational lensing took many years before evidence was found. Of course this presumes a willingness to consider that an idea is true/false. Blind faith cheats the thinker out of that option.
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    Gord G

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    Dec 26 2012: @ Chris -The deletion was unintentional. I placed my response in the wrong reply box then preceded to delete the wrong comment when I attempted to correct the mistake. I've also noticed another mistake in my post. The holiday carousing has caught up with me.

    As a side note ... I find it curious you've listed yourself as an Agnostic and an atheist. I would be interested in hearing why you've included both. It seems like it would be an intriguing explanation (no sarcasm intended).
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      Dec 26 2012: Your comment demonstrates a lack of understanding. How can someone dismiss something before it is asserted? There is no such thing as "faith in scientific theories", since all scientific theories are verifiable. Faith is the excuse people give when they don't have evidence for their beliefs, so science has no use for it.
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        Gord G

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        Dec 26 2012: The reader can infer from the sentence that a statement has been presented and is being dismissed.

        A theory can be an apodictic proposition or an assertoric proposition. The vast possibilities of the universe would suggest the latter is prevalent , and represents significant questions regarding our existence.
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          Dec 26 2012: Since the comment I replied to has been deleted, you can't correctly infer anything. A scientific theory is not merely a proposition, it is a verifiable explanation.
  • Dec 26 2012: The debate, in my opinion, is not about the statement itself, as much as is about the ending question: "Do you agree?", which I find incomplete. That is, do I agree with the statement alone, or do I agree with Christopher Hitchens? The difference, as I see it, is between absolute and relative, between universal and specific applicability. Hitchens used it in this form in his book in 2007. However, in 2003 he wrote: "Forgotten were the elementary rules of logic, that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and that what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence."(http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/fighting_words/2003/10/mommie_dearest.html) In this case, he considers the statement we discuss here as being one of the "elementary rules of logic"; now, can you ponder if you agree or not with logic?

    Also, this statement exists as a Latin proverb, "Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur." (What is asserted gratuitously may be denied gratuitously.), preceding Hitchens with a couple of thousand years. Therefore, what are we discussing here: the statement alone or Hitchens' views?
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    Dec 25 2012: I'm not sure that it is a useful question to ask whether the quote applies generally. Hitchens likely used this quote in the context of discussing religious faith. If this quote is not meant to apply generally, the linguistic debates are inconsequential.
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      Dec 26 2012: it does not save the statement itself. if a statement only valid within some boundaries, include the boundaries in it. if i say all apples are green, having granny smith in head, it is a false statement. nobody cares what i have in mind. incorrect statements are to be corrected, not explained.
  • Dec 21 2012: There is another quote :
    "The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence"
    What is common about those two is the idea , that evidence ( on our own definition of evidence ) is of primary importance for our rational mind.
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    Dec 20 2012: Yes. I agree. Any statement can be asserted or dismissed without evidence. This much of this is true. With that said, this statement itself can be easily dismissed.

    Whether a statement *should* be accepted or dismissed is a whole different question.

    This statement seems to be made by a person fairly ignorant of how and why people accept or reject various statements. By far, it has nothing to do with evidence, reason, or logic.

    What is counted as evidence? Should we accept any evidence or should we reject some evidence? Why? Should we ask for evidence that the evidence is authentic? To what degree? Where should we stop and believe the evidence? Why? Why shouldn't we accept the assertion itself in the first place?
    • Dec 26 2012: Really? I wholeheartedly agree with the Hitch and I think you should do too. Think hard about it before judging. Your point that people do tend to make decisions about statements without recourse to due evidence, reason and logic is precisely why the long-suffering (fools, that is!) Hitch had to make the damned point in the first place.

      And as to your frankly child-like questions as to evidence... extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. But this doesn't have any bearing on the question at hand: is it correct to say that in a debate any imbecile who presents ideas without any logic, reason or evidence OUGHT to expect to be told that they are an imbecile and their thoughts worthless? Unfortunately, though, by simple appeal to feelings and instinct and emotions, such arguments are ofttimes given too much weight instead of being soundly dismissed.

      I not only agree with the statement but also feel that the World would be a better place if we taught this to children instead of laughable intelligent design!
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        Dec 26 2012: Andy, I did think hard. Read your own arguments. "fools", "imbecile", "laughable", "worthless", "child-like". You are appealing to emotion in your own arguments.

        The statement I made is not emotional. Here is a good start to understand the complexity of this question: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-belief/

        I do not promote intelligent design and I think religion needs to be kept out of science and science out of religion. You better keep them separated. Yes, in natural science, evidence is needed. Note the limited scope.

        As for Hitchens' quote, I did not say I disagree with it. Note that it is worded carefully "...can be dismissed..." It does not mean "should be dismissed".
        • Dec 29 2012: Yes, I use emotion as well as logic to convey a point. No crime there.

          I read your original comments as partially facetious, largely pretentious, wholly patronising and completely missing the point.

          This is not what you said but it IS how I read it. Forgive (and correct) me if I'm wrong:
          1. I agree with the statement
          2. I will now reword the original, subtly changing the meaning
          3. I will now pontificate about a completely trivial reading of the quotation that I have helped to manipulate you into seeing by my clever rewording of the original phrase.
          4. I will now make it clear that my agreement with the statement is conditional on the statement being read the wrong way.
          5. I will now criticise the author (damn his Hitchy britches!) with slanderous abandon.
          6. Having knocked the (now dead) competition, I shall demonstrate my incredible intelligence by displaying what a deep philosopher I am... let me ask you some solipsistic questions and show you what a deep thinker I am.

          I don't know where to begin, really. Let me have a go:

          Christopher Hitchens was a great many things; he was a great man; what he was not, however, was ignorant on how and why people accept or reject various statements. He was a great writer, a great thinker, a great philosopher and a great speaker. He understood more about why people accept or reject various statements than you, my young philosopher, will likely ever do. Well done for noting that human brains tend not to make decisions without emotional or cognitive bias. How clever you are. Really. Pat yourself on the back for stating the bleeding obvious.

          The questions you pose at the end of your comments are... ironic! The GENIUS of the original quotation is just that it asks (and answers) those same questions, if you would but read it properly... only he doesn't get bogged down with "should"... he just relates to the reality of what people will accept or reject.

          Now I cannot rest until you bow to the genius that was Hitch!
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        Dec 29 2012: Andy, your reply does not address the questions I asked other than calling them "childlike", "pretentious", "patronizing", etc. There are other commenters here who seem to have a similar point of view. If you don't like my tone, I'd be interested to see what you would reply to Krisztián Pintér's comment above, for example. I am not very interested in discussing tones and personalities.
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        Dec 29 2012: hitchens probably never wanted fanboys. but it comes with the job i guess.
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    E G

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    Dec 20 2012: CAn somebody dismiss something if that sombody have no evidence about that something ?
  • Dec 20 2012: Yes.
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    . .

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    Dec 19 2012: This statement is clever.
    while it applies to everything man-made,
    it holds that absence is not proof.
    And an assertion, as many here have pointed out, by definition is not fact.
    ALL assertions are MAN-MADE.
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    Dec 19 2012: What was the context of this quote, the existence of God?
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    Dec 19 2012: I think it's up to us to search for answers. I don't think there's any benefit to holding a belief that you think may be false just to be part of a crowd. Many people embrace religion another unproven ideas because they were influenced and instructed to do so.

    However, everybody's opinion about most everything was given to them. I think it's important to reach a state where you can not only absorb information, but you can also analyze this information correctly. You can believe something and still stay open to new information.

    That which can be asserted without evidence should not become the only option.
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    Dec 19 2012: How does one accept that with no evidence? For in acceptance comes assertion . .What is the acceptance or assertion based on? Nothing

    I agree with Christopher Hitchens
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    Gail .

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    Dec 19 2012: I don't see where the quote brings up the knowledge issues that you suggest. Not even related to the question you posed.

    The statement is true
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    Dec 19 2012: Of course it's true. When we are children this phenomena is called "playing pretend." You can pretend, or not at will.
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    Dec 18 2012: To speak of asserting something without evidence is to be redundant. The definition of the word "assert" is to state positively with great confidence but with no objective proof. All assertions are, by definition, without proof, or evidence. Based upon that fundamental grammatical error I do not see how the quote could be agreed with. Absence of proof is not proof of absence. We are free to "dismiss" (another inadequate word choice by Mr. Hitchens) any information which is unaccompanied by proof, or evidence, but that is not the same as falsifying the information. All in all I find the quote to be a liguistic trainwreck. Thank you!
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      Dec 19 2012: In a word Fast Eddy, tautology.
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        Dec 19 2012: Your statement (not an assertion) is correct and I am not free to dismiss it.
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        Dec 19 2012: The Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein would be proud of you.

        I had to look it up ..... good one.
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          Dec 19 2012: I learnt it from the great philosophers George Will and Thomas Sowell. It is used in politics often when they want to convince the zombies of something without evidence as pointed out by Fast Eddy. But is is also very funny when seen in newspapers, things like Francisco Franco is still dead after 145 days .
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      Lejan .

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      Dec 19 2012: If you agree that this quote is using the linguistic figure of a tautology, the argument for your opinion would then be taken ad absurdum, as this is what a tautology does, it repeats a word in the way of an echo, to amplify the emphasis of its meaning. By this the 'redundance' you noticed is made especially for the purpose of 'emphasis' only and is not an 'fundamental grammatical error' which kept you from agreeing with it.
      This goes for your 'dismiss' perception as well, if you agree to Pats suggestion of the use of a tautology, as which I took this quote right away. So you may rethink your well phrased agreement for the sake of your arguments... :o)
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        Dec 19 2012: I will rethink my assertion that the syntax sucks.. There are many better ways to say what Mr.Hitchens was trying to say. The OP asks if I agree with the expression the way it is worded. I do not. I do agree with the idea behind the poorly worded expression, but that was not the question. By the way, are you certain tautology ALWAYS leads to the absurd? Thank you.
  • Dec 18 2012: " “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” – Christopher Hitchens. Do you agree?"

    Yup, that's a very wise quote. Do keep in mind though that evidence can be anything from a smoking gun to statistical analysis.
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      Dec 20 2012: Re: "Do keep in mind though that evidence can be anything from a smoking gun to statistical analysis."

      ...to another assertion without evidence... or something completely irrelevant to the assertion which still has some emotional impact on our thinking.
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    Dec 18 2012: What a beautiful quote! I did not even know it before, so thank you for sharing!

    Since I first read your debate I let some time pass and did some thinking about it, to bypass this 'instant agreement' to this quote, yet even though, I do agree with it still.

    The logic of this dictum is valid and I could not find any example so far, on which it would not 'work' properly. So if you have some, please share them as well.

    For 'religion, belief and faith' this quote seems to apply too, yet in fact and at second sight, it doesn't, as it does not specify the validity conditions for 'evidence' in this context, which, by itself, is highly emotional and individual, and makes it impossible to argue anyway...