The things we know, we know according to different levels of certainty. To illustrate the spectrum with its extremes: everyone knows with complete certainty that they themselves exist, and they know with virtually no certainty at all the things half-remembered that they heard from a known liar who thinks he heard it from his cousin one time. Most things, obviously, are somewhere in between those extremes. And in all but the most certain cases, is only indirect, which requires us to trust the use of our own reason to know the truth from the evidence.
Consider the case of a woman who asks the question, “does my boyfriend really love me?” It is not possible to measure love, and it is always possible to respond to a direct question with a lie. Perhaps he doesn’t love her but is even more afraid of being alone while he waits for someone better to come along. Even worse for her certainty in his love, he could be mistaken. Perhaps he loves an ideal of her which he will someday discover is not the real her?
Worse, doubt can lead to imagining all of the possible ways he could not love her but still do the things he did which seemed like love. Considering one’s imagination can be confused with looking at the world, which will further fuel her doubts. If she gives into this, turning her attention away from the evidence of his love towards the counter-evidence of her doubts and suspicious imaginings, she could work herself into a state where all of the true things in real life which should make her convinced of her boyfriend’s love leave her empty and uncertain. What can she do?
This is where many people go wrong, because they know that control is powerful proof. If you can make something do what you want, it is very convincing evidence that you really know the thing. (This is why repeatable experiments are so critical to the scientific method.) If she can make him do things he would do only if he loved her, then this should finally assuage her doubt. But there is a problem: whatever she asks he might have wanted to do anyway. This adds the temptation for the demands to become unreasonable or even anti-reasonable. The more self-destructive and unreasonable the demands, the more clearly the only reason he is complying is because he loves her so much.
Of course, this is bound for disappointment. In practice we can never fully control another person, and if she keeps this up for very long the boyfriend will almost certainly stop loving the woman. People dislike being manipulated and distrusted. And even if he doesn’t leave her, she’ll then know she’s with a man so desperate he’ll put up with being treated terribly. This makes his love worth very little since it’s really an indication of how desperate he is, not how lovable she is. In fact, there is literally no way that this attempt to prove his love through control will end well. Alas, to paraphrase Jane Austen, insecure people are not always wise.
A very similar problem can be seen among a certain sort of atheist. When they reject the evidence given (here’s a summary of what’s often offered) and are asked what sort of evidence they would accept, it’s rarely specific. It varies all over the place, but tends to have in common that it is something simply counterfactual to the world as we find it. But unlike when a Christian might say that the evidence he would accept that God does not exist is that nothing at all existed, this counterfactual isn’t related to the nature of God in a direct way at all. Creation not being created is evidence against the creator in a direct and sensible way. There being more of something or less of something is not directly related to the creator being our creator; it’s just something picked at random. And a moment’s thought shows that it is the counterfactual nature of the evidence that is important and not its being related to the creator. That is, this lack of relationship to what the evidence is supposed to prove is no accident. If the message “I exist. –God” burned forever in the sky in five hundred foot tall letters, atheists would just say that it was an unexplained natural phenomena which influenced primitive people to come up with the myth of God to explain it. Also that it influenced our language so that these letters were meaningful to us. And some day we’d definitely have a natural explanation for it.
What people want is not just any sort of evidence, but specifically the evidence of control. It is not really different from people in Jesus’ time who wanted a sign, which is to say, a miracle done on command. They did not then and do not now want to have to discover what the world is. They want to know it by having it conform to their desires.
But the psychology of this is interesting, because I don’t think that it’s selfishness. More specifically, I mean that it isn’t pride. It isn’t the desire to be God, to be the lord of all. Rather, control is powerful evidence because it seems to make the thing controlled an extension of the self, which as Descartes noted is certain even if we doubt everything else. It is not, at its core, a desire to dominate. It’s a fear of trusting. It is the insecurity of a timid creature which will not venture out of the burrow of certainty to see what actually exists in the larger world where it is possible to doubt.