Internet discussions between believers and non-believers often get into the matter of evidence. Is there any evidence for God?
Trouble is, we cannot always agree on what type and amount of evidence for God is enough to believe. And of course we all have our own viewpoints to defend.
But perhaps looking at evidence a slightly different way will help – at least to bring the two “sides” a little closer to understanding each other.
Scientific evidence for God?
Many non-believers I have talked with online have suggested they think the existence of God needs to be proved scientifically before they will believe.
But if I ask them do they mean following the scientific method – form a hypothesis, develop some real world test that will verify or falsify the hypothesis, conduct the test, analyse the results using statistics, and then draw a conclusion at a given level of confidence – of course they agree that they didn’t mean such a rigorous form of science, just the more general application of reason to evidence.
What they end up asking for is, in fact, more like legal evidence than scientific evidence.
Legal proceedings set a high standard – beyond reasonable doubt – and they are based on a rigorous examination of evidence.
So it is interesting to see a trial lawyer discuss evidence for God.
The legal definition of evidence
Joe, who is a trial lawyer, has discussed evidence on his True and Reasonable blog. Not surprisingly, he gives a legal definition, which he says would be similar to that used in all US states (and likely elsewhere as well):
“Relevant evidence” means evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence.
He then unpacks the meaning a little.
He says ” “…having any tendency” suggests that that some evidence might have varying degrees of strength to different people.” Thus this definition is broad and subjective, but he says this is necessary because “different reasonable people can often draw different conclusions from the very same piece of evidence”.
I think this definition is important. It is clear that, especially in relation to the existence of God, the same information may be helpful, one way or another, to one person but not to another. But if we regard evidence as what has a “tendency”, then it seems that if information helps one person but not another, it has a tendency and therefore should be considered to be evidence, even if not helpful or convincing to some people.
Who is convinced?
Joe also points out how arguments are directed to someone. In court, that “someone” is the jury, and sometimes the judge. In discussions about God, it is the other person we are discussing with.
If we ignore the other person, and present arguments that are based on information that they don’t find has any tendency to make the existence of God more or less likely, then it is clear the discussion is unlikely to be productive.
A nice test
It is thus clear that we can always defeat someone else’s argument by simply saying “that information doesn’t make the existence of God more (or less, as the case may be) probable to me, so it isn’t evidence!”
But he suggests a simple test, and uses the gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus as an example. Sceptics often say there is no evidence for the resurrection, but he poses the hypothetical: “So for example if we had none of these ancient accounts and I just got up in my closing argument and said “a person that lived 2000 years ago rose from the dead,” would we not think the case weaker?”
He concludes: “So yes the existence of these ancient documents does have some tendency to show the fact that is of consequence “is more probable… than it would be without the evidence.” They are almost certainly relevant evidence.”
We could apply this test to other information, such as the fossil evidence for evolution. A creationist christian might say that the fossils provide no evidence for evolution.
But if there was a court case and the fossil evidence was not presented, surely the jury might reasonably conclude that evolution hadn’t occurred, or was at least unlikely. So it must mean that the fossil record does indeed have a tendency to make evolution more likely, or less unlikely, and so is useful evidence.
Time to stop making ambit claims?
I conclude then that saying someone has no evidence for their viewpoint is often an ambit claim, put forward to dismiss a person’s viewpoint and close the discussion without really facing the issues.
The “evidence” may be unsatisfactory or unconvincing to one party, but if its non-existence would make the claim less (or more) likely, then its existence has a tendency to make the claim more (or less) probable and it can rightfully be said to be evidence.
Then the discussion can begin on the value of that evidence, just as it would be discussed in a jury.
Photo: Flickr Creative Commons