Irrefutable evidence?

December 27th, 2013 in clues. Tags: , , , , , , ,

Courtroom

Recently I was following a debate between a christian and a non-believer, and the non-believer said that he (I presume it was “he”) would require “irrefutable evidence” to consider changing his mind about God. It seemed like a rather stringent requirement to me, so I started thinking ….

What things could we reasonably say we have “irrefutable evidence” for?

What means “irrefutable”?

The dictionary definitions of “irrefutable” are:

  • impossible to deny or disprove
  • incontrovertible, sure, certain, irresistible, unassailable
  • beyond doubt, beyond dispute
  • not capable of being challenged or proved wrong

That’s a very strong concept.

What things are irrefutable?

Mathematics?

Most statements in mathematics can be proved from the basic assumptions, and we might reasonably say these conclusions are “irrefutable”.

Logic?

Logical proofs can be shown to be formally valid, that is, the conclusions follow “irrefutably” from the premises. But proving the premises is more difficult. Trivial logical syllogisms can be considered to be “irrefutable”, but anything worth arguing over will have premises that are contested, and so the conclusions are not “irrefutable”.

Science?

Scientific statements are certainly not irrefutable. Every scientific law can be shown to require change if new data is collected that contradicts it. So Newton’s laws were modified by Einstein, though they are true enough for most practical purposes. Much applied science (for example, conclusions in medical or environmental science) are shown to be true within statistical limits, which makes them far from “irrefutable”.

Law?

A jury in a criminal trial (in Australian and British law, at any rate) is required to only recommend conviction if the case against the defendant is proven “beyond reasonable doubt”. This is a hard requirement to apply (as I found out when I served on a jury that was divided about how certain we were of the defendant’s guilt), but it is certainly short of irrefutable”.

History?

The level of certainty for historical matters drops sharply as we go back in time and have fewer and less reliable evidences. Historians can only hope to know their conclusions are more probable than any alternative.

Personal experience?

Personal experience is one of the most certain ways of knowing – for example, I can be quite sure I visited Stonehenge 13 years ago. And all other forms of knowledge depend on personal experience – a scientist reading a dial or a computer output or a courtroom witness reporting what they saw at the time of the crime.

Yet memory can deceive or fade, people can tell lies or be mistaken. So while I think I am sure, I may be wrong, and you certainly cannot be sure that what I say is true. So personal experience can be “irrefutable” to the person concerned, but will be far less certain to others.

Ethics?

Most of us make ethical statements, some of which (e.g. it is wrong to gratuitously harm a child) we would hold very strongly. These views on ethics can lead to laws and sanctions that may result in someone who breaks the law losing their freedom or even their life, so they have serious implications. Yet how certain can we be that our ethics are correct? (This is especially an issue for naturalists who believe ethics are subjective.)

Action in an emergency?

Some situations (e.g. a natural disaster or fire in a building) require instant action – pausing to reflect may be the last thing a victim does, whereas quickly choosing what seems to be the best option may give us some chance of escape.

Personal relationships?

We make friends and choose spouses or lovers with far less than certainty about the outcome. Sometimes our judgment is bad. But most of us feel our choices are worth the risk – better not to die wondering!

Belief in God?

If God appeared to someone, it is possible this personal experience would be seen as irrefutable by the person who was blessed with that visitation. And if God exists and (as many believers think) we will all face him one day, that experience would surely be irrefutable. But right now, most of us don’t have that certainty, about either our belief or our disbelief.

What level of certainty should we require for belief in God?

It seems clear that “irrefutable evidence” is far too high a requirement for most things in life, including belief in God. Choosing the most probable option is generally the best we can do. Sometimes it is better to withhold judgment, but sometimes that is folly. Often better is to make the best choice we can now, and review later if we learn more.

We only have one life (YOLO) and not putting off a decision to marry or believe in God may end up being the same as deciding against. Requiring “irrefutable evidence” is too conservative, though it may be a useful catchphrase if someone doesn’t want to think about belief in God.

Some of us would prefer caution, some are impetuous. But making judgments on the information we have seems to be the sensible option, together with a willingness to reconsider if there is new evidence.

I’d be interested to know what you think.

Picture: originally from Flickr Creative Commons but I can no longer find it there.

27 Comments

  1. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I can’t think of anything I could experience which would lead me to conclude that a god exists rather than some other explanation for the same experience.

    While I can’t definitely say that gods don’t exist I am more certain that they don’t than I am that the sun will rise tomorrow.

  2. I disagree, not only because “extraordinary” is a term containing non-rational cultural bias. From a rational probabilistic standpoint extraordinary claims only need a probability greater than .5 to be readily acceptable, provisionally of course. Any additional requirements, such as “extraordinary evidence”, is just burdensome bias.

  3. I think that I need irrefutable evidence, in the form of personal experience. I would rather this not be the case, but knowing myself as I do, this is what it will take. And it doesn’t seem to be forthcoming! As, of course, is appropriate. Every person who yearns to believe in God can’t be given a Damascus moment; for some, the hard yards must be done.

  4. @IgnorantiaNescia
    Use of the term “extraordinary” may be culturally biased in terms of how frequently the claim is made in a given culture but it is not culturally biased in terms of the implications of the claim given that there is exactly no solid evidence for a god’s existence. It is an extraordinary claim in exactly the same way that a claim that Santa Claus actually exists would be extraordinary.
    As for probability, the more extravagant the claim the less probability one is inclined to assign to its truth value.

  5. I am more certain that they don’t than I am that the sun will rise tomorrow.
    Hi Gordon, that is a pretty strong statement! On what evidence or argument would you base that conclusion?

  6. Hi Eva,

    I am certainly sympathetic to those honest observations. But in the end, what is the alternative to belief for you? If you think God-belief is more probable than disbelief, but you’d like greater certainty, doesn’t that just make God-belief similar to everything else, such as ethics and trust in personal relationships? In those cases we get on with whatever seems to be most probable even though we’d like to be more sure. My point in this post is that we should logically do the same with God-belief.

  7. @unkleE
    There is a finite chance that the sun will not rise tomorrow. Either the Earth or the Sun may be destroyed before the event. It might even be possible to calculate the odds within an order of magnitude. As the concept of god is incoherent and no evidence has ever been discovered which shows that gods are anything other than human constructions I think the chances of a god’s existence are as low as the real existence of any other figment of the human imagination.

  8. Hi Gordon, how would you demonstrate that “the concept of god is incoherent” to a greater degree of certainty than that the sun will rise tomorrow?

    And how would you demonstrate to the same degree of certainty that “no evidence has ever been discovered which shows that gods are anything other than human constructions” in the light of 300 million people claiming to have experienced or observed a miracle?

  9. @unkleE
    Incoherence: Everything in our actual experience has properties which we can recognise as common to some other things in our world. So new information about reality tends to form a coherent whole with existing knowledge. But if we look at the claims about gods we get the claim of properties alien to anything else we observe, vis-à-vis:
    Eternal existence
    Existence outside the universe
    creates the universe from nothing
    powerful magic contravening the laws of physics (miracles)
    Omniscience
    disembodied spirit
    one of a kind

    Of course there are other properties often assigned to gods but these suffice to demonstrate how incoherent with everything else in our experience gods are.

    If one were to regard the subjective experiences of others concerning events which contravene the laws of physics there would be no end to it. We would have to give credence to levitation, reincarnation, witchcraft, prophesy, matter transmission, demonic possession and many other claims which cannot be repeated under scientific conditions.
    Claims of miracles are just as incoherent as claims about a god’s existence.

    Human perception is all too fallible. We mitigate the effects of that fallibility by demanding corroborative evidence for unusual claims. One of the better forms of corroboration is the repeatability of experience of claimed phenomena under laboratory conditions.

  10. Hi Gordon, thanks for explaining your views. But it will hardly surprise you to know that I don’t find your “arguments” in the least convincing.

    1. You offer no reason to believe the idea of a God is incoherent, and I don’t find it so. For example, some of the properties of God you say are “alien to anything else we observe” I don’t think are alien (and you offer no argument to support your statements):

    Eternal existence – many scientists used to believe the universe is eternal
    Existence outside the universe – many cosmologists believe there is a multiverse ‘outside’ our universe
    creates the universe from nothing – some physicists believe the universe was created from nothing, by nothing! – which is surely less ‘coherent’ than believing something created it from nothing.

    2. You offer no rebuttal to the many miracle claims, whereas I can offer good medical evidence for some (while admitting that many don’t have this evidence). Just saying the claims are not coherent is not evidence or an argument, just an assertion.

    So I don’t believe you have offered anything to support your original statement. And since there is, as we both know, very good evidence that the sun will rise tomorrow, I suggest you may have been guilty of a little exaggeration (or a lot!).

    Thank you for your comments, I believe they demonstrate the poverty of the belief you support, but then, I daresay you didn’t expect me to think otherwise, did you? 🙂

  11. The idea of eternal existence is incoherent because it does not fit with our experience of anything else including the universe itself. The fact that secular physicists also have a “universe from nothing” theory does not make the idea less incoherent. It’s still beyond our experience. Obviously I can’t go around rebutting miracle claims left right and centre. But God’s miracles contravene the laws of physics. That makes them sufficiently incoherent to qualify as incompatible with our experiences and indeed makes the concept of such an addition to world view incoherent.

  12. “The idea of eternal existence is incoherent because it does not fit with our experience of anything else including the universe itself.”
    Hi Gordon, two things wrong with this …. 1. It fits with many people’s experience of God, perhaps the majority. 2. Quantum physics doesn’t fit with our experience of the universe either, but that doesn’t make it incoherent.

    “Obviously I can’t go around rebutting miracle claims left right and centre.”
    Exactly. So the medical evidence stands until and if it is rebutted.

    “But God’s miracles contravene the laws of physics.”
    How do you know that? If my mind can affect the physical world without incoherence, than so can God’s.

    “That makes them sufficiently incoherent to qualify as incompatible with our experiences”
    On the contrary, you have just said that you cannot rebut them, and there are millions of people who claim such experience. It is more likely that your disbelieve is the incompatible thing.

    Why not just admit that you have a naturalistic presumption against miracles and against God, I can accept that, and we can move on?

  13. hi unklee,
    Could you disprove the possibility that we are all living in highly complex computer simulation a la MATRIX? If there were no interface with the ‘outside’ we could never know the truth.

  14. @unkleE
    To claim that the idea of eternal existence is not incoherent because it fits with many people’s experience of God is a circular argument in the extreme. That’s apart from the incoherence of the statement itself. How could people have experience of God’s eternal existence?

    As for quantum physics. It is true that the behaviour of subatomic particles is strange compared to the macro world. But to counterbalance that quantum physics provides our existing scientific world view with coherence by explaining otherwise inexplicable behaviours in the macro world. For instance the ability of radiation to display the characteristics of waves and also particles even though a purely macro physics description of reality cannot explain this at all.

    ““Obviously I can’t go around rebutting miracle claims left right and centre.”
    Exactly. So the medical evidence stands until and if it is rebutted.”

    By the above argument anyone can make the most ridiculous claim and we have to accept it if we can’t prove it untrue. We should be evaluating all claims on the basis of their coherence with our real world view. Any claim which cannot be explained in terms of what we already know should be rejected without firm evidence such as repeatability to order.

    “If my mind can affect the physical world without incoherence, than so can God’s.”
    Certainly, if God existed and had a mind, it could affect the physical world if it was connected to a physical brain the way yours is. However this is hardly relevant as far as miracles are concerned. You ask: “How do I know that God’s miracles contravene the laws of physics?”. I go purely on what is claimed:
    Walking on water
    Raising the dead
    Turning water into wine.
    Of course these could be just conjuring tricks. Do you wish to make that claim?

    I freely admit that I have a naturalistic assumption which will not admit any claim outside naturalism without strong evidence. This includes gods. demons, ghosts and miracles. It’s part of critical thinking to notice the incoherence of claims with our current experience.

  15. Hi Gora, thanks for visiting and commenting.

    In answer to your question, no I couldn’t prove that, one way or the other, just like I cannot prove most other ideas one way or the other. Do you think it is an option worthy of serious consideration?

  16. Hi Gordon, hope your new year is beginning well!

    I think it may be useful to try to draw our discussion into some thing more constructive. You have your beliefs and I have mine, and I’m extremely doubtful that further discussion is going to change those beliefs.

    It should be obvious to all that there are strong arguments on either side of the ‘God-debate’, and my objective on this blog is to present what I see as the truth, discuss with others who wish to discuss, but not pretend that I have any knock-down argument.

    So my main disagreement with you is your apparent claim to have “irrefutable proof”, starting with: “I can’t definitely say that gods don’t exist I am more certain that they don’t than I am that the sun will rise tomorrow.” You haven’t been able to support that strong statement, and I think it is clear that neither you nor anyone else possibly could.

    So can you agree that statement was exaggeration, and you have no more proof than I do?

    As far as your latest comments go, here is a brief response:

    1. You made the claim about incoherence, and I haven’t seen any good argument to support that claim.

    2. The laws of physics describe how we observe things generally behave. No-one disputes that generally miraculous healings don’t occur and water doesn’t turn into wine. The question is whether they can never ever do so, if an external agent (i.e. God) acts. If you claim the laws must always apply and even God cannot intervene, then I’d like to ask you for an argument to demonstrate that please. Mere assertions are not sufficient.

    Thanks again for your input. Best wishes.

  17. @unkleE

    It should be obvious to all that there are strong arguments on either side of the ‘God-debate’

    If you want people to accept there is a strong argument that gods exist or even that they might exist you will have to come up with something better than: “It should be obvious”

    So my main disagreement with you is your apparent claim to have “irrefutable proof”

    A strange disagreement as I never claimed to have “irrefutable proof”. In fact you quoted me as specifically denying having proof.

    My statement about the possibility of a god’s existence was certainly strong. You presumably accept that there is a finite chance that the sun will not rise tomorrow. All you have to do is demonstrate there is a higher probability that a god exists. You are the one making the positive claim about a god’s existence. You are the one who must try and show that such a claim has more possible truth value than the possibility that the sun will not rise tomorrow.
    I have clearly demonstrated that the god hypothesis involves properties that we do not see in other aspects of reality. This constitutes incoherence with an empirical world view based on observed evidence. The fact that you can’t accept such a view does not constitute argument or evidence to refute it.

    As far as the laws of physics are concerned the question is not whether they could never be contravened but how strong the evidence should have to be before we can agree that they have been contravened. You don’t seem to realise the nature of the problem and have certainly not provided anything other than bald claims of the contravention without any accompanying evidence.

  18. @unklee :
    well,
    What I understand from this article is that you’re basically propounding the pascal wager (please correct me if i’m wrong).You only live once ,right (YOLO) , and my problem with this is the wide spectrum of possibilities, given all the religions and philosphies, which one is right? I’ve read your article on this subject and you only give consideration to religions based on number of beleviers, commiting the fallacy of popularity, and discarding the rest.I don’t know how much have you read and what do you know, But I’m tuning the question to you.What irrefutable evidence would you need to accept that we are living in a simulation?

  19. Hi Gora,

    I don’t see it as a Pascal Wager, though I think the wager can be presented quite strongly. I was simply discussing whether insisting on “irrefutable proof” before believing in God was a sensible option. Something less than “irrefutable proof” serves us quite well in almost all of life, so why not here?

    Yes, there are many possible beliefs, but not many stand up (in my view) and none come close to christianity. I don’t only give consideration of popular beliefs, but I do think it unlikely that a God who mattered would allow himself to be known by only a handful of people – and I can’t see how that is a fallacy of popularity, but rather a rational assessment.

    As I said before, I don’t have “irrefutable evidence” of virtually anything, I am much too fallible for that, so I certainly don’t have irrefutable evidence that we don’t live in the matrix. In fact, if I thought I had irrefutable evidence we didn’t, that would probably indicate that I had been programmed to think that way!

    But do you think it is an option we should consider? And if so, what difference does it make?

  20. Unklee,
    It makes a lot of difference, indeed. Would you say that all the other ‘revelations’ besides christianity ones are fake? Are the people who receive this supposed revelations lying ? Are they deluted? Do you realise that what you just said is exactly what muslims and jews could say. I could make the case that religions are constructed by humans, because even if you believe that one is true, then you have to admit that at least some of the rest were invented. And please be honest now, Have you read the Tao te Ching (or dao de jing) , the upanishads, ancient toltec documents, have you even read the original greek bible? In the same way you say don’t have absolute proof of your religion, you can’t just dissmiss others so fast. But of course its rational to say you know the truth, and if I dare to disagree it’s me who is unreasonable. well I would prefer to burn in hell for eternity, than to accept ‘truths’ of people who I find ignorant on so many subjects, who basically dissmiss as myths and fables theologies that come from ‘revelations’ too, without seeing their own inconsitencies. So , to wrap it up, i think you are indeed living in the matrix, in your own matrix of truths, while, for instance, the real miracle , for me, is the medical science which can now cure many diseases deemed incurable in the past. I don’t think you will ever appreciate the responsibility it takes to have a life in your hands and do the best you can to save it. My father is a pediatric surgeon who has saved thousands of kids, so it’s really insulting you say you have evindence of miracles when science still hasn’t the answer.Do you think medicine won’t find the cure for cancer and the reasons behind sudden remissions? Medicine has proven its miracles , and continues to do it, even if people like you want to believe that a external cause is responsible.

  21. As a side observation, a matrix-like world would logically require a computer and thus a power source (unless one wants to argue for a metaphysical computer – basically redefining God or the Idea of the Good, though). So next to belief in this physical world and all it energy, one also has to assume a great deal of energy in a more real world. Belief in a God is therefore more parsimonious, as it does not need the assumption of additional matter.

    A secondary point is that such a worldview would be rather hostile to realism and tend to see this world as illusory. It’s not easy to see how such a view would lead to the scientific discoveries it implicitly appeals to.

  22. Ignorantia:
    First, I never said that the matrix idea is a worldview or that I believe in it, so part of your argumentation is irrelevant.Second, if god is an explanation of the origin of the universe it is an hypothesis at best.To be a theory it should answer many questions : What was this god doing before creating this universe? Where did he get the materials and energy? How exactly did he do it? I ‘ve never gotten this kind of answers from theologians, but me and many other would welcome them. I like to toy with the simulation idea, and it seems i’m not the only one.Hindus have the concept of maya , ancient toltecs had the concept of mitote, there’s the simulation argument (Although I don’t like it myself), etc.If the universe was indeed created and there is an extenal cause, it could be anything : aliens, future humans, it could be all a dream, etc.All this beside religious claims. So for me it all comes down to knowledge and wanting to get more, not limiting yourself.You could ask me : If you don’t know everything , How can you say that a god doesn’t exist? Of course I can’t, but the concept of god was told to me by people who also don’t know everything, and I have my own mind and thousands of books.Should I believe in a god out of fear of punishment?, How if there are thousand possibilites, thousands of religions, trillions of future possible religions and philosophical ideas.I’m not the mos intelligent person in the world or knowledgeable, I’m provably average, but my mind demands informtion and I want to learm more and more to broaden my horizons.Religions , to me, are a thought stopper, so I think its wiser to learn more before discarding all the ideas, because , as I have said, the ‘truth’ could be ‘revealed’ in the future and not be present today…

  23. Hi Gora, so many questions to answer! 🙂 Let’s try to clarify briefly:

    “It makes a lot of difference, indeed.”
    Could you explain how the possibility we live in a “Matrix” makes a difference?

    “Would you say that all the other ‘revelations’ besides christianity ones are fake? Are the people who receive this supposed revelations lying ? Are they deluted?”
    I wouldn’t agree with any of those statements.

    “Do you realise that what you just said is exactly what muslims and jews could say.”
    I don’t know of any other religion that claims the son of God established the kingdom of God on earth, was resurrected after he died, all supported by reasonable historical evidence – do you?

    “I could make the case that religions are constructed by humans, because even if you believe that one is true, then you have to admit that at least some of the rest were invented.”
    You could make that case, and others could make a different case. But I agree that at least some of the rest (and some of modern christianity) is mistaken.

    “And please be honest now, Have you read the Tao te Ching (or dao de jing) , the upanishads, ancient toltec documents, have you even read the original greek bible?”
    Yes to the Greek NT, no to the rest, though I have read small excerpts of many and read about many. Are you suggesting we have to have read something for ourselves to know what it is about?

    “In the same way you say don’t have absolute proof of your religion, you can’t just dissmiss others so fast.”
    As I keep saying, no-one has proof of anything very much. I’m not dismissing others, just saying they don’t offer the same evidence and the same truth.

    “But of course its rational to say you know the truth, and if I dare to disagree it’s me who is unreasonable. well I would prefer to burn in hell for eternity, than to accept ‘truths’ of people who I find ignorant on so many subjects, who basically dissmiss as myths and fables theologies that come from ‘revelations’ too, without seeing their own inconsitencies.”
    Very little of that relates to anything I believe.

    “My father is a pediatric surgeon who has saved thousands of kids, so it’s really insulting you say you have evindence of miracles when science still hasn’t the answer.Do you think medicine won’t find the cure for cancer and the reasons behind sudden remissions? Medicine has proven its miracles , and continues to do it, even if people like you want to believe that a external cause is responsible.”
    Again, very little of this relates to what I believe. I think modern medicine is a wonderful science, and I wouldn’t put limits on what it might discover. But it is unable to explain many cures that occur after prayer.

    So, I hope I have cleared up some misunderstandings there. Now you have got all that off your chest, what would you like to discuss? best wishes.

  24. Unklee: Obvioulsy I made a terrible mistake coming here.You standard for truth is very different from mine, Your proofs are nonsense to me, and of course you already know the real ‘truth’. I won’t answer back, may reason bless you my friend.

  25. Hi Gora, I’m sorry you feel that way. I didn’t offer any proofs, nonsense or otherwise. I simply explained that what I believed was different in several ways from what you seemed to be assuming, and presumably I know the truth about what I believe.

    But if you have to go, best wishes to you.

  26. Hi Gora,

    First, I never said that the matrix idea is a worldview or that I believe in it, so part of your argumentation is irrelevant.

    It was clear you didn’t believe in it, so I deliberately used impersonal language in discussing it, in order not to ascribe this view to you.

    However, even then it is still a worldview. So I do not see how that makes part of what I wrote irrelevant.

    Second, if god is an explanation of the origin of the universe it is an hypothesis at best.To be a theory it should answer many questions : What was this god doing before creating this universe? Where did he get the materials and energy? How exactly did he do it? I ‘ve never gotten this kind of answers from theologians, but me and many other would welcome them.

    It’s is strange they gave you no answers, as theologians should know the default answers: “God is atemporal, so he does not experience time and before or after the universe: time is a physical phenomenon.” “There was no pre-existent energy, it was created without a so-called material cause.” “We don’t know.”

    Now, there are of course arguments against those answers and there is no way direct evidence bears on the claims about God. But it is seemingly possible to put a coherent view forward on this point.

    Personally, the distinction between a hypothesis and a theory does not bother me, but please consider this hypothetical scenario: In a time long gone by, academics have long known from knowledge of the ancients that movements on Earth are all imperfect, chaotic, physical motion, unlike heavenly motion. However, these academics posit that there must be unknown regular laws to terran motion as well, based on their view of a consistent, benevolent creator. So over the centuries this opinion is consistently held and it eventually turns out there indeed are such laws for motion on Earth. Would this hypothesis then not only answer questions, but actually having been sort of tested in a crude way?

    I like to toy with the simulation idea, and it seems i’m not the only one.Hindus have the concept of maya , ancient toltecs had the concept of mitote, there’s the simulation argument (Although I don’t like it myself), etc.If the universe was indeed created and there is an extenal cause, it could be anything : aliens, future humans, it could be all a dream, etc.All this beside religious claims.

    Yes, those are all possible, but then the issue of parsimony comes up. Some of these hypothesis look as if they posit matter, which gives rise to questions of their entropic states (basically, you want low entropy for life to be possible, infinitely long pasts seem to imply on the face of it that entropy should be very high by now, but that is not the case).

    And then too, the outlined arguing from realism I gave issue also pops up in some of the suggested scenarios. So those are reasons for me to prefer belief in a deity: no issues with physics or principles like parsimony.

    Much of what you say is rather relatable and I don’t see much need to attempt a counterargument. I’d like to reply to this, though:

    Should I believe in a god out of fear of punishment?

    My answer would be an emphatic no. Fear is a horribly bad reason for belief. It prevents rational thought on these subjects.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *