When too much evidence is barely enough?

May 9th, 2012 in clues. Tags: , , , , ,

Detective

I’ve been discussing with atheists and other non-believers on the internet for about 6 years now, and patterns start to emerge. One pattern relates to the evidence required to believe in God. Generally, atheists say that beliefs should be based on evidence, and nothing else. Yet I see approaches to evidence that don’t conform to this.

Scientific evidence?

For an investigation to be useful, it must as much as possible avoid giving false positives (a result when none is warranted) or false negatives (no result when a positive conclusion is warranted). Typically atheists demand scientific evidence for God, despite:

  • Few of us base decisions in most areas of life (e.g. relationships including marriage, career, ethics, politics, etc) on scientific evidence.
  • Science is, by definition, limited to the natural world; God, by definition, lives outside the natural world. It is therefore clear that science will be unable to detect God. Science may be able to detect God’s actions in the world, but here, often, atheists demand an amazingly high level of evidence, like messages written in the sky or regrowth of missing limbs. And even this may not be enough …..

Thus they are choosing a method of inquiry that is unlikely to yield a positive result and may easily yield a false negative.

Hume and miracles

One possible evidence for God’ action in the world is the occurrence of documented miracles (see Healing miracles and God). But 18th century philosopher David Hume famously argued that, since a miracle was an extremely unusual event, we could never know if a miracle had occurred, because other explanations were always more likely. Philosophers these days are not so sure, because this argument makes an unjustified assumption about the probability of a miracle, and Bayes’ theorem shows that in some cases a miracle may be the most likely explanation.

But many atheists continue to use the argument. Strangely, this means that their disbelief in a miracle is based not on evidence as they claim, but on the supposed logic of Hume’s dictum and an unjustified assumption about the probability of a miracle.

Explanations?

The cosmological and teleological arguments start with unexplained scientific facts about the universe – what caused it, and why is it unexpectedly so ‘finely-tuned’ to allow life to occur? – and argue that creation by God is the most logical explanation.

Atheists often respond by arguing that “Goddidit!” is no explanation because it doesn’t add to our scientific understanding. This argument isn’t actually valid (see Who designed the designer?). But when pressed for their explanation, atheists tend to say that don’t know, or this isn’t a question we need to answer.

So in the end, most don’t have an explanation. So why use an alleged lack of explanation as an argument against theism?

Conclusion

There are strong arguments for and against belief in God. I believe the arguments for are, cumulatively, much stronger, whereas others think differently. But I can’t help wondering why it is that so many atheists set unrealistic criteria and use inconsistent arguments for their conclusions, and so almost ensure that they’ll never detect God even if he exists?

Some justify this approach by quoting Richard Feynman: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” But of course it’s just as possible to fool oneself by requiring too much certainty as by requiring too little. The ‘right’ course, surely, is to require appropriate evidence.

Read more ….

Notes:

  1. For the benefit of non-Aussies, the title of this post is taken from comedians Greig Pickhaver and John Doyle, who play sports commentators HG Nelson and Rampaging Roy Slaven. One of their mottos is “When too much sport is barely enough!”
  2. Photo from MorgueFile.

8 Comments

  1. “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”

    That is an interesting statement from a scientist, since science progresses by making erros and correcting them, some of which were inevitable at the time. You’d guess that making error-avoidance sacrosanct would stop science pretty much dead in its tracks? Do you know what the context is?

  2. I got it from a blogger who was criticising my belief in God. I checked it up at Wikiquote, and it came from a lecture “What is and What Should be the Role of Scientific Culture in Modern Society”, given at the Galileo Symposium in Italy (1964). I don’t know the contents of that lecture or this quote’s context within it.

  3. Except we’re not making a claim that no god exsits. YOU are claiming one DOES exist, therefore you have the Burden of Proof to provide evidence that your claim is correct. Atheism isn’t a claim at all- it’s a person calling BS on your claim. It’s the default position. There’s also the little fact that proving a universal negative is logically impossible- YOU can’t prove that unicorns don’t exist. Hell, you don’t have any evidence ZEUS doesn’t exist, but I don’t see you believing in him. Apparently basic logic eludes you.And how you made a leap from we expect you to actually support your claims to atheists have no conscience is ridiculous. You are just looking for an excuse for your prejudice. Not to mention being quite unethical yourself, in violating community guidelines by not actually asking a question.

  4. Hi Irina, thanks for reading and commenting. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?

    ” we’re not making a claim that no god exists”
    What statement would you make then?

    “you have the Burden of Proof to provide evidence that your claim is correct”
    I don’t feel any burden and I don’t think anyone can ‘prove’ very much at all outside mathematics. What do you think you can ‘prove’? But I can and do provide evidence for what I believe – you can read a summary in Why believe? and the links there. What evidence do you offer for whatever statements you would make?

    “Atheism isn’t a claim at all- it’s a person calling BS on your claim.”
    That sounds to me like a ‘claim’ – I would prefer to call it a statement or a proposition. Saying a statement of mine is BS means you would say it is wrong, doesn’t it? So what evidence do you have for making that statement?

    Do you wish to explain your view further for I would be happy to read your answers to these questions.

    Best wishes.

  5. The interesting thing is that, there would never have been any refutation of a god/gods had there not been claimants for their existence in the first place.

    If one had been around during the time of the ancient Romans or Greeks there was ample ‘evidence’ for gods; effigies and statues and all sorts of things to ‘prove’ of their existence.
    And of course, it was law to pay tribute to these gods.

    So why, when asked to provide evidence of your god do you balk at such a suggestion?
    The answer is plain. You cannot. Hence an atheist is quite justified in denouncing any claim Christians make regarding their so called god especially as they vehemently denounce every other reliogn and their gods.
    For the record, neither can any other religion provide any shred of evidence to back a claim of ‘god.’

  6. This is not evidence , merely supposition.
    To the question:
    Provide evidence that Jesus is God – one cannot. Belief is based solely on faith.

  7. “This is not evidence , merely supposition.”
    I suppose I could reply “That isn’t an argument, just an unsupported assertion.” But I won’t : ) According to the dictionary, evidence is “facts which support a conclusion”. Those references quote many facts (about cosmology, humanity, history and human experience), and draw conclusions from them, sometimes using rigorous logical arguments. Those facts support conclusions and are therefore evidence. If you draw different conclusions, the facts are still evidence. Why don’t you give up repeating this nonsense about faith having nothing to do with evidence, when we are clearly discussing evidence, and instead show how your conclusions better explain the evidence?

    “Belief is based solely on faith.”
    That may be a description of your beliefs (you seem to prefer to ignore the evidence that Jesus existed, so your beliefs are less based on evidence than mine are), but not of mine. If my beliefs were based solely on faith, I wouldn’t bother quoting historians, and there would be nothing there to quote anyway.

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