No-Evidence Arguments: Evidence for God?

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This is the the fourteenth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear.

In the last post I looked at an argument for atheism that requires a higher standard than will easily convince many people (one I happen to think is incredibly implausible). There is a weaker argument available to an agnostic or atheist against believing in God, given in its most famous form by W.K. Clifford. Some philosophers call this the no-evidence argument:

1. It is wrong to believe something without sufficient evidence.
2. We don't have (and shouldn't expect ever to have) enough evidence for belief in God.
3. Therefore, we should not believe in God.

As with any philosophical argument whose premises really do guarantee its conclusion (as seems true of this argument), the key work in defending the argument will be supporting each premise, and the efforts of those who criticize the argument will focus on questioning either premise (or both). In this post, I'll focus on the second premise, whether there is enough evidence. In the next post, I'll assume there is not enough evidence and see what follows.

As with the last post in this series, some of my presentation is influenced by the chapter by John Hawthorne called "Arguments for Atheism" in Michael Murray, Reason for the Hope Within. This post isn't as close to what Hawthorne focuses on as the last one was or the next one will be, but the general framework I'm working with in these posts is from him, and this post falls within that framework.

Evaluating the second premise

Some theists question the second premise. They say there is enough evidence. But what might be evidence for some (e.g. religious experience) is not evidence for those without such experiences. That leaves things that need to be explained -- historical events (e.g. miracles) available to all or some fact that can be pointed at. The main competitor to traditional theism is naturalism, which roughly says that the natural world is all there is (or, as some would prefer to say, what natural science can tell us is all we can know about). A naturalist insists that science can explain anything that looks like a miracle. We end up with conflicting analyses of the same events. Theists might claim that only divine influence can explain it, while naturalists claim that science, and ultimately physics, can account for it, but we just don’t know enough yet to give the explanation. (In the next post, I'll consider how to sort through competing theories given evidence that each theory can explain. For now, I'll just recognize that naturalists don't feel threatened by this sort of evidence, because it's the sort of thing that they think naturalism can explain, even if we don't have the actual explanation of every case.)

Another piece of evidence might be some body of holy scripture. For example, some theists see such coherence in the Bible that would be unexpected if its origins were merely human. It tells a comprehensive story of the universe, including why we exist, where things are headed, our purpose, and an intuitively compelling account of human nature. These theists say the story fits so well with what seems right and fits together so well that it's hard to believe it's merely from lots of humans over thousands of years from different cultures as ancient Israel in its pre-monarchical state, later a successful kingdom, and then later a besieged kingdom taken captive by the world power of Babylon and Persia, and even later Roman Palestine leading into the Christian era with Greek and Roman thought and all their influences coming on the scene. The unity of theme, content, and direction suggests to these theists that the Bible, though written through human beings, had a divine origin. For the outline of how such an argument might go, see my argument that the Bible can be evidence for Christianity without assuming that the Bible or Christianity is true. Naturalists have an account of how the Bible came together without divine origins, but theists (and some non-theists) are unconvinced by the standard picture given within mainstream biblical scholarship. This alternate account has been a major project of the last couple hundred years. Whether this sort of thing will count as good evidence will depend on how all those arguments pan out, and that's a very specific project whose details are unknown to most people, theists and atheists alike.

A more specific example of this kind of evidence would be the fulfillment of prophecy from older texts in more recent events, which would require too much space to include it here (though the above-linked passage has a little more to say about some of this and what follows). Another would be the themes in the Greek Bible (i.e. New Testament) that tie together and make sense of tensions already existing in the Hebrew Bible (i.e. Old Testament), tensions that don't seem to have been dealt with in a balanced way by most Jewish sects existing at the time of Jesus. A first-century Jewish leader named Paul provided such an account that fit very well with what Christians had been teacing about Jesus. This man had persecuted early Christians for believing in a Messiah who could get killed in an accursed way (dying on a tree). His radical change of heart led him to be a leader in the early Christian church with such heartfelt emotional outpouring for fellow Christian believers and a willingness to be tortured and die for his new beliefs in someone he now believed to be God who came in human flesh. Some have trouble understanding how this could be unless he really did encounter a resurrected Jesus. Non-Christians have to explain this another way, perhaps questioning if our information on Paul is correct or perhaps by taking him to have been mentally unstable or deceived in some way.

Some say life makes sense if there's a God but not otherwise. Life has meaning and purpose. God explains why there's a universe and why certain things appear to be designed (because of complexity or the appearance of having a purpose). Some say morality makes little sense without God. (I'll cover three of these arguments in more detail in later posts.) There's also the fact that so many people have believed in a higher power for so long and across so many cultural barriers. Naturalism gives an explanation of how everything came about (the Big Bang, evolutionary theory, scientific laws, etc.). We have an account of how things got so complex and why they seem to be designed (natural selection). We have psychological accounts of how people come to believe (see details below). So there’s an alternate explanation for all the evidence. Theists counter that none of this answers the why questions, just the how questions. (For example, why did the Big Bang take place? Why did evolution lead to rational beings who can make moral decisions? Why would it be wrong to torture infants just for the fun of it if there's no God and no overarching moral truths beyond just our preferences?) Naturalists insist that we don’t need to answer those why questions, just the how questions. That's what a scientific theory is about. Theists insist we need to go beyond any science that doesn't answer why questions, and the debate seems to come to a standstill at that fundamental difference.

Naturalism, according to the naturalist, has as good an account of the evidence as theism and would give a naturalistic explanation of each piece of evidence for theism. Evolutionary theory is an account of how humans came from a single-celled organism. Naturalists can see religion as wish-fulfillment, a coping strategy for death anxiety (Bertrand Russell), a way to make a powerful being in our own image (Ludwig Feuerbach), a way to retain a father figure when you no longer (or never did) have a strong father figure or when you mature and can't rely on a human parent for everything (Sigmund Freud), or as a way to keep the masses in line (Karl Marx). There is an area in the brain that evolved, according to this account, to provide us with experiences that we now call religious experiences.

Asserting these accounts may involve assuming theism is false (e.g. if God exists, and we can know it, then theism wouldn't be just a coping strategy; if God exists, people may interact with God or spiritual reality, and the above-mentioned area of the brain would reflect that interaction and not just be a creator of false experiences). So asserting these may beg the question by assuming what you're trying to prove. But they may still serve as an alternative account, even if they can't be shown to be true, just as the evil demon case with skepticism is an alternative account that can’t be proved wrong or right.

What do we say about all this? One problem is that I plan to look in more detail at three arguments against naturalism, arguments commonly thought of as arguments for the existence of God. So everything I say at this point has to be tentative, basically as if those will be inconclusive, and I don't think they're entirely inconclusive. But assuming no fruit from such arguments, what should we think of just the evidence I've talked about in this post? I don't think they're absolutely conclusive, and I think different people might place different degrees of support behind some of the for theism. I don't think any of this would be a proof, but I do think some of it counts as evidence. The problem is that there are alternative accounts of much of the evidence. What should we say if we're faced with two theories that have equally exhaustive accounts that seek to explain all the evidence? Should we throw up our hands and say either side is good enough, or should we find a different way of measuring which theory is better? Naturalists typically take the second option, and that will take us to looking at the first premise that I've so far ignored. The next post in this series will explore that.

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I am so sorry I do not have the time in this post to delve into the details, but in my reading today I came across posts on Atheism and on Calvinism. @ Parableman @ Evangelical Outpost @ Sceptical Rant... Read More

4 Comments

Interested blog.
Thanks for that.
Sailom

I enjoyed reading this post (and the previous one), and look forward to more. You touch on so many dimensions of the debate between theism and naturalism in this post (including religious experience, morality, design). I would like to comment on a subset of the question at hand. I think the most compelling no-evidence argument would be one with this more restrictive revised premise 2: we don’t have enough evidence for a God who makes intermittent (or ad hoc) contra-lawful interventions in the world. This to me is a valid inference from the success of methodological naturalism (and conflicting evidence from texts which pre-date science wouldn't be persuasive on this point). Please note this is not a blanket argument against God, just against certain conception of God and his action in the world.

Steve, the problem with framing the problem that way is that it isn't really going to result in much of a difference from how I framed it. I don't have a problem with framing it that way, but I don't think it will lead to a different result. My reason for that is that you still have two competing theories, each of which is fully consistent with all the evidence. If God intervenes intermittently enough to have the most noticeable times reported in a body of scripture but not enough for people to witness it in a scientifically credible way, then all our evidence is explained just as well as if God never intervenes either because God doesn't exist or because God simply chooses not to intervene in a way that contravenes what would otherwise seem to be the laws of nature. I don't see how framing the discussion in terms of a God who sometimes intervenes would result in any difference in the terms of the conversation. You still have two competing views, both explaining the evidence and neither contradicting it. How this affects the issues in the next post is another story. I could say what I'm going to say in the next post, but I might say it differently if the theistic view I'm dealing with asserts this sort of intervention than I would if it doesn't.

Just to be clear, I'm not assuming either one for the sake of these posts, but I'm not ruling out intervention in anything I say. Since I've been thinking all along that the theism in question can allow that (since I think the correct theistic view does allow that), nothing I say will ultimately be affected by it. It's not as if I've forgotten that theists tend to believe in that sort of thing.

OK. Thanks Jeremy.

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