first, let's agree on our standards


A recent post on Pharyngula (worth reading) has me thinking about standards of evidence. So many theist/atheist conversations could be truncated if the two parties declared at the outset exactly what is required for them to accept any given claim as “true.” Unspoken assumptions about these standards end up frustrating both sides of the debate.

For example, I often hear something along these lines: “You are never going to be able to get the kind of scientific proof for God that you’re demanding.” The term “scientific” in these conversations subtly invokes the “non-overlapping magisteria” concept, implying that the atheist is locked into a laboratorial philosophic naturalism that prevents him/her from considering the possibility of something that by definition cannot be known.

Yet how can anyone–theist or atheist–claim that a god cannot be known or claim that there will never be a rational reason for believing that a god exists? If we agree on what “existence” means (and I really think we can), it is absurd to claim that a god–by definition–cannot be known. To do so would require the exact kind of knowledge about this god and its nature that is being called “impossible.” If a god exists, I maintain hope that we could actually find out. So far, there’s just no good reason to think that one exists.

And this leads to the second misunderstanding inherent in the question above: that rational inquiry (or “science”) is necessarily unable to discover some things about the universe. Science isn’t just something you do in the laboratory in a vain attempt to put god under the microscope. Science is an approach to life and reality that cares about distinguishing between true claims and false ones. When you do something as simple as looking for a candy bar that a friend told you was on your desk, you are using the scientific method to determine whether or not the statement is accurate.

My standards of evidence are simple: anything that exists has to make its case for existing. This does not preclude the existence of God, wind, computers, or fairies. I am not committed to philosophical naturalism, and I don’t know many atheists who are. And, as I said above, it is absurd (and internally contradictory) to say that a god can never be known by rational inquiry. But what cannot be rationally accepted as evidence of a god (or anything) are isolated appeals to ignorance, arguments from personal incredulity, or incoherent emotional testimonials that continually move the target back when questioned, rendering the claims unfalsifiable. If those are the standards of evidence you require to accept a claim as true, you should be a member of every religion, past and present.

Proper standards of evidence are found in a coherent epistemology. There will be multiple ways to explain anything, no matter how absurd the claim. True claims will stand up to rational inquiry, and the most reasonable of the varied explanations is the one that must be awarded the label of truth. Is there any better way of distinguishing between fact and fantasy?

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2 Responses to first, let's agree on our standards

  1. mikhailovich says:

    A few opening points:

    1. “Looking for proof”, as you said, is a misnomer. I’ve written quite a bit about the impossibility of proof or absolute certainty. What we’re looking for is the preponderance of evidence to reach a justified conclusion, etc., etc.

    2. Because of this, no epistemology is flawless. Yet not being able to know everything does not prevent us from distinguishing helpful systems from somewhat helpful ones from utterly useless ones. My epistemology could be predicated on the belief that everything reported in the Epic of Gilgamesh is absolute truth. Helpful? No. And indistinguishable from a similar reliance on the Bible.

    3. The scientific method is not limited to what can be empirically observed right now. This is what allows fields like paleontology or even geology to exist. To use your example, there are multiple lines of evidence that would inform us about the type of tornado that moved through an area after it had dissipated, not least among which would be the fact that we’ve observed other tornadoes in the past, know their effects and causes, and most importantly–know they exist.

    This is why defining standards is important. Even if a tornado whipped through an area and nobody saw it, determining what happened would not be a controversial process. E.g., we’d both probably rule out aliens. We would agree that our knowledge of a tornado’s effects, along with precedent and a study of the antecedent environmental conditions, is enough to reach a justified conclusion about what happened. We would agree that our standards of evidence had been met. And what’s more, the scientific method always allows for the possibility that we might have reached an incorrect conclusion.

    Where we disagree, however, is on what standards of evidence are required to accept certain religious claims. You are necessarily engaged in special pleading if you choose to accept the Bible as authoritative. (Again, I’ve written extensively on that topic previously.) I can’t handle that cognitive dissonance. And in this area, at least, my standards are more reasonable; you’ve lowered your standards for accepting the Bible in a way that you would never lower them for another religious text, or for any other claim about reality.

    The very fact that we would have to discuss what evidence is required to accept a claim as true demonstrates the importance of defining our standards.

  2. T. Tennent says:

    Your line of reasoning makes sense if you are looking for a candy bar on someone’s desk, but is less than sufficient for larger questions of epistemology. Let us suppose, for example, that a tornado touches down on a small town and wipes out the entire village and then disappears. Let us forther suppose, for the sake of argument, that no one survived who “saw” it. The enquirer who is “looking for proof” of the tornado has to rely upon a secondary line of reasoning; namely, the effects of the tornado and, from that evidence, reason back to the proposition that a tornado did, indeed, pass through this area. There are many examples like this. God is not in the category of a “candy bar on the desk” and therefore cannot be “discovered” using this particular line of approach. God does not dwell in temporal or spatial categories and therefore the approach must be different. It is true that Christianity teaches that God became incarnate in Jesus Christ – i.e. God entered into temporality and spatiality and, for a season, the Subject of all existence became the object for us to examine, look at and touch (See, I John 1:1).

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