Tuesday, August 25, 2015

How to Respond to Theists' Three Easy Questions


Shadow To Light believes there is a simple way to defeat atheism by posing three simple questions that will send them packing with their tails between their legs.  His confidence is based on the idea that the atheist unreasonably demands evidence for what he believes, but has poor understanding of what constitutes evidence.
First of all, Greene is working with a shallow, superficial understanding of evidence. He seems to think that if certain data were indeed evidence for X, then these data would be universally perceived and acknowledged as evidence for X. But that is not how evidence works. Evidence is not objective reality that is detected by the senses; evidence is perceived by the mind. The mind converts data from objective reality into the subjective perception of evidence. Because the perception of evidence depends on interpretation from the mind, evidence itself is something that has a distinct subjective element to it. In fact, it would not be too far from the truth to note that evidence is in the eye of the beholder.
He has a point.  Skeptics should admit that there is plenty of evidence that theists use to support their belief.  But he's absolutely wrong that subjective evidence merits the same epistemological status as objective evidence.  Theists can point to plenty of poor evidence that only serves to reinforce their own belief, but when it comes to the kind of evidence that actually provides epistemological justification for belief, they have nothing.

But Shadow To Light thinks that the atheist is rigging the game by seeking the kind of evidence that he would find satisfactory to justify belief.  Not in the least.  As much as theists would like to denigrate the need real evidence, in favor of their own brand of epistemological hogwash, there is an actual definition for the word 'evidence' that is considered to be generally useful, as I noted in an earlier article, and it involves objective, factual information - not subjective feelings.  So it isn't atheists who are rigging the game by demanding objective, factual evidence.  It is the theist who is rigging the game by trying to change the definition to fit what he thinks is satisfactory to confirm the belief of people who have already been convinced.  This paper by Alex Byrne, chairman of the philosophy section at MIT, discusses the epistemic value of factual versus perceived evidence.  I'd like to see Shadow To Light present the case to Dr. Byrne that his understanding is shallow and superficial.

So let's answer Shadow To Light's questions, shall we?

"Question 1: What would you count as “actual, credible, real world evidence for God?"  First, it must be objective.  It must be something that everyone can see and examine - and not just hearsay.  Second, it must be something that never occurs, or at least has a vanishingly small probability of occurring in nature, especially something that is sustained or repeated, so that it can't be written off as just a one-time improbable event.  It needs to be something we have no current technological ability to produce.  And there is no need for it to be dramatic. 

Here are examples of things that won't convince skeptics:  Sunsets or sun rays shining through the clouds may seem miraculous to theists, but they are perfectly natural.  Stories about miracles that other people claim to have witnessed don't cut it.  It needs to be visible to everybody.  That spiritual feeling you have deep inside may be really awesome, but it is subjective.  Remember, the idea here is to convince non-believers, not to feed your own confirmation bias.  The authors of the New Testament understood this.  They wrote about Jesus going around performing hard-core miracles, not trying to convince people by showing them pretty sunsets.  If only we had a chance to see those miracles for ourselves instead of just reading the stories.

Atheists have suggested many things that they might find convincing, such as special arrangements of stars or atoms that spell out some message.  Or finding messages written on the inside of fruit peels or egg shells.  How about regenerating amputated limbs?  Or an urn that never empties, no matter how much is poured from it?  How about predicting future events (not just one time, but repeatedly and reliably)?

"Question 2: Why would that dramatic, miraculous, sensational event count as evidence for God?"  Because it indicates clearly that there is something supernatural.  Shadow To Light calls this "God of the Gaps logic" because he doesn't understand what that term means.  Theists use "God of the Gaps" logic when they resort to God as the explanation for natural phenomena for which there is no current prevailing scientific consensus.  But that's not the same thing as explaining supernatural phenomena.  And let's be clear.  Supernatural phenomena are things that we don't ever see in nature - things that defy the well-established laws of nature.  Seeing something that really is supernatural would be good evidence that the supernatural exists.  Evidence is good evidence if it is objective and factual.

"Question 3: Is the God of the Gaps reasoning a valid way of determining the existence of God?"  No, it isn't.  As I explained, the answer to question 2 is different from "God of the Gaps", where the term 'gaps' refers to areas of scientific understanding that are incomplete, but with further investigation may eventually be understood scientifically.  But whether there is a consensus scientific explanation or not, science deals with things that occur in nature.  So theists exploit those gaps to claim that natural phenomena, such as the existence of mind, are supernatural.  On the other hand, there is no need to have a scientific explanation for things that never occur in nature.  There is no explanatory gap for corpses rising from the dead, because it never happens.  So if we suddenly did see such a thing and we deemed it to be supernatural, that wouldn't be "God of the Gaps" logic.

"Bonus question: I’ll provide evidence for God’s existence, but can you first provide evidence that you are capable of considering my evidence in an open- and fair-minded manner?"  Absolutely.  Because it won't just be me evaluating the evidence.  We'll open it up for the whole world to see and examine.  No chance for me to rig the game, and no chance for you to rig the game, either.  We must agree on a fair and standard definition for evidence: objective and factual - not your subjective theistic special pleading.  And it has to be the consensus among non-believers (not just among theists, since they are already convinced) that the evidence actually indicates something supernatural.  These rules of the game are perfectly reasonable and fair.  If you don't think so, it is only because of your theistic bias.

Now go ahead and show me the evidence.  I'll be waiting, but I know that will never happen.  Theists love to scoff and ridicule skeptics for their "Demand For Evidence".  Why so much disdain for what seems to be a reasonable request for epistemic justification to believe something?  Because you don't have any.

4 comments:

  1. Just to prove my point, Bob Prokop comments over at Victor's:

    "That's fine. But first you have to understand that if you mean by "evidence", you mean empirical observation, you're never going to get it! Anything that is observable, testable, pin-downable, is by definition going to belong to the created world, what we call the universe. But the Creator (God) is obviously not part of creation. So asking for that sort of evidence is like trying to see the back of your head without a mirror."

    Now, you should be aware that this guy loudly proclaims that the gospels are literally true. You know, the very same gospels where Jesus goes around performing all those miracles for everyone to see. If it could happen then, there's no reason it can't happen now.

    But Bob is smart enough to understand that it ain't gonna happen. He's just completely blind to the idea that the stories in the bible might be works of fiction.

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  2. UberGenious asks questions that seem far more intelligent than anything the regular cultists at Victor's have said:
    "It seems that a calm response would suffice. "On your view, how would you ground morality?" "Given that science says that, "out of nothing nothing comes,"and the Universe had a beginning, don't we need an uncaused agent that is powerful enough to create space, time, and the four laws of physics, the initial matter, and fine-tune it for life? Aren't all your cosmologies more untestable then any proposition I've made? Isn't every scientific fact less knowable than your direct knowledge of your soul? Doesn't skepticism about a creator run into the evidence that the only time we see creation (efficient causation) in our world it is through intelligent agents?"

    1. "How would you ground morality?" I would start with the understanding that morality evolved because it is beneficial for us to live cooperatively. I would add to that the idea that our morality only gives is general rules of thumb to guide behavior. All the details are subject to the whims of society and other factors that are not constant. So there really is no absolute grounding for morality. The fact that individuals may have a strong sense of morality does not imply that there is any permanent objective truth to it.

    2. "Don't we need an uncaused agent that is powerful enough to create space, time, and the four laws of physics, the initial matter ... ?" No. Science does not tell us that "out of nothing nothing comes". But logic tells us that whatever exists either existed forever, or came from nothing. Logic does not tell us that there must be some intelligent agent involved in any case. That is nothing more than theistic presupposition.

    3. "... and fine-tune it for life?" Again a theistic presupposition. The universe is not tuned for anything. It is impossible that we should find ourselves living in a universe that doesn't support life. But it is certainly possible that we could have lived in a universe that is more friendly to life than this one.

    4. "Aren't all your cosmologies more untestable then any proposition I've made?" Certainly not. While we may devise ways to test our cosmological theories, the God hypothesis is utterly untestable.

    5. "Isn't every scientific fact less knowable than your direct knowledge of your soul?" Certainly not. If we know anything, it is by means of the evidence of our senses. We have no knowledge of a soul - only theistic presuppositions that such a thing exists, and emotional feelings that are interpreted by some as "evidence".

    6. "Doesn't skepticism about a creator run into the evidence that the only time we see creation (efficient causation) in our world it is through intelligent agents?" - Certainly not. We see things being created in nature all the time with no intelligent agent involved in the process. The only time we see tings created by an intelligent agent is when a person makes something, and in that case, it is always far less complex than the biological structures made by nature. So contrary to the theories if the ID folks, if something we see is too complex, we can be sure that it is not made by any humans.

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  3. Steve Lovell enters the fray with the usual straw man representation of an atheist's position on evidence [with my own remarks that come much closer to the way these conversations really go]:

    "Atheist: Give me evidence [Give me something that has epistemic value.]
    Theist: Here you go [I offer you sunsets and emotional feelings.]
    Atheist: That doesn't count [Sunsets and feelings are not valid reasons for me to believe.]
    Theist: Why not? [That's the only evidence I have. It's good enough for me.]
    Atheist: Nothing could ever count [Nothing has ever happened that merits belief in the supernatural, but if it ever did, I would accept it as evidence. I'm not holding my breath, though, because it never happens.]
    Theist: So why did you ask for something you would never accept had been provided? [Why won't you accept evidence that has no epistemic value, like I do?]
    Atheist: Because ... [You said you have evidence, but all you have is sunsets and feelings. There are natural explanations for sunsets and feelings. That's no reason for me to believe.]

    Not all debates go like that, but it seems to me that rather a lot of them do."

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  4. And then, of course, there grodrigues:
    "If people like Parsons need a magician's trick to be convinced ("Stars aligning and spell out 'I am God'" or some such) then Christians should stop pretending that they are dealing with *rational* people amenable to be convinced by *rational* dialogue. Rational dialogue is about the evidence there is -- Apostles: we *witnessed*; Aquinas: God's existence can be proved in Five ways, etc. -- not some contrived irrational (Shadow to Light's critique is spot on) would-be scenario."

    If people like Parsons can't ever witness a magician's trick to be convinced ("Stars aligning and spell out 'I am God'" or some such) then Christians should stop pretending that they believe in the magician's tricks described in the gospels. Rational dialogue is about the evidence there is -- nobody ever saw one of these magician's tricks - not today - not in biblical times - not ever.

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