Thursday, October 6, 2016

Don McIntosh on Evidence - Wrong


Christians invent many ways to make themselves seem rational and reasonable while making atheists seem irrational and unreasonable.  While it is undoubtedly true that some Christians are quite reasonable, and some atheists are unreasonable, when you try to paint them with a broad brush, your depiction is likely to be distorted.  And this is especially true when you try to turn the tables on reality.  But that's what Don McIntosh attempts in his latest posting at the Christian Cadre, called The Celestial Teapot and Christian Theism.  Don has presented a straw man for the atheist's view of evidence and the opposite of that - an iron man - for the Christians' view.

Let's start with the straw man.  Don uses Russell's Teapot argument as an example what atheists would demand as evidence for belief in God.  The narrative is that we don't believe in the celestial teapot because we have never seen it.  And the same is true for God belief.  We don't believe it because we haven't seen God.
the fact that no one has empirically detected the celestial teapot means there is no evidence for it. ... a failure to provide any documentation of the Celestial Teapot means there is precisely zero evidence for the Celestial Teapot. This reductionism of evidence to "the thing itself" is what inspires skeptics to say things like "I'll believe just as soon as you show me your god"
And Don proceeds to contrast this with a more scientific view of evidence, where the existence of something is inferred from the body of data available to the observer.  For example, the existence of the Oort Cloud was not observed by astronomers, but inferred by the observation of long-period comets.  So scientists can infer the existence of things based on the evidence, but when it comes to God, atheists demand to see God in the flesh, so to speak, before they can believe in him.

The problem with this narrative is that it's absolutely false.  I've never heard even a single atheist say that only direct observation of God would constitute sufficient evidence to believe.  Even most fellow Christians recognize that what atheists want to see is evidence that would allow us to infer God's existence.  Most of them just think the evidence we want to see in order to infer God's existence is unreasonable, as discussed in this article.  But Don has a narrative, and he's sticking to it.

So why would he want to pin this obvious straw man on atheists?  I think it serves his purpose in two ways.  One is that if you accept that atheists hold this view, it implies an extremely unsophisticated concept of God.  Of course, we Christians understand that God can't be seen.  But those naive and unsophisticated atheists ... they don't get it.  Do you see how much smarter we are?  The second reason for the straw man is that it also shows the atheist to be scientifically unsophisticated as well, since he doesn't understand the scientific use of evidence to make inferences.  Unlike the much more sophisticated Christian, of course, who does understand this.

Which brings us to Don's iron man.  This is his view of Christians evidence-based belief in God.  He claims that Christians infer God from the evidence, since God is the best explanation for the things we observe.  And this makes them much more like scientists than the those unsophisticated atheists, who demand to see "the thing itself".  And this evidence is abundant:
Of course it is this second sense in which Christians appeal to evidence. In religious experience, the arguments of natural theology, historical evidence for the miracle ministry and resurrection of Jesus, etc., there is sufficient reason to impute causal powers to God far beyond "the power to just sit there." Thus there are many things for which God is the best explanation. Thus there is abundant evidence for Christian theism.
But this is an iron man because it sounds much more reasonable than it is.  In truth, objective evidence that would justify belief in God doesn't exist.  What does Don call "evidence"?  Religious experience is a purely subjective feeling that is interpreted in different ways, depending of what a person believes.  Arguments of natural theology are not evidence at all.  They are not what we observe, but they are arguments and inferences about what we observe, as I discuss here.  And what about historical evidence of miracles?  I would agree if they were adequately documented, but they aren't.  Biblical accounts with no corroboration from other sources are just myths.

So the bottom line is that Christians have to stretch the definition of evidence in order to claim that they have any.  Far from taking a scientific view of the evidence, they take a decidedly unscientific view of it.  They don't seem to understand that if this evidence was real, science would long ago have inferred God as the best explanation for what we observe.

But Don has a narrative, and he's sticking to it, despite all evidence to the contrary.

18 comments:

  1. ".... God is the best explanation for the things we observe."

    The archetypal christian non sequitur.
    Has it ever occurred to a christian, that if the evidence for the jesusgod was so overwhelming and beyond dispute, why is it that Jews did not for one moment over those 2,000 years subscribe to the reality of that evidence? Equally, if after 600 years of serious christian inculcation throughout the Middle East why is it that Muslims categorically eschewed such incontrovertible, incontestable, undeniable, irrefutable, and overwhelming unassailable factual evidence? I mean, that would be tantamount to Muslims stepping out a tenth floor window because they didn't believe in the incontrovertible, incontestable, undeniable, irrefutable, and overwhelming unassailable factual evidence for gravity. And yet, there they are along with the followers of Judaism, Hinduism, Scientology, stepping right off the parapet of a christian church every day of their lives without so much as a flinch, let alone a scratch or bruise resulting from defying the incontrovertible christian version of gravity.

    Ergo, incontestably, "Don has a narrative, and he's sticking to it, despite all evidence to the contrary".



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    1. I've had some good discussions with Don. It's surprising that he would make a bizarre claim like atheists demand to be shown God himself, which is clearly not true at all.

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    2. atheists who really see themselves as wagging war against evils of religion, the the Dawkamentalists they will always raise the bar just above where the apologists reach. they will never take a fixed position on what constitutes actually proof or even warrant,

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    3. Been there, done that. And so have many others. The problem is on your end, because you know damn well that real, objective evidence that would justify belief in God doesn't exist. Instead, you keep reaching into you bag of magic tricks and saying, "Look here. Here's evidence. You just can't see it, but I can tell you about it."

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  2. While it would be more convenient for God to directly reveal itself rather than have us try to demonstrate that God is the best explanation for the world, it's still mostly true in my experience that atheists only ask for the latter. If God is really the best explanation for the world as a whole then we should want arguments for this. Some theists do offer such arguments, but the fact that they aren't widely believed, even within the fields of expertise, makes it look like the arguments are failures.

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    1. you are not going way what atheists say on message board but y your own standards, a lot of atheists act like if we don't have direct overvaluation there's no evidence,I've seen it a thousand times.

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    2. he did reveal himself that's how I got saved

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  3. One of the features of a good explanation (as oppose to a bad explanation) is that it puts constraints on what can happen. When you explain the seasonal changes by the axial tilt of the Earth and it's revolving about the sun then what can happen with the seasons and other phenomenon is tightly constrained. However, if you try to explain the seasons based on some goddess being sad because her daughter is having to spend 6 months in Hades then just about anything can happen.

    When scientists conjecture a possible explanation for a phenomenon, say dark matter, those explanations place constraints on what can happen. Dark matter has to behave in a certain way in order to account for the observations that are being explained and that behavior leads to other conclusions that constrain the properties of dark matter – it is that constraint that allows there to be predictions about dark matter that can be tested.

    Unfortunately, Christians do not like to put any constraints on God. Saying that God can’t do anything that is against his own nature is hardly a constraint at all when the nature of God is ineffable. But without constraints, God can do anything and everything and that is no explanation at all.

    So, until theists are willing to specify, in some detail, what and how God does something then not only is ‘God did it’ not the best explanation, it is no explanation at all

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    1. God has always been the "go to" explanation for everything, in the absence of anything better. Science has consistently provided superior explanations that precisely nail down constraints on how things behave that are entirely consistent with what is observed. The big problem with Christians is that they refuse to recognize anything better than their "go to" explanation.

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    2. science and religion don;t compete. science hasn't been around that people have been asking questions a lot longer than science has been around.

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    3. Religion has always tried to answer questions for which it has no way of knowing the answers. How did the earth and cosmos form? Where did people come from? Yes, it has been around longer, but that doesn't mean it has more expertise in these things. And the fact that religion makes claims that can't be falsified, does not imply that those claims are factual or correct. What happens to us after we die? Our immaterial soul flies away to spend eternity with the great spirit. Sounds really nice, doesn't it? Sounds so much better than the person ceases to exist and the body decays. And that's why people want so desperately to believe the claims of religion.

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  4. Hey there Skeptical,

    Sorry I'm just now getting to this. I've been tied up with a writing project the last few weeks.

    There is much wrong with your analysis of my post. I'll try to make this brief:

    1. I never claimed the Celestial Teapot argument was "the atheist's view of evidence." I said it was a popular argument for atheism, and then explained why I believe that argument fails. If it's not your personal view of evidence as an atheist, great! That makes for one less thing we have to disagree about.

    2. The idea that (certain) atheists demand empirical detection of God himself in order to infer his existence is not really mine. It's an idea suggested by the Celestial Teapot argument itself – in describing the epistemic status of a physical object that cannot be detected by scientific instruments. Again, if you don’t follow the implications of that argument, then we agree that it's a bad argument for atheism. The evidential distinction between empirical detection of an object and inference to an explanation is something I picked up from Brian Garvey in his article, "Absence of Evidence, Evidence of Absence, and the Atheist’s Teapot" (Ars Disputandi, Vol. 10, No. 1, p. 9-22). Garvey is a well-respected philosopher writing in a peer-reviewed secular publication. I was basically following his lead.

    3. Many atheists do in fact argue from non-detectability to non-existence, Russell and Dawkins for starters. If Russell and Dawkins did not in fact mean to imply that God should be empirically accessible in order to exist, they should have picked another analogy. Indeed another popular argument for atheism, the argument from "divine hiddenness," takes non-experience of God as a major premise.

    4. I certainly didn't mean to imply that atheists are unintelligent or unsophisticated. That's very obviously false and I wouldn't try to make such an argument. It may be, though, that the critique of the Teapot argument helps to show those atheists given to a scientific epistemology that it's not that easy to render theism irrational with scientific analogies.

    5. Your summary dismissal of all evidence for God relies on a misunderstanding of the evidence. Religious experience, for example, is more than "a purely subjective feeling that is interpreted in different ways, depending of what a person believes." As our friend Joe Hinman has argued at length, religious experience is almost universally inter-subjective, and the numinous phenomenon is described in strikingly similar terms across all cultures. That doesn't directly entail that God exists, of course, but it is one source of evidence that favors God over atheism. Dawkins has argued that evolution is an explanation for "complicated things" in the biological world which appear, at least, to be designed. That makes complicated things prima facie evidence for theism. And many atheists would consider the other sources of evidence I mentioned (including the evidence cited in support of natural theology) to be valid evidence, but not strong evidence to overcome things like the problem of evil, say, or the laws of science.

    6. Finally, I think your conclusion is basically a non sequitur: "[I]f this evidence was real, science would long ago have inferred God as the best explanation for what we observe." This again misrepresents evidence as something that in and of itself entails a certain conclusion or explanation regardless of one's view of the world. It certainly doesn't hold for those countless scientists who have gone on record saying that God is not a permissible scientific explanation for anything we have discovered or may yet discover.

    In short: Between the two of us, you appear to be the only one speaking on behalf of all atheists everywhere.

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    1. Don, thank you for your reply.

      1. I never claimed the Celestial Teapot argument was "the atheist's view of evidence."
      - But you did say: "This reductionism of evidence to "the thing itself" is what inspires skeptics to say things like "I'll believe just as soon as you show me your god," or "So where is your little god-thingy?", and the like." And I have never EVER heard a skeptic or an atheist say that. You are presenting a straw man.

      2. The idea that (certain) atheists demand empirical detection of God himself in order to infer his existence is not really mine. It's an idea suggested by the Celestial Teapot argument itself – in describing the epistemic status of a physical object that cannot be detected by scientific instruments. Again, if you don’t follow the implications of that argument, ...
      - Russell's Celestial Teapot is not an argument - it's an analogy "to illustrate that the philosophic burden of proof lies upon a person making scientifically unfalsifiable claims, rather than shifting the burden of disproof to others. Russell specifically applied his analogy in the context of religion." - Wikipedia You are the one who doesn't understand what Russell was saying.

      3. If Russell and Dawkins did not in fact mean to imply that God should be empirically accessible in order to exist, they should have picked another analogy.
      - That is not what either of them have implied. The analogy is about burden of proof. Nothing more.

      4. It may be, though, that the critique of the Teapot argument helps to show those atheists given to a scientific epistemology that it's not that easy to render theism irrational with scientific analogies.
      - What you are showing here and now is that you don't understand what atheists say about theists' arguments for God.

      5. As our friend Joe Hinman has argued at length, religious experience is almost universally inter-subjective, and the numinous phenomenon is described in strikingly similar terms across all cultures.
      - With all due respect, Hinman's claims about "warrant for belief" are pseudo-scientific bullshit.

      Dawkins has argued that evolution is an explanation for "complicated things" in the biological world which appear, at least, to be designed. That makes complicated things prima facie evidence for theism.
      - No, it doesn't. Evidence is just what we observe. What you make of the evidence id determined by your objectivity and your application of logic. You need a basic understanding of what evidence is. Please read this.

      6. This again misrepresents evidence as something that in and of itself entails a certain conclusion or explanation regardless of one's view of the world.
      - If rational people examine the evidence objectively and use a correct logical process to reach a conclusion, there should at least be a consensus among them. This is how science works. And, yes, it is independent of their beliefs, as long as those beliefs don't influence the reasoning process.

      In short: Between the two of us, you appear to be the only one speaking on behalf of all atheists everywhere.
      - I don't claim to represent all atheists. But you clearly don't understand their arguments (or you simply choose to argue against a straw man).

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  5. Skeptical, you make some interesting points, most of which I honestly don't have time to address. But as to your main contention, that my argument is a straw man, here is at least one well reputed atheist (and I'm sure others could be found) asserting rather straightforwardly that because God cannot be detected, there is no evidence for God:

    "While we cannot prove that every conceivable god does not exist, we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a god that plays such an important role in the universe such as the Abrahamic God would have been detected by now. Absence of evidence is evidence of absence when the evidence that should be there is not." – Victor Stenger, "Absence of Evidence is Evidence of Absence," Huffington Post, May 25, 2011.

    Now I concede, it's certainly possible that you have never heard statements such as this (and again, it's certainly true that not all atheists share Stenger's implied positivism). But it hardly follows from the fact that there are limitations to your personal experience that my argument is a straw man.

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    1. Stenger is not talking about direct observation of "the thing itself". Listen to what he's saying: A "god that plays such an important role in the universe" is a god that leaves evidence of his existence by virtue of what he does - it's his interaction with the world that we should be able to observe. Stenger isn't quite as stupid as you prefer to think.

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  6. Right, and in my post I went from the idea of direct observation of the thing itself to the general notion of "detectability," as does Stenger. And again, I never questioned anyone's intelligence here. Talk about a straw man...

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    1. Forgive me if I misinterpreted what you wrote. But in your post, you credited Christians with the ability to infer things from the evidence.

      Of course it is this second sense in which Christians appeal to evidence.

      You did not admit that atheists do that. You said they insist on seeing "the thing itself". But maybe that's not what you were saying. Maybe I just don't get the whole point of your post.

      If you tried to understand what I am saying in my post, you might have a little more appreciation of what Stenger is saying. Evidence is all around us. But what does the evidence tell us? If you take an objective view of it, the naturalistic explanation fits the facts of what we observe much better than your God explanation. We don't see miracles. We don't see any objective reason to think the myths of the bible are true. We have inner experiences that may give us subjective feelings about what we already believe, but that's not objective reason to believe. If God does the things that Christians claim, we should see clear evidence of it. We should see things that can only be explained by a supernatural power acting on our world. We don't. Everything we see has a perfectly good natural explanation.

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  7. Thanks for the considered remarks, Skeptical. I think for the most part we misunderstood each other on a few subtle points. It doesn't help that we disagree on so much in the first place. To clarify, I don't think atheists are limited to "positivist" sorts who must empirically detect entities in order to infer their existence. And I certainly don't think atheists are unintelligent. Whether they are wise to repudiate faith is another matter. :-)

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