Thoughts on the Nature of Evidence

Today I thought about evidence. Not any evidence about anything in particular at first, but more about the root characteristics of evidence – what it is, what it isn't, when it is strong, when it is weak, etc. What we call evidence is merely nothing more than some fact or feeling, and it occurred to me that many of us (myself included) misunderstand the nature of evidence we often hang belief upon. Even more interesting was the discovery that in debates between atheists and believers, much evidence is inconclusive as opposed to genuine. Genuine evidence lends well to incontrovertible conclusions. On the contrary, inconclusive evidence cannot reliably sustain incontrovertible conclusions. Also note that several pieces of inconclusive evidence pointing to a conclusion carry greater weight than just one piece.

Today I'm thinking there are fewer forms of undeniable evidence than we think. We can sensibly prove things like murders and burglaries with reasonably incontrovertible evidence – things like DNA, fingerprints, video recordings, etc. Such evidence lends well to singular conclusions, but to prove a crime you need at least two existing parties before trial may even commence. The primary purpose of the courtroom is not to question existence but behavior, and in discourse between atheists and believers, God's existence is the fact in question. So in what cases might one claim to have evidence for or against God?

If we approach the question from a scientific standpoint, things change. Trials in science differ from legal trials in that only one existing party need be present – the scientist. Questioning the existence of something is standard fare for science; plasma, atoms and dark matter come to mind. A good scientist selects natural facts and arranges them to build a solid case about the workings of nature. In science, evidence has varying degrees of weight as well, and one can prove many things incontrovertibly to any reasonable observer, but the things themselves do not prove incontrovertibly that God exists. Natural phenomena make for poor evidence in the case for or against God's existence.

When I said earlier that much evidence was inconclusive, by that I mean too that people often claim some fact or concept as evidence to support their belief, when the fact or concept is open to more than one interpretation. Allegations of fraud notwithstanding, fingerprints of John Doe on a proven murder weapon lend well to a singular conclusion, but neither changed lives, the speed of light, nor vestigial organs prove anything conlusively, except that humans categorize facts as evidence when they are open to more than one interpretation.

There are potential facts (evidence) that can incontrovertibly prove the existence of higher powers and/or higher intelligences. Miracles would fall into this category. Yet as of late, most miraculous accounts are entirely subjective and involve long-deceased people, or are otherwise limited in space and time. This is not to say a genuine global miracle has not occurred, or that such a miracle cannot occur; only that today, persuasive examples appear ostensibly scarce.

And this is not to say there is no good reason to believe in God, either. This will differ from person to person as well. The very things one sees as evidence of God's existence, another often sees as evidence of God's absence.

2 Comments

  1. Greg Lang says:

    I like to think about how the world that I perceive is relative to me and my perspective. The way I compose the world and universe is entirely unique. Evidently there are things here that I am seeing, feeling, smelling, etc. However, what I perceive is not necessarily there for everyone. Someone else sees the same place from a different angle giving a different perspective. These ideas are wonderous as well as slightly depressing. We can begin to understand how unique and important everyone is. Yet, at the same time we can potentially realize how alone we may actually be. The part that truly blows my mind is that even though we see things differently we can somehow agree that we are seeing the same thing. We can both agree that the leaves on a tree are green. But we will never know if your perception of green is the same as mine even if we agree on a shade as green. Your green could be my red but I just call my red green.

  2. cl says:

    Good comment – I think about the color thing all the time – color obviously exists, but some people are colorblind. Sound exists, some of us are deaf. The sky emits light at a certain wavelength (blue) regardless of whether or how our eyes and brains react.
    There seems to be another class of things which are truly relative. I like Xbox, Joe likes Wii; my green is Joe’s red!

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