Asteroids, Cathode Rays & Requisite Knowledge: More Thoughts On Evidence

I’ve written recently on evidence here, here and here, and one can always visit TWIM’s Epistemology category to dig deeper.

Many atheists—dare I say the majority—operate under the assumed premise that “there’s no evidence for God (and/or the supernatural).” Many wave this around as some sort of trump card, but I opine that such is merely biased opinion masquerading as justification for denial. Like DD, I believe “there’s no evidence for God” is one of the worst arguments floating around (a)theism, and I remain puzzled as to the strange, pseudo-intellectual pretense with which I see that argument waged. Today and tomorrow, I’d like to review two examples from science’s history that I think illustrate the weakness of the “there’s no evidence for God” argument. The larger analogy to (a)theism should be apparent.

In actuality, what the person who utters those words really means is that they’ve not been persuaded by anything hitherto offered as evidence, which is an accurate assessment of the matter. From an atheist, this is also a tautology, because if it’s known that the person who says “there’s no evidence for God” is an atheist, that they’ve not yet been persuaded by any evidence is merely redundant. In rigorous discussion, I believe one would be justified in rejecting the “no evidence for God” argument solely on these grounds (subjectivity, tautology), but I think we have other sound reasons to reject it.

Note that “there’s no evidence for X” is really just a generic argument where X always represents some proposition whose theoretical or ontological possibility is being denied. Yet, show me a true theory today that did not have its skeptics and doubters yesterday. Airplanes, telephones and relativity were all vehemently objected to by skeptics and doubters who now ironically enjoy the benefits of each. Before more optimistic minds made these things happen, many skeptics claimed they’d never happen.

This leads to an interesting question: what does it mean to say that we have evidence for a given proposition? With that in mind, let’s go ahead and take a look at asteroids.


Image source: smithsonianmag.com

Imagine you and I could transport ourselves through time to visit Aristotle and rebuke his notion that Earth has existed unchanged for all eternity. We might tell him a thing or two about modern cosmologies, or the second law of thermodynamics, and might also mention things like asteroids, and how their impacts have literally changed both Earth and the history of life itself. After all, if it weren’t for asteroids, there wouldn’t be a moon, so the story goes.

Claims about huge, flying rocks in outer space might certainly sound absurd to Aristotle, who may or may not have resisted our premises, but what’s more interesting to me is the following question: if we limit ourselves strictly to the body of extant data we had access to in Aristotle’s time, could Aristotle have accepted our premises justifiedly? Or, from another angle, if Aristotle were to challenge our assertion of asteroids, what would we be able to point to as our evidence? Could we justify belief in asteroids based on data that was extant in Aristotle’s time?

I think we can, but I’m not surprised nobody did, and I’m willing to posit that perhaps the primary reason they didn’t is because they lacked requisite knowledge. I realize that sounds like just a snobby intellectual’s way of saying, “They didn’t know,” but what I’m seeking to explain here is why they didn’t know, and note that know in the instance I just used it should be read as a verb.

The African country of Algeria is situated just across the Mediterranean from where Aristotle was, and there one can find the Talemzane, Amguid and Tin Bider meteorite craters. Those craters were there before Aristotle ever walked the Earth. In fact, there are many craters all over Earth that have existed for a very long time. Those meteor and meteorite craters are evidence of asteroids. They were in Aristotle’s time, just as they are now. The evidence was always there, it’s just that we had no idea what to look for. If somebody would have somehow via intuition or revelation or just sheer brainpower deduced that these huge holes in the ground resulted from impacts with huge, flying rocks from outer space they would have been correct, regardless of how boisterous and inflammatory their critics got.

In the case of asteroids, later—when the requisite knowledge became sufficient in the form of advanced technology and theory—it became “reasonable” to believe that which was undeniably true the whole time. This illustrates that oft-forgotten idea that what’s true doesn’t need our permission to exist. That the majority only deemed asteroid belief “reasonable” within the last few centuries says nothing except that the majority need more permission from “heroes in labcoats” to justify their convictions. The intellectual renegade—the freethinker—doesn’t need such permission.

If by evidence we mean nothing more than data consistent with some hypothesis, then even in Aristotle’s day the claim “there’s no evidence for asteroids” was false, because the Talemzane, Amguid and Tin Bider meteorite craters were right there, along with all the others littered across the globe. The evidence for asteroids has always been there, but the body of requisite knowledge was simply insufficient for the average individual to connect the dots. So, even when claims of type “there’s no evidence for X” are accurate, this still expresses nothing more than the fact that no known human being has yet proposed a piece of data in favor of X. Quite literally, that doesn’t mean anything. At every instance where we lacked evidence for true proposition X, X remained true despite our inability to recognize the evidence that was right before us.

…with the passage of time, traces of events become more and more attenuated, and eventually they may disappear. Alternatively, they may be present but very degraded. Finding them may require advances in technology. The discovery of the three-degree background radiation depended upon the development of very sensitive antennas for communicating with satellites. Similarly, a particle accelerator (cyclotron) was used to discover the iridium in the K-T boundary.
Carol E. Cleland, Ph.D, Historical science, experimental science, and the scientific method, GEOLOGY, November 2001

For even the best minds of any given age, a certain degree of requisite knowledge is required to connect the epistemological dots of any given claim. Darwin need Lyell’s work before him, just as Einstein needed Newton’s before him, just as Wilson and Penzias needed the work of Dicke and his team before them. Such is what’s implied in the “standing on the shoulders of giants” remark. All the pertinent “traces” that might point to a smoking gun for things metaphysical could literally be amongst us right now, as we speak, despite the thriving “skeptical publishing” industry. As was the case with evolution, relativity, big bang cosmology, and so many other facts or “provisional facts” of nature, we might just need to connect a few more epistemological dots when it comes to questions of metaphysics, God, and things like [human] consciousness.

What if we evaluate “there’s no evidence for X” probabilistically? It is beyond dispute that historically speaking, a very large percentage of “there’s no evidence for X” claims have turned out to be false. Today’s reality was often yesterday’s impossibility. Overconfident skeptics would do well to remember that for all claims of type “there’s no evidence for X,” a certain percentage of those claims are assuredly false a priori. So, when the skeptic asserts that “there’s no evidence for God,” what evidence do I have that theirs is in the category of “there’s no evidence for X” claims that are true, as opposed to the category of “there’s no evidence for X” claims that are false?

Quite simply, you need a solid foundation to support a strong house. For me, what this all goes back to is that life’s profound questions are much more than a simple matter of asserting “there’s no evidence for X,” and then posturing ourselves in the sand defensively. What we are able to accurately identify as evidence for a given hypothesis changes. Without a lick of doubt, I can say we are currently overlooking extant data that would reverse conventional theories across multiple fields of science. We just saw this in evolutionary biology with the recent upheaval in avian lineage. Such is the nature of things, as science and the body of total knowledge continually expands.

Evidence for asteriods has been here who-knows-how-many years, but it wasn’t until a mere few centuries ago that we realized, “Hey, these big holes in the ground are evidence of huge, flying rocks in outer space!” The point is, in all cases where skeptics were wrong, the evidence for the proposition they denied was either theoretically or ontologically right there in front of them.

Who knows how many other true propositions skeptics reject thus? Isn’t there a very real chance that such is also the case with the skeptic’s denial of God, metaphysics, and everything spiritual? If so, doesn’t this very real chance expose as foolishness the confidence with which many skeptics assert their denial?

**to be continued tomorrow

12 Comments

  1. Well said! I look forward to part 3.

  2. John Morales says:

    So, you’re saying there’s evidence for God (and/or the supernatural), but atheists either dispute it’s evidence or claim it’s not convincing.
    This is not controversial.
    Of note:

    Note that “there’s no evidence for X” is really just a generic argument where X always represents some proposition whose theoretical or ontological possibility is being denied.

    You are wrong.
    Counter-example: “There’s no evidence that my wife is plotting to kill me”.
    (Here, X represents “my wife is plotting to kill me”, clearly both a theoretical and an ontological possibility.)

    If by evidence we mean nothing more than data consistent with some hypothesis, then even in Aristotle’s day the claim “there’s no evidence for asteroids” was false […]

    But the cardinality of the space of hypotheses that can be proposed to explain any given set of observations is mind-boggling.
    Regarding evidence for the existence of something, I’d expect there to be scientific evidence, not just anecdote and opinion.

    Overconfident skeptics would do well to remember that for all claims of type “there’s no evidence for X,” a certain percentage of those claims are assuredly false a priori.

    It seems you misunderstand what a priori refers to.

    For me, what this all goes back to is that life’s profound questions are much more than a simple matter of asserting “there’s no evidence for X,” and then posturing ourselves in the sand defensively.

    Surely you’re not saying you need less evidence for life’s profound questions than to establish, say, whether a person purporting to be a police officer (but in plain clothes and of unkept appearance) says he’s arresting you and asks you to hold your hands out for handcuffing really is a police officer.
    Would asking for ID from the policeman before complying be posturing yourself in the sand defensively?

    Who knows how many other true propositions skeptics reject thusly? Isn’t there a very real chance that such is also the case with the skeptic’s denial of God, metaphysics, and everything spiritual? If so, doesn’t this very real chance expose as foolishness the confidence with which many skeptics assert their denial?

    No-one.
    No.
    No.

  3. cl says:

    Ned,
    Thanks.

  4. cl says:

    You are wrong.

    Wrong? Hardly. Insufficiently accurate for those predisposed to irrelevant pedantry? Mea culpa! Of course, hardly something to concern myself with, and entirely predictable. Still, I’ll play the word games with you:

    X represents “my wife is plotting to kill me”, clearly both a theoretical and an ontological possibility.

    Correct, John; that your wife is plotting to kill you is a theoretical and an ontological possibility – one which you are denying, or at the very least, withholding belief in, right?
    So why quibble over words when the statement itself is intact? “There’s no evidence for X” is just a generic argument where X always represents some proposition whose theoretical or ontological possibility is being denied, i.e. being claimed to be unjustifiable.

    But the cardinality of the space of hypotheses that can be proposed to explain any given set of observations is mind-boggling.

    Now, now… users of proper language should never begin sentences with “and” or “but!”

    Regarding evidence for the existence of something, I’d expect there to be scientific evidence, not just anecdote and opinion.

    Are you saying meteor craters are “just anecdote and opinion?”

    It seems you misunderstand what a priori refers to.

    [laughs] See what I mean? Three times now in this comment alone you quibbled over how I use words, as opposed to leaving an objection of any substance whatsoever.

    Surely you’re not saying you need less evidence for life’s profound questions than to establish, say, whether a person purporting to be a police officer (but in plain clothes and of unkept appearance) says he’s arresting you and asks you to hold your hands out for handcuffing really is a police officer.

    No; surely I’m not.
    ****************
    When I asked, “Isn’t there a very real chance that such is also the case with the skeptic’s denial of God, metaphysics, and everything spiritual?”
    You replied, “No.”
    So, no chance that you could be wrong, eh?

  5. John Morales says:

    You are very obtuse.
    Again — your contention:
    “Note that “there’s no evidence for X” is really just a generic argument where X always represents some proposition whose theoretical or ontological possibility is being denied.”
    I’ve provided an X where its truth-value is unknown, but for which its theoretical or ontological possibility is mutually-accepted.
    This represents a counterexample to your contention that “X always represents some proposition whose theoretical or ontological possibility is being denied”.

    Now, now… users of proper language should never begin sentences with “and” or “but!

    But, did you get the point I’ve made there?

    Are you saying meteor craters are “just anecdote and opinion?”

    Are you comparing your putative evidence for your Unmoved Mover with that for meteor craters?

    No; surely I’m not.

    So then, you shouldn’t have a problem with atheists requiring proportionate evidence to the claim being made.

    So, no chance that you could be wrong, eh?

    No real chance.
    It’s disingenuous to remove that qualifier in your question when paraphrasing my response.
    There’s no real chance I’d survive if I fell out of a plane without a parachute, either — but I don’t deny the possibility.

  6. cl says:

    You are very obtuse.

    Of course, because you’re so brilliant and sophisticated, and that you might be obtuse on any occasion just isn’t an acceptable option! Pray for me – or – hope for me – or whatever it is you do – that reason might save me!

    But, did you get the point I’ve made there?

    Yeah I got it; not surprisingly, it was another tangent unrelated to the overall argument and that’s why I chose to nitpick your grammar instead, so you’d know exactly how I feel when one of my points is ignored on behalf of your interest in nitpicking grammar. That “the cardinality of the space of hypotheses that can be proposed to explain any given set of observations is mind-boggling” does not negate [by does not negate I mean does not make untrue] that the Talemzane, Amguid and Tin Bider craters were evidence for asteroids even in Aristotle’s time.

    So then, you shouldn’t have a problem with atheists requiring proportionate evidence to the claim being made.

    I told you exactly what I have a problem with: people who assert “there’s no evidence for X” and then posture themselves defensively in the sand when it comes to life’s profound questions. Take it or leave it.

    It’s disingenuous to remove that qualifier in your question when paraphrasing my response.

    Ah, I see… because there might be some ~real chance, then?

    There’s no real chance I’d survive if I fell out of a plane without a parachute, either — but I don’t deny the possibility.

    As you shouldn’t; the link you provided testifies that there is a real chance that you’d survive if you fell out of a plane without a parachute.
    Apparently you’re using real synonymously with probable to John Morales’ estimations, or something else, and once again, here we are quibbling over language.
    It’s boring as ever, John: I’d rather you tell me more about running into roos on roadbikes. Or how many skateboard parks you’ve seen in Australia. Or what kind of music people are into there. Or what your favorite food is. I think any of those would be far more fruitful conversation topics because none of them would seemingly lend well to this intellectual weenie-measuring contest you seem to have going with me – the obtuse and obfuscating apologist.

  7. D says:

    Wow! That’s, like, really well-put! I’ve made almost the same point, but I used the example of trying to convince Socrates that the television will be invented and is not magic.
    I can’t wait to see where your next part goes, because I agree with almost everything you said, but I come to the conclusion that we should never think we’ve got the whole picture. On anything. Evar!
    So we can never know if we’ve found the
    One Truth of the Universe, because even if we wrote it down, a page might have been lost and forgotten. Or it could be a trick. Or there might have been parts left out at the end that we’re just as powerless to verify as Socrates would have been to check the composition of moon rocks. Hmm… I guess we’d better get used to this doubt stuff, huh? It just never goes to bed forever.
    But then, I’m not interested in any silly notions of “ultimate truth,” I’m interested in deriving coherence from demonstrated correspondence. This means making many missteps, about as many errors as I have of trials, and embarrassing myself quite frequently. I’m over it. Besides, even if I had ultimate truth, I’m not sure I’d be able to recognize it any more than Socrates could have recognized a modern English phrasing of, oh, anything.

  8. Tommykey says:

    I don’t go so far as to say that there’s no evidence for God. As a former Catholic, I merely came to the conclusion for a variety of reasons that the Biblical god did not exist.
    Interestingly, asteroids fit into one of my reasons for doing so. If God created us in order to have a relationship with it, what’s the point of creating asteroids to slam into the Earth and other planetary bodies?

  9. cl says:

    Hey there Tommykey..

    If God created us in order to have a relationship with it, what’s the point of creating asteroids to slam into the Earth and other planetary bodies?

    My immediate answer would be utility.
    1) Is it not possible that asteroids perform vital functions in the cosmos? According to science, is it not true that without asteroids, we wouldn’t exist?
    2) While I realize it’s not the whole of your conclusion, how did you come to conclude that asteroids constitute reason for disbelief in the biblical God?

  10. Tommykey says:

    Is it not possible that asteroids perform vital functions in the cosmos? According to science, is it not true that without asteroids, we wouldn’t exist?
    Come on CL, you can’t have it both ways. If God can do anything, then God doesn’t need asteroids for our existence.
    If the most important thing for the Biblical God, if it exists, is that we worship it and that we have a personal relationship with it, then this God surely does not need a universe filled with billions of galaxies and asteroids floating around smashing into Mercury and Ganymede to make it happen. Again, if God can do anything, then God could have made the universe just be the Earth, the Moon and the sun, and a few stars in the night sky merely for decorative purposes, and kept humanity in a permanent state of Bronze Age technology. Heck, that was all Moses and the ancient Israelites needed, right?

  11. cl says:

    I’m not “trying to have it both ways.” The problem I have with your approach here is that it essentially accomplishes nothing but smoke-making. I don’t mean that to insult, either. Let me try to explain.

    If God can do anything, then God doesn’t need asteroids for our existence.

    By that token, God doesn’t even need our existence at all – right?
    Your basic approach here takes the form of an argument from ignorance: “if A, then why B, C, or D?”
    What I’m getting at is, our inability to discern the reason(s) X does Y cannot be an argument against the existence of X in the first place. I could just as easily say, “If evolution is true, why E, F or G?” But such accomplishes nothing.

    Again, if God can do anything, then God could have made the universe just be the Earth, the Moon and the sun, and a few stars in the night sky merely for decorative purposes, and kept humanity in a permanent state of Bronze Age technology.

    Sure – if you want to assume that we’re the only ones God’s concerned with – but what’s the basis for that? I don’t make that assumption. It very well could be that there are other “Earth’s” going through exactly the same trials we are. Right?

  12. […] Asteroids are perhaps my penultimate example. “Huge, flying rocks in space? That’s absurd!” the uber-rationalist pompously declared to the free-thinker of centuries past. “It’s more likely that you were just hallucinating when that little rock fell out of the sky and cut your head, and as far as that huge, round hole in the ground, you’re probably just seeing a pattern where none really exists.” […]

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