November 17, 2009
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