January 2, 2010
jim at RvA has blessed us with a new series titled Proof of God’s Existence, and I intend to respond to each installment of his series, which seems designed to corral the believer’s claims into the confines of what jim calls “common sense inquiry.” I suppose we’ll see just what that means as time unfolds.
He begins with words likely all too familiar to veterans in this game, centered around the question of what constitutes adequate proof of God’s existence:
It’s a common question on the tip of many a Christian’s tongue when confronted with skepticism regarding their theistic worldview, yes? Responses from skeptics generally revolve around some kind of convincing display(s) of ‘miraculous’ interventions, or other manifestations i.e. events beyond the generally accepted, deterministic norms of the most current naturalistic paradigm, and supported by scientific methodology such as observation, controlled testing, repeatability and the like. –jim, reason vs. apologetics
The question is one I’m certainly fond of asking atheists and skeptics, and, just as jim explains, demands for repeatably observable miracles and manifestations tend to comprise the typical responses. The problem is that as Descartes realized, a sufficiently talented philosopher can justifiedly deny anything except the existence of his or her own mind. Accordingly, I refuse to play the game until the atheist or skeptic commits to clearly delineated criteria that cannot be negotiated after the fact, but here’s the conundrum: the only standard I know of that they’ll accept is useless in proving God, and that’s the scientific method.
Now, if you’re an atheist or skeptic—especially of the so-called “Bright” or “New Atheist” variety—you’ll probably think that’s a cop-out, and that I’m just like any other extraordinary claimant trying to protect the alleged fire-breathing dragon in their garage from commonsense inquiry. I’d like to explain how that’s not the case at all, and counter-argue that atheists who challenge believers to prove God scientifically are actually the ones protecting their views from commonsense inquiry.
jim continues with some hypothetical theist arguments, presumably to support his oft-repeated implication that believers need “the mental space of all hypothesized possibilities” to justify faith:
God exists in a supernatural realm beyond our means of investigation…
Many, if not most, real events are neither observable nor repeatable, such as Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon…
All so-called ‘proof’ has a subjective element, so there’s really no such thing as absolute proof for ANYTHING. Everything is a matter of belief to some degree, from gods to puppy dogs…
If you look closely, you’ll notice the common thread in each of those hypothetical arguments is the establishment of what jim later refers to as an “epistemic question mark,” that strange sort of twilight zone where lack of certainty justifies any and all conclusions. Though I’ve tried several times, I’m not sure how to convince jim that the following is not my position:
..all statements of fact, or proofs, are actually merely opinions to one extent or another.
That’s bunk, and I’m curious to know who actually makes that argument, because whoever makes that argument can’t win any argument. I agree that God exists in a realm we cannot investigate, and that many events are neither observable nor repeatable, but neither of these positions justify retreat into the position that everything is a matter of belief. There are matters of belief and matters of fact. The cells that compose my body cannot be in Houston and Los Angeles at the same time. If I am in Houston, it is a fact that I’m in Houston and not some other city. No amount of belief can change that fact.
Believers don’t need to resort to solipsism to justify faith. Atheists and skeptics need to realize that science is the study of objects in our universe and their relationships to one another. By “objects in our universe” I mean all matter, and by “relationships to one another” I mean all energy. As far as science is concerned, the space-time continuum is the progression of matter and energy. This covers all known constituents of our universe: MEST (matter, energy, space, time). This is what science studies. Except by theoretical approach based on observations made inside MEST, science cannot study things which purportedly exist outside MEST.
What jim and other atheists see as a cop-out is simply a brute fact: God does not reduce to matter or energy in space-time that we can contain, identify, categorize and reproduce. God’s acts represent historical events and history cannot be repeated in the laboratory. An atheist might object, “But God is supposed to exist in actuality, not just conceptually. God’s acts are claimed to take place in the real world that science can investigate.” I agree with both of those claims, but neither of them justify the absurd conclusion that we should be able to test God scientifically. If you don’t see why that conclusion is absurd, maybe a visit to the hypothetical fish farm will help.
Let’s say some farmed fish are contemplating their own existence, when two schools of thought emerge (no pun intended). The first says that the container and its contents produced the fish, and offers an elaborate model suggesting that water + time > fish. The second says a powerful being populated the container, and points to anomalous perturbations in the water, which they claim occurred the last time this powerful being — which is really just the breeder — intervened.
Could the first group of fish justifiedly ask the second to prove the breeder’s existence?
Of course not. While the breeder’s interventions do affect the “real world” the fish live in, it would be logically impossible for the fish to prove the existence of the breeder, who comes and goes on independent terms. As far as commonsense inquiry is concerned, anybody with common sense can tell you that the breeder is not subject to the beckon call of the fish, and that this fact has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on the breeder’s existence. To deny the breeder’s existence just because other fish can’t force the breeder to jump in the container on command would be false confidence based on illogic at best.
To me, commonsense inquiry means evaluating claims as they are, not as we want them to be. By refusing to accept anything but an unreasonable standard when it comes to the question of God’s existence, the atheist who demands repeatable, observable evidence is the one who protects their worldview from commonsense inquiry.