If you haven’t read it already, I highly suggest Neil Postman’s The End of Education. It isn’t about (a)theism per se—it’s actually about how the transcendent, unifying narratives of previous generations have been replaced by “gods” of consumerism, technology and economic utility—but Postman raises many points with direct import to (a)theist debate. For example,
…the Big Bang theory of modern astronomers is not so far from the story of the Beginning as found Genesis. The thought that a group of camel-riding Bedouins huddling around a fire in the desert night four thousand years ago might ponder the question of how the universe began and come up with a narrative that is similar to one accepted by MIT professors in the late twentieth century speaks of a continuity of human imagination that cannot fail to inspire. (p.112-113)
But of course, as most of the enlightened, rational atheists already know, there is no evidence for God. They may as well discard Postman’s candor entirely.
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.
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In X-Files Friday: The Ultimate Superstition, DD cites Geisler and Turek,
David Hume argued that miracles cannot affirm any one religion because miracles are based on poor testimony and all religions have them. In other words, miracle claims are self canceling. Unfortunately for Hume, his objection does not describe the actual state of affairs. First, Hume makes a hasty generalization by saying that alleged miracles from all religions are alike. As we’ve seen since chapter 9, the miracles associated with Christianity are not based on poor testimony. They are based on early, eyewitness, multiple-source testimony that is unrivaled in any other world religion. That is, no other world religion has verified miracles like those in the New Testament. (G&T)
What we have in the New Testament is a well-documented, well-preserved record of people making claims. This does not constitute a body of verified miracles. (DD)
I agree. I've certainly not been afraid to criticize some of G&T's strategies elsewhere, and I agree that in this citation, G&T conflate claims with verification – and that's wrong. To me, it appears G&T simply presume the correctness of that which they are trying to prove, by alluding to it as verified. However, G&T's criticisms of Hume happen to be spot-on, and quite pertinent to our ongoing miracle discussion. That being said, I've also complimented DD's logical prowess elsewhere, but this time he did not address G&T's citation squarely at all – just flanked them with Benny Hinn before proceeding on to their "One Solitary Man" ideas.
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Sorry, but the title's a little misleading. This post has nothing to do with evolution. Rather, I was on a thread recently when a commenter whose name I like and would enjoy hearing an explanation of (Mike aka MonolithTMA) made a passing comment that got me thinking:
I always wonder why theists bring up Ockham's Razor as it points about as far away from God as possible, (March 26, 2009 7:44 PM)
I thought that comment was interesting, but I didn't say anything at the moment, just tucked it into the "parsing" file. A few more Ockham's Razor -related comments were subsequently thrown out, the next from the blog owner, Karla:
Ockham's Razor to go with more simple answer that fits. . . To me it would appear that suggesting infinite un-caused universes is more complex than the answer of an eternal being.
Anonymous: And, you would be wrong, as I've explained. god is the most complex "answer" anyone can propose, because the level of complexity for a god would be far and away higher than any other explanation, not to mention all the additional questions it raises, the added layer of the supernatural over the natural universe, and the fact that it can't get off the ground scientifically. You can continue to ignore all of this and erroneously assert that "goddidit" is simple, but it clearly is not.
Does anyone else see the rational difficulties here?
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So, seasoned readers and veterans in philosophical, scientific, or religious debate are surely familiar with the astronomer Carl Sagan's famous and hypothetical dragon in the garage argument:
"A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage."
Suppose I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you'd want to check it out, see for yourself. There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!
"Show me", you say, and I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle – but no dragon.
"Where's the dragon", you ask.
"Oh, she's right here", I reply, waving vaguely. "I neglected to mention that she's an invisible dragon".
You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon's footprints. "Good idea", I say, "but this dragon floats in the air". Then you'll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire. "Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless", I say. You'll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible. "Good idea, except she's an incorporeal (bodyless) dragon and the paint won't stick!"
And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won't work.
Now what is the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there's no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? You're inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I'm asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.
With all due respect to the late Mr. Sagan, although it contains an eminent truth, this argument is also eminently bunk. Now I agree that the inability to invalidate a hypothesis does not prove a competing hypothesis true. However, the following line is correct only in the extremely limited scope
of validating a scientific hypothesis (and even then can break down):
Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless..
I hear too many skeptics and atheists cite this passage
foolishly thinking it somehow counters religious claims or the
existence of God. There are several reasons this is incorrect, but first let me counter with my own little story, custom-tailored to address Mr. Sagan's area of expertise: Astronomy.
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Mass is a defining factor of stars and gives researchers clues as to how dense a star is, the temperature of its core and the nature of thermonuclear reactions, if any, that occur inside. The general consensus of today is that any star smaller than 75 times the size of Jupiter contains insufficient energy to convert hydrogen into helium. Smaller stars eventually degenerate into brown dwarfs, once considered the main ingredient in universal dark matter by notable astronomers. Today they are believed to be minor players in the game. The New York Times reported that AB Doradus C, the smallest star to ever be reliably weighed, turned out to be twice it’s predicted mass, and as Dr. Laird Close of the University of Arizona notes, “Two times is a huge error.”
He then adds the following for humorous effect: “Imagine guessing your wife’s mass wrong by a factor of two…!”
Science itself is a continually evolving enterprise and mistakes are a natural part of the evolutionary process. For religious expressions of this peculiar human ability to error, one need look no further than the well-publicized story of the Italian scientist Galileo, (1564-1642) prosecuted by the Roman Catholic Church on grounds that his claim Earth revolved around the sun was heretical. First we must secure accurate definitions of the pertinent terms.
The word heretical can be defined as contrary to the chartered traditions of the Church, and heliocentrism is the notion that the sun is the center of our solar system. Is this idea at arms with anything the Bible actually says, or was it at arms with the power structure’s interpretation of scripture at that particular time?
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By Big Bang, I mean simply the point of this universe's creation.
Cosmologists of previous centuries understandably supposed that the universe was static, timeless or self-sustaining, and these are all valid hypotheses considering the evidence of the times. Yet aside from the necessary requirement of being plausible against all current evidence, hypotheses must also stand the test of time and as new data pours in we must constantly reevaluate our theories.
Much like the stars in the heavenly array appear to be fixed in their respective order, a static universe would be a suspended one where planets and stars simply hung motionless in space. Some proposed a hypothetical repulsive force that could precisely counterbalance the effects of gravity, thus canceling out the universe’s expansion. Such a model explains how massive bodies that should normally attract minor bodies could remain static. From the vantage point of an observer on Earth there doesn’t appear to be a whole lot of motion occurring in the cosmos, and this static universe theory met its first (and last) serious opposition around WWI when American astronomer Vesto Slipher and others observed that distant nebulae recede from Earth at very high velocities.
Electromagnetic energies such as light or infrared radiation travel in waves of differing frequencies, and by studying electromagnetic emissions from distant galaxies over time, scientists discovered that wavelengths from our remotest galactic neighbors are steadily elongating. These consistent fluctuations, called Doppler shifts, led to the conclusion that the universe was actually growing. This strongly suggests that the universe could not be static, but before the new evidence it seemed a stock observation to even the sharpest of analytical minds.
Building on Slipher’s observations, subsequent discoveries of Edwin Hubble in 1927 confirmed that our universe is indeed expanding as distant galaxies hurtle away from ours at rates exceeding thousands of miles per second. Over the thousands of years of human observation that took place before the advent of science, one could easily see why cultures around the world assumed the universe was eternal and had simply been here forever, but when combined with the evidence for an expanding universe, the fact that we can still see light from other galaxies strongly implies that the universe had a beginning in time. If the universe were both eternal and expanding, then stars, quasars and galaxies would have separated to remote distances long ago. Clearly the universe could not be both eternal and expanding, and the eventual conclusion was that all the matter in the universe was once at an ultra-dense, ultra-hot singularity that defies the laws the physics.
From a religious standpoint, there is nothing in scripture which contradicts the idea that all the matter in the universe was once at an ultra-dense, ultra-hot singularity that defies the laws the physics, and this, in hasty paraphrase, is the sequence of events that led to acceptance of the Big Bang.