Our good friend and fellow UD commentator Denyse O’Leary recently wrote about John Farrel’s recent musings on Forbes on what evidence for God might look like…or least what sort of evidence might make him sit up and take notice. Here I want to go a step further than Denyse did, and look at this question of evidence a bit more in depth.
Of course, the question of what might constitute evidence for the existence of God is nothing new in the never ending atheism/theism debate. The more outspoken atheists such as those of the so-called “new” atheist variety (i.e. Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Dennett et.al.) make quite a fuss about saying that there is no evidence for any sort of God or gods at all. Indeed, Dawkins now well-known diatribe against theism, The God Delusion, is a tour de force of proclaiming the lack of any sort of scientific evidence for the existence of God. Hence anyone still clinging to such a belief is doing so sans evidence and is thus suffering a ‘delusion’. But is that really the case?
If we probe the question of evidence a bit more deeply we can see that it really isn’t a question about evidence at all, but something much different, and something based more on philosophical assumption than any actual evidence that may or may not be there. When an atheist says that “there is no evidence for any sort of God or gods”, what they really mean is that there isn’t anything they take to be such evidence, which is a very different thing. Once one recognizes this distinction the question moves quickly from being a debate about some sort of physical data or observed phenomenon to a question about the very nature of evidence and how it is we ascribe evidentiary status to things we all observe, experience or encounter.
Philosopher of Science, Del Ratzsch wrote extensively about this is his book Science and its Limits where he made the astute point that evidence isn’t evidence per se, but rather it is data or phenomenon we observe and then connect to other bits of information we have to connect an observation with a conclusion. In other words, data doesn’t come to us with a little label attached saying “I’m evidence for X”. Rather we ascribe evidentiary status to the data based on other considerations, knowledge and back ground principles.
Ratzsch gives the example of two physicists doing research sometime a bit before 1900 or so. One says “You know, I think atoms are mutable…we can split them apart or squash them together”. The other says, “yeah, right…nice speculation, but you have no evidence to back that up.” And in one very real sense, pre 1900 or so, the second physicist would have been correct, because at that time no one knew of any relevant back ground principles or data that would allow a connection between the idea of the mutability of atoms and any observations that had been made. But, in another sense, there was such evidence….bright shining evidence that rose every morning and set every night. If not for the mutability of atoms, there would be no sunshine. As Ratzsch points out, in this scenario, at that time no one knew of the proper back ground principles that would justify the hypothesis of the mutability of atoms with an observation, sunshine. But the evidence was there just the same, and every person on the planet could observe it. Once later discoveries were made, then it was quite plausible to connect the observation with the hypothesis.
The same is true in the theism/atheism debate. When atheists make the dubious claim that there is no evidence for the existence of God, all they are saying is that no one knows of any relevant back ground principles or other relevant data that allows one to connect some observation, phenomenon or experience with the conclusion that God exists. Many go even further and claim that no one will know of any such principles ever. They don’t put it quite like that, but it is the upshot of what they say. It is tempting to want to ask what evidence they have for such a bold claim, since everything hinges so strongly on the question of evidence!!
The key point here is to make clear the distinction between the rather dubious and ill phrased claim that there is no evidence for any sort of God or gods, with the more accurately stated claim that there isn’t any data, observation, or phenomenon that one can legitmately take to be evidence for God. Making that distinction lays bare the philosophical assumptions and prejudices that lie at the root of claims of “no evidence” when it comes to the existence of God. As Ratzsch puts it, it certainly takes the starch out of the “no evidence” mantra.