A Familiar Conversation: Part 2

In my previous post, I analyzed an argument for Atheism and discussed the hidden second premise that “the absence of evidence is evidence of absence.” Didymus is a pseudonym used for our familiar objector. Here I’ll look at three typical responses to my discussion and examine the reasonableness of each.

1:

“Well, if you reason like this then you can’t conclude that pink unicorns, trolls and hob-goblins don’t exist.” [1]

This is no insult or failing of my philosophy. I don’t make the claim that things like trolls don’t exist. Failing to be able to prove something does not exist is no slight. This is why soft agnosticism becomes the safe middle ground – an acceptably moderate position in the absence of evidence.

In similar fashion Didymus adds, if you reason like this you have to take seriously the existence of such things as Lucky Potions and Flying-Purple-People-Eaters. He alludes it is ridiculous to do so in the absence of evidence.

It is good to take such things seriously if there are some good reasons to believe these are credible. As there are none, I am under no such obligation. Thus, I do not have to take seriously things like trolls. Now in the case for God there is no comparison. There are good reasons to believe God is credible. There is philosophical evidence, which is backed up by my own experiential evidence, and without reasonable defeaters for each of these, I am completely rational in believing that God exists.

2:

“Well, there are many intelligent people on both sides of the debate who disagree with the philosophical arguments, and so philosophical arguments are not to be trusted.”

The assertion that many intelligent people would advocate Atheism is false. Most serious thinkers would prefer a soft form of Agnosticism if not Theism.

There is an assumption here that both sides are equally diligent and honest in their quest to find the truth. I make no claim here about motivations of either side (I can only know my own, and perhaps even that imperfectly). The point here is simply to say that to implicitly claim to know that the people on both sides of the debate are genuinely applying serious critical thought into this area of Philosophy of Religion is presumptuous.

The greatest problem with this type of response when arguing for God’s existence is it commits the fallacy of argument ad populum. This is an appeal to the numbers of people who believe in order to prove ones point. What people believe about God’s existence or the arguments for God’s existence makes not a whiff of difference whatsoever about God’s existence. We know in other subject areas that the whole world can be wrong, yet this does nothing to effect the truth or falsehood of any belief.

Finally, the response itself is self-defeating. This is a philosophical argument that has engendered some difference of opinion from both sides of the debate, so by its own merit we should not trust this argument. In short, it is using philosophy to argue against the use of philosophy.

3:

“Well, the point is where there is no evidence it is foolish to believe in something, and it’s not foolish to believe in something if there is evidence.”

Of course, I think there is good evidence for God’s existence; so believing in God is not foolish by this axiom. But the objection holds water like a leaky bucket. If your trustworthy wife told you she spent the afternoon window-shopping, but she did not have any evidence of this, it would actually be foolish not to believe it.

The point of the illustration is not to make a comparison with belief in God, but to show the objection is not axiomatic. On further analysis, one wonders why it was not foolish to believe something in the absence of evidence? The answer is because your wife has proven herself trustworthy in the past and stands in as an expert witness to her afternoon activities. Expert witnesses, though not guaranteeing the truth or falsehood of a belief, nevertheless increase the credulity of the position they advocate. When a five-year old girl in pig-tails fresh out of kindergarten advocates an outlandish belief about her favourite rugby team, she might convince a few of her pairs, but not many others. When Hamish McKay agrees with her announcing on the News in all seriousness that the Chief’s have a good shot at winning the Super 14, this authoritative stamp of approval gives said belief considerable weight.

Christianity of course suffers from no lack of expert witness. Two billion[2] or so people worldwide can testify (with varying degrees of competency) to the life-changing power of Jesus Christ. Miracles are in abundance for anyone who is willing to open their eyes and look for them. A revolution in philosophy in the last 40 years, especially in the Anglophone world, has curtailed the atheistic dominance in the field. Today perhaps one quarter to one third of philosophy professors are theists, and of that mostly orthodox Christians.[3] And of course, God himself in his word, the Bible, provides the ultimate expert witnesses. There he has preserved with other powerful proofs[4] the testimony of the apostles, all eye witnesses to the risen Lord.

CONCLUSION

It seems to me that Didymus is right in that until evidence is found that would corroborate these types of beliefs then one is justified in remaining sceptical, even to the point of disbelief. However, this is where he is wrong. As soon as one claims something does not exist a burden is placed upon them to prove it. If one fails to bear this burden they have crossed the boundary of what is reasonable. Empirical evidence can verify that belief in P is reasonable, but lack of empirical evidence cannot prove that belief in not-P is reasonable.

Unfortunately, in forsaking philosophical evidence because he believes it hopelessly indeterminate, and by ardently requiring tangible evidence such as that which is delivered in a science lab, he has mired himself in a quagmire or illogic, unable to pull himself free from claims he so vehemently makes. These claims are explicit and implicit; respectively, that God does not exist, and that absence of evidence is evidence of absence.


[1] or “Toothfairy, Thor and water-divining,” See comment: # 11 February 2010 at 1:37 pm; Panel Discussion of Stephen Meyers Signature in the Cell

[2] How Many Christians are There Worldwide

[3] Quentin Smith, “The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism” Philo 4/2(2001): 3-4.

[4] Such as fulfilled prophecy

10 replies
  1. Godlessons
    Godlessons says:

    Christianity of course suffers from no lack of expert witness. Two billion[2] or so people worldwide can testify (with varying degrees of competency) to the life-changing power of Jesus Christ.

    Almost that number can testify (with varying degrees of competency) to the life changing power of Allah. How are they not expert witnesses? What about the life changing power of Vishnu?

    This is essentially the ad populum argument in a different form, that you argued against earlier. The fact is, there are more people on this earth that believe in things other than Jesus, and they are expert witnesses in the same manner.

    As soon as one claims something does not exist a burden is placed upon them to prove it.

    No more than there is a burden upon one that claims something does exist to prove their beliefs.

    If I claim God doesn’t exist, why am I suddenly expected to prove that statement in order to be considered rational, where I wouldn’t be held to the same standard for other things that don’t exist, no matter how many people believe in it?

    I can say that I believe there is no God, just as I believe there are no leprechauns, the only difference is, we don’t have tons of people out there claiming that leprechauns actually exist. Since the majority doesn’t believe, they find the claim that leprechauns don’t exist to be totally rational. It is only for God that people regularly think it is necessary to disprove the existence of something that can’t be proven, and that’s merely because so many people do believe it.

    People that believe in their flavor of God believe that thousands of other gods don’t exist, but nobody thinks that is irrational for some reason. If you hold that atheists must prove God doesn’t exist, you must have been able to prove that all of the other thousands of gods that have been believed in over the years are man made, and also prove yours just happens to be the one that isn’t man made.

    If you don’t find it rational to not believe God exists, you are not rational in not believing in anything else you believe doesn’t exist.

  2. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Hello Godlessons,

    Almost that number can testify (with varying degrees of competency) to the life changing power of Allah. How are they not expert witnesses? What about the life changing power of Vishnu? This is essentially the ad populum argument in a different form, that you argued against earlier.

    A Muslim is an expert witness to the claims of Islam. As I said and expert witness does not guarantee the truth or falsehood of a belief. They nevertheless increase the credulity of the position they advocate. This is not an ad populum argument.

    Also, the point there is not to play a numbers game. Only to point that that many people have reasons, gained from their personal experience of Christ, and it is those reasons that help to make the claims of Christianity credible.

    Stuart: As soon as one claims something does not exist a burden is placed upon them to prove it.

    Godlessons: No more than there is a burden upon one that claims something does exist to prove their beliefs.

    And no less either. Point? Both atheism and theism make positive truth claims and both are under an obligation to give reasons for it.

    I can say that I believe there is no God, just as I believe there are no leprechauns, the only difference is, we don’t have tons of people out there claiming that leprechauns actually exist.

    That’s not the only difference. The difference with God is that there are reasons, philosophical and experiential, that confirms the existence of God, whereas with leprechauns there is no such philosophical or experiential evidence. I responded to this criticism above.

  3. Other Simon
    Other Simon says:

    1. More claims of the wealth of evidence for god. But no substance. Also, no reasons here to take philosophical arguments seriously.

    Stuart claims that there is philosophical and personal experiential evidence for god. I claim that there is philosophical evidence against god and my personal experiential evidence. My neighbour claims philosophical (absence of evidence….) and personal experiential evidence for astrology.

    2.

    The greatest problem with this type of response when arguing for God’s existence is it commits the fallacy of argument ad populum.

    Surveying the academic philosophical field for belief in the existence of god is the most accurate measure of the philosophical evidence for god. No surprise that Stuart tries to evade this – yet another – empirical datum. Stuart is undermining man’s most objective enterprise – academic discipline – just so that he can convince himself that his beliefs are right. In his drive away from considering what a group of people think Stuart also displays a lack of empathy; an inability to humbly recognise others’ thoughts as just as valid as his own (he will harp on about how there is a way to think correctly etc. but this is irrelevant in consideration of the surveying of philosophers – they all know how to think correctly)

    This is an appeal to the numbers of people who believe in order to prove ones point.

    It is a measured and sensible appeal. And it doesn’t matter what sensible cross-section of society you choose it will always work in my favour. Consider, for instance, the entire world. The entire world’s position on god works against me. Or so it would seem until you find that their views on god are horribly contradictory and at odds.

    What people believe about God’s existence or the arguments for God’s existence makes not a whiff of difference whatsoever about God’s existence.

    There goes all your own beliefs and evidences, Stuart! I’ve heard some self-refuting positions before but this is a whopper.

    We know in other subject areas that the whole world can be wrong, yet this does nothing to effect the truth or falsehood of any belief.

    QED

    it is using philosophy to argue against the use of philosophy.

    Nay, it is cold hard empiricism which [empirical!] history has shown it is wise to admonish.

    3.

    If your trustworthy wife told you she spent the afternoon window-shopping, but she did not have any evidence of this, it would actually be foolish not to believe it.

    Wantonly irrelevant situation. Your wife is empirically trustworthy. God empirically doesn’t exist.

    Two billion[2] or so people worldwide can testify (with varying degrees of competency) to the life-changing power of Jesus Christ.

    Sigh. It is a sad state of affairs that Stuart cannot even see the problem with this statement. About 4 billion people can attest to religious experience that contradicts christianity.

    Miracles are in abundance for anyone who is willing to open their eyes and look for them.

    Same for astrology and scientology.
    You need to update your standard of evidence by some 1500 years Stuart. When someone claims that people have to open their eyes to see something, this is code for “I’m certain that this phenomenon exists, so I’m going to ignore negative evidence and count only the hits” This is called the confirmation bias. You’d do well to look it up, Stuart, you are very guilty of it.

    As soon as one claims something does not exist a burden is placed upon them to prove it.

    Nope. One is most rational to live one’s life as though it doesn’t exist until those that claim that it does prove that it does. The burden is upon them.

    Empirical evidence can verify that belief in P is reasonable, but lack of empirical evidence cannot prove that belief in not-P is reasonable.

    Unfortunately, Empirical evidence can verify that belif in P is unreasonable, too. And it does so resoundingly in the case of the completely empirically non-phenomenon of god.

    …mired himself in a quagmire or illogic, unable to pull himself free from claims he so vehemently makes.

    Please explain how.

    that God does not exist, and that absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

    The first is based upon the most successful system of knowledge that we know; empiricism. And so by the most modern, measured, proven and sensible definition of ‘evidence’ god does not exist.
    The second is a misrepresentation, the accurate representation of which would be: the constantly vacuous claims of evidence for a god constitute quite a body of evidence of absence.

  4. Godlessons
    Godlessons says:

    Stuart, how does the burden shift to the person that does not believe? The number of things that don't exist is infinite, while the number of things that actually exist is finite. Since that is the case, using your logic, people should be burdened with disproving all the things that don't exist. So since I'm sure that you agree there are an infinite number of things that don't exist, I challenge you to to go about disproving all of them, and I will get back to you in an infinite amount of time and check on your progress.

    "The burden of proof lies with the claimant."

    There is a reason we have this phrase.

  5. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Yes, The burden of proof does lie with the claimant. Thus the atheist, who claims that God does not exist, must bear a burden of proof.

  6. ropata
    ropata says:

    Great series Stuart, I found it interesting and encouraging. The “empirical-only” trolls are arguing just as predicted; how ironic. Here are some related points:
    To the popular mind, science embraces facts and evidence while religion professes blind faith. Like many simplistic popular notions, this view is mistaken. Modern science is not only compatible with Christianity, it in fact finds its philosophical origins in Christianity. Modernity is unaware of this framework, but it is nonetheless soaked in it, like a fish breathing in water. It is difficult for those raised in a post-Christian world to appreciate the radical novelty and liberation Christian ideas presented to the ancient mind. ”

    Blind Faith—Does the Bible present it as a virtue? … There are two quite vocal groups who do not seek reconciliation between science and faith. On the contrary, their agenda is to foil any such rapprochement”

    Antihumanism, or Why the secular fundamentalists have got it all wrong … It is a funny sort of humanism that condemns an impulse that is peculiarly human. Yet that is what evangelical atheists do when they demonise religion. ”

    Telic Thoughts on Faith and Science … The meaning of “faith” never meant belief without evidence. Faith is an extension of a belief based on evidence. Critics are reacting to a false understanding they helped to create in the first place. Science also relies upon articles of faith.. ”

    The Shell Game of Evolution and Creation | TheResurgence … Faith is belief and action based on established facts. The facts tell us that stars, like raindrops, evolve under natural processes. As a physicist, I have never seen a fundamental particle called a neutrino. I have never seen God either. But I have faith ”

    He Lives: Hebrews 11 and Blind Faith … Some define Christians by (1) blind faith and (2) the target of that blind faith. Hogwash! Arguing for the “blind faith” position are both anti-IDers and fundamentalist Christians!! In Hebrews 11, the faith chapter, one finds the OPPOSITE premise … These are some scriptural examples that demonstrate that God does not demand blind faith, and that He has no problem with physical evidence.”

  7. Godlessons
    Godlessons says:

    Okay, so never say things don't exist like Santa Clause, the tooth fairy, leprechauns, unicorns, or anything else that doesn't exist. Obviously we don't hold disbelief to the same standard as we do belief. Disbelief is just not accepting things that have no evidence as to their existence. It would be absurd to assume existence until someone can prove the nonexistence of a thing, especially when there is the possibility to show something exists, but not possible to show something doesn't exist.

    So, there is no generally accepted idea that people must prove the nonexistence of a thing, and it makes no sense to tell someone they must prove the nonexistence of a thing. But, maybe you think it's fun to say things that make no sense and go against generally accepted rationality.

  8. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    It would be absurd to assume existence until someone can prove the nonexistence of a thing, especially when there is the possibility to show something exists, but not possible to show something doesn’t exist.

    That would make good sense provided there was no experiential evidence for said something. For instance, I could experience the murder and subsequent clean up I spoke of Part A, to which no evidence of the murder remained and still be justified in believing the murder took place. In the case of God, there is experiential evidence. Philosophical evidence will either serve to justify further that knowledge gained experientially, or else invalidate that experience with defeaters.

    So, there is no generally accepted idea that people must prove the nonexistence of a thing, and it makes no sense to tell someone they must prove the nonexistence of a thing. But, maybe you think it’s fun to say things that make no sense and go against generally accepted rationality.

    Of course you don’t have to prove the non-existence of a thing. But if you claim that something does not exist, then you need to back up that claim with some form of argument. Atheism makes such a claim, and so there needs to be some form of argument. You can’t just get away with no argument or reason and expect people to think you are being rational.

  9. Jason
    Jason says:

    Rationalism, not rationality.

    As generally noted, the human creature is a rationalising creature, not a rational one.

    The historical evidence resurrection of Jesus provides a positive evidence for the existence of the Christian deity. I do not see anyone claiming such historical evidence for the tooth fairy, and Santa Claus (or Nicholas of Myra) was a real person, if not known for flying around on a sleigh pulled by a red nosed reindeer.

    Now let's see a positive evidential claim made for atheism.

    No way to prove a universal negative, check.
    God cannot be proven logically contradictory, check.
    Problem of evil, not a problem within the fall and curse model of Christianity.
    Science has disproved God? How on Earth would it achieve that? Providing an "alternative explanation" for some task traditionally attributed to God does not make that "alternative explanation" true. Claiming that science proves God cannot raise a man from the dead is mistaken because scientific laws are descriptive, not proscriptive, describing what we generally observe. To say "God could not raise Jesus from the dead, because God doesn't exist" simply begs the question.

  10. Ryft Braeloch
    Ryft Braeloch says:

    If I claim [that] God doesn’t exist, why am I suddenly expected to prove that statement in order to be considered rational?

    Because the claim "God does not exist" is either a naked assertion or a conclusion. If it is a conclusion, then it was formed through a process of reasoning. If you wish to be considered rational, you must demonstrate that your reasoning process followed the logical rules of inference (i.e., that you reasoned validly), since invalid reasoning is not rational. But that is only if you wish to be considered rational, which you haven't indicated one way or the other.

    [And yet] I wouldn’t be held to the same standard for other things that don’t exist, no matter how many people believe in it?

    If you make the claim that "X does not exist" and your hearer agrees with you, then he would not expect you to prove your claim. Given that he reached the same conclusion himself, he would not require the argument which produces it because he is already familiar with the matter. Since the vast majority of people don't believe that things like leprechauns, tooth faeries, and unicorns exist, when you claim that such things don't exist, nobody is going to question you. They share that conclusion in common with you.

    But if you claim that "Y does not exist" and your hearer disagrees with you, he will probably assume that it is a conclusion you carefully reasoned to and ask to see that reasoning which produces it, curious as to its rationality.

    If you hold that atheists must prove God doesn’t exist, you must have been able to prove that all of the other thousands of gods that have been believed in over the years are man made, and also prove yours just happens to be the one that isn’t man made.

    Yes indeed.

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