Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Is there any evidence for the existence of God

I listened to your brief piece on Radio 4 this morning with great interest, and it may be that you can offer an answer to a question that has been central to a discussion in which I have been involved over the the last few months.

It is this:
In the sense that any scientist would use the term, is there or is there not any actual evidence that points indisputably to the existence of God?
I should add that I do not find the argument that the mere rationality of the universe to be evidence of a creator, and my current position is that of seeing the existence of a deity as a mere assumption that some people choose to make.

Response: The existence of God is obviously not a scientific question, because the Ultimate Creator is not a part of the Universe on which one can do experiments.  However there is certainly evidence which points to the existence of God. You ask about “points indisputably” as though you want a single piece of evidence which cannot possibly be interpreted in any other way, but that is not really how evidence works, even in science.

Even in physics, the most “cut and dried” of the sciences, the reason we believe in the existence of things we can’t directly observe (such as atoms, quarks, dark energy, quantum fields) is not because a single experiment gives a knock-down proof but because a conceptual framework in which these entities exist makes better sense of more data than alternatives.

Consider, for example:
  1. The existence and rational intelligibility of the universe.
  2. The ubiquitous human experience of God
  3. Our deep sense that love, meaning, purpose and moral values are real and fundamental and not just subjective
  4. The life of Jesus and the immense impact that it has had upon the world.
I think most atheists would say that (a) is just an inexplicable fact (though it’s obviously not impossible to explain, they just don’t like the only explanation on offer), (b) and (c) are due to some kind of mistaken cognitive bias (without providing any evidence that it is mistaken),  and avoid (d) (or indulge in some waffle offering supposed “causes” that are completely disproportionate to the impact Jesus has had on history). But even if we concede, as we do, that the atheist responses to each of a, b, c, d are not so outlandish as to rule them out altogether as rational responses, they are each pretty improbable.

Cumulatively, therefore, the evidential value of (a-d) is extremely strong (I have described it as “almost overwhelming”).  Were it not for the arguments against the existence of God, massive anti-religious propaganda in certain countries, and the fact that belief in God also entails behavioural changes which most people are reluctant to attempt, then atheism would be even rarer than it is at present (maybe 5-10% of humanity, most of whom are in China).

I hope this helps and will see what John has to add.

John says: “I thought your response was excellent. If you wanted you could add [from John]: Modern philosophy has come to recognise that logically strict proof is seldom available (Kurt Gödel showed that even arithmetic cannot prove its own consistency) and that what we should seek is best (well-motivated) explanation. I think that Nicolas’s reply shows that theistic belief is a best explanation of significant human experience”

There was a long and interesting subsequent e-correspondence. Here are a few key points - though I should stress that the questioner said a lot more than these extracts indicate and they don't by any means do full justice to his ideas.

Follow-up point: I think I need to clarify the point of my enquiry somewhat, as follows:
There are three logical possibilities:
  • No such being as God actually exists
  • The being called God exists, but has no objective effect on the universe in which we live
  • God exists and (on occasions) affects the universe in which we live (ie is the cause of happenings that would not be explicable in any other way).
Subjective impressions are relevant only insofar as the existence of such impressions is itself evidence to be considered. (eg If someone tells us that he has just seen a pink unicorn, and if we judge that he actually believes what he is saying, then that might be clear evidence of his mental state, but would be probably not be regarded as evidence that such a creature existed.) 

Response: I think your basic mistake is to talk of “happenings that would not be explicable in any other way.”  That’s just not how the world works. Take someone you believe to exist but haven’t met personally – perhaps Nelson Mandela.  It’s quite reasonable to say that Nelson Mandela caused the peaceful ending of Apartheid.  But there are plenty of conceivable explanations for the peaceful ending of Apartheid that do not involve Nelson Mandela. Indeed it is conceivable that Nelson Mandela doesn’t exist and is an elaborate hoax perpetrated by actors and statesmen and the media. I agree of course that such a view would be bonkers in the extreme and one that no reasonable person would hold.  But the point is that “I will not believe in X unless there is no conceivable alternative explanation” is an approach which no reasonable person takes to any topic (other than belief in God) and if this standard were applied you wouldn’t believe in anything.

This is particularly relevant to your trope about “subjective impressions”  But we can’t discount testimony as a source of knowledge. Even in science, at least 99.999% of what we believe to be true is because we have testimony from other people. When they report experiments or observations or calculations we believe that in principle they could be checked, but we almost never check them ourselves (and indeed the number of published scientific papers where the experiments and analyses are checked by third parties is frighteningly low).  As for history ….

It’s possible that you are stuck in the classic left-brain trap of denying the objective reality of other people’s perceptions – but you need to understand that this is a fundamental philosophical mistake.  There is no simple mechanical algorithm that will determine truth (that’s a theorem BTW) we have to exercise judgement.

You can, if you choose, decide to live as though the world were meaningless and pointless, as though love and beauty were mere illusions, and so forth.  Or you can wake up to the glorious love of God in Jesus Christ, and live a life full of meaning, purpose and love.

The choice is yours – and I hope this might help a bit!

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