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Direct Evidence for God March 30, 2008

Posted by Ian in Religion.
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Time for a new post methinks, and why not a big one 🙂

In the quest for a resolution of the age old theism versus atheism debate (in all its various guises) it is hard to escape the fact that absolutely zero positive evidence for the existence of any kind of god exists. There are numerous gaps in our knowledge within which god could possibly exist but absolutely nothing that positively points to actual existence of a god. This is a problem because it really makes religious discourse a matter of philosophy not of reality.

I’d like to work through the main types of evidence that exist and show what I mean.

1) Evidence of design

Even if it could be demonstrated that design was inherent in the universe, you are still no closer to having evidence that a particular god exists, only that something must have caused the design to take place. What reason do we have to suppose that it was Yahweh (for example) or even a god? We can go further and invoke Arthur C Clarke’s third law:


This of course equally applies to the “magic” of a god. Maybe a highly advanced race of beings did the design etc etc.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

 

It is also worth noting that there is no positive evidence that anything was designed by anything anyway – only an inability to precisely explain how it occurred naturally. The real problem is that a highly adapted creature through evolution would be, at a macro level, largely indistinguishable from a designed one. However we would expect some strange vestiges of prior evolutionary forms which should have no part in any designed creature, and that is exactly what we do find. In other words aside from no evidence of design, we also have, in a sense, evidence against it. This also applies to other seemingly scientific arguments such as the fine tuning argument.

2) Personal Revelation

This is curiously often the most powerful argument for the existence of god and often used as a trump card in debates. However there are several problems with this. Firstly personal observation is heavily tainted by expectation. It is telling that people of various religions rarely have experiences that would validate another religion. For example you don’t see Hindu’s having experiences of Jesus. Also the way the brain interprets sensory signals is to try and fit them into established models in the brain. Therefore if you have grown up in an environment where you are familiar with certain images or experiences, then you will naturally see these first.

Secondly it is very easy to trick the human mind into seeing something that isn’t really there. Optical illusions are the easiest to see (although aural and touch illusions are also common). A classic example of an optical illusion is the well known “Jesus illusion“. Try it if you haven’t before, it is quite cool. Now try it again looking for this image of John Petrucci of Dream Theater (or even my avatar pic – there are probably millions of images that could be made to fit) and you’ll see how meaningless an image of Jesus really is. It only means something if you attach meaning independent of what the actual evidence offers.

Thirdly there is a reason anecdotal evidence is mostly rejected by science – it is simply unreliable. We all know the “the fish was this big” syndrome, and that is just about fishing. Who wouldn’t want to be the person who experienced god directly?

I am also reminded of the point Christopher Hitchens makes in the Four Horsemen discussion (available on Google video):

You had a marvelous quotation from Francis Collins, the genome pioneer, who said, while mountaineering one day, he was so overcome by the landscape, and then went down on his knees and accepted Jesus Christ. A complete non sequitur.

Given all of this, personal experience cannot be considered positive evidence for the existence of god – it is only evidence that someone experienced something that they interpreted in such a way to suggest something.

3) The bible is historically accurate

If we assume that the non-supernatural stuff in the bible is historically correct (i.e. those kings existed, those places existed, those people existed, those wars happened, etc) we shouldn’t be too surprised. The bible was written at a time when those things were recent history and they should be close to correct, god or no god. It certainly doesn’t tell us anything about whether a god penned it or not because accuracy would be expected either way. Of course any inaccuracies (and there are likely to be several given inconsistencies throughout the bible) are a bigger problem for advocates of the god point but again expected if men penned it.

It is certainly not positive evidence for the existence of god.

4) Biblical prophecy

Firstly if we were to assume that every prophecy in the bible was specific, dated, and directly fulfilled, we still do not have positive evidence of the existence of god. We only have evidence that someone was able to correctly predict the future somehow and wrote it down in the bible.

Unfortunately none of the prophecies were specific, dated or directly fulfilled so this point is moot. Given enough time and ingenuity it seems inevitable that most of the prophecies will be fulfilled in some manner, but they are all either vague or highly likely to come true. An example of the latter is one I took from http://100prophecies.org/page2.htm:

Ezekiel 36:11
I will increase the number of men and animals upon you, and they will be fruitful and become numerous. I will settle people on you as in the past and will make you prosper more than before. Then you will know that I am the Lord.

Given how settlements and civilisations changed over the history of the middle east, this not happening in some way would be more of a surprise.

5) Miracles

Again even if we assume that miraculous things genuinely occur, miracles don’t come with calling cards. Just like personal revelation, they are interpreted by each person to match their expectations. If a person is “miraculously” cured of cancer, we have no evidence of anything except that something unexpected and positive occurred. We cannot look at a miracle and assume a particular causal agent (god or otherwise) was involved so yet again we don’t have positive evidence for the existence of anything.

6) Superiority of believers

It is often argued that Christians (or substitute any other favourite belief system) are somehow better people than non Christians. It is often claimed they are more moral, or harder working, or more altruistic. While fairly limited evidence exists for this (and it is arguable the opposite is in fact true, although in my view religion is largely irrelevant to morality) the problem is that this is not a reflection of the existence or otherwise of the god. Rather it is a reflection for whether or not the organised structures associated with the belief in that god are beneficial or not. Worshipers of a real god may well be rampantly immoral while worshipers of a non-existent god may be moral by any standard you might choose.

In other words this is not evidence for the existence of a particular god, it is just reflective of the people involved.

Conclusion

I don’t think I have missed any of the major arguments for gods existence and this leaves us with a pretty obvious conclusion – there is no positive evidence for the existence of any god. Of course we haven’t even looked at the major issue of defining a god in such a way that evidence could even have meaning. Without a meaningful definition, the whole issue of whether god exists or not is pretty much a non-issue. An undefined entity does not exist by definition 🙂

Does anyone who believes in god actually directly believe in the literal existence of a god? I suspect not, even if they may have convinced themselves that they do via the indirect evidences I discussed above and through continual positive reinforcement through their churches and so forth.

Finally, I would like to point out the faith card is simply inadmissible in this argument. Saying belief without direct evidence is a sufficient state for belief is really a warrant to believe in anything, and takes one no closer to a rebuttal of the notion “there is no direct evidence of the existence of god.”

Cheers
Ian

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Comments»

1. A. J. Chesswas - March 31, 2008

have written a post on my blog in response ian… cheers… hope massey treating you well mate…

2. Ian - March 31, 2008

Yeah Massey is all good mate, Hows the naki?

I have replied to the post on your site, interested people can check out the discussion here.

3. A. J. Chesswas - April 2, 2008

not too bad… only a month to go in plan review job, then who knows what i will do!!

4. Anonymous - April 18, 2008

An undefined entity does not exist by definition 🙂

Ummmm – why? Pluto existed before it was located, named and defined. Generally the Universe really does not care whether humans decide to catalog it or not..

On the other hand the Flying Spaghetti Monster has been rather well defined – I guess his existance is rather more certain than God?

5. Ian - April 18, 2008

We can’t talk about the existence of something without first defining it sufficiently to recognise it. Sure plenty of things exist that we know nothing about, but anything we do know about must have such a definition.

For example to claim Pluto exists without defining Pluto is meaningless. However if Pluto is defined, even if that definition is simply a previously unknown blip of light on an astronomical photo, then we can discuss it’s existence, and theories that explain it and expand the definition.

Simply put, a definition of x does not necessitate the existence of x, but for the existence of x to be possible, one must first define x.

In other words definition is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the existence of something.

As for the FSM, I suspect his existence is about as likely as gods, no more or less 🙂


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