Searching for evidence in the right way
Regular Network Norwich and Norfolk columnist James Knight writes about how the proof of God's existence is found by looking also at what else exists.
How often have you heard sceptics utter the phrase “There is no evidence for God”? – it happens in atheistic circles with folk like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and it spreads throughout the population of sceptics, to the point that one can become rather tired of hearing it. The compliant that there is no evidence for God is a corollary of a deeper misunderstanding regarding what objective evidence is – for the general complaint is that God has provided us with no objective evidence of His existence and His interest in creation.
But this seems to me to be an incorrect method of thinking and a misunderstanding of what ‘objectivism’ actually is. The truth is that 'objective' evidence has been provided by God, it's just that the terms for 'objective' being used by sceptics are in some cases a bit misjudged. Objective facts are to do with things that are true irrespective of subjective human opinions. Although it is true that the term 'objective' is a human construct, our inability to assess all the data or comprehend the vast experiential protocols does not take away from the objective evidence that God has provided, it simply means that the limitations in human thinking and acquisition of data/evidence often only provide 'subjective' statistical returns.
An example of non-objectivity would be if I said 'London is the most beautiful city in the world' or 'Jude The Obscure is Thomas Hardy's best novel' because even with increased knowledge there is no way to objectively measure those statements, thus they remain subjective. Yet God has shown His 'objective' evidence with His love for the world presented in the Bible, by His presence in the world in Christ, and by the fact that with increased knowledge (perhaps even the playing out of time until kingdom comes) such revelations will be objectively measureable against other events and truths. Thus, to define the terms properly, objective evidence ‘has’ been provided by God. What confuses people, I think, is that there's a world of difference between the complaint that there is no objective evidence and the complaint that evidence is trickier than one would like or expect.
If we had access to an entire blueprint of the whole cosmos then we would be able to answer any statistical question definitively, as the truth or falsity of any situation would in no way depend on any of the observers. Given the foregoing, it seems clear that the popular uses of the term 'objective' in relation to scepticism need altering. The reason that God's objective evidence cannot yet be settled purely with recourse to external facts does not make it subjective with respect to the evidence provided, only subjective with respect to our own probabilistic epistemology – and I will explain this further in the hope that the confusion can be cleared up.
Of course we may rightly contend that the evidence's standing with respect to our epistemology is the only sense that actually matters to us but that is also the sense in which God has made Himself known in Christ. Thus when I said that objective facts are to do with things that are true irrespective of subjective human opinions it is because I wanted to show that in Christ God has provided objective evidence for His existence and His love for us.
Many sceptics will happily suggest that such evidence isn't objective, when in fact it is. What they really mean with their objection is that the epistemological trail is full of hiatuses whereby access to that objectivity is potentially difficult - but I think it is difficult only because many people do not see life as probability estimates, they see it as being defined by clear cut 'true and false' demarcation lines, when in reality life is much fuzzier than that. No doubt some of you will sit back and think that that doesn’t sound right – after all, you may say, I know that X is true, or Y is a fact, or Z is undeniable. In fact, does not the faith that you have rest on assumptions that God has provided certain truths of which we can be certain? Yes I will concur but with an important caveat – this is only true within the framework of thinking that we have set up as the best working epistemology that humankind has.
You see, one of the aspects of mind that many do not see is that cognition itself requires the need for relativism – it could even be called absolute in the sense that everything conceived within nature is relative to other conceptions or perceptions. Yet of course the thinking that holds relativism to be the only reality potentially undermines itself, because it rests on an absolutism that negates the proposition itself. To the thinking mind relativism doesn't exist in isolation from absolutism, so one’s own proprietary state, despite having access to a broad range of other states through the self’s own interpretive abilities, only ever has direct access to the absolute relativity that makes up personhood.
Every mind has the capacity for an exploration that gives strong hints of a potential far beyond ordinary observations – and what this goes to show, and why Christ seems more interested in beginning a relationship through direct interaction with the self, is that the reality of having a relationship with Christ is that we engage with the awesome mind of God – thus such a relationship makes it clear that life is about a lot more than what is in the sphere of a full positivist mentality.
Clearly with something like the existence of God we know that we do not have certain proof of His existence. We may well have every reason to believe He exists, but equally another man may argue that he has every reason to believe that God doesn’t exist. So the important thing first off is to make sure that both men are going about their philosophical business in the right way. If people have become sloppy with their thinking we know where they get it from.
"There may be fairies at the bottom of the garden. There is no evidence for it, but you can't prove that there aren't any, so shouldn't we be agnostic with respect to fairies?"
— Richard Dawkins
So Richard Dawkins is suggesting that there is no evidence for Christianity in the same way that there is no evidence for fairies. This, I think, underlines where much of the problem lies because the man who says there is no evidence for God is making a fundamental error straight off because he is treating the existence of God as something that can be proven without any degree of doubt – or at the very least he is not understanding what the acquisition of evidence is really like. As a Christian you may have the certainty that God is working in your life, just as I have certainty that God is working in my life – but as St Paul makes clear, that certainty is not from us, it is from the power of God working in us. Thus it ought to be said, what I am speaking of here is not to do with the power of God working in us, it is a message about evidence and epistemology and the communicability of that evidence, which is a lot more difficult, and let’s face it, what the whole issue of evidence has always been about.
It ought to be remembered as well that the statement “There is no evidence for God” is really a pretty arbitrary statement – after all, the phrase means nothing unless one can establish that that person knows how to process evidence and measure up in being able to assess how various kinds of evidence is assimilated into a coherent philosophy. We are always hearing about evidence, either for or against God, - but this is a subject that is scarcely given the consideration it deserves – and the reason, as I’ve already said, is because most people wrongly think that life is a series of clear cut demarcation lines between truth and falsehood, when it isn't - it is a fuzzy world of probability estimates, some objectivity, and subjective knowledge relative to other subjective knowledge.
I'll just end the opening statement with a disclaimer: what we are going to look at is not a pejoratively aimed poke at those who often state that they think there is no evidence for God - but rather a friendly nudge in the hope that we can all agree that the subject of theology is vastly complex - and evidence for God is not the sort of evidence that comes wrapped in foil on a plate ready for consumption, but rather, it is a lifelong pursuit of discovering God’s personality in a world in which most things are not black and white, and in which most of our knowledge is acquired via probability estimates.
How evidence works
It's not that Christians wish to set their goals for evidence so high that attainment becomes difficult, it is that unless one understands just what evidence is and how, even aside from something as complex as theology, truths do not always appear clearly defined but as subset truths that we assess with our own probabilistic reasoning. Think of a subject like evolution and imagine if an amateur who didn’t know the subject very well asked for proof of evolution. Given the vast timescales that it takes for evolutionary changes to occur, it's obvious that the subject is pretty intractable and as a whole is not amenable to simple laboratory testing or easy test/refute scenarios. With evolution we piece together evidence rather like a vast jigsaw puzzle. We don't have every piece but we have enough to conclude that it has been happening for billions of years, so no one sensible doubts it. The reason nobody sensible doubts it is not because its proof can be written in axiomatic form on the back of a bus ticket but because the repeated evidence increases the probability of it being true to the point that a consensus has been reached. Each individual piece in the jigsaw increases the probability of evolution being true, and it is a large jigsaw, and we have many pieces.
But one important point needs making - compared with theology, evolution is a pretty easy jigsaw to piece together - the probabilities are science-friendly and each individual piece of the jigsaw is amenable to fairly simple empirical testing, and it is that simplicity that allows us to postulate theories about evolution's vast timescales. This sort of talk usually perturbs sceptics because many are under the mistaken assumption that subjects like evolution are not comparable with subjects like theology because biological artefacts are much more easily manageable than theology and the concomitant relationship with God. Yet this reaction is more like a nervous unrest, and is largely the result of the fact that since Hegel and Kierkegaard people have been keen to avoid any philosophies that do not confer some positivist value on their analysis, so they look at evolution and see their own clearly defined parameter lines within which they can work and they stay inside their comfort zone.
But what we are doing here is not conferring value on a subject according to how accessible its components or artefacts or information, we are looking at precisely the epistemological routes by which our hypotheses and theories arrive, because in doing so we will see two things; firstly, that knowledge and interpretation of evidence is, in many of the more intractable subjects, not clear cut at all, and secondly, that the sceptics who merely take a pejorative poke at theology because they can find no clearly defined ‘evidence’ for God do not seem to understand that in most human cases ‘clear cut’ is not what we deal with.
To give a clear example of what I mean, consider the Sorites Paradox
- when does a heap become a heap? Clearly there is no ‘out there’ true/false line as there is in other aspects of human constructed logic. The question 'When does a heap become a heap?' can only be answered in two ways. We can say a heap of sand must exceed n where n equals a designated number for qualification, but that method doesn’t really help us with a subject like accepting the existence of God because we could then define our evidence however we wanted in the most arbitrary way, and we can't do that effectively with personal experiences. The other way to solve the heap problem is to say that the probability of calling the pile a heap increases with every grain added. This is the correct epistemological route to take because the world is full of many comparable examples, where things of which we think we are certain are really feelings we have based on probability estimates. A happily married man probably trusts his wife implicitly, and if asked he would probably say that the issue of whether God exists is not comparable to the evidence for trusting his wife. To which I would answer yes and no. No, in the sense that the evidence of his wife being trustworthy is based on simpler empirical methods and much more accessible data. Yes, in the sense that the evidence obtained is still the case of probability estimates (much like the Sorites Paradox) where each of her words, actions and behaviour over a period of time increase the probability of her being regarded as trustworthy.
Let’s use another example – when we think of heat we may think scientifically of our knowledge of the transferring thermal energy and of scientific terms such as convection, conduction and radiation, and we know we have a lot of data to work with in studying temperature and thermodynamics and how those terms relate to our everyday lives. But now imagine yourself sitting in a room with friends and one of them asks you how you would ascertain whether the room is hot or cold. You may tell him how you feel; perhaps it feels warm, so you have classified the room as a ‘warm’ room. But in doing so you haven’t done anything other that convey a personal viewpoint – one which if you were being inattentive to rational discourse you may well think was backed up a whole lot of scientific evidence and is very different to a question about God.
But the truth is different. What I said about the heap problem applies here too, irrespective of how much scientific knowledge one has. Ignoring the other issue of different people’s personal physiology with regard to how they deal with temperatures, you can either say the room becomes hot by stating beforehand that the temperature must exceed n where n equals a designated number for qualification of hot, which again is a tautology, or you can say that the probability of calling the room hot increases with every degree of increase in temperature.
Given the foregoing analysis, it ought to be clear that in the first place our abilities for assessing whether or not God exists and is active in people’s lives are much less competent than we think, so when someone says there is no evidence for God all they really mean is that they have never experienced Him. And in the second place, when someone says “There is no evidence for God” they have shown that they do understand how the majority of our views and knowledge of that kind is formed. The only thing they can really say with a strong conviction is that their experiences have forced them to lower the probability of their believing in God - we can’t say there is no evidence or there is certain evidence because the entire gamut of evidential acquisition through the vast space of the historical and the socio-personal is about accumulating ideas and concepts through probability. Thus it stands to reason that one person only ever sparsely samples the network of all possible routes into such knowledge, so to stridently declare that there is no evidence for God is really clumsy thinking because the premium placed on one’s own comparably tiny experiential protocols against the vast search space of all other experiential protocols is both parochial and irrational.
The Christian who is asking someone to consider the faith has never made a claim that God can be proven 100% - so the sceptic makes a pretty pointless claim when he says there is no proof, because God's existence will be like making a jigsaw - piece by piece probabilities are what we work with, not certainties. The sceptic will then usually say, 'Ah sod it, if you can't give me 100% proof or some verifiable objective evidence then I'm off" - while failing to realise that a great many things in his life that he takes for granted on a daily basis do not arrive at his door via proofs or verifiable objectivity, but instead via the piece by piece probabilities that he has just rejected out of hand with theology.
Such a man is not only likely to be limiting himself with his theology, he will likely be the same with other subjects that he thinks he knows well (as I mentioned above with the subject of evolution). To compound my point let’s take another complex subject like history which, like evolution, has a complex ontology because it involves vast timescales and complex socio-personal variables. Therefore it is obvious that history cannot be taken into the laboratory and examined under test/refute conditions – we must again work with a great many pieces and bit by bit construct one giant jigsaw. The jigsaw is made more complex because it is made up of a mix of documentation and theoretics, and they both involve a vast array of differing opinions, different interpretations and also a degree of speculation and conjecture where an absence of the facts looms large. Thus it ought to be clear that something as intractable as history can only go so far with the scientific systems, and that when one contemplates history (particularly one’s own) we are left with many facets of thinking that are not communicable. And if they are not communicable they are not much use to the scientific heuristics. One need only think of the ancients who partook in prehistoric carvings to know that there are no accompanying interpretations, only one’s own – thus the enigma of a valid interpretation is heavily dependent on the mind’s ability to use an imagination beyond the endeavours of science.
Taking this to the next level
A God who made himself known in Christ and who has already included the whole world in His grace and given us freedom to accept and enjoy His love and grace by living our own lives is going to be a God whose existence will be seen in every way but the way that sceptics are asking. C.S Lewis made a beautiful observation when he said “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” I am not sure just how deep C.S Lewis was intending to go with that statement, as it seems to be centred on our being able to see God’s influence in the lives of others, but given what we’ve already observed above, the statement can be taken to a much more profound level of evidence and probabilities. If God’s existence is seen mostly through the way He influences others and the miracles He performs in their lives (as in the light to His sun) then the question of evidence for His existence (outside of the evidence He has left through the Biblical prophecies, and the fulfillment of them and historical legacy left by Christ) is not going to be a case of there being ‘no’ evidence or ‘complete’ evidence, but rather a gradual pursuit and a journey where one gets to find out how God is interacting in people’s lives, the miracles He’s performed, and most important how God’s love and grace is relevant to each of us as individuals. Those who scoff and insist that that is not the proof they’re looking for do not know how wide of the mark they are; for in fact, in using this method God is doing several things that they wouldn’t do in any given instant. It’s as Pascal said in his Pensées:
‘There is enough light for those who desire only to see and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition.'
The probability of God’s existence increases according to several things - but it is clear that such an ontology is known by fuzzy increases in probability, not clear cut off points between ‘yes He does exist’ or ‘no He doesn't’. The question of why He brought us into a world in which His existence is in doubt is bound up in a whole host of other factors, regarding our growth, our trust or faith, our development and our humility, and although that rankles a bit with sceptics who want to have everything in positivist form and established on their own merits not on grace and trust, it is clear that if God exists His chosen method of revelation and personal dispensation is not so simple that we can prove it succinctly because our journey towards betterment is a growth and a progression bound up in the vast gamut of factors which are weighted by probability and the dialectic between our theories and experiences.
With this in mind it is naturally pretty hopeless to think of God without first some consideration of Him as a personality – and we all know that when we are dealing with personalities, we are dealing very dynamical processes of interaction that rest on a huge interpretative heuristic, not on black and white proof and disproof. That doesn’t mean we should refrain from looking for as much evidence as we can – it just means that the way God interacts with us is so much more glorious and personal and ineffable than test/refute science or empiricism caters for. Once this is realised, a sceptic can short cut what would otherwise be a very long and difficult logic trail, and in doing so he will find that evidence arrives in ways he cannot presently imagine.
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James is a Norwich local government officer, author and Proclaimers church member in Norwich. You can access his current collections of columns here
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