Prove It!

“Prove to me God exists!” is a challenge I regularly encounter in discussions with atheists.  Atheists are not the only group of people to offer this type of challenge, I also interact with Christians or some other adherent to another religious system who will also request of me to “prove my case” for some position I hold.  But, can you or I prove God exists?  Or prove anything we believe is true for that matter?  I suppose that depends on whether you, the challenger, understand what it is you are asking.

Generally when the challenge is offered, what they are asking for is evidence.  Evidence and proof are different.  Evidence is facts offered in order to make a case.  Proof is obtained when someone is convinced by the evidence to believe the case.  In essence proof is dependent on the receiver of the evidence, not the one who is offering the evidence.

For instance, say I had an old friend over for cake and coffee.  I presented my guest with a cake which I claim I baked myself.  My good friend, being skeptical of my baking abilities says to me, “This cake is delicious, I don’t think you baked it yourself.  Prove to me you baked this cake.”  I proceed to show my friend the unwashed pans and utensils used to bake the cake.  “That’s not proof, that could be from anything”.  I show him the emptied egg shells and recipe I used.  “Maybe you had eggs for breakfast”, he replies.  In this case I am at the mercy of my friend’s willingness to accept the evidence as conclusive of my baking the cake myself.  Unless My friend concedes I baked the cake based on the evidence, I have not proven I baked the cake myself.  I suppose if I had video of myself going through the process, that may elicit the proof he is looking for; but as with any other piece of evidence, my cohort could gainsay anything I provide.

All this is not to say everyone demanding you prove your case is intentionally equivocating the term ‘proof’.  In fact my experience is they usually understand ‘proof’ to mean ‘evidence’ when they ask for it.  But then retreat to the actual idea proof entails when the evidence is offered.  What they mean by “prove to me…” or “there is no proof that…”  is “offer me evidence which will make me believe…”.  In which case you are likely in a no win situation.  You are never in a position where you can force someone to believe something they refuse to, no matter the strength of evidence you offer.

So what can we do when someone asks us to prove something to them?  We need to clarify what it is they are actually asking of us.  Ask questions such as: “what do you mean by proof?” or, “what would you consider proof?”.  The idea is to get the conversation in a place where you can answer the challenge to the satisfaction of the skeptic.  In some cases, those in which they are in fact asking you to force them to concede your position, you may not be able to meet the challenge.  When this is the case, it may be best to explain, as I have above, why it is not possible to give a proper answer.

You will find that some skeptics know they are asking an impossibility of you.  Then it would be best to graciously change the subject.  In the event clarification was all that was needed, enjoy the discourse.

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Related Article: Never Quite Enough, A Burden The Hand, Not A Shred Of Evidence, Yes, But What If…, Objection Overruled

Comments

  1. I have often thought of these terms in this exact way. When man finally walked on the moon, the evidence is there for millions to believe it. However, there are still those that think it was filmed in Hollywood… the proof wasn’t there for them.

    I have read alot of what you have written… nice stuff.

  2. My children learned from life, rather than from institutions. How can I prove that they learned as much as those who are products of the system? Is proof found in testing? Some say it is. Others, like me, see their success by the fruit of their lifestyles: kindness, compassion, service, and empathy. For me, proof of success isn’t found in the world’s standards. Just my take on proof.
    Debra

  3. Your story is an interesting way of avoiding the question.

    I have found that different people hold their own definition of evidence. While their own perception may be their reality, it may not represent fact. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
    The evidence presented to the skeptic is usually not evidence at all.

    As for the replies –
    Debra: Kindness, compassion, service and empathy are fine values that can be instilled by friends and family. Higher learning is obtained by advanced education from those institutions. Success, too, depends on your own definition.
    Ketch: Your reference is a great example of what is fact versus what people believe. There are many who believe the moon landing was not real despite the fact there is empirical evidence to prove it. Even though they feel they are right, the facts say otherwise.

    • I have briefly written on the idea that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence here: http://truthinreligionandpolitics.com/2010/09/26/never-quite-enough/

      The probability that the the powerball numbers will come our 7 32 9 12 22 3 14 are so extraordinarily improbable and yet if you read it in the paper the next day without seeing the drawing you wouldnt bat an eye. Even if the drawing were not televised and only witnessed by 2 people you still would not demand extraordinary evidence. All that is required for any claim is adequate reliable evidence.

      Additionally, when it comes to religious claims, an “out” is built into the challenge, it is always up to the skeptic when there is enough, and in that respect, there never is. “That’s not enough”, “That’s not extraordinary enough”.

      • I read your article. While I can appreciate your eloquence, your analogy is flawed.
        Your lottery numbers will have a determined outcome and the probability of a specific outcome is just that – a probability, regardless of how many witness it.

        All “evidence” to support your religious claims eventually lead to a leap of faith to justify that evidence. The reason you make the claim that skeptics always reply with “that’s not enough” shows that your evidence is anecdotal and cannot be examined using scientific methodology.

        Additionally, I find it quite ironic that you bring up that point.

        As science marches on, exposing more and more details in the fields of biology, chemistry, physics and everything in the world around us, it also exposes the long-held beliefs of many to be just plain wrong. Those in religious circles get defensive when their traditions are challenged. For example, there are literally mountains of evidence to show us that the planet is billions of years old and science has proven that to be a fact. Yet those in religious circles dispute this because the evidence science presents is never enough to satisfy them.

        The beauty of science is that anyone can challenge a conclusion. Anyone is free to test their own hypothesis and reach their own conclusion, but they must also be aware that their own conclusion will be challenged and any flaws will be exposed. One must always be able to admit when they might be wrong and the vast majority of those in the scientific community will freely acknowledge this. The religious community has already reached their conclusion and is unwavering in their position, regardless of any new evidence.

        My discussions with Ketch have helped me understand that there are different definitions of the word evidence as it applies to his Christian beliefs. He confirms the bias of his perspective when he considers the evidence presented and often concludes “that’s not enough”.

        • Yes, specific lottery numbers coming out are a matter of probabilities, but those probabilities are in the millions, and thus are highly improbable for a certain number, whatever it is, to come out. The numbers I chose for example, the odds are greater than 1 million to 1, yet you would have little doubt those were the numbers. The point, which I assume you are ok with noting the point, is those numbers are an extraordinary event, or lets say the numbers were 1 2 3 4 5 6-7, that number has the exact same probability as the original number i used in the example, but is even more extraordinary than the first set. Would you require extraordinary evidence before you believed those were the lotto numbers drawn?

          I need you to be more specific on your claim, for example, there are many arguments for the existence of God which make no appeal to anecdotal evidence. Evidences from the historical record, philosophical arguments and such dont require personal stories.

          I truly hope you are not criticizing religion with science in respect that science corrects ancient “religious” explanations. Scientific theories and discoveries are corrected by science regularly, so you are pointing the sword in your own direction as well with that. Furthermore, your characterization “religious circles” while rhetorically clever, is inaccurate. Some. few religious circles dispute the age of the universe/earth, and whether they are right or wrong on that issue does nothing to prove or disprove the existence of God.

          On this point you are only half correct, that anyone is free to test and examine hypothesis. This is true in every field of science except evolutionary biology. Dissent is not an option, it is not allowed and voicing any concerns is grounds for academic retribution.

          • Paragraph 1: Your missing the point. Your example of the lottery is just statistics of an event that will definitely occur. Statistics are proven with mathematics. There’s nothing extraordinary about it.

            Paragraph 2: Please supply historical evidence to support your claim for the existence of god. Also, which philosophical argument do you wish to use?

            Paragraph 3: Like I stated before, science is very critical on itself, but science has corrected religious belief over and over again. The example of the earth’s age flies in the face of religion. In a recent Gallup poll it was found that half the adults in America believe that the earth is 6,000 years old. The bible was cited as their source for this misinformation and yet the bible is believed to be inerrant.

            Paragraph 4: Your statement is false. There are challenges in all fields of science and the absurd conclusions are usually shot down because the evidence doesn’t support it. Please cite an example of your claim of academic retribution.

            • Actually, what you are overlooking is the improbability of those numbers being called. The odds against it are over a million to one, making those numbers in particular (not just any number combination, those specifically in that order) that is what makes those numbers being called an extraordinary event.

              The Kalam Cosmological argument serves both as an evidence from history and philosophy.

              Science at one time taught: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superseded_scientific_theories, and no longer does. So whether a small group of religious adherents believes in a young earth, that does nothing to invalidate God any more than all these false scientific theories which were nearly universally held as true, invalidate the scientific method. Scientific “facts” were at one time cited and considered to be inerrant, to prove all these failed ideas yet you do not discredit science.

              And no, the movie “Expelled” though just a movie documents instances where inquery into evolutionary biology was met with academic retribution.

              • “god”… What are the odds that all the prophecies would be fulfilled that were spoken in the Old Testament? 1 out of 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000

                Now that is a mathematical anomaly! I know that you will argue something about the accuracy of this, but if you go here http://www.askapastor.org/proph.html

                and at least give it the benefit of the doubt and try not to turn your head before even “trying” to read any of these, you have to see that even if 1 or 2 of these prophecies came true, it is amazing… but, alas, you just might find a way to see that all of these are bunk. I sure hope not… the evidence is there… will you see it? Or will you regret not seeing it when it is too late?

              • Let me spell this out. Probability is math. Probability has nothing to do with anything extraordinary. Your definition of extraordinary apparently includes “unlikely”. By this definition, the odds that I would write this exact sentence are very extraordinary given all the words in the English language!

                Ketch has apparently determined the odds of bible events that allegedly happened. Quite amusing.

                A simple online search of the Kalam Cosmological argument shows its flaws and really has no historical evidence or relevance to our discussion. While it may make an interesting philosophical discussion, it doesn’t really lend itself to a debate on truth. Nobody can claim truth of causation.

                Science doesn’t set out to disprove god.Science is self-correcting. Unlike religion, science allows and invites their conclusions to be challenged. While science doesn’t claim to be perfect, religion does. If people who interpret the bible come to a conclusion of the “young earth theory”, they too must look at the possibility of being wrong. Since these people who interpret the bible look at the bible to be inerrant source, they cannot accept this challenge and any evidence that may conflict with their conclusion. Their own bias gets in the way and their credibility as a scientist is damaged.

                Anyone can question evolutionary biology and come up with a better theory. No one is saying it’s perfect, but just the best explanation based on the evidence we’ve uncovered and are continuing to uncover. Other theories have been presented but hold up to the scrutiny of proof. Do you have a better theory?

  4. I don’t know what Debra is saying. I do like your comment on the lottery… makes sense.

  5. I think you are right, John. People bandy about the “proof” and the demand “proof” all the time. I see atheists and theists of all kinds do this, and I see it from people in discussions that aren’t about religion at all. The requirement for evidence is reasonable, but for the most part, the requirement for proof is not. I say “for the most part” because logical proofs and scientific proofs (each with their own specific definition of what a “proof” means) are valid and important admissions into any discussion that they can inform.

    I would offer this touchstone for deciding “how much evidence is enough” or “how good must the evidence be”. Simply put, we should be consistent about the extent to which our beliefs are guided by evidence, vs. the extent to which our beliefs are guided by emotions (fears, social pressures, etc.). We should not think or reason about religion (the existence of God for example) differently than we reason about anything else. Have aliens visited our planet? Were the photos of the moon walk a hoax? Does Brahma exist? Does Moscow exist? Does the Loch Ness monster exist? Does Bigfoot? Our standard for requiring and evaluating evidence should be the same in each case.

    I would also offer up for consideration a related fallacy about belief. Once again, I see the position from theists, atheist, and in contexts other then religion. The fallacy is that belief comes in only two denominations: either zero or 100%. How sure are you that God exists? How sure are you that there is life outside of our solar system? Once again, we should treat our beliefs regarding religion the same way we treat our beliefs about anything else. We can have beliefs with varying degrees of certainty, and our degree of certainty should correspond with degree to which the evidence supports our beliefs.

  6. I do agree with you John.
    I suspect that you knew that based on our earlier discussion where I asked for evidence as opposed to proof.
    I don’t expect that you have “proof” of God. I’ll gladly admit that “proof”, for me, would by the nature of the subject at hand be personal.
    Shy of a bearded man appearing to me in the clouds, which in and of itself I must concede is a personal experience, I would likely not believe. I might also accept an unambiguous message on the genome that read “I created you”.
    So yes, my threshold of “proof” is far higher than yours…..
    Or is it? What if there were good inferential evidence that Jesus was not the Son of God? Similar in weight to what you consider your “proof” of God? What if there were evidence for Ganesh?

    I want to caution you with your lottery analogy. No-one here has yet pointed out the biggest issue with it.
    First, if the lottery is set up to draw seven numbers between 1-49, and you observe that seven numbers have been drawn, the likelihood of that happening is precisely 1.
    Your analogy is based on the assumption that you know the specific outcome BEFORE the lottery is drawn. If you are looking at the Saturday draw numbers in the Monday paper, you are observing a phenomenon with a probability of 1.
    If John, you asked me to give you seven numbers between 1-49 that you wanted to match to a draw this coming weekend, then you have a statistical anomaly if those numbers are drawn.
    If you ask me to guess what numbers were drawn on Saturday, when I have the following Monday’s paper sitting in front of me, there is a probability of 1 that I will get it right given that my powers of observation are sharp.

    • The analogy doesn’t take into account whether you ptedict the correct numbers. Rather it is the probability of the particular number combination and order they are drawn, whether the numbers are 1-7 or 2-16-35-21-24-45-9. The odds are the same. Each number combination is equally improbable. The point is all that is needed is adequate evidence, not extraordinary. The probability or improbability of an event I think is irrelevant to the amount and quality of evidence required.

  7. The probability or improbability of an event I think is irrelevant to the amount and quality of evidence required.

    So would you say that these two statements are equally worthy of consideration without actually testing them:
    “If you jump off the Empire State building at 2pm on Saturday, you will surely die”
    and
    “If you jump off the Empire State building at 2pm on Saturday, you will sprout wings and ascend into Heaven”

    I think that I require a lot less evidence for one than the other.

    • There’s a problem with the way you awre parsing your example. Sure, make both claims, now we get to ask “why” for both. What is the evidence for believing (1) and what is the evidence for beliving (2)? Both statements bear a required justification for both in order to believe them.

      I’m not saying we believe every claim because they all have an equal probability of being true. I’m saying all we need is adequate evidence to believe any claim.

  8. I want to argue that the evidence required for believing(1) is relatively ordinary evidence. It requires no suspension of observable reality, no intervention by a super-natural force, and is believable given simple observable phenomena.
    Believing (2) on the other hand, requires extraordinary evidence. I must be willing to concede to a reality that I have never witnessed, I must assume a super-natural causation, and must believe it in spite of observable phenomena.

    There is a required justification for both, yet evidence for (1) is ordinary, given our observable reality, and evidence for (2) would require evidence that transcends the ordinary evidence we use to prove (1), evidence that supersedes the laws of biology, gravity, physics and logic, extraordinary…if you will.

    I’m not telling you that you are arguing that all claims have an equal probability of being true. I’m saying that adequate evidence to believe some claims by necessity of our observable reality will be extraordinary.

    • I dont make a distinction between ordinary evidence and extraordinary evidence for the simple reason that for you, ordinary evidence is adequate for believing (1). But the bar is set artifically high in a position for claims of miraculous events. Let me ask you, have you ever heard stories of some WW2 pilots who’s parachutes did not open, but lived even after hitting ground? Or stories when people jump from windows of 3-4 stories high and live? We hear of incredible stories of people who survive the nastiest gunshot wounds, car accidents where people should not have lived, and they have walked away relatively unharmed. By your standard, we should never believe any of it unless it was on video…bet even then…right?

      It seems the ultra skepticism only applies to religious claims.

      I also understand you–and generally agree that by the nature of the evidence for a particular claim will be extraordinary, but what I am saying is when it comes to religious claims, no evidence is ever extraordinary enough for skeptics. It is a movable bar, and it is routinely moved, and highly subjective.

  9. You make a valid observation, John, but I don’t think you understand the social repercussions of accepting or not accepting extraordinary claims. For example, not believing an incredible story of how someone survived a huge fall has no real bearing on your life at all, whereas not believing an extraordinary religious event often leads to social persecution and even threats to your health. Being coerced to believe in an extraordinary religious claim from peer-pressure and the fear of being ostracized is just sad.

  10. Yes John,
    We are in agreement on the fact that evidence of a religious claim will likely not be accepted by a skeptic. I contend that this is because skeptics will always look for an ordinary explanation for an event.
    I also don’t think that is misguided.

    If you discount a handful of ordinary explanations out of hand, then your extraordinary explanation must be given less weight.

    I don’t feel I set the bar artificially high for religious claims. I feel that I need to exhaust all reasonable explanations before I can comfortably consider an explanation that directly contradicts observable reality. If there were such a thing as ordinary evidence for a religious event, then I would be compelled by it. I hold all claims to the same standard. a) Is the claim explainable within observable reality? b) have I exhausted all possible reasons that have a probability higher then that of a supernatural explanation?
    then, and only then, c) what is the most likely explanation remaining?
    I’ll happily cop to being furiously reasonable. That doesn’t change the fact that extraordinary claims should always be proven with extraordinary evidence. Else we should just accept any given claim without skepticism.
    If a Muslim told you that he saw Mohammed descend from heaven on a flying horse and speak with him directly, would you think it unfair to require a huge burden of proof to believe his claim?
    I wouldn’t. Given that his experience contradicts observable reality and physical laws, and also contradicts my preferred epistemology.

    You might choose to believe his statement, but you would attribute it to a very different causal agent. How different are we, then?

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