Proof and evidence

What are we to do when we religious believers — Christians specifically — are asked by a skeptic for evidence or proof for the veracity of our convictions?  Well, there’s two ways to respond.  First, we could assert our convictions.  This doesn’t do much to advance a dialogue though, nor does it advance our message.  In fact, merely asserting “the Bible says, and I believe the Bible…” brings discredit on Christianity, I think.  It opens our convictions up to a priori dismissals — and rightly so.  Why should anyone abandon their own convictions because you say so, or because you say the Bible, a book which they grant no authority, says they should?  I don’t think this is the way to go.  Conversely we could attempt to offer multiple lines of reasoning and arguments for why we believe the things we do, and this is the right path as I see it, but not without some clarification.  Even though asking for evidence and proof appear to be reasonable requests, the terms evidence and proof are far too ambiguous to proceed with the skeptic’s challenge.

First, there is a difference between bits of evidence and strength of evidence.  Evidence is the facts of the matter.  The strength of evidence is an interpretation of the bits of evidence which may or may not lead someone to concede their position.  This isn’t necessarily a conscious equivocation, but people tend to think of evidence in concrete terms.  I get the impression they think that if something is evidence it will force a particular conclusion.  Like finger prints on a murder weapon forces the conclusion that a specific individual touched the weapon at some point; so then if there were evidence for the existence of God, it should force a skeptic into theism, right?  But the problem is that not everyone will place the same value on the same evidence.  The evaluation of any particular evidence depends upon who interprets it.

What’s as problematic as the above equivocation is that the person who is considering the issue decides for themself what qualifies as evidence.  Skeptics who are Atheists, for example, may want only naturalistic evidence.  Naturalistic evidence for a supernatural being, that seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it?  They set the parameters of what qualifies as evidence with the presumption of naturalism and then require purely naturalistic boundaries.  Often when the skeptic claims there’s no evidence for God, what is meant is that there are no physical artifacts to examine.  But on what grounds must we accept that the only kinds of valid evidence is physical in nature?  Many events are only evidenced by eye-witness testimony.  Testimony is evidence.  Take for example sports records from times prior to videography.  Winners and losers, scores and stats; testimony and written records are the only evidence we have of the games and players.  There is no physical evidence of who won the first game of baseball, we cannot examine the ball and determine who played; or dig up the ground and conclude the score.  It’s not the case that because there’s no physical evidence, that there is no evidence whatsoever.  So while the evidence for theism or miracles may not force you to abandon your view, it is not the same as no evidence.

I wonder, can I prove God exists, or that the Bible’s claims are accurate?  That depends.  It depends on whether the challenger is satisfied.  Proof is obtained when someone is convinced by the evidence to believe the case.  Essentially, whether proof is achieved is dependent on the receiver of the evidence, not the one who offers it.  This request for proof is also an equivocation.  Broadly speaking, when someone asks for proof that God exists, what they want is evidence.  What they mean by “prove to me…” or “there’s no proof…”  is “give me evidence that will make me believe…”.  Unfortunately, when the skeptic remains unconvinced, they chalk up their continued skepticism on a lack of evidence continuing on the circularity of evidence » strength of evidence » proof equivocations.  That’s a problem built into the challenge, perhaps it’s unintentional, or perhaps it’s by design to prevent conversion.

This is why it’s important to get some clarification.  As defenders of Christianity, we need to know what will satisfy the requests for proof and evidence.  When we leave these terms undefined, we leave the skeptic free to move the goal posts of evidential satisfaction.  “That’s not enough evidence… That’s not good enough evidence… You didn’t prove anything…”.  At least with clear standards we can attempt to engage in a reasonable discussion.  With out them, we are just spinning our wheels.

Comments

  1. Epistemology is a big word and a big concern. How can we know a thing? How can we know anything. I don’t speak for other atheists but I can say that what I want is evidence with explanatory power, that makes sense of what else we think we might know and accounts for all the questions on the subject matter at hand. In the case for the existence of a god this is a rather large problem.

    You have composed your post as a helpful tract for believers who want to proselytize. For every atheist that I know of, your message has been delivered already. What is needed is evidence that it is true. Most of us grew up in religious families and were ourselves believers. We found the case for god so weak that we left the faith. Your chosen task is not to convert those that have never heard your message but those that have heard it and found it to be wrong. The Pew foundation found that on average the atheist knows more about your holy text than the believer does.

    The best advice I can offer by way of thoughts on your post is this:
    1 – learn your own position inside and out. Read all of your holy texts. Study them.
    2 – Take a college course if you have to, but learn evolutionary biology well enough to talk intelligently about it.
    3 – get in the habit of learning science for yourself. When you listen to people like Ray Comfort and William Lane Craig and think you know the argument you have shot yourself in the foot before getting to the gun fight with a gun you don’t know how to use.

    The atheist and anit-theist has take the trouble to know your position inside and out as part of their search for truth. If you have not bothered to learn their position as well, you are not giving the discussion or the non-believer the respect that they deserve. There are far too many believers that cannot recite the foundational doctrines of their faith or even all the ten commandments but they think it okay for them to dismiss evolution without even being able to state a good working definition of evolution. When you argue against something you don’t understand it only makes you look silly and makes it difficult to give your argument credibility.

  2. “we leave the skeptic free to move the goal posts of evidential satisfaction.”
    Moving the goalposts is exactly what atheists do best. It’s their perogative, apparently.

    “What is needed is evidence that it is true.”
    Except that, to the atheist’s materialist dogma, there is no truth, because truth is only what we decide it is. This subjectiveness allows the atheist to then say, “well, that may be true for you, but not for me.” To extend John’s evidentiary example, 10 different people can look at the exact same physical or testimonial evidence and draw 10 different conclusions, each convinced that theirs is “truth.” In reality, none of them may have the truth at all, but they do have their own conclusions. To the staunch atheist mind, there is no evidence that can convince them that their conclusions are anything but the truth, because what they consider acceptable as evidence is so fluid, while at the same time they claim they are the only ones who can claim “logic” and “reason” for themselves.

    “The Pew foundation found that on average the atheist knows more about your holy text than the believer does.”

    And that means what, exactly? (assuming that’s even accurate) It is not a requirement for a “believer” to have ever even seen a Bible or know how to read it. That’s not what defines a Christian. To demand that all Christians must be thoroughly entrenched in your list of demands is unreasonable and exceptional. It would be like demanding that everyone who speaks English must also have the equivalent of a teaching degree and full knowledge of the history of the English language, otherwise they’re not qualified to call themselves English speakers. It would be nice for them to know all that, especially if they find themselves trying to explain English to someone who is trying to learn the language, but it isn’t necessary for them to be an English speaker. At the same time, that someone “knows more about” the text does not mean they understand it at all. As mentioned above, when one’s definition of truth and evidence is so fluid, they can have it completely memorized, and still not understand any of it outside of their own projected contexts.

    “The atheist and anit-theist has take the trouble to know your position inside and out as part of their search for truth. ” No. No they haven’t. If they bother to do anything other than quote Dawkins and their other atheistic prophets, I have found they don’t know “our” position at all; they simply reject it without trying to understand it. I’ve had the most bizarre, circular discussions with atheists where, after addressing their specific objections against Christianity, rather then acknowledge that it’s been addressed, they go off on another direction, except that they’re basically rephrasing their original objection that was already addressed, and act as if it’s some new thing. The circular discussions and complete lack of intellectual honesty is quite sad, really. They also completely misrepresent what “our” position is, usually in a derogatory way by throwing things out about sky fairies and invisible men in the sky.

    No not only to atheists get to define what “truth” and “evidence” is, they claim the power to define what those they disagree with actually believe. This way, no matter what, they ‘win.’

  3. Actually, it is the believers who make their evidence “unfalsifiable.” No matter what an atheist refutes, the believer often moves the goal posts. An example is the way believers use the mystery card (god works in mysterious ways or “god’s ways are higher than man’s ways”) or the “you are ignorant” card–“you just don’t understand” because you don’t let the light of god shine into your heart.” And so forth.

  4. Daniel, while I agree that the “God works in mysterious ways” is a lazy cop out, I disagree that this is a matter of moving goal posts, as they tend to be responses to philosophical questions; questions for which there can be no hard evidentiary response, but for which atheists demand such.

  5. Evidence is in the eye of the beholder. Very true.

    Airplanes are comprised of the coming together of the work of countless technological advancements. It’s obvious that they are too complex to have just come together on their own by chance.

    But look at DNA. It’s ridiculously complex, yet comprised of only four chemical letters that make up an actual language that tells matter what to do, how, and when. It’s simple and complex at the same time. Isn’t that the goal of engineering? To do things as efficiently as possible?

    Life is not some Rube Goldberg contraption. It’s all done with four letters. How much more efficient can you get? I see this at least as evidence of a well thought out plan.

    But, that’s just me, I suppose.

  6. If someone is against the idea of God because they resent certain moral absolutes, then nothing will satisfy their doubt. And if they don’t deny the existence of God, then they’ll absolutely deny the existence of the Biblical God.

  7. Each person should ask themselves: what would it take to convince me that a different religion was true (eg. Hinduism, Jainism, Scientology, etc.)? That’s the standard of evidence they should expect to find in their own belief.

    I also want to point out that the bible is full of stories of explosive evidence for Yahweh. Just about all of the prominent people in the bible had physical encounters with supernatural events. Adam and Eve walked with Yahweh, Abraham wrestled, Moses performed a whole bunch of miracles, Elijah ran a controlled experiment vs Baal, Paul was blinded, everyone around Jesus saw food conjuration and incurable diseases cured. Honestly, I just hold the bible up to its own standard: if I saw any of these things, I would start to think it might be the real deal. Such miraculous displays *would* make me change my mind and become a Christian. What would make you change your mind? (may I suggest the lack of these miraculous displays?)

    • Monkeytree

      I will grant that there is likely a good number of Christians who do no investigate and scrutinize Christianity to the degree they do others. However, there are many who do. And many who have held it to the same standard they have others and concluded its reliability.

      Let me ask you this on a serious note: Do you think miracles were performed willy-nilly in the same manner, as say, a street magician? God used miracles to confirm that a person was legitimately speaking for him, that their message carried his authority. They weren’t sideshows. Given that we have the written record in the bible of God’s message, why would we need miracles today? You know who he is, you have access to his message. Something else to keep in mind: There were many people in the bible who were witness to miracles and yet refused to bow the knee. What makes you think you’d be any different?

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