Is There Evidence for God?

skeptic, evidence

Summer, 1998. I traveled to Europe (Hungary, to be precise) and sat down in a little restaurant one day for a bite. I ordered the “Greek salad.” I love Greek salad! I’ve eaten many Greek salads growing up in Florida: shredded lettuce with cucumber slices, beets, feta and shrimp. To my horror, what emerged from the kitchen was a bowl full of chopped cucumber and tomato, with feta, onion and Kalamata olives. No lettuce at all! This was most definitely not a Greek salad.

Greek salad, evidence

But I was wrong! 20 years later, I found myself in Athens, Greece. To my surprise, I discovered that my salad in Hungary was authentic. Succulent chunks of cucumber and tomato, mixed with onion, feta and olives. It turned out that I needed to adjust my definition of ‘Greek salad.’

I often hear skeptics say things like, “there’s no evidence for God.” But I think this view arises from some confusion about what evidence is. The search for evidence resembles my blunder with Greek salad. When we look for evidence, most of us don’t know what we’re looking for. We follow a mistaken notion of evidence, and finding none, we proclaim its absence. So what is evidence, exactly?

What Is Evidence?

smoke, evidence

“Smoke is evidence of fire.”1  I think this makes sense to most of us. When we say this, I think we mean something like this: “Well, fire causes smoke, and I’ve always seen smoke with fire, so I think it’s pretty likely that we’ll find fire where that smoke is.” The reason this kind of logic works is because evidence raises the (epistemic) probability of what it supports (e.g., a hypothesis). In this case, the presence of smoke raises the probability that there is a fire. Does it guarantee the presence of fire? No. It is possible to have smoke without fire. But nevertheless, when we see smoke, we are quite rational in thinking, “there’s a fire over there.” So evidence is something that raises the probability that a hypothesis is true.

Kinds of Evidence

What are these “somethings?” Evidence comes in a variety of kinds. Philosophers typically recognize five sources: perception, testimony, memory, inference, and introspection. The smoke example is a combination of perception (seeing the smoke) and inference (making a logical or causal connection between smoke and fire). Many of our beliefs rest almost solely on the support of evidence from our five senses, like my belief that the coffee I’m drinking is hot. Others, like mathematical and geometrical beliefs, are backed up by pure reason.

restaurant, evidence

Another illustration: The other day, I thought I remembered visiting a certain restaurant with my kids. But one of my kids said he’d never been there. So, I asked two of my other kids, and they both agreed with kid #1. So, what do I do? I have conflicting evidence. My memory of visiting the restaurant raises the probability that we went there, but the testimony of three other people lowers the probability! My total evidence suggests that it is unlikely that I took my kids to the restaurant. 

Introspection comes into play when we think about the contents of our own mind, or of various bodily states. When I feel a sensation of pain, or have a feeling of sadness, that evidence makes it 100% likely that I am in pain or sad. If someone were to tell me, “You’re not in pain,” my introspective evidence would override them. I have special, private access to the states of my own body and mind.

All of these come to us via some kind of experience. Perceptual experiences (hearing, seeing, etc.), introspective experiences (self-awareness), inferential (cognitive) experiences, and perhaps religious experiences. And all of these are subject to error, so some caution (but not paranoia) is important. The rule of thumb is: trust your faculties unless you have clear reason to doubt them, e.g., you just took an hallucinogenic drug.

Evidence and God

court room, testimony

So how does all this apply to God? Well, our evidence for God can come in all five of these forms. I can hear or read testimony from someone else who has experienced God in some way. It’s like court testimony. I’ve served on one jury, and the jury’s eventual belief in the defendant’s guilt was based largely on the word of several witnesses, including the victim. Hearing a credible witness testify that “X happened” raises the (epistemic) probability that X happened. It works the same way with testimony about God (including written sources, like the Bible).

I can infer from various experiences of my own (“religious experiences,” perception of order and design in the universe, etc.), or from other facts (everything that begins to exist must have a cause) that God exists. The logic of the Kalam Cosmological argument or the Fine-tuning argument raise the probability that God exists. Religious experiences, when the best available explanation is the presence of God, also raise this probability. Such experiences may even come to us via  introspection; perhaps it seems that God is “speaking” to me in my mind. This is defeasible, of course, but until it is shown to be faulty in some way, it provides a probabilistic lift to the God hypothesis.

Skeptics, Don’t Worry!

This accumulating evidence by no means settles the issue or “proves” there is a God. Several other factors come into play which may “cancel out” the sorts of evidence I’ve described. First, there’s plenty of evidence against God as well. Two examples: the apparent existence of unnecessary suffering in the world, and perhaps the confusion about God that persists in the world. These may counter evidence in favor of God. (Whether they are enough to outweigh the evidence in God’s favor, is debatable.) Second, our cognitive faculties can make mistakes. We can “perceive” things that aren’t there and “infer” things that don’t follow logically. Surely some of what we think supports our belief in God will turn out to be faulty. (Note: this also applies to any support I might have for atheism.)

Skeptics may also worry about really weird cases where people claim to have evidence. UFO sightings (and abductions), ghost encounters, and other bizarre phenomena also involve alleged evidence. Must we also concede that their beliefs are evidence-based? Well, perhaps. If I’m concerned about a claim of this sort, or about a Christian who claims to witness a miracle, I will investigate. I’ll use the same general approach as Prof. Kirke in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when he was presented with Lucy’s fantastic tale about visiting Narnia.

“How do you know?” he asked, “that your sister’s story is not true?”
“Oh, but –” began Susan, and then stopped. . . “But Edmund said they had only been pretending.”
“That is a point,” said the Professor, “which certainly deserves consideration; very careful consideration. For instance–if you will excuse me for asking the question–does your experience lead you to regard your brother or your sister as the more reliable? I mean, which is the more truthful?”
“That is a point,” said the Professor, “which certainly deserves consideration; very careful consideration. For instance–if you will excuse me for asking the question–does your experience lead you to regard your brother or your sister as the more reliable? I mean, which is the more truthful?”
“That’s the funny thing about it, Sir,” said Peter. “Up till now, I’d have said Lucy every time.” 
“And what do you think, my dear?” said the Professor, turning to Susan.
“Well,” said Susan, “in general, Id’ say the same as Peter, but this couldn’t be true–all this about the wood and the Faun.”
“That is more than I know,” said the Professor, “and a charge of lying against someone whom you have always found truthful is a very serious thing; a very serious thing indeed.”
“We were afraid it mightn’t even be lying,” said Susan. “We thought there might be something wrong with Lucy.”
“Madness, you mean?” said the Professor quite coolly. “Oh, you can make your minds easy about that. One has only to look at her and talk to her to see that she is not mad.” [The children don’t know what to think at this point!]
“Logic!” said the Professor half to himself. “Why don’t they teach logic at these schools?”
2

Now, before you dismiss this example as fanciful fiction and irrelevant, consider what is going on. The Professor simply asks the children to examine how they formed their beliefs, and urges them to apply logic, no matter where it leads.  As I will explain below, there is no rational, unprejudiced way to rule out supernatural explanations prior to unbiased examination.

Misleading Evidence

As I have said, having evidence doesn’t settle the issue. Sometimes, even when we follow the evidence, this rational method fails us. How can this happen? Evidence can mislead us. According to Princeton philosopher Thomas Kelly,

 E is misleading evidence for p just in case (i) E is evidence for p and (ii) p is false. Thus, misleading evidence is genuine evidence in that it satisfies the conditions for being evidence (whatever those conditions turn out to be). In this respect, it contrasts with apparent evidence or fake evidence, which seem to satisfy the conditions for being evidence but do not. The fact that misleading evidence is genuine evidence is why beliefs based on misleading evidence can be reasonable, given that what it is reasonable to believe depends on one’s evidence.3

evidence

So if it turns out there are no gods, then all the theist’s evidence was misleading, like evidence used for a false conviction in a court. But before the skeptic proclaims our evidence misleading, she should consider a couple of thoughts.

  1. We can’t know that our evidence for God is misleading without first knowing whether God exists! This means that a skeptic cannot rationally say that a theist has no evidence, nor can she say that the theists’ evidence is misleading, unless the skeptic has first proven that God does not exist. And even if the theist turns out to be wrong, she may still be quite rational. You might have a worry like this: “But does this also imply that I don’t know if my evidence is legitimate unless I can prove God’s existence?” The rational approach, it seems to me, is this: as long as the evidence points toward a hypothesis, and there are no live defeaters (see below), then we should consider it legitimate. Without this assumption, science, law, etc. would be impossible. 
  2. The skeptic certainly can work to show that the theists’ evidence is fake or apparent evidence (rather than misleading). The best way to do this is by introducing defeaters, either by showing that the means of acquiring the evidence was flawed or unreliable, or that the evidential belief is itself false. But one must be careful to avoid circular reasoning here. For example, one cannot argue that (A) religious experience is fake/unreliable because (B) there is no God, since God’s existence is the very claim under dispute. Arguing this way would be like the following exchange. Sally: The earth is flat. Harry: But photographs from space show a spherical earth. Sally: No, those are fakes. Harry: Why do you think they’re fakes? Sally: Because the earth is flat! That is circular reasoning. What Sally ought to do is give an independent reason to think that Harry’s perception is unreliable or that his evidence is “fake.”
flat earth, evidence

Conclusion

Skeptics and believers both should recognize that evidence for God abounds. The task of the careful thinker is to evaluate the quality of the evidence and weigh it against counter evidence. If a person’s total evidence significantly raises the probability that God exists, isn’t defeated, and isn’t swamped by counter evidence, then belief in God can be quite rational.

Do Motives Cloud Judgment?

clouded judgment, bias, logic, skepticism

Can our motives cloud our judgment? Yes. Without a doubt. (See this post and this post.) But does this mean we should always suspect our judgments and the judgments of others? That seems unreasonable. When I say that motives or psychological states can “cloud our judgment,” what I mean is (roughly) this–if we want something to be true, we tend to see the reasons for that view more favorably, and when we don’t want something to be true, we tend to see the reasons for that view less favorably. “More/less favorably” just means that the reasons appear to have more/less force to us than they would to someone with similar intellectual abilities and no desire either way (no horse in the race).

preformationism, bias, perceptionFor example, some early scientists believed in “preformationism,” which is the view that a tiny embryo exists in every sperm cell. So, when these scientists looked through primitive microscopes, they were inclined to see the outline of such an embryo in sperm cells. Others who did not hold this view did not see the embryos. Even the most ardent truth-seekers sometimes allow their biases and desires to affect their perception and judgment.

But to leap into the swamp of skepticism is a mistake. Here’s a common line of reasoning I observe.

  1. Psychological states, such as desires, often cloud human reasoning.
  2. Peter is expressing reasons for a view that he desires to be true.
  3. Therefore, I should mistrust Peter’s reasoning.

The most common example of this is when a religious skeptic dismisses the reasons presented by a Christian for her belief (which she wants to be true). Almost as common: a Christian assumes that the skeptic is only a skeptic (thus dismissing his arguments) because they don’t want there to be a God! Call this the “bad motives” attack. Several things strike me as wrong-headed about this kind of thinking.

Problems with the “Bad Motives” Attack

First, the reasoning presented by a person for their belief must stand or fall on it’s own merits. The motivations, desires, fears, etc. of that person are completely irrelevant when asking, “Is the reasoning they present any good?” (i.e., is the argument valid). To critique or question a person’s motives instead of critiquing their actual argument is evasion. We resort to this red-herring tactic only when we lack the intellectual skills to logically evaluate the argument being presented. (I should also add that you can admire the logic of an argument without agreeing with it! Being wrong is not the same as being irrational. Several very rational theories exist to explain the extinction of the dinosaurs, but most of them are wrong!)

spotlight, reasonSecond, this view is a two-edged sword. If all judgment is suspect because of hidden psychological interference, then the critic must turn this spotlight on her own reasoning as well. Could it be that (speaking as the critic) my own skepticism about Peter’s reasoning (in the example above) is actually the flawed product of my own motives–I don’t want him to be right! We should doubt the skeptic’s reasoning on exactly the same grounds that the skeptic doubts ours.

Third, wanting something to be true does not automatically cripple our judgment and reasoning. In fact, I don’t think anyone really believes it does. I know this because we apply this critique inconsistently. We pick and choose when to apply the “bad motives” attack, typically applying it to arguments for views we personally don’t like. And certainly we shouldn’t refrain from arguing in favor of things we care deeply about. For instance, I care deeply about the evils of human trafficking. Does this mean I am disqualified from making judgments or arguments against human trafficking? That seems absurd. Let me make my arguments, and then evaluate their soundness on their own merit! This is one reason why good academic journals and conferences don’t want the author’s name on a paper submission. The author’s motives and desires should be irrelevant in evaluating the quality of the arguments presented. 

Last Words

dead end, judgment, reasoning, bias, skepticTrue, there is such a thing as confirmation bias. Our wishful thinking can mislead our reasoning at times if we are not vigilant. But hyper-skepticism about everyone’s beliefs and reasoning is unjustified. So, I want to discourage you from using this “bad motives” attack as an easy response to arguments you don’t like. Deconstructing everyone’s judgment this way, including your own critiques, leads us to a dead end.

*I’m indebted to Josh Rasmussen for his insightful comments on his own recent Facebook post.

Are There Good Reasons To Be An Atheist?

disagreement, rational, atheistI debated whether to even write this post. Here’s why: many people think that ANY concession to the “other side” amounts to total defeat. For many, to admit that atheist beliefs are reasonable amounts to admitting they are correct. But this is just plain wrong, and I’ll explain why below. Nevertheless, this post may disturb some theists.

Setting the Intellectual Stage

I’m going to set the stage here with a few concepts. Then I’ll tell you whether there are good reasons for atheism and what they might be (if there are any).

Castaway, island, belief, atheistThe first idea that needs stating is this: you aren’t obligated (epistemically) to believe X simply because there are some good reasons to think X is true. The equation is more complex than that. Imagine you are Tom Hanks’ character in the film Castaway. You hear on a radio that there were no survivors from your plane crash, and they even claim to have found your body! You now have two excellent reasons to believe you are dead. But you have one HUGE, overruling reason to believe the opposite: your own (physical) self-awareness. So, having good reasons for X doesn’t settle the matter.

The second idea we need to get straight is what counts as a “good reason.” We can say more than just “whatever reasons I like/agree with.” Good reasons should be those that give some rational support to your position. Put another way, good reasons (if true) should be things that increase the probability that your position is correct. Example: I believe that Dylan will win this tennis match against Austin because Dylan has never lost a tennis match against Austin. (Even though these are independent events, the inference comes from Dylan’s apparent superior skill.) Believing that Dylan will win because he wears orange shorts would not be a good reason because the color of his shorts, presumably, has no bearing on his probability of winning.

Rationality and Reasons

dreams, rational, atheistThirdly, rationality.* The problem people have with understanding rationality is this: they assume that if Joe’s belief is false, then it can’t be rational. (People also assume the contrapositive: if it is rational, it is true. Sort of the logical Field of Dreams.)  This misses the mark completely. Rationality and truth come apart all the time. We aim to be rational or reasonable because it increases our chances of believing what is true. But being rational cannot guarantee we are right.

Throughout history, and even today, people have rationally and reasonably believed false things. Many intelligent people rationally believed the earth was the center of the universe. Heck, I read an encyclopedia from the 1950s that claimed space travel to be impossible. Bottom line: it’s OK to concede that people can be rationally wrong.

Think of it another way. There can be good reasons to believe something, even when it’s false. Think of a murder trial. Juries sometimes convict a person of a crime because there is a good case against them, only to be proven wrong by new evidence later. The jury may have been completely rational in their decision, given that they did not yet have the new evidence.

Pro-atheist?

cancer, child, evil, faith, atheistSo are there good reasons for atheism? I think so.  First, if God exists, then you’d think he would prevent small children from getting cancer, or from being sexually abused. But these things still happen. This counts as prima facie evidence against God’s existence, I think. Second, much of what we attribute to God can be explained other ways. Religious experience, alleged miracles, changed lives. Alternate explanations for these things give us reason to doubt the reality of God. Third, if one already has strong reasons to accept an atoms-only view of the universe (i.e., physicalism), then one has a reason to deny God’s existence. These three brief, good reasons fall short of a total survey of arguments for atheism, but it’s a start. Suggestions welcome.

There are also many awful reasons to be an atheist. In my research for this post, I found several websites about “reasons to be an atheist,” and they were, to be honest, mostly atrocious. People routinely conflate theism with Christianity, and mistakenly think that an argument against the Bible or the church is ipso facto an argument against God. Some claim that there’s “no evidence,” which is obviously false, since billions of people would line up to give testimony of their experience of God (some have even written it down). You may discount this evidence, but it is evidence nevertheless. Some even go so far as to say that since we don’t “need” God, then we shouldn’t believe in God! That argument fails in exactly the same way that the “we need to believe in God or else we won’t have meaning/morality/happiness” argument fails.

Conclusion

respect, disagree, belief, atheistIn conclusion, many theists ought to reevaluate their attitude toward their atheist acquaintances. Some atheists may believe irrationally (as many theists do), but many of them actually have good reasons behind their disbelief. In fact, I’d wager a small amount that the percentage of (evidentially) irrational atheists out of all atheists is smaller than the percentage of (evidentially) irrational theists! So, approach your conversations with respect, and assume the best, until proven otherwise. (The same goes for you atheists!)

*I’m using the term ‘rationality’ quite loosely here. I’m taking ‘rational belief’ to be roughly synonymous with ‘reasonable belief’ or ‘justified belief.’