Thursday, November 05, 2009

Empirical evidence for God

I was asked to the following question: "If you were in a debate with an atheist and he asked you to give empirical evidence for God, what would you say?"

To which I answered:

I’d make a couple of preliminary observations before I tried to answer that question:

1.We need to clarify our expectations, and have reasonable expectations. It might obvious to some that if God exists, then his existence should be easy to prove. After all, if he exists, then shouldn’t that be fairly evident or conspicuous? He’s the source of everything else. The biggest fact of all.

However, there’s a paradox in proving God’s existence. Normally, when we try to prove that something exists, we use one thing to prove another. We take for granted the existence of something else, something related, and use that as a launch pad.

For example, we use time and consciousness as background conditions to prove other things. If, however, you were asked to prove the existence of time or consciousness itself, you might be stumped. It’s hard to come up with a non-circular argument for the existence of a background condition. Precisely because time and consciousness are so fundamental, they are resistant to direct demonstration. It’s hard to get “behind” them.

Because we see with our eyes, we never see our eyes. Not directly.

2.The answer to your question also turns, in part, on the precise form of the question or the implied audience. Is the question what empirical evidence would you cite to undergird your own belief in God? Or is it what empirical evidence would you cite for the benefit of someone who is not already a believer?

If, for example, you’re speaking for yourself, then depending the specifics of your religious experience, certain empirical evidence might dovetail with the argument from religious experience. For example, the argument from miracles could also count as empirical evidence in case you or someone you trusted had had a fairly unmistakable experience of God’s miraculous involvement in your life or his.

If, on the other hand, the answer is directed at outsiders, you might appeal to something more public.

3.Depending on how you define empirical evidence:

i) Among formal theistic proofs, I think the teleological argument has the most general appeal. And, as you know, there are different versions.

ii) If you regard testimonial evidence as an oblique form of empirical evidence (i.e. testimony to an empirical event), then the argument from miracles is also in play (although it needs to be carefully qualified).

iii) The argument from religious experience can also have a lot of popular appeal.

7 comments:

  1. I think Peter van Inwagen makes an interesting point in his essay on W.K. Clifford's famed maxim.

    If I remember correctly, he asks the question, what sorts of things count as evidence? Can things "internal" to me, such as my memories, experiences, etc., count as evidence?

    If so, then I think the argument from religious experience works pretty good. In fact I really like the ARE.

    And I don't know of any good reasons to think of why we shouldn't include "internal" factors as evidence.

    After all, suppose you're on trial for a murder, and the suckers who framed you did a real good job, so that it is almost glaringly obvious you did it. But in fact you did not do it, and you remember distinctly being in church at the time of the crime, though no one else was there, because there wasn't a service going on--you were just in the sanctuary praying, say. Why not include your own memory, that of being in church, among the evidence to consider?

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  2. I agree with you on the value of the argument from religious experience.

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  3. "After all, suppose you're on trial for a murder, and the suckers who framed you did a real good job, so that it is almost glaringly obvious you did it. But in fact you did not do it, and you remember distinctly being in church at the time of the crime, though no one else was there, because there wasn't a service going on--you were just in the sanctuary praying, say. Why not include your own memory, that of being in church, among the evidence to consider?"

    I thought of O.J. Simpson when I read your hypothetical. What if O.J. really did commit the murder, but then completely deluded himself into thinking and believing and feeling with every fiber of his body and soul that he didn't do it, and that someone else did it. And then his subconscious manufactured a fabricated memory that he was at the church by himself at the time of the murder.

    Why would a jury have to accept that?

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  4. Steve,

    Is this a good argument for God?

    http://privyfisherman.blogspot.com/2009/09/argument-for-existence-of-god-from.html

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  5. I thought of O.J. Simpson when I read your hypothetical. What if O.J. really did commit the murder, but then completely deluded himself into thinking and believing and feeling with every fiber of his body and soul that he didn't do it, and that someone else did it. And then his subconscious manufactured a fabricated memory that he was at the church by himself at the time of the murder.

    Why would a jury have to accept that?



    If O.J. seems sincere that he did not do it, then (because they don't know that he is deceiving himself) they ought to consider that in the evidence. They ought to also ask whether or not O.J. is the type of person who would lie about his supposed memories, whether or not he's undergoing cognitive dysfunction, etc.

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  6. Vytautas said...

    Steve,

    Is this a good argument for God?

    http://privyfisherman.blogspot.com/2009/09/argument-for-existence-of-god-from.html


    Vytautas,
    While I don't come close to Steve's apologetical ability, I think that the argument made in that link you gave commits the Fallacy of Composition. Namely, attributing to the whole, the characteristics of the parts. Just because a part of the universe is not self-sufficient (or appears to not to be self-sufficient), doesn't mean the entire universe is not self-sufficient.

    If matter is just molecules in motion (or the changing manifestations of energy), then a materialist could argue that the universe as a whole might still be self-sufficient even though there are apparent internal changes that happen within it.

    Also, a materialist who holds to the "block view" of physics could argue that the seeming changes that undergird the idea that parts of the universe aren't self-sufficent (i.e. are contingent) are merely apparent and not real.

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