The famous Christian apologist William Paley wrote his Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity in 1802, drawing on a tradition of natural theology that was already strong in the Church of England and elsewhere. His evidences had a strong influence on Darwin, and have been the subject of debate ever since.
There does seem, however, to be a subtle change in the style of the debate. Even Richard Dawkins admits to the stunning nature of the work that Paley did, although, of course, he does not draw Paley’s conclusion. Other atheist comments I have heard recently, however, are rather different. They simply take the line that there is no evidence for the existence of God.
This seems at first like a mere linguistic difference – but linguistic differences can be important. Consider how the word ‘evidence’ is normally used. The most obvious example is within the legal system. The police or plaintiff marshal the evidence that a crime or injustice has been committed, and it is a matter of judgement as to whether the evidence points to guilt or not. This decision is made on the balance of evidence, which in criminal cases must be beyond reasonable doubt.
There is a huge difference between the statement that there is evidence for something but on balance it is not strong enough to prove a point; and the statement that the evidence does not exist. It would seem odd if the judge at a trial simply dismissed evidence brought by one side or the other without giving any reason. A judge can, of course, set aside evidence, but only if there is good reason to do so – for example, a statement might have been obtained under duress. Ignoring evidence without reason would rapidly undermine our whole system of justice.
Paley argued from the intricacy to be seen in living organisms, but it doesn’t matter which particular argument we are talking about. Another common one is the argument that the chain of cause and effect that we see everywhere in the universe implies that there must have been a first cause that brought everything into existence. Yet another frequent argument is that the existence of a universal morality implies an absolute moral law and lawgiver.
These are all well-known, as are the counter arguments from (for example) neo-Darwinism, particle physics or evolutionary psychology, and of course everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion. Yet simply to dismiss the evidence is ingenuous. The evidence concerned is what you could call ‘first order’ – we can easily observe the intricacy of the natural world, cause and effect and the existence of morality in relation to people’s behaviour. To question the conclusions drawn from evidence is fine, questioning the reality of evidence which palpably exists is not.
This would still seem pedantic were it not for the course upon which some science is now embarked. The evidence base for neo-Darwinism, particle physics and evolutionary psychology is far from ‘first order’ in the sense I have defined that above. Neo-Darwinism has to create a timeline of billions of years which cannot be directly examined. Particle physics is dependent on millions, if not billions, of calculations emerging from machines like the Large Hadron Collider and its network of countless computers. Evolutionary psychology has to draw conclusions about the intangible from the tangible (physical) information available.
In all these cases, the conclusions drawn may be valid or they may not. That’s not the point. The issue is that if the relatively clear evidence drawn on by theists is ruled out of court, then this scientific evidence should receive the same treatment. Otherwise there are going to be severe distorting elements in any discussion – a level playing field should not be undermined at one end, or it won’t be level for very long.
It’s two hundred years since Paley marvelled at the mechanisms and structures that he saw so acutely. But the real debate seems to have changed. It is no longer about the evidence of nature, rather it is about the nature of evidence.
“A judge can, of course, set aside evidence, but only if there is good reason to do so”
I guess this is really the key here. I am one of those atheists who claims that there is no evidence for God, and I say this because as far as I can tell, every piece of supposed evidence can be analyzed and discarded. As you said, the apologetics and counter-apologetics are well known. For your example of the intricacy of life, evolution explains that, what is the justification for instead attributing it to God? If you want to attribute evolution itself to God, where is the justification for that? I’ve never seen any.
Let me use another example, people used to use lightning as evidence of the God Zeus. Now we know how lightning works, and the Zeus explanation is no longer necessary. If you really wanted, you could attribute what we know about how lightning really works to Zeus, but why would you do that? Would you still say that lightning is evidence that Zeus exists, but just poor evidence, or would you go ahead and assert that there is no evidence for Zeus? I’m guessing you would make the stronger statement that there is no evidence for Zeus, I think that my assertion that there is no evidence for God is analogous.
Mark Silversides said:
I agree with your Zeus illustration, I’ve never gone for God of the gaps stuff. I partly agree that is is facile just to say of evolution “God did it”- Christians who say that generally mean that God did everything, so evolution must be included. However, I think the “God did it” approach is OK and can be part of a coherent world view provided that it is followed through. I think it has enormous bearing on the questions of suffering and free will. Got to this near the end of my book, but maybe need to clarify my ideas. I appreciate your comment.
In a debate, where neither religion nor atheists can prove or disprove the existence of God, the rationale used borders on the sublime. For example, even if there is no evidence that God exists, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t exist.
Mark Silversides said:
I agree. In any case, belief in God is about more than just science! Easy to forget that.
I am one of those atheists also and I claim a few labels more. I find the ‘evidence’ for the existence of this god or that lacking and on ponderance the lot of it is too contrived to be of value in assessing what it is that we should find when seeking truth.
Further, I wager with swager and conscience, there is no reason at all to even begin to believe that it is possible for gods to exist, never mind that one does. None of the stories (fables at best) are first person accounts of encounters with gods or even their messengers if such existed. The human mind is wont to invent explanations for what it cannot understand. This process as explanation for stories of gods has more credence than any religion’s text or dogma or doctrine.
As a point to your side, there is offered up much evidence. The trouble is that none of it is credible and most of it is easily dismissed through new knowledge and better understandings and logic and reason, the very tools that make us so successful have depricated the need for fables to explain nature. If some feel confident to take a short cut to all that and simply say there is no evidence, don’t get to feeling all wounded. You’re welcome to show new evidence that makes science and current knowledge invalid in the discussion at hand, but you’d be much better off just getting your god to show itself and stop asking apologists to do the dirty work for it. Omniscience and omnipotence should make the feat easier done than said. Go on then, won’t you… forgo the evidence, show us your god instead.
Mark Silversides said:
That would violate your freedom and intellect as a person.
and that is just another stupid excuse for not showing your god. You don’t particularly care that so many go to hell for not believing but you won’t show your god either. That just makes you two faced, and it does nothing to keep you from seeming moronic.
“That would violate your freedom and intellect as a person.”
Wait, is this in response to the request that God show himself? How does God showing himself to me violate my freedom? He doesn’t have to manipulate my brain so I will worship him, just show himself and let me decide. I’m either misreading things or you have made quite a leap of logic.
Mark Silversides said:
I don’t think anyone apart from me can know whether or when I feel wounded, or how much I care about the fate of other people.
The real point here is why anyone believes in God, or doesn’t. So I would put a question back: what evidence would persuade you that there is a God?
That’s a good question. I don’t know what would convince me that God exists, honestly nothing I can think of would do it. The problem as I see it is twofold. One is that the god claim is so incredibly fantastic, it is hard to imagine what could account for all of it. Suppose for example that God popped down to earth and cured all diseases simultaneously. That would certainly demonstrate that he is incredibly powerful, but how does that prove he created the universe, or that heaven and hell are real? It makes me think of the Goa’uld from stargate SG1, they were very powerful and claimed to have made the stargates, but they were just using them from an earlier civilization who actually built them.
The other problem is that old line that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. If Jesus came down and works some miracles, how could I ever be sure that it isn’t an alien race tricking us? This explanation is pretty fantastic, but so is the God hypothesis.
So what could make me believe in God? I don’t know, but God should, he knows my brain and knows what it would take to get me to believe. He could do it if he wanted to.
Mark Silversides said:
Seems like this is a key issue. If nothing would convince you then I don’t see how your conviction that there is no God can be regarded as scientific, since it’s not capable of disproof.
I also think that if God operated like an infinite neuro-surgeon in order to change your belief then that would violate your freedom and intellect as a person. If that wouldn’t then I can’t see what would!
I’ve just read a fascinating book by Thomas Nagel, who is an atheist but also against philosophical materialism. The book is very relevant to this subject. I’ll write a post about it, maybe continue the discussion after that. Cheers.
I agree, it is a difficult issue, but I want to highlight a difference between what I said and what you said. You said that nothing would convince me, and I said I don’t know what would convince me. I’m not just folding my arms and stubbornly saying nothing will convince me no matter what, but I am saying that I’m not sure what would do it.
If I had to give something that would be evidence for God, I guess a good proper conversation with God where he will answer my questions and show me some of his magic would do it 🙂