Monday, October 1, 2012
If you traffic in atheistic circles, online or elsewhere, you'll notice that the primary objection lodged against belief in God is the evidential objection i.e. "I believe things based on [usually 'scientific'] evidence (and others ought to as well); in the absence of evidence for some proposition, I withhold (and others ought to withhold) belief in it; there is no evidence for God's existence that I've ever seen; hence I can't justify believing in God (and neither can anyone else)." Not only is this the primary objection, it's virtually becoming the sole objection. There are many weaknesses to this argument, but I just want to examine one of them in this post. Namely this: for someone who adopts this stance, what would count as evidence of the supernatural or of God? And if it turns out there is not any sort of event, fact, datum, or combination of facts that would count as evidence of the supernatural or of God, then how is this stance distinguishable from a priori atheism, rather than a result of a survey of the pertinent evidence? And if it is indistinguishable from a priori atheism, why countenance the objection seriously at all?
If an atheist can give criteria for what would count as evidence for God or the supernatural, and a good reason for adopting whatever particular criterion they choose, then they can be rationally justified in their unbelief if they have never been confronted with the sort of evidence they require. The vast majority of atheists I've encountered adopt the 'scientific' criterion for belief. That is: they will believe in those things which are deliverances of scientific method and nothing else. Now, this doesn't mean that some atheist somewhere couldn't adopt some other criterion, in which case I would have to address whatever criterion that would be, but in this post I will be content to address the criterion that the vast majority of unbelievers appeal to.
If 'science' is that certain sort of investigation of natural phenomena via a particular systematic method of observation and experiment, then immediately one must ask why this criterion for knowledge should be adopted to answer a question necessarily outside its purview i.e. the question of the existence of the supernatural. Could the supernatural theoretically exist and never be isolated and observed in material phenomena, with conditions necessary for repeatable, controlled lab experiments? Not only could this be the case, but if anything supernatural did exist, then this would necessarily be the case: science as traditionally understood and practiced, could not be performed on said phenomena. So we are left with no sensible, justifiable reason to think that the scientific criterion for knowledge is capable of addressing the question of whether anything supernatural exists. Anyone who demands 'scientific evidence of the unscientific (or a-scientific)' makes a nonsensical demand.
This problem seems to bear itself out practically in my experience with atheists. Ask them what would theoretically constitute scientific evidence for God and most of them will struggle to think of something that would count. Recently, I tried to help them out and posed the following hypothetical: suppose the famous double-slit experiment revealed that, on the sheet behind the slits, the particles arrayed in a pattern that spelled out 'YAHWEH WAS HERE' or 'JESUS CHRIST IS THE ETERNAL LOGOS', rather than dispersing in the way that they actually do. Would this count as extremely strong scientific evidence for belief in God? The immediate reaction was that they would suspect a hoax, so I clarified that the results were repeated and confirmed in numerous independent peer-reviewed experiments and accepted by the scientific community at large as legitimate. "Very powerful aliens could be controlling that reality", "Could be a mass delusion", "Could still be a hoax" etc. came the responses. In other words, even paradigm-shifting evidence of God's existence, literally written into the fabric of existence, would not count as evidence for God or the supernatural. At which point we can properly accuse atheists of this sort of holding to an a priori atheism that isn't the result of insufficient scientific evidence, but which is entirely impervious to scientific evidence of even the most radical sort.
In the case of atheists who hold to the scientific criterion of knowledge as solely legitimate, but who would accept this theoretical sort of evidence as persuasive (and so avoid being properly accused of evidence-independent atheism), there is another problem. Namely, that those atheists don't apply the scientific criterion of knowledge to many things that they hold to be true. An atheist who ate toast for breakfast, for example, will believe that he ate toast for breakfast if you ask him about it that evening, and he will believe it to be so on no other basis than his own memory. No repeatable experiment results, no test of any sort, no peer-review, just his memory. And, of course, it's rational for him to do so as it's a properly basic sort of belief. Same goes for that which we currently apprehend with our senses. There's no scientific way of demonstrating that these constant sources of beliefs are reliable, but the atheist (rationally) cleaves to them nonetheless, and so breaks his own standard for what counts as knowledge.
An atheist who holds to the scientific criterion of knowledge as merely the best, but not exclusive, criterion of knowledge, and who acknowledges some sensible minimum standard for what would count as evidence for God mostly escapes this particular critique but -- lucky for me -- mostly doesn't exist. I'll rationally withhold belief in such a creature until presented with evidence of his existence.