Monday, 1 April 2013

If theists want to put the ball in our court, it’s game on

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence – Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World
This phrase was popularized by Sagan as a simple explanation of what is wrong with arguing that, if we cannot disprove something, it must therefore be true.

Now his statement, especially in the manner he intended it, is certainly true. However, I would like to challenge its application somewhat, which I understand is an unpopular position, but hear me out on this. I believe that if God exists, then there should be evidence for him. If we cannot find evidence, this at least suggests he does not exist. It does not rule out the possibility of someday finding evidence, which would have been Sagan's contention, but it is in itself a form of evidence that shifts the balance of probability towards his non-existence.

For example, if I conduct a series of clinical trials in order to determine the efficacy of faith healing and receive no positive results, this constitutes evidence that faith healing does not work – at least for the particular conditions tested. If we allow this conclusion, then a God that would heal people, if only they prayed hard enough, must be ruled out.

Granted, it could also support the claim that God does not heal people at all, or perhaps only if he’s not being tested (though the implication that God is deaf to people who actively seek his presence is disturbing). But the point is, *this* definition of God can in theory be shown to factually contradict reality -- just like we do with Homeopathy, Feng Shui or bloody Colonic Irrigation (there's an unfortunate thought).

I realize how difficult a task I'm setting myself up for, and perhaps challenging individual ideas about God like this is a little like whack-a-mole, but it's effective.

If you posit a theory, test it, and get negative results – assuming the test was methodologically sound – then that’s a pretty decent argument against your theory. If the test is replicated over and over with the same nil results, you can be fairly certain the theory is wrong or requires modification.

Now, before I get accused of trying to have my cake and eat it too, I am okay with being told that, if I cannot find evidence for my argument that God does not exist, then that may well constitute evidence that he does exist. If God does not exist, then we should be able to find evidence that suggests he doesn't, or at least that suggests his non-involvement in the world.

Thankfully, I believe we can.

Since the character of God is really a construct composed of layers upon layers of descriptions of what he’s like – vengeful, forgiving, kind, furious, powerful, limited, and so on, varying based on each individual’s unique understanding of God – we can look at and dissect each of those characteristics.

For example, if God is loving, how do we see his love manifest in the universe he created? Are there areas of existence where his love is absent? If we look into these questions, and the answers come out that his presence is at best fleeting, at worst non-existent, this is evidence of something. Indeed, it can even be evidence of his non-existence.

This, for me, gets at the heart of what the difference between agnosticism and atheism should be.

Atheism should be looked at as making an active claim that God does not exist. Why? Because this position requires us to look at the world and figure out for ourselves what kind of god could have created the universe in which we find ourselves.

Agnosticism, by contrast, is simply the statement saying "I don't believe in God" rather than "I believe God does not exist," and it does not require the same standard of proof.

If we look at what we know about reality, and draw only conclusions that remain logically consistent with the facts, then most of the common definitions of God today will necessarily be eliminated.

In fact, some of the only definitions that I think remain even remotely plausible are:
  • God created the universe (sub arguments below) 
    • This God has little interest in the affairs of its creations. 
    • This God is strictly malevolent and/or doesn’t care about the suffering of its creations. 
    • This God has some fantastically complex motivations, and this reality, with all its problems, is somehow the perfect incarnation of its intent to yield some specific desired state of existence (which, for whatever reason, is a state he could not have merely created in the first place, but instead actually had to spend 13.8 billion years on cosmic foreplay).
  • God does not exist
The only point I want to make is that we need to come to atheism out of an earnest desire to look at the available data and come to a conclusion regarding God’s existence based on that evidence. If we cannot do that, then no, I do not believe we can actually make a strong assertion that God does not exist (even though we can still simply not believe in his existence – a subtle but important distinction).

And just as evolution would be immediately disproven if a single human fossil showed up in the pre-Cambrian record, so too would atheism be completely dismantled if a single faith healer was proven to be what he/she claimed to be.

So far that has not happened. If claims continue to be made about God, and if we continue to test those claims and consistently disprove them, then the evidence against God will continue to mount.

It’s my earnest belief that we can only continue to look into this debate from a logically sound perspective if atheists start to accept that they really are making a claim about the world. Failing to make this strong assertion yields, in my opinion, agnosticism, which is still essentially a position that does not believe in God, but is a position that does not principally concern itself with the evidence.

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