In all the commotion from the other day, while most of the comments simply proved my point that many of the new atheists are incapable or unwilling to behave in a civil manner, some of the comments did stick out. Aside from the theme of belittling me (and let’s be honest, even if I had multiple degrees from prestigious institutions, I would still be treated as a buffoon because many of the commenters are intellectual bigots who are unwilling to face those who happen to hold different beliefs), one common theme emerged; believing in God simply cannot be rational, ever, at all, unless evidence is produced for the existence of God. Next to this idea is that philosophy and science simply do not mix. Both of these ideas, however, are highly flawed.
What is meant by “evidence?” Certainly they have in mind something of the physical sort that we would use in scientific experiments. If this is what we mean by “evidence” and “proof” then let me say upfront that no, I cannot prove the existence of God. But before any atheists begin to celebrate and proclaim “Mission Accomplished™” we should first look to see if knowledge is dependent upon such stringent requirements.
The philosophy mentioned above is a type of epistemology that could be called scientism, or empiricism, or positivism, or something along those lines (I refuse to nail it down to one epistemic theory due to the variation of comments that were left). For some of these atheists, science serves as the only measure of knowledge (that which can be reproduced or investigated physically). For others, they hold onto a form of empiricism by stating that only what can be seen can be known. At the base of whatever epistemic systems these atheists follow is the idea that something must be physically proven to exist; but does such a system accurately reflect the real world?
For instance, can I – utilizing the methods of science or physical evidence – prove that I exist or that I am currently conscious (not dreaming)? I could point to the fact that I am currently aware of the fact that I’m conscious, but this would be a circular way of thinking. In fact, the philosopher Paul Boghossian wrote in his book The Fear of Knowledge,
“Not every belief needs to be supported by some independent item of information that would constitute evidence in its favor: some beliefs are intrinsically credible or self-evident…What non-circular evidence could one adduce, for example, for the belief that one is currently conscious?” (117)
I would tend to agree with Boghossian that some beliefs are simply known a priori or are self-evident. That I am awake is a self-evident belief that doesn’t need any evidence nor can it have any evidence. In other words, while evidence is required for some beliefs – such as beliefs learned via experience – evidence is not a necessary requirement for knowledge. Of course, if evidence isn’t necessary for all knowledge then could it be true that evidence isn’t needed in order to rationally believe in God?
Some might argue that belief in God isn’t self-evident or an a priori belief. After all, all cultures at all times simply accept that they are awake and do exist, but they may differ on what type of God exists, if there are multiple gods, or if there are any gods. From here they would argue that we must therefore supply evidence for the belief in God.
Even in this case, however, the argument doesn’t make much sense. For instance, math is an abstract that lacks physical evidence (that it can be physically demonstrated at is more basic levels is a far cry different from having a physical form that we can observe). Certain rules of logic are abstracted, yet we know them to be true (such as the law of non-contradiction). Even our ability to put two items together is an immaterial reality, but one that we rely upon (i.e. there is nothing intrinsic in the number 6 that causes us to understand that when added to 1 we will gain 7; the act of addition cannot be physically examined, but we know it is true nonetheless).
When it comes to the existence of God, then, the lack of evidence isn’t sufficient to say that such a belief is irrational. Rather, one would have to show how a belief in God is properly irrational or how one lacks substantial reasons for believing in God. Again, one couldn’t turn around and say, “Well there’s no evidence” as the presence of evidence has no bearing on whether or not something is rational. Furthermore, if one can demonstrate from current evidence that it’s possible for God to exist, or merely that naturalism cannot account for something within the physical universe (such as a finite beginning to energy and matter, the existence of consciousness, and so on) then by default theism would be true, or at the very least highly plausible (due to this being a disjunctive problem, if one possibility is known to be false then the other is necessarily true).
It is this problem of epistemology that most atheists, specifically scientists, just don’t seem to get. When confronted with it, the default answer is, “Well I’m a scientist so I deal with facts and physicality.” This may be true, but it’s a poor excuse. For instance, if a woman tells a mathematician, “I love you,” he doesn’t say, “Can you provide the mathematical formula for your love? After all, I’m a mathematician so I only deal with numbers and formulas.” Likewise, saying, “I’m a scientist” doesn’t excuse someone from a faulty epistemology; philosophy will always reign supreme over science because ideas guide how we gain evidence and how we interpret evidence. The only way philosophy can disappear is if people stop thinking or having ideas while acting; since the interpretation of evidence requires thinking people, philosophy will always reign supreme.
Since the above is true, this means that science can never be divorced from philosophy. Thus, while the scientific method is perfect when conducting scientific experiments, we must remember to leave it there and not apply it to the whole of life. Yes, science has brought us computers, but it doesn’t tell us how to use them. Or more appropriately, science has brought us modern medicine, but it doesn’t allow for any guidelines on how such knowledge is acquired. Nothing in science says, “Don’t use unwilling humans as test subjects.” Science is amoral on this point. Rather, it is philosophy and reason that put parameters around such actions. All of this should show that while science is absolutely necessary and a good thing, it is still a limited field and shouldn’t function as an entire epistemic system for how we look at the world.
In this entire post I have not offered an argument for the existence God because there is no need to. For one, this is a blog post and I highly doubt that a blog post would sufficiently cover the arguments for the existence of God. Secondly, and more importantly, until one can accept that the reasonability or plausibility of a thing is not contingent upon physical evidence then there can be no discussion about God (or about much of anything else for that matter, if we are consistent with such an arbitrary epistemology). Until one can get over one’s bias and accept that theism can be a rational belief even in the absence of evidence, then why attempt to argue for the existence of God? If one is holding onto a self-contradictory and impractical epistemology, then one is flawed from the get-go, so any further introduction of arguments would lose purpose. If one is unwilling to realize that science has a role, but isn’t a metanarrative for how we should view the world, then it is simply a waste of time to try to convince the person otherwise.