More on Belief and Evidence

Alister McGrath has a simple but good short essay here on the subject of science, belief, and evidence. It goes to many of the issues discussed on Eric’s blog. A quote:

In its rigorous sense, “proof” applies only to logic and mathematics. We can prove that 2 + 2 = 4, just as we can prove that “the whole is greater than the part.” And yet science proceeds by inference, rather than by the deduction so characteristic of mathematical proof.

A series of observations is accumulated, forcing the deeper questions: What must be true if we are to explain what is observed? What “big picture” of reality offers the best fit to what is actually observed? What is the best explanation of these observations?

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19 Responses to More on Belief and Evidence

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    “The evidence is not sufficient to compel acceptance of either. Both are real options for thinking and informed scientists, who make their decisions on the basis of their judgements of how best to interpret the evidence. They believe – but cannot prove – that their interpretation of the theoretical and evidential issues is correct.”

    Here's the problem. You don't find scientists founding churches of the multiverse and denouncing uni-versers as heretics. That is because they understand the status of their knowledge as provisional and hypothetical. They don't believe.

    That is the difference.. theists are straining every nerve to make a deity out of molehill of evidence, even negative evidence. Faith is first, after which comes rationalization. There is a complete failure to appreciate the tenuousness of the entire hypothesis. And meanwhile, Eric Reitan proposes to make Hell disappear, due to his exegesis of .. well whatever his reasoning is. It would all be comical if it wasn't blighting so many lives.


  2. Darrell says:


    His point has more to do with certain types of “scientists” such as Dawkins and his ilk. Because atheists DO believe. The make assertions, they write books denouncing “religion” and people of faith, they vote, they agitate for certain policies, they blog, they teach, they evangelize, they testify at trials, and when they were running countries, like the Soviet Union, they managed to kill a bunch of people. So please–we don't need to hear any sermons about blighting lives.

    Why not address his main point: Evidence is not the issue.


  3. Burk Braun says:

    Ah- there we finally hear the truth of the matter- “Evidence is not the issue”.

    And your author likewise:

    “But all of us, whether Christians or atheists, base our lives on at least some fundamental beliefs that we know we cannot prove.”

    Can you point to such a belief on the side of atheists? In normal life, we all follow evidence as best we can. In religion, we see that the evidence for god is minuscule to vanishing, while the evidence for man-made god is unrelenting. We are not dealing with belief here, but with rationally derived probabilities.

    Then you turn around and claim that evidence is not the issue after all, and along with your author, claim that since we all use the inductive principle and other practical elements of reality, (which can't be proved), you have (extrapolating with no warrant) the right to believe in fairies and hobgoblins.. no evidence required.. that is just what makes the world shine to you. End of story.

    I think you can appreciate the intellectual poverty of that position. Some beliefs are far more warranted than other ones, even when unprovable. These distinctions are critical, and can't be swept under the rug of “world views” or “presuppositions” or “it makes the world shine to me”.


  4. Darrell says:


    “Can you point to such a belief on the side of atheists?”

    Yes, how about believing there is no God? Or, that the material/physical is all there is? Or, that there are no such objective qualities as beauty, love, the good, morality, or evil? Of course these are all redundant and flow from a disbelief in God, but there you have it.

    Atheists believe all these things by faith. The rest of your responses are question begging assertions. Nothing there.

    So clearly evidence is not the issue. Athiests disbelieve in God by faith, by choice, by willful desire. The evidence is the same for the Christian and the atheist; each chooses to interpret it differently, which is fine. To each his own. But let us have none of this nonsense that atheists are basing their assertions upon the evidence. How silly.


  5. upwardcall says:


    Bravo to Darrell's remarks.

    Burk,let me ask you two simply questions. First, are you grateful? Or to put it another way, “To whom are you grateful and for what?”

    The end of the progression of gratitude will lead you to the truth of “your God” whoever or whatever that may be.

    If you say you are grateful for nothing, then you are presupposing yourself as the author of all things. Gratitude is a response to what has been given. If you say random selection or accident or the universe as it is, then it is “high and lifted up.” It is that to which we are grateful for things “given” that is the key to identifying our “god.”

    What are you “givens” or the things you have “received.” Where did they come from and why?

    Another key to identifying your “god” is found in the answer to this question: “For what will you be willing to give your life?!” If you are truly an atheist it should not matter. After all, existence is all basically meaningless, right? Meaning is an interpretation beyond the realm of “mere evidence.” It is a statement of faith.


  6. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Darrell, and upward-

    With all due respect, you seem to fail to realize that the question you pose is formally the same as .. why don't I believe in Santa Claus? (And give gratitude as well?) It is my faith position that Santa Claus doesn't exit, and it is mere interpretive differences over all the same evidence that divides us. Thus belief and unbelief are equally unprovable, and equally valid. And since belief in Santa Claus makes us demonstrably better & happier people, the pragmatic weight goes to belief over the opposite. QED.

    You may protest.. the “evidence” against Santa Claus is quite damning. While it may be true that we can never prove a negative, the negativity of Santa Claus is of a vastly different order than of god. To whit, Santa Claus is predicted to live at the North Pole. But no residence has been found there. Santa Claus has been implicated in a scheme to bring presents to all children on a single night per year. Clearly physically impossible, not to mention the lack of chimney clearances. Lastly, there is quite a bit of countervailing evidence that Santa Clause is a figment cooked up by people, complete with songs of known vintage and authorship, admitted play-acting by numerous adults in His guise, and what apparently is an entire toy industry involving underpaid labor in foreign countries documented to actually make said toys and ship them through non-reindeer channels in a complicated logistical conspiracy all centered around the eve in question.

    Very well. Here we have engaged in the public interpretation of evidence, which is what the god hypothesis deserves likewise. Claiming that it “makes my world shine”, or “makes the world make sense to me” simply won't cut it. One can say the same thing about pet rocks.


  7. Darrell says:

    Your response is nothing but a series of question begging and false analogies. I will allow McGrath to respond:

    “This is a schoolboy argument that has accidentally found its way into a grown-up discussion. It is as amateurish as it is unconvincing. There is no serious empirical evidence that people regard God, Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy as being in the same category. I stopped believing in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy when I was about six years old. After being an atheist for some years, I discovered God when I was eighteen, and have never regarded this as some kind of infantile regression. As I noticed while researching The Twilight of Atheism, a large number of people come to believe in God in later life – when they are `grown up’.”

    This is Philosophy and Logic 101. Let me know when you are ready for a grown-up discussion.

    Here though is what I believe is going on with your response. Once the leg of “I just rely upon the evidence” is kicked out from underneath the one leg stool you sit on, it is a little un-nerving to learn that rather than relying upon “evidence” one has been relying by faith upon an interpretation of the evidence. I get that—and thus the nature of your response. But I would suggest facing up to that reality and dealing with it rather than constantly running away from it. In other words, it is time you learned that there really is no Santa Claus.


  8. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    You will note that McGrath offers no logical response, but purely an emotive and unfounded response. One that mirrors his social commitments & traditions. I was getting at the logic of the situation, however.

    The simple question is.. why don't you believe in Santa Claus? Can your reasoning be made explicit? Can your reasoning about god be made similarly explicit? Those should be simple questions, and well-worth answering, in view of the formal similarity of the two situations, especially the reliance both have on evidence & interpretation.


  9. Darrell says:


    He does offer a logical response. There is no empirical evidence that people, anywhere, at any time, regard or equate the two beliefs. The reason people don’t is very simple: They are false analogies. Or, tell me of an example you know of where someone came to believe in Santa Clause (really believe, like believing the earth is round) at 18 or 50 years of age and based the way they lived their life from there on, in the most intense and ultimate fashion, upon that belief—perhaps even to the point of imprisonment or even death? Right, you can’t. Silly, I know. You are committing one logical fallacy after another. You are not getting at the “logic” in the slightest. It is you who are emoting; these types of questions are indicative of someone who simply hasn’t thought any of this through. I know you are smarter than that, and hopefully wiser. Your questions and this line of thought are really beneath you or any serious person. I hope you can see that.


  10. Burk Braun says:

    At least we have made a smidgen of progress.. you are citing empirical evidence. It is something to work on!


  11. Darrell says:


    And you are avoiding the empirical evidence! I’m not sure such is progress! I never said the empirical evidence stands apart from interpretation or bringing to bear our faith, our world-view, our meta-physical narratives, (whatever term you wish) upon the evidence.

    Actually, with this example (belief in Santa Claus = belief in God), you simply prove my point. In this instance you believe, IN SPITE of the empirical evidence that not one serious person, ever, has equated the two or come to believe in Santa Clause in adult life or that it is a logical fallacy (false analogy) that you then surround with question begging assertions. So, evidence is not really the issue for you, is it?

    Such is something indeed to work on.


  12. Burk Braun says:


    I am not equating the two, but am just pointing out the logical procedure by which they are addressed, which should be the same.

    In the case of Santa Claus, you would say that there is empirical evidence to tell us that any way it is presented or imagined, it can't be true, due to a variety of facts, which I outlined for your benefit. One of those facts was known evidence that all known artifacts relating to Santa Claus are human-derived, rather than being related to anything like a real Claus.

    This is all true however fervent one's inner conviction that Mr. Claus lives, which, while you treat it as laughable, is most serious to many children. If you live by such so-called evidence as feelings and love, and convictions, etc.., then it is not clear why children are to be discounted. They may be more susceptible to brainwashing. Are adults immune from brainwashing? Hardly, and theological institutions of all sorts are dedicated to brainwashing adults as well as children every hour of every day.

    So we come back to empirical evidence. Is the case for god any better than that for Santa Claus? The short answer is no, although Santa Claus suffers under a highly specific set of hypotheses that can more easily be disproven using evidence than the airy “supports everything” to which modern theology has retreated on behalf of god.

    Unfortunately, that doesn't make the god hypothesis any more better or supportable, just less falsifiable, and thus less significant as a matter of hypothetical reality. (However personally meaningful its devotees find it).


  13. Darrell says:


    “I am not equating the two, but am just pointing out the logical procedure by which they are addressed, which should be the same.”

    Let’s break this down. You are not equating belief in God as the same as belief in Santa Claus and you are not equating them as they same type of being, and yet, you think it logical to proceed as if, the belief and the being (or one or the other) is the same and should be applied to both. Wow, that doesn’t seem very logical. Is that how you normally proceed?

    In either case, it is a false analogy. Period. I’m curious though why you can’t deal with the simple fact that certainly lay people and most serious scholars, whether theist or not, do not equate belief in Santa Claus as the same as belief in God (in the sense of the question of God’s existence has it has been debated for centuries); nor do we have any significant (I’m being generous) evidence that anyone has come to belief in Santa Clause in adulthood and then devoted their lives to him. By the way, the last time I checked Western Civilization cannot even be understood or explained without reference to the Church (and this God they believe in), while I have yet to hear (maybe you could enlighten us) how the belief in Santa Claus has had a similar effect. There seems to be significant empirical evidence you don’t wish to deal with. There seems to be significant empirical evidence you don’t wish to deal with, so even when we consider empirical evidence, you are highly selective, which again goes to my point that evidence is not really the issue. Your every response continues to make my point.

    Let me put it simply: You are making a sophomoric and frankly ridiculous argument that is beneath any serious person, let alone a thinking person.


  14. Burk Braun says:


    To be entirely honest, I do think they are the same thing, each equally imaginary. But you do not. The question is how to adjudicate this with some measure of rationality, not just saying “I have faith in the one and it is reasonable, while the other is absurd”, without giving critical evidence or reasons.

    It has been remarkably easy for humans to cook up imaginary beings. They number in the thousands. The easiest one to create is the father of all, etc., which answers every mystery without requiring a bit of evidence.

    It is not the effect of Santa Claus that is identical- I agree that adults require and respond to somewhat different forms of brainwashing, cultural indoctrination, and native cognitive weaknesses than children do.

    The problem is in how to tell whether such “beings” are real or not. While it is certainly easy for me to use the presumption of non-existence for such non-apparent beings, and be done with it, it would be better if this were more of a science, in deference to your evident conviction of the opposite, which I frankly don't fathom, or know how it is justified.


  15. Darrell says:


    Question begging nonsense. If you want a rational discussion-you need to be rational


  16. Burk Braun says:


    I wasn't the one who raised a psychological defense of god- that adults don't fall for Santa Claus, but do fall for god, even occasionally in adulthood. I find that a very interesting defense, but not a rational one.


  17. Darrell says:


    But to you every defense of a belief in God is psychological, which simply begs the question. Do you have any non question-begging responses?

    And, since you have ruled a-priori that all such defenses arise from psychology, evidence would matter little to you, which is clearly the case here.

    Do you realize that one could simply respond that the non-belief in God is psychological too? Why don’t I? Because, beyond it being a “you too” type of infantile response, I know it simply begs the question.

    Little by little we see that evidence really isn’t the issue. With each response you keep proving my point, so please keep going.


  18. Burk Braun says:

    Now you are getting it…

    That is why I brought up the Santa Claus analogy. It cleanly demonstrates how psychological defenses (belief in Santa Claus) can be overcome by devastating evidence-based arguments.

    In the god case, the same arguments are devastating as well, only you don't seem to recognize that and stick to your psychological defenses. The other way out is to deploy evidence the other way, showing that god does indeed exist.

    That might include showing that miracles really do happen, that scriptures were/are not human-authored, and the like. None of that has happened, so that case remains to be made.

    But saying things like “I feel a presence” and “it makes everything make sense to me”… well, those invite psychological interpretation.


  19. Darrell says:


    Let’s get back on track here. You are asserting that belief in God is the same as the belief in Santa Claus. This is a combination false analogy and straw-man argument. Then you say, “show me some evidence,” when the very issue and point of the post was that evidence is not the issue, so you simply keep begging the question. Putting aside for now the matter that all evidence is interpreted evidence, when you are presented with the incontrovertible facts that no serious person thinks that when people talk about Santa Claus and when people talk about God they are talking about roughly the same sort of idea or person; or, that no one comes to believe in Santa Claus as an adult and then live their life around that figure, you then say “but that is a psychological argument,” when it is simply an observable and empirical fact. You choose to interpret those facts according to your faith that there is no God. Thus, the point, that evidence is not truly the issue. You can lead an atheist to the evidence, but you can’t make him drink, but we knew this to begin with because evidence is not the issue.

    You are making the sort of “arguments” Dawkins and Hitchins or “Ditchins” make. Terry Eagleton is also an atheist or, at the least, agnostic. And yet, he can see through such flimsy arguments. From a Salon article it is noted:

    “Eagleton further argues that not only is the Ditchkinsian version of traditional Judeo-Christian belief a travesty, in which God is envisioned as an unproven and improbable creature like the yeti or the Loch Ness monster[or Santa Claus I would add], but that this strain of post-Enlightenment atheism cannot comprehend the character of religious faith at all.”

    The simple fact is that your view of “God” has nothing to do with the Christian God, at all. You fight against a phantom devised by your own misunderstanding. You are really having a conversation with yourself, since no one except childish fundamentalists view God the way you do. You have not done the hard work of reading, listening, and researching what Christian theologians and philosophers have presented down through the ages.

    I don’t have time for Philosophy 101 or basic Christian theology. This blog is really for those who have some semblance, some grasp of Christian thought, history, and sensibility. You should keep that in mind. I’m done with these comments for now and I am happy to let you have the last word. As I was thinking about letting you have the last word, I had some trepidation you might embarrass yourself, but then I realize it was too late for that, so go ahead.


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