An Evidence Problem

Professor Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution is True, recently asked the people of faith who correspond with him from time to time to say what evidence they would accept for the non-existence or non-reality of God. His point is that he’s able to say what evidence he would accept for the existence or reality of God – he’s described this in his book Faith vs. Fact, which I’ve read – but he doesn’t often get reciprocating answers from people of faith.

This frustrating situation seems consistent with the abyss of incommensurate perspectives that Faith vs. Fact does such a good job of revealing, which I’ve mentioned elsewhere. I can see why the general inability or seeming refusal of people of faith to oblige on this question would constitute further evidence, from Coyne’s point of view, that people of faith are unreasonable. From an empiricist’s perspective, reasonable people ought to be able to give an account of the evidence they would accept, and it ought to be the kind of evidence that would count as evidence for an empiricist. Because from that perspective, reasonable people will acknowledge the problem of confirmation bias, and the issues with subjectivity, and so refuse to accept things as true on the basis of subjective impressions.

I think I understand that perspective, although I don’t share it. I like to think I am a reasonable person, too, although Professor Coyne would probably disagree with me about that. I understand that, too, and my point here is not to convince anyone that I am reasonable. My point is to think more about the problem, from the standpoint of a person of faith, with that seemingly reasonable request to provide an account of the evidence I would accept of God’s non-reality.

Because it does seem like a reasonable request, at least in a way. And yet, honestly, it’s difficult for me to imagine any this-worldly evidence that would demonstrate God’s non-reality for me.

From the standpoint of an empiricist, who regards God as a hypothesis to be confirmed or disconfirmed empirically, this must seem incomprehensible. Well, unreasonable.

So I have been trying to think of what might be an analogous problem, that would make the communication situation atheists and people of faith find themselves in more comprehensible for someone who doesn’t accept the reality of God as immediately obvious. Because most people of faith do, I suspect, accept the reality of God as immediately obvious, rather than as something that needs to be “demonstrated” or “proved.”

It’s like you’re sitting with your friend at the dinner table and you say “pass me the salt, would you” and your friend says “what salt?” and you say “right there” and they say “what are you talking about, there isn’t any salt.” Then you look at each other like neither of you knows what’s going on. This problem, of atheists and people of faith trying to talk to one another, seems to be something like that.

Perhaps, if there could possibly be evidence of the empiricist kind that would be relevant to this problem, it would be on the order of the kind of evidence I would need to have to demonstrate that I am fundamentally mistaken about what I experience. That is, about my own immediate experience. That is, evidence that I have not actually had the experience I have had, over the course of my several decades of life as a person who experiences herself as in communication with God.

What kind of evidence would that be? It’s difficult to imagine.

Analogously, perhaps, I think: how would you convince me that I had not had the particular experience that gave rise to some particular childhood memory? Say I have a particular vivid memory of standing in a room flooded with light. What kind of evidence could anyone produce to demonstrate that such a thing never really happened? I never actually ever stood in a room flooded with light. By “really,” there, I assume we mean something like materially, empirically, as opposed to, for instance, in my imagination. I say: well, I know the difference between the feeling of “in my imagination” and “not in my imagination,” and it feels like “not in my imagination.”

Moreover: say it would be possible to show that I could never actually (empirically, materially) have stood in such a room. Say I was objectively confined to my bed for the first five years of my life. I say “OK, but I have that memory, of that experience, so whatever happened, whatever it was, that memory is how it felt. Which is to say: it felt real.”

How would you prove that “nothing” could have happened? I understand it irritates the atheists when people of faith say, well, you’d need to prove a negative. But that does seem to be what would be required.*

So: if there were to be evidence of this kind, I think it would need to be the kind of evidence that, in a general way, human beings cannot or ought not to trust their experiences of the God kind, so that, in a specific way, I would be unwise to trust my specific experiences of the God kind. That is, my awareness of God; my awareness of the Other; my awareness of that communication.

There’s a way to demonstrate the human blind spot. [Like this.] We’re normally unaware of that blind spot, because of our stereoscopic vision and because of the way we’ve learned to maintain object permanence. But it’s there. We can demonstrate that.

There might be an analogous demonstration for people’s “God vision,” or what people think is their “God vision.”

But here’s the funny thing about that demonstration: you have to do something special to make that blind spot perceptible. You actually have to artificially limit your normal perceptual apparatus. Normally, that blind spot isn’t a problem for people. And we wouldn’t argue that, because we actually have a blind spot, that we shouldn’t still trust our perception of object permanence. After that demonstration, we don’t reject our normal perception; we just know it to be more complex than we originally thought.

My guess is that something similar could and would happen with a demonstration of the limits of people’s spiritual perception. It still wouldn’t prove to people of faith that they are wrong to perceive what they perceive, most likely. It would be more likely to demonstrate that what we think is “immediately obvious” is more complex than that.

I can see why the inability of people of faith to play by the rules of the empiricist game must be frustrating to empiricists who think everyone should do that. Just as empiricists’ inability or refusal to play by the rules of the real world as perceived by people of faith frustrates the religious. What I don’t see is a way past that impasse.

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* Somewhere, some time, I read an article that discussed the “asymmetries” involved in the recurrent “burden of proof” arguments that arise between atheists and theists. From an atheist perspective, the burden of proof is on theists to prove to atheists’ satisfaction that there’s a God. But from the theist perspective, the burden of proof is on atheists to prove to theists’ satisfaction that there’s no God. Once again: a frustrating impasse, for the folks who seem to think those arguments are worth having.

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Image: “Ivy Hedera Red Brick Wall,” Photo by and (c)2007 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man), GFDL 1.2, via Wikimedia Commons

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