Objections To Belief In God (part 2)November 19, 2007 Time: 00:39:15
We’ve been looking at objections to belief in God. Last week we looked at the first epistemological objection which is verificationism. In talking with one of the class members afterwards, I felt that it was perhaps important for me to say that there is a difference between verificationism and verification. Those of you who are trained in the sciences or in law know that verification is indeed very important! I am in no way trying to diss the importance of verification. Having verification of our hypotheses is a very, very important test for truth. But verificationism, which is what we were talking about last week, is a claim about meaning. It is saying that anything that cannot be verified by your five senses is meaningless. It is that philosophy of meaning (or criterion of meaning) that has now succumbed to criticism and is now passé. But verification is obviously a very important thing for determining the truth of various hypotheses. But the idea that because statements like “God loves me” or “God sent his only Son into the world, and that whoever believes in him should have everlasting life” are not empirically verifiable are therefore meaningless is a claim which is simply indefensible and is, as I say, almost universally rejected today.
What we want to do now is to turn to that second challenge which is on the presumption of atheism.
Answer: I don’t think so. He asked if verificationism and empiricism are the same thing. Empiricism is a theory of knowledge, saying that the way in which we get knowledge is through our five senses. But the empiricist need not be a verificationist who would say that if you can’t know these things through your five senses therefore they are meaningless. Instead the empiricist, I think, should say merely, “Well, I don’t know whether it is true or not. It is true or it is false, but I just don’t have any way of knowing because I have no verifiable data about it. I can’t tell through my five senses, therefore I don’t know whether it is true or false. But it is true or false.” See, that is very, very different from these verificationists who said that if you can’t prove it through your five senses then it is meaningless – it has no truth value, it is neither true nor false. It is just a meaningless combination of words. Do you see the difference? That is very important because there are lots of truths that we don’t know. For example, Napoleon spat in a puddle on April 18, 1802. I have no idea whether that is true or not. But that statement is either true or false, even if we have no way of knowing whether it is true. So don’t equate non-verifiability with meaninglessness. That is what the verificationist tried to do. Is that distinction clear in everybody’s thinking?
I, in fact, am not an empiricist. I think there are ways to know things apart from the five senses. As I said earlier, the way we know moral or ethical truths is not through the five senses. There are all kinds of things that we know in ways apart from the five senses. But we are not attacking empiricism here. What we are dealing with here is this philosophy of verificationism that says unless you can verify something through your five senses it has no truth value. It is neither true nor false. It is just meaningless. That is the view that has succumbed to criticism during the second part of the 20th century.
Let’s talk about the second challenge which has been called the presumption of atheism. This is the claim that in the absence of positive evidence for God’s existence, you should presume that God does not exist. Unless you have positive evidence for the existence of God, you should presume that atheism is true. In other words, on the presumption of atheism, atheism is a sort of default position. If the theist can’t sustain his burden of proof to prove that God exists then the default position is atheism – God does not exist. So what the person who presumes atheism is true is saying is that there is a kind of differential burden of proof here. The atheist doesn’t really have any burden of proof to show that God does not exist. Rather, it is the theist alone who has a burden of proof. He has to prove that God exists. Unless he successfully carries that burden of proof then the default position is that God does not exist. Atheism just wins by default.
So understood, I think that this idea of the presumption of atheism is really a confusion of atheism with agnosticism. The atheistic claim that “God does not exist” is just as much a claim to know something as the theist claim that “God does exist.” Both are claims to knowledge. Both are making assertions - “God does not exist,” “God does exist.” Those are both positive claims to knowledge. Therefore both of them require justification. By contrast, the agnostic is the person who says, “I don’t know if God exists. Maybe he does. Maybe he doesn’t. I don’t know.” In other words, agnosticism doesn’t have anything to prove because agnosticism doesn’t assert anything. Agnosticism really isn’t a position as such. It is just a confession of ignorance. Agnosticism is just saying, “I don’t know.” Therefore, it has no burden of proof. But the atheist does claim to know something. He knows that God does not exist. Therefore, atheism, like theism, is a claim to knowledge and therefore must have justification, whereas the agnostic doesn’t need any justification merely to confess his ignorance.
Now, when I say this, it is important to understand that I am talking here about ordinary agnosticism. There really are two types of agnosticism. My teacher Norm Geisler often described these by saying there is ordinary agnosticism and then there is ornery agnosticism. Ordinary agnosticism is, as I say, just a confession of ignorance – I don’t know if God exists. Beats me. I don’t know. Ornery agnosticism is the claim, “You cannot know if God exists.” Due to our limited intellects or apprehension of the world it cannot be known that God exists. That kind of agnosticism – ornery agnosticism – does make a positive knowledge claim. Right? It says it cannot be known that God exists. Therefore, the ornery agnostic does have a burden of proof. He is making an assertion. He claims to know that you cannot know that God exists. So the ornery agnostic, like the theist and the atheist, does make a claim to knowledge and therefore does have a burden of proof. He has to justify that claim, especially since a lot of other people think that you can know that God exists.
So when I say that agnosticism is the default view, I am talking about ordinary agnosticism which really isn’t a position at all. It doesn’t take a position. It just confesses one’s ignorance. At most I think that we should speak of a presumption of agnosticism, not a presumption of atheism.
Answer: No, I don’t think so because the atheist is saying, “God does not exist.” The ornery agnostic is saying, “You can’t know whether or not God exists because our knowledge is so limited or because of skepticism.” So the ornery agnostic doesn’t say God does not exist. What he is making is a claim about your limited knowledge. He is saying you can’t know the answer to this question whether God exists. So it is different from atheism.
Answer: OK. Fair enough. I think you are quite right there that in fact if you cut them these ornery agnostics would really bleed atheists. It is, I think, merely a kind of device for maintaining a real atheistic view. They really believe God doesn’t exist, but because that is so hard to defend – it really is hard to prove atheism – they will take the ornery agnostic view and just say you can’t know the answer to that. But at least on the surface these are very different positions because the one claims to know whether or not God exists and the other one is really saying we finite, limited, ignorant people just can’t know the answer to those kind of ultimate questions. I do think that latter view is one that you often find among students today who are so overwhelmed with information from the Internet and from the media and so forth that they just sort of throw up their hands in despair about these ultimate questions and just say you can’t know the answer to these. That would be a kind of ornery agnostic view.
Answer: Fair enough. He asked, “Is the question ‘What is God like?’ as well as ‘Does he exist?’” Certainly you are right. I am just taking the basic question as our starting point. If the basic question can’t be answered, the other ones can’t either. So yes it would apply to all the rest of these religious questions basically. But I am just using this kind of foundational one as our illustration.
Answer: Yeah. That is a good question. If he is willing to admit that there is a Creator of the universe, I think he is already well on his way toward theism. It may not be a biblical theism yet, but he is well on his way. I don’t know anybody that I can think of who is an atheist or agnostic and yet is willing to admit that there is a Creator and Designer of the universe that is beyond space and time and yet is not God. I don’t know of anybody who would hold to a position like that because that goes so far in the direction of theism you are already 50% there.
Answer: The question was, “Do the ornery agnostics themselves recognize this distinction?” Yes, certainly they do. They don’t use those clever titles, but I think those are handy for remembering the distinction. They might characterize it as maybe a hard versus a soft agnosticism or something like that. But I kind of like Dr. Geisler’s terminology.
Let me push on then.
In fact, when you look more closely at how some of these people who claim the presumption of atheism use the word “atheist” you find that they are really defining the word atheism in a very non-standard way. If you push them to define what they mean by atheism what it really turns out to mean is sort of non-theism. That would include agnosticism as well as traditional atheism. In other words, they are not saying God does not exist; they are just saying we don’t know that God exists. That is consistent with agnosticism. It would also be consistent with old-line verificationism which says that the question is meaningless. If the question is meaningless, it is also true then that you are not a theist. So non-theism includes traditional atheism, agnosticism, and verificationism. All of those would be examples of non-theism. Some people who say the presumption of atheism is correct are really using the word “atheism” in this non-standard way to encompass all of these other views.
For example, this is what Antony Flew, who is one of the most famous atheists, has written. He is the person who championed this idea of the presumption of atheism. This is what he confesses. He says,
the word ‘atheist’ has in the present context to be construed in an unusual way. Nowadays it is normally taken to mean someone who explicitly denies the existence . . . of God . . . But here it has to be understood not positively but negatively, with the originally Greek prefix ‘a-’ being read in this same way in ‘atheist’ as it customarily is in . . . words as ‘amoral’ . . . . In this interpretation an atheist becomes not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God, but someone who is simply not a theist.
Do you get Flew’s point? It is like the difference between amoral and immoral. Somebody who is immoral is positively morally corrupted. But something that is amoral isn’t immoral; it is neither moral nor immoral. The chair is amoral. The chair is not a moral agent. This podium is amoral. My eating green Jello rather than red Jello in the cafeteria line is an amoral decision. See the difference? It is not immoral, it is just amoral. So Flew is saying that is what we really mean by atheism. We mean a-theism. We don’t mean that God doesn’t exist, we just mean non-theism.
If that is what the atheist means by atheism then that completely trivializes the claim of the presumption of atheism. Because on that definition atheism isn’t even a view. It encompasses three different views as we’ve seen. In fact, even my cat Muff turns out to be an atheist on this definition! Why? Because Muff doesn’t believe in God, right? Muff is not a theist. Muff is a non-theist. So it turns out that the Craig household has atheists in it, on this definition! [laughter] In fact, two atheists because Puff doesn’t believe in God either! So both Puff and Muff are atheists on this. Babies are atheists on this definition, right? Because they are non-theists. So on this redefinition I think it completely trivializes the claim of the presumption of atheism. In order to know that God does not exist you would still have to provide evidence and justification for that claim.
Other advocates of the presumption of atheism do use the word in a standard way. The standard definition of atheism means the view that God does not exist. Sometimes they will use it in the standard way, and they do recognize that to make the claim “God does not exist” is to make a claim to knowledge and therefore requires justification. But what they will say is that the very absence of evidence for the existence of God is itself justification for thinking that God does not exist. It is precisely the absence of evidence for God that justifies believing that God does not exist. So what they are saying there is that the absence of evidence for God justifies atheism. They would say, yes, atheism requires justification, but the lack of evidence is itself the justification for thinking that there is no God.
I think that the problem with this defense of atheism was very nicely captured by a forensic scientist whom I met in Sydney, Australia when I was lecturing at University of Science and Technology there. Forensic science is basically criminology – the study of forensics and judicial process and proof. This scientist said to me that it is virtually an axiom among forensic scientists that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Think about it in a court of law. The fact that there are no fingerprints of the butler on the knife is not itself evidence that the butler did not murder the master. The absence of evidence does not mean that therefore the butler is not guilty. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. In order to show that the butler is not the murderer he would need to have some kind of positive evidence that he didn’t do it. In other words, an alibi. That is what we’d call an alibi – proof that he was someplace else at the time and witnesses saw him. Or that he was somehow incapable of carrying out the murder – that he was physically incapable of doing such a thing, or some other sort of evidence to show that he didn’t do it. But the mere absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. In the case of the murderer, say, merely the absence of convicting evidence doesn’t prove that he is therefore not guilty.
To give an example from modern physics. In theoretical physics you very often have the postulation of entities or events for which there is no positive evidence yet, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. For example, many cosmologists believe that in the very, very early history of the universe just a split second after the Big Bang the universe went through a super-rapid or inflationary period of expansion. Then after this very brief period of inflationary expansion it settled down to the more leisurely expansion rate that we observe today. By the very nature of the case there isn’t any positive evidence for this inflationary expansion because if it did occur it would have pushed all the evidence out beyond the range of our telescopes and our instruments to measure. That is called an event horizon. This evidence would be out beyond the event horizon. So by the very nature of the case it is unobservable. But that does not therefore mean that it did not occur. Whoa be it to the contemporary cosmologist who says that because we have no positive evidence of inflation that therefore inflation never occurred. That would be clearly invalid reasoning. So the mere absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. To get away from the little axiom, the absence of proof for something is not itself proof that that thing doesn’t exist.
You may think, but surely there are times when the absence of evidence for something is evidence that the thing does not exist. I think that is right. For example, the absence of any evidence for a planet between Venus and the Earth is surely a good reason to think that there is no such planet. The fact that we detect no planet between Venus and the Earth provides very good grounds for thinking that such a planet does not exist. So clearly in some cases, at least, the absence of evidence can be evidence that something doesn’t exist. But when is it valid to use the absence of evidence as proof that something doesn’t exist? Let’s think about it a little bit. Suppose someone were to assert that there is an elephant in this room. Our failure to observe the elephant would surely be good grounds for thinking there is no elephant in this room. In that case the absence of evidence for an elephant in this room is good grounds for thinking there is no elephant in here. But suppose that someone were to assert that there is a flea in this room. In that case our failure to observe the flea is not at all good evidence that there is no flea in this room. There could be a flea in this room even if we don’t see it or feel it either. It could still be here. So what is the difference between these two cases? I think it is evident that the crucial difference is that in the one case if the entity in question did exist we would expect to see it. If it did exist, we would expect to have evidence of it. Whereas in the other case if the entity did exist we wouldn’t expect to see it. We wouldn’t expect to have any evidence of it. So in the case of the elephant, if the elephant were in this room we would expect to see evidence of it. Therefore the absence of that evidence is good reason to think there is no elephant here. But in the case of the flea, if the flea were in this room we wouldn’t expect to have evidence of it. Therefore our failure to see the flea is not at all good reason to think that there is no flea in this room.
Thus the absence of evidence is evidence that something doesn’t exist only in the case that if the thing did exist we would expect to have the evidence of it. Notice that in these kinds of cases the conviction that the thing doesn’t exist will be proportional to the degree to which we should expect to see evidence of its existence and then the ratio with the evidence that we do have. In other words, if your expectation of what evidence would be there if the thing existed is very, very low then even if the evidence for that thing is very low that wouldn’t be much reason to think it doesn’t exist. Or, if your expectation that if the thing existed was that the evidence would be very high, and we do have quite considerable evidence for that thing, again that wouldn’t be very good reason to think that thing doesn’t exist. It would only be a good reason to think it doesn’t exist where you should expect to see a considerable degree of evidence and yet the evidence that we have is very inconsiderable. It would only be when that ratio between them is very disproportionate that you would have very compelling grounds for thinking the thing doesn’t exist.
Answer: This might relate to the question that was asked before about what is God like. In other words, let’s take a very concrete example. If the Mormon God existed, we should expect to have very different kind of evidence than if the biblical God exists. Why? Because Mormons believe that God is a humanoid figure with a physical body that is living on a planet in outer space near the star Kolob. Many people don’t realize that that is what Mormons believe. But, in fact, Mormons do believe that. They are polytheists and it is a kind of gross materialistic polytheism. So our failure to discern the existence of that sort of being would be good evidence against Mormonism, I think. But it wouldn’t be evidence at all against the biblical concept of God who transcends time and space. So I think that your question would simply require us to say, “What sort of God is rendered improbable by the lack of evidence?” I’ll apply this more to the biblical God in a second, but I want to just be sure everybody gets the idea here of when the absence of evidence counts as a positive justification for thinking that something doesn’t exist.
Again, the advocates of the presumption of atheism recognize this fact. For example, Michael Scriven, who was an atheist philosopher, maintained that in the absence of evidence we are justified in thinking that an entity does not exist only if two conditions are met. First of all he said the entity would have to be something that we would expect to leave traces of its existence if it did exist. Secondly he said we would have to be sure that we very thoroughly surveyed the ground of the evidence and are very, very confident that there is no such evidence of that thing. Only if those two conditions are met would the absence of evidence be good justification for thinking the thing doesn’t exist. It would have to, first of all, be the kind of thing that leaves evidence or traces of its existence, and secondly we’ve got to be confident that we have thoroughly researched the ground to be sure that we have any evidence of its existence if it does exist.
If that is correct, that puts a very different face on the matter, doesn’t it? Because initially, remember, we saw that the presumption of atheism was sort of the easy default position. The atheist could just sort of sit back and say, “OK, you believe in God. Prove it to me. And if you can’t prove it then I am justified in believing God doesn’t exist.” What we now discover is rather the presumption of atheism has a very large burden of proof to bear. The atheist would have to prove that if God exists that we should expect to have such and such kind of evidence of his existence, and then secondly he would have to prove that we have thoroughly researched the ground and found no evidence of his existence.
Both of those, I think, are very controversial claims. It is controversial to claim that if God existed that we should expect to see certain kind of evidence. And it is controversial to claim that we have thoroughly researched the ground and found no evidence of his existence. You will recall that this was the pattern of Austin Dacey’s arguments in the video that we watched from the debate at Purdue. His arguments were all of this form: “If God existed, we should expect to see X. We do not see X. Therefore, God does not exist.” I think both of those premises are eminently controversial. In the first place, it is not at all clear that if God existed, what kind of evidence we would expect to have of his existence. Who are we to say that if God existed, what kind of calling cards he would leave. We don’t know! I think that is the real presumption of atheism – how presumptuous the atheist is in thinking that he knows what kind of evidence there would be if God did exist. But then secondly, that second claim is also very controversial – that there is no evidence of God’s existence. As I said in my debate with Austin Dacey, I think we’ve got the origin of the universe out of nothing a finite time ago, the existence of the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life, the existence of a realm of objective moral values, the historical facts concerning the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the personal experience of God himself. If God existed, who in the world would say that he is obligated to leave more evidence of his existence than that? I think that is supreme evidence of God’s existence! So you see this presumption of atheism turns out to be not an easy default position at all, but rather to be quite a controversial position that would require the atheist to muster a good deal of justification to prove that atheism meets those two conditions.
Answer: I have never studied social science, so I am totally ignorant of your field, but I would imagine (wouldn’t I?) correctly that the social scientist would propose some kind of a hypothesis to explain some set of data that he has received?
Answer: What is the “null hypothesis?” That is the opposite? All right, but sometimes don’t you find yourself landed in the middle where you don’t have evidence for the opposite hypothesis and you don’t have clear evidence for the hypothesis so you are left an agnostic. That just sounds like saying the evidence that you have makes one hypothesis more probable than the other. But if you want to translate that into this presumption of atheism, what the person seems to be saying is that if there isn’t any positive evidence for the hypothesis, that that is itself evidence that the opposite hypothesis is true. It seems to me that that is just incorrect because that has, as Scriven acknowledges, first of all you have to be sure you are dealing with something that would leave positive evidence if it were true. There could be social phenomena that occur that maybe wouldn’t leave any kind of positive evidence. I am just thinking off the top of my head here, maybe your polling for a behavior that is so shameful that people would never admit it to the pollster. So, you are polling people on how many have committed incest or something. Well, you are never going to get an accurate sample because people won’t admit it. So that would fail the first condition – if it were true you would expect to have a certain trace of it. But then the second condition that would have to be met is that in fact you don’t have any evidence at all for it. But you may have some evidence for it – a modicum of evidence in favor of your hypothesis. So the second condition might not be met either. Therefore you wouldn’t be justified in saying the opposite is true. So I think it would apply in the social sciences as well. You’ve got to first be sure that if the thing were true that it is the sort of thing that would leave evidence of itself of a considerable or measurable amount. Secondly, you have to be sure that you thoroughly surveyed the ground. In social sciences, for example, you might say that, “My sample was too limited. My poll is too limited. I didn’t get the right sample. So therefore it is no good.” You have to be sure you surveyed the ground adequately and found no evidence. I am not sure what you mean by things that are absolutely not true. Sure, if you find that the not-true is not-true, right. But here that is the whole question. The theist does believe that atheism is not true. The theist tries to give positive evidence for the existence of God. That is what we did in the last several months. But now we are leaving that aside here and we are pretending that we have no positive evidence for God – to prove that God exists. We are just asking the question: is the absence of evidence for God sufficient justification for saying there is no God? What I am arguing is, no, it is not for the reasons that I just explained.
Answer: Apply this to what we’ve been saying. For a long time we had no evidence that there were other solar systems. Does that mean they didn’t exist? Did the absence of evidence for other solar systems mean that there are no other solar systems? That would be absurd. Why? Because we hadn’t met the second condition. We had not adequately surveyed the ground because our instruments were too limited. But once our instruments became powerful enough to more adequately survey the ground – bingo! We did find evidence of other solar systems and they were there all along. So what the atheist has to say is that we have so thoroughly surveyed the grounds and found no evidence of God’s existence that we can be confident there is no God. As you say, that is enormously presumptuous and controversial. Look at the evidence that has been discovered just in the 20th century based on things like the fine-tuning of the universe and the origin of the universe, which was unknown in the 19th century.
Answer: That has been my experience as well. My experience has been that atheists are very often disingenuous about the degree of sincerity with which they’ve sought God. They will often say, “Oh, I have sought God. I’ve looked. I’ve tried and not found him.” But then in other contexts you will hear them saying really vicious and negative things about God which show, I think, where their heart really is. I found that, too. That has genuinely been my experience. Yet, in certain contexts, they will tell you with all sincerity how they have searched and so forth. They are trying to force you to make a judgment upon them like you are not a sincere person or something. I try to avoid that because we are not out to try to judge people’s motives, which we don’t know. But very often they will let slip, as you say, their true motives by this anger or this bitterness that comes out in other contexts. That, I think, gives a true glimpse as to where their heart really is often.
Answer: You are raising a good point here. The hidden assumption that the verificationist made was that there isn’t any empirical evidence of God’s existence. There aren’t any answers to prayer, there are no miracles, there is no good evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, for the fine-tuning of the universe, and so forth. That was all just sort of assumed. But I think the theist can really challenge that by saying, “There is abundant empirical evidence for a Creator and Designer of the universe.” But I don’t even want to give them that much. I don’t even want to get on that playing field because their principle of meaning by which they make this demand is illegitimate. So they need to be cut off right at the ankles by saying your criterion of meaningfulness is wrong, wholly apart from the further question of whether we do have empirical evidence for God. Even if we didn’t, the claim would still be meaningful, like the example of solar systems that exist whether or not we have evidence of them.
That brings up to the end of the lesson for today. Next time what we will do is move to the hiddenness of God, which is really where the debate is today. The challenges of verificationism and presumption of atheism have pretty much become passé but the hiddenness of God is where much of the debate lies today. So that is what we will look at next time.
 A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, ed. Philip Quinn and Charles Taliaferro [Oxford: Blackwell, 1997], s.v. “The Presumption of Atheism,” by Antony Flew
 Total Running Time: 39:48 (Copyright © 2007 William Lane Craig)