Squashed

A blog of politics, law, religion, and the tricky spots where they collide.

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Posts tagged God

Evidence and belief

GreaterthanLapsed has asked for evidence of God’s existence.1

What verifiable evidence supports your belief in a god? Unsubstantiated “miracles” don’t count. “I just feel it in my heart” or similar nonsense is not evidence. However, I will accept “I don’t need evidence,” as a valid answer—although it will make me think you are foolish and worry about your grasp on reality.

Greater than Lapsed, presumably is looking for broad and dramatic evidence of the existence of God. Perhaps “I am here” written in fire across the sky.2 Or perhaps mystical visions.3 Or maybe inexplicable physical phenomena.4 Or maybe people speaking in tongues.5 I’m not going to be able to present that kind of evidence. Even if I could, I don’t think accounts of substantiated miracles would satisfy Greater than Lapsed. They certainly wouldn’t satisfy me. I won’t rule out the possibility of miraculous and divine intervention—but I’m much more inclined to believe that God works through the rules of a rational universe.

The enlightenment (and scientific method) stemmed from the belief that God had created a rational universe and that we could determine the rules of that rational universe through experimentation and observation. It would then be quite a trick indeed to then prove that God is a product of the rational universe. It would be as if a watchmaker set a watch in motion and then the watch were then to spawn a new watchmaker.6 Whether or not you believe the universe is rational because God wanted it to be rational or because it just happened to be rational, we should not expect to find the sort of explicit evidence Greater than Lapsed seems to exist. Speaking only for myself, I would treat claims of others who claim to have such evidence with extreme skepticism.

God is not the only thing I believe in that I’m not going to be able to prove physically. I believe that other people experience the world in much the same way I am. I believe in a rational world that is much the way I perceive it. I believe that reason works, more or less. I cannot present evidence that would disprove solipsism, prove that we’re not stuck in some sort of experience machine, or prove that my believe in the world is not the machinations of some great deciever. I cannot prove that effect follows cause.[^6]

But a few things strike me as undeniable. We are creatures of passion. We are creations of passion. Our passions, our actions, and our decisions, have meaning, purpose, and significance beyond what we can readily observe. When we love and when we suffer, we do not do so in vain.

When I say “undeniable” I do not mean that these things I regard as true cannot be denied. People deny them all the time. I simply mean that I am not constitutionally capable of denying them. Without purpose, I know nothing of life. Without God, everything I know of meaning and everything I know of love unravels.

My responses to similar questions are here. Additionally, Greater than Lapsed has answered a similar question I posed to her.


  1. For those of you who read footnotes, Melanyouth and Greater than Lapsed had a thought-provoking exchange on whether this question sets a fair standard. Ruling out both external physical evidence (“miracles”) and subjective internal experience doesn’t leave a lot of room for potential evidence. Because I think the search for “verifiable evidence” is unlikely to prove fruitful, I’m not inclined to dwell on the issue. 

  2. Sunsets don’t count. 

  3. But not the sort of mystical visions granted to people who claim to have visions. Those people aren’t well. 

  4. Excluding all the other inexplicable physical phenomenon that we can’t yet explain. We’re getting to those. 

  5. But not Pentacostals. Pentostals are different. 

  6. See, e.g., David Hume, arguing that the claim that the future will resemble the past because in the past the future has resembled the past is inherently circular. 

The greatness (and goodness) of God

Greater than Lapsed raises this question:

What qualities would you say make a god worthy of worship? To what extent does your god embody those qualities, and how? I will ask for examples here, and I am likely to point out contradictions if I am familiar enough with your religion to do so.

I’m afraid my answer to this question won’t be terribly satisfying. My views on what makes God worthy of worship focus on my understanding of the nature of God rather than on qualities that I personally value and want God to share. To a non-believer this may be an awfully backwards and somewhat tautological answer. But here it goes:

God is worthy of of worship because he is God.

I promise that this conclusion is it’s really not as vapid as it sounds. The disconnect is going to be on who is ultimately responsible for determining what is good. If God is in essence the embodiment of what is good, our task is not to decide what is good independent of God but to determine what the nature of God is and how we can best reflect that. To the extent that we believe some aspect of God’s nature is not good or worthy of worship, we need to wrestle with whether we’ve ascribed false qualities to God or whether we’ve incorrectly identified something as bad or unworthy of worship.

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Reason and Belief

Daniel Holter answers my previous post with,

“I cannot believe…”

“I cannot believe…”

Say no more. :)

That’s all we non-believers have been saying with regard to That Statement of Faith or This Proclamation of the Divine… except we generally follow with “without sufficient evidence,” whereas I take these final statements of yours to be a refusal to believe even when presented evidence to the contrary, or in situations where we don’t yet have enough data or historical knowledge …

Do you have evidence to the contrary? Present it. I’m perfectly comfortable adjusting my beliefs to comport with the evidence. We have, for example, a fossil record that suggests the earth is a whole lot older than six thousand odd years. So there aren’t a whole lot of Young Earth Creationists left.

But for something as basic as theism or atheism, we don’t have (and shouldn’t expect) a whole lot of physical evidence. (For now, let’s discount any accounts of miracles on the grounds that anything that purports to be against a believed rule of nature is contrary to the weight of evidence that established that rule or that any consistent exception to a law of nature simply calls for reconsideration and reevaluation of that law.) Evidence of the kind traditionally sought by scientists doesn’t help us one way or the other. We might as well look to scientifically deduce the value of pi. We could try—but we’re in the wrong discipline.

This, to me, is the quintessential gap between those who believe and those who do not: when faced with a question or dilemma or scenario about which we yet know little (or nothing), do you fill in said gap with ‘god’ or ‘God’ or ‘Jesus’ or ‘Zeus’ or ‘Allah,’ or is it enough for you in these moments to just allow for the wonder of the unknown and let science and reason take us into the future?

I don’t mind uncertainty. But belief does not need to be a refusal to listen to others. We can believe things while admitting that we may be wrong. Maybe some day we’ll have answers to all our questions. But, until then, we’ve got to work with what we have. We can refine our beliefs in response to new discoveries—but we all believe in something.

It’s not enough for me to let science and reason take us into an unknown future. A hundred years ago, it might have been enough. Then science gave us the atomic bomb. Science drilled a hole in the world that is spewing millions of gallons of oil into the ocean each day. Progress and consumption gave us global warming. Reason gave us a thousand reasons to build barriers between those who are different than us. It gave us new ways to destroy ourselves and others. Let’s not blindly follow this train into an unknown future. Where are we going? Why are we going there? Science alone won’t answer these questions.

Science is a brilliant tool—but a terrible idol.

Robot Heart's thoughts on God...

Robot-Heart has written a very thoughtful piece on the reasons behind her beliefs (or, rather, non-beliefs) about God. I wanted to pull out one bit that puzzled me.

The simplest answers are usually the correct ones. The simplest answer to the questions regarding creation is that we are all the results of chemical reactions operating within the parameters of the laws of physics. The simplest answer to what is our purpose is that we don’t have one. We are a felicitous byproduct of the chemical reactions operating within the parameters of the laws of physics, and our purpose is no greater or lesser than the purpose of all other matter and energy in the universe.

The simplest answer to the question of god’s existence is that humans produced god as a way to find comfort in a universe and a life that is otherwise meaningless. As a way to satisfy needs that we all have that might otherwise go unmet.

Assigning any kind of probability to the existence of God is philosophically and mathematically difficult. We don’t have data or a sample set or any of the things we would normally use to assign a probability function to something. Where would you begin? Pretty rainbow on an otherwise miserable day? Add 1%. Inexplicably suffering child? Deduct 2%. It just doesn’t work. In game theory, we would call it a true state of nature. The idea that “no god” is a default position or, scientifically, the most likely outcome, isn’t rooted in actual probability.

Nor does it really make sense to say that the existence of different religious that believe different and contradictory things mean the existence of God is particularly improbable. Many people believe mutually exclusive things. Logically, some of them must be wrong. And the prevalence of contradictory beliefs should make us humble about our own. But it doesn’t follow that they’re all completely wrong. If two monotheists agree on 80% of everything, the simplest solution is not that both are 100% wrong but that the two share the 20% error. So probability doesn’t really argue against a belief in God.

If we’re looking for the simplest solution, we’re in a curious spot. Knowing w*hat we know about the world how can we make the most sense of it? Or, rather, believing what we believe about the world, how does it all fit together?

With everything we’ve seen of suffering and love, beauty and pain, of joy, trembling, and awe, can we still believe in a meaningless universe? Is our desire for meaning some evolutionary artifact? Some metaphysical appendix? Do we believe in an “otherwise meaningless universe”? Can we believe in it?

Are we all, if only a little bit, theists by necessity? Is the simplest answer to the existence of God a complex anthropological tale about yearning in vain and unsatisfiable desires? Or is a simpler answer merely “Yes.”