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Is argument from 'lack of evidence' valid?

Is it possible for atheists to think of a strict, formal, 100% scientific, empirical experiment (or a series of experiments) which would prove the existence of God?

If it’s NOT possible then it renders the argument from 'lack of evidence’ invalid because it means that it’s not possible to yield any evidence by definition. No evidence is good enough, everything is natural by definition (although some things are not yet explained). And – corret me if I’m wrong, this also means that everything we can think of is also physically possible: even the most spectacular miracles – if they actually ocurred- should be considered as some kind of manifestation of yet unknown forces of nature.

If such experiment IS possible, then I have the following questions:

  1. Give an example of such experiment. Remember that positive result is supposed to prove without any doubt the existence of God, not raise the bar and claim it’s some yet unexplained law of nature.
  1. Can you say that ALL atheists agree this experiment would be satisfactory to prove the existence of God? Or some of the atheists would still claim that such experiment does not prove the existence of God? Or even that it’s not possible at all? Are there divisions among atheists here?
  1. Suppose ALL atheists on earth agree that the experiment is satisfactory to prove the existence of God. Is it possible to say where the certainity that we’ve just proved God is coming from? It must be coming from a claim that we already have a full, complete understanding of how the world works (or at least some parts of the world), a crystal-clear division what is natural and what CAN’T be natural (thus, would prove the existence of supernatural). Can any/all scientists make a formal claim like this?

Posted: June 28th 2012

George Locke

It is not my responsibility to devise experiments to falsify every absurd claim I come across.

Here’s how I understand you: until science has investigated all conceivable notions of God, I have to believe in God. Baloney! Before I can believe in God, I need a good reason to do so, especially since most popular ideas of God are dubious in the extreme.

If you want to convince me of your particular supernatural claim, give me a reason to do so. All the supernatural claims I’ve ever encountered are either demonstrably false or unfalsifiable. After seeing this so many times, I have enough experience to generalize: supernatural claims are incredible on their face. I accept that this generalization doesn’t “disprove” all conceivable supernatural claims, but you shouldn’t believe in things merely because you can’t disprove them. I need very a good reason to believe something that contradicts well-established science.

If you think God is the exception to the rule against supernatural claims, explain why you think so. Until then, I’ll remain an atheist.

— — —

I’d like to address the false assumptions hiding in your question that made it impossible for me to answer your question more directly. First, you haven’t told us which “God” we’re supposed to test. There are many, many ideas of God that range from the fundamentalist’s capricious, all-powerful person to a New Age-y “universal consciousness”. There is no one experiment that could address them all.

Second, you misunderstand how science and experiment lead to knowledge. Experiments are useful when they confirm or contradict the predictions of a certain hypothesis; we can infer our hypothesis is false if its predictions are false, but confirmed predictions are generally insufficient to preclude all reasonable doubts. Your first sub-question seems to demand an unequivocal answer to a broad question from a single experiment, but science doesn’t work that way. Science proceeds by producing hypotheses and refining them so that they are consistent with all available data. Complex theories need a lot of testing before they enter the canon.

No good scientist ever claims to have a “full, complete understanding of how the world works”. You seem to think that experiments can only be interpreted properly if one presupposes such perfect knowledge. On the contrary, the reason we do experiments is that we don’t know how they’ll turn out. Again, the kind of certainty your third sub-question discusses is just not part of science.

Posted: July 2nd 2012

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Eric_PK

Prove. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

There is no proof outside of abstract systems such as mathematics. The real question is what level of evidence would compel belief in a god. It is a hard question to answer because the definitions of god are very slippery things.

Having said that, if you could pull out some good-old bibilical miracles – turning water into wine, raising the dead, parting a sea, those sort of things – than that would be a good start. Though I notice that that sort of evidence seems to be conspicuously missing in say, the last 1000 years.

At that point, however, I think you get into Clarke’s law – Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic – and back to the whole definitional problem.

As for whether all atheists would agree about something, that’s obviously not going to happen, any more than all theists would agree.

At this point, I feel compelled to point out that to many atheists, god is just something that other people believe in. There are more people who believe in god than people who believe in ufos, crystal healing, and bigfoot, sure, but that doesn’t make their beliefs any more justified or compelling.

Posted: June 30th 2012

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Dave Hitt www

He could give me his power, even for a limited time, and let others observe me using it. He would, of course, have to leave the results in place as verification.

First, I’d create a container that would withstand the ravages of time for a million years, (a godly feat in and of itself,) put some current technology in it, then go back a million years and bury it in some bedrock (which would verify the age). On the way back I’d stop and visit my 20 year old self, give him some advice and the winning lotto numbers for three or four lottos in a row (further proof), along with instructions about which stocks to buy in the future (not proof, but it would be fun).

Then I’d come back to my own time and give archeologists the location of my buried time capsule so they could dig it up and verify I really did travel that far back in time. (It would have moved quite a bit, but I’d know where it was because hey, I’m a god.) Then I’d pick a few diseases and cure them all, instantly, all over the world. Poof – no more AIDs, Cancer, or Rectal/Cranial Inversions. I’d give my wife and myself and probably a couple of friends the bodies of our twenty-year-old selves, only slightly better looking, and increase our lifespans to 200 years. (Sorry, rest of the world, it’s just me and some friends. You’ll have to figure out how to do it for everyone else on your own.)

Then, for my final trick, I’d resurrect Christopher Hitchens, who would be amazed to discover he was wrong and then us some very profound insights into that discovery.

Point 2: How can I possibly speak for other atheists? I’m guessing my projects would serve as proof for them, but that’s up to them, not me. As to your last question on point two: There are divisions amongst atheists on every subject except one.

Point 3: Science, now knowing that God exists, would still not call him/her/it supernatural, but rather a part of nature they don’t understand.

So come on Jehovah/Zeus/Moloch/Odin or whatever other god is the real one, make me like you for a day and let’s end the question once and for all.

Posted: June 29th 2012

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brian thomson www

You’re getting ahead of yourself. Before anyone could devise an experiment, you’d have to agree on a definition of just what it is that you’re trying to prove. The definition of “God” is vague and the subject of dispute between religions, which makes such a definition essentially impossible. (Remember – it’s a big, diverse world, and your definition is only one of many, and you have no right to assume yours is better than anyone else’s. What if the Hindus are right, and there are many, many gods?)

In the view of Dawkins and others (myself included) the question of “God” is subject to scientific scrutiny, which means that he/she/it is natural. This is in contradiction to the religious claim is that “God” is supernatural, not subject to any scientific scrutiny or experiment. We’re never going to devise an experiment that is guaranteed to “prove God” if “God” is defined as “not subject to experiment”. Atheists are not the problem here.

When you devise an experiment, it’s not as simple as trying to prove or disprove a proposition in its entirety. You break a proposition down to its components, establish controls, define the variables, fix some and change others. The first step is to be absolutely clear and unambiguous about exactly what the experiment is about. (You can see the problem right there.)

An example of where this has already been tried is with “intercessory prayer”, which was a double blind study of a specific claim: that prayer by third parties would help an ill patient get better. A “third party” is someone with no connection to the patient, and “double blind” means that neither the patient or those in contact with the patient knew who was being prayed for or not. Only researchers not in contact knew who was in the “prayed for” group or the “control” group. Those are the kinds of conditions under which you would test one claim. This has been tried more than once – see here for one report as an example. Now try and define another religious claim and a suitably rigorous experiment to test it.

In summary: you seem to be concerned about proving “God” to atheists, using scientific methods, but an experiment could not “prove God” in its entirety. It could confirm specific claims that people make on behalf of this “God”, but that would not be the end of it: such a proof would be a subject for further study and more experiments – and this would never stop until the phenomena are fully explained, no matter how long it takes. If “God” is a subject of scientific study, then he/she/it is natural, and the whole supernatural claim goes out the window. You should be more concerned about theists who insist on claiming that “God” is supernatural, since that denies the validity of any experiments involving “God”.

I’m not clear on what you mean by the “argument from 'lack of evidence’”. If there’s no evidence for something, why should I care about it? It doesn’t necessarily mean that “everything is natural by definition”, but if it’s not “natural”, then what relevance does it have to us? Something truly supernatural can’t affect us in any way, because we live in the natural world. If we are affected, then the cause of that effect has entered in to the natural world, and we can study it. So you may be right if what you mean is: no amount of natural evidence will serve to prove the supernatural. The answer might be “we don’t know”, as it so often is, and we have to live with that.

Posted: June 29th 2012

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