I won’t talk specifically about existence claims, but about propositions in general and how we deal with them in everyday life. So I’ll re-frame the question:
Do we have to categorically establish that a claim is true before we can legitimately assume its truthfulness?
A couple of things need to be clarified. We can never be totally certain that a claim is true, no matter how good the evidence is. When we talk about 'categorically establishing’ the truth of a claim we really mean having an overwhelming amount of strong evidence to support it.
Similarly, even if we 'assume the truthfulness’ of a claim we are also reserving a small space of doubt about it. We assume the sun will rise tomorrow but we acknowledge that we can’t be totally certain of it.
In a nutshell my answer to the question is yes.
Our judgment about the likelihood of a claim being true should be continuously variable in response the the quality of evidence supporting the claim.
In order to legitimately 'assume the truthfulness’ of a claim (ie. reserve only a vanishingly small amount of doubt about it) we need to categorically establish that the claim is true (ie. be satisfied that the evidence for the claim is overwhelming).
Often the evidence in support of a claim is poor or inconclusive. In these situations we can’t legitimately assume the truth of the proposition.
Even without conclusive evidence, it may sometimes be wise to act as though a proposition is true if we take into account the cost of a false negative error; Pascal’s wager is a famous flawed attempt to apply this tactic to the question of the biblical god’s existence. In this situation we are not assuming the truth of the claim—merely taking precautions.
Evidence for gods: a few scenarios
If there was an overwhelming amount of reliable evidence for the existence of a god then the position of theist would be the only legitimate one. In this kind of world a god might live on earth with us like a kind of superman; performing miracles, demonstrating omniscience, and humoring scientists by agreeing to take part in their tests to rule-out foul play.
If, instead, there was just some reliable evidence that pointed to the existence of a god then weak agnosticism would be a reasonable response. If repeatable, methodologically sound, intercessional prayer studies were showing a strong positive correlation between prayer and rates of healing I would call myself an agnostic.
As things stand in the world that we live in though, there is no reliable evidence to support the existence of any god.
If you believe a god has personally revealed himself to you, please don’t expect anyone else to take your word for it unless you can also relay the details of an effective cure for cancer, the precise date of a future geological catastrophe or any of a number of other nuggets of divine wisdom that only a god could be privy to.
If, like most of us, you haven’t had such a revelation the only intellectually honest position is to add (weak) atheism to your lack-of-belief list that already includes afairyism, awerewolfism and adragonism.
Posted: June 20th 2007
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