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How to Consider the Evidence for Theism

David Glass
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In popular atheism belief in God is often portrayed as an irrational belief to be ridiculed rather than a serious viewpoint to be evaluated. The impression is given that theism is just too crazy a belief to be taken seriously and as a result God is placed in the same category as the Tooth Fairy and Mother Goose. Some who would not put in quite such stark terms nevertheless believe that God’s existence is far too improbable to merit thoughtful consideration. Theism is not viewed as a credible hypothesis.

When evaluating any hypothesis, whether scientific, personal, historical, religious or whatever, at least two factors come into play. The first is the plausibility of the hypothesis to begin with and the second is the ability of the hypothesis to account for relevant evidence. It can be difficult to consider the evidence for God when some atheists insist that theism is so implausible that detailed consideration of the evidence is unnecessary. As an example, consider how Richard Dawkins deals with the fine-tuning of physical constants and other features of the universe which are just right for life. Does the fine-tuning constitute evidence for God? Not according to Dawkins. While he is not overly impressed with some of the naturalistic explanations on the table, such as appeals to a multiverse, he still rules out God. Why? Because God is so improbable to begin with that he cannot be considered as an explanation for fine-tuning.

Is there any good reason to think that God’s existence is so implausible that it can be effectively ruled out without further consideration? Or to put in terms of probability, is there any good reason to think that the prior probability (i.e. the probability before relevant evidence is taken into account) of God’s existence is so incredibly low that it cannot be treated as a credible hypothesis?

Dawkins has provided an argument based on organized complexity to support this view, but his argument fails for multiple reasons, the most obvious of which is that there is no good reason to think that God would possess the kind of organized complexity required for Dawkins’ argument to work [1]. Many atheists who are not committed to Dawkins’ argument nevertheless have a strong intuition that his conclusion is right even if his argument is invalid. That is, they simply find theism too strange to be taken seriously. Obviously, such an intuition does not constitute an argument and, just as obviously, an argument is needed since many people do not share this intuition.

At one level, that’s all that needs to be said. In the absence of a decent argument, there is no good reason to think that theism is extremely implausible. But can we go further and give some positive reasons for believing that it is not at all implausible? Here I want to suggest a number of factors.

1. If God exists, he would not simply be one more object in the universe. As the Creator of the universe, God would be the most important being that  exists. God would provide the ultimate reason for the existence of the universe itself, for the order within it and for human observers. To make an analogy with science, theism would be more like a fundamental theory that helped make sense of the universe rather than a claim that there is a planet orbiting a distant star which has no bearing on the rest of our beliefs[2]. Richard Dawkins seems to agree with this point. He writes:

…a universe with a supernaturally intelligent creator is a very different kind of universe from one without. The difference between the two hypothetical universes could hardly be more fundamental in principle, even if it is not easy to test in practice.[3]

2. Theism appeals to a kind of explanation we are familiar with – personal  (agent) explanation – and so it relates to one of the two main kinds of explanation (personal and scientific). Scientific explanations deal with impersonal objects and laws of nature; we observe and measure how some events regularly follow others. We then use our knowledge of those regularities to explain some state of affairs; we discover how previous events produced other events by means of natural laws. However, when we try to explain the actions of another person, or group of persons, we use agent explanations.

Now, of course, events in a person’s brain can cause them to act. However, in an agent explanation the person is active, not passive. The person assesses his desires and beliefs and then chooses to act. So a person must have a power to choose in an agent explanation. In contrast to event causation, agent causation is a causal chain that begins with an agent bringing about an event for a purpose.

Historians often use agent explanations to account for the actions of individuals and groups. They do not cite brain events. Rather, they attempt to understand how persons in the past understood their world, and then infer the purposes and motives for their actions. Detectives search for motive and lawyers for evidence of a “guilty mind”. We use agent explanations to account for the actions of our fellow human beings. (These common sense explanations are often, and unfairly, dismissed as “folk psychology”.) Agent explanations are familiar, coherent and useful. For this reason theism is not as strange as it is often portrayed in popular atheism.

3. A common way to get a handle on prior probabilities is by considering the simplicity of the hypothesis. Theism is a very simple hypothesis to state. A single being has unlimited power, knowledge and goodness. (I’m not arguing that God could not be complex in any sense of the term, but that the hypothesis of theism can be stated in a simple way.)

4. We need to think about the prior probability of the alternatives too. What about atheism? We have to consider the prior probability that the universe exists unexplained, but arguably there are reasons for thinking that God is a better stopping point for explanation. For example, if God exists, there could be no explanation of his existence and he could not have a beginning. Neither of these things is true of the physical universe.

5. A possible objection might be that, in light of modern science, the existence of an immaterial mind is highly implausible. Even if it is granted that science undermines the belief that humans have immaterial minds, this would be an empirical claim about the human mind and would not show that an immaterial mind is either impossible or improbable in the context of discussing the existence of God. It does not seem adequate to describe God as a mere immaterial mind in any case; God would be limitless, loving, power, the foundation of the entire universe. It is easy to describe and understand the meaning of the term “God”. However, such a being would be radically unlike anything else in the universe.

6. In science, a hypothesis should not be effectively ruled out just because it doesn’t fit with our everyday experience or our intuitions – the key question is whether the evidence is explained by a reasonably simple, coherent hypothesis. When we are talking about the fundamental nature of reality some things are going to seem odd (just look at quantum mechanics). Similarly, even if theism does not fit in with an atheist’s intuitions about the fundamental nature of reality, that is not a good reason to rule it out.

Of course, I realize that these points won’t persuade anyone to believe in God, but then they aren’t intended to. Instead, together with the fact that there is no good reason to think that theism is incredibly implausible, they are simply intended to motivate the idea that theism cannot be ruled out in a simple way. If theism is to be evaluated properly, this cannot be done by assertions about its implausibility, but only by considering the relevant evidence.

So far, we’ve been considering the plausibility of theism, but let’s now turn to the second factor that comes into play when evaluating a hypothesis: it’s ability to account for relevant evidence. When he was asked what he would say if he met God in an afterlife Bertrand Russell responded, ‘I should reproach him for not giving us enough evidence.’ Some atheists will make the stronger claim that there is no evidence for God’s existence. By contrast, on this website we claim in various articles that there is evidence for God’s existence, and pretty good evidence into the bargain. Given such a disparity, it is worth asking what we mean by ‘evidence’?

Some people might think of evidence in terms of the five senses, but this is much too restrictive. Scientists, for example, don’t limit themselves to the five senses, but use various instruments to weigh objects, measure charge, detect particles, etc. Of course, the senses are important since, for example, we see the dial pointing to a certain value, but we don’t see the weight of the object or see the particle in question. Obviously though, we can’t use instruments in this way to detect God, so if this is how evidence is to be understood the evidence for God seems to be non-existent.

But this is still much too restrictive because it suggests that the only way we can know if something exists is to detect it directly using either our senses or suitable measuring devices. The problem is that things in science aren’t so simple. How do we know that particles such as electrons or protons exist? We certainly can’t see them with the naked eye. Scientists have developed various particle detectors, but how do they know they are really detecting the particles as claimed? It’s not as if they can take a look to check that the devices are getting it right. The story of how scientists came to believe in the existence of such particles is not straightforward, but very roughly the idea is that postulating their existence made much more sense of a range of phenomena that otherwise would have seemed very puzzling.

When we consider historical claims in science, things are even less straightforward. Many scientists believe that the dinosaurs were wiped out by an asteroid collision in Mexico about 65 million years ago. What evidence is there for this belief? Clearly, this conclusion is not one that can be reached directly using the five senses or some sort of instrument. Instead, in 2010 an international panel of scientists investigated the matter in great detail by considering all the available evidence and comparing the asteroid collision theory with alternative explanations, particularly one appealing to volcanic activity [4]. Basically, the asteroid collision theory explained all the relevant evidence much better than the alternatives.

Similar principles apply in non-scientific contexts. Historians draw on a variety of sources, but they do not simply describe these sources to us. Instead, they go beyond them in order to make sense of them and to come up with historical narratives that best account for all the available evidence. Detectives similarly do not have direct access to the crime itself in the vast majority of cases. They attempt to piece together all the evidence in order to determine the most plausible explanation.

When it comes to evidence for God a similar approach seems sensible. Various features of the universe constitute the evidence and the question is whether God’s existence would help us make more sense of this evidence than alternative viewpoints. In particular, in comparing theism with atheism, does the existence of God provide a better explanation of the evidence than the view that physical reality is all there is? On this website, you will find articles attempting to show that the existence of God helps to make better sense of the existence of the universe, the beginning of the universe, the order of the universe, fine-tuning of physical constants, consciousness, morality and other things as well. It is worth making a few general comments about how we weigh the evidence.

First, insofar as belief in God makes better sense of various features of the universe, these features provide evidence for God (and against atheism). Indeed, the idea that there is evidence for God can easily be accepted by atheists. Atheists could try to argue that overall the evidence is not sufficiently convincing [5].

Second, the case for the existence of God does not depend on any one of these features of the universe providing a convincing case for God on its own. Some will claim that one or more do achieve this, but that is not necessary. Perhaps a number of features will provide some evidence for God, but it is only when they are considered together that the case becomes strong. This can also happen in a detective scenario. Perhaps no single piece of evidence, considered in isolation, shows that Jones is guilty, but when the cumulative weight of all the evidence is taken into account, the verdict becomes clear.

A related point is that some of the features of the universe considered might provide much stronger (or weaker) evidence for God than others. For example, some people will not find the evidence of consciousness convincing, but perhaps it still adds some weight to the overall case.

A lot more could be said about evidence in the context of the existence of God, but the point of this article is really just to say that the evidence should be considered on its merits. Statements about science being based on evidence whereas belief in God is based on faith or dogmatic claims that there is (or could be) no evidence for God are really just tactics for avoiding the difficult task of evaluating the evidence in detail [6].

 


[1] See chap. 6 of Atheism’s New Clothes. See also There’s Probably No God – a response to Richard Dawkins.

[2] Just to be clear, I’m not saying that theism is a scientific theory, but that it is like a fundamental theory in that it has great significance for our other beliefs about the universe.

[3] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Bantam, 2006), p. 58.

[4] http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/03/100304142242.htm

[5] They might also argue that the existence of suffering and evil is evidence against the existence of God. Believers in God could offer various responses to this argument, but just as atheists need not deny that there is some evidence for God’s existence, theists need not deny that there is some evidence against God’s existence. The theist could still argue that overall the evidence supports belief in God.

[6] For a detailed article on the nature of evidence see Tim McGrew, ‘Evidence’ in The Routledge Companion to Epistemology (Routledge, 2010), a version of which can be found at http://homepages.wmich.edu/~mcgrew/Evidence.htm and for a detailed approach to evidence for the existence of God see Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, 2nd edition (Oxford University Press, 2004).