"Obsessed with Evidence"
(This took me about six hours total to write.)
Lately, PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne have been debating the believability of theistic claims. I have posted my responses to their comments in the past. Even now, I believe that PZ Myers is pretty much spot on with his idea that theistic claims and god-talk are fundamentally problematic, thus believing in them is inherently irrational. My worry is that PZ may not fully recognize the reasons behind some of the things he says, thus he is unable to articulate the concepts that he is trying to convey in a very persuasive manner. On the other hand, Coyne seems to be talking past PZ, not fully understanding some of the implications of the ideas that even he himself holds, implications that confuse certain concepts, and do not settle well with some of his main theses.
Greta Christina has come up with her response to the debate:
Can Atheism Be Proven Wrong?
It seems to begin pretty sensibly:
Religion has to do more than come up with some good evidence for its hypothesis. It has to have a coherent hypothesis in the first place.
Well, yes. That is the point.
Religion has to do more than come up with some good evidence for its hypothesis.
It has to have a coherent hypothesis in the first place.
That is the point. This is the main thesis. This is what needs to be kept in mind throughout this entire debate.
This is why PZ does not, and cannot, believe in the claims of theism. And this is all that theism has to offer -- claims. And it is this collection of claims that we atheists are actually responding to. Theism needs to have a coherent hypothesis in the first place, since religion has to do more than come up with some good evidence for its hypothesis.
Finally, this is why all of the evidence in the world is not going to be good enough for the claims of theism.
Nevertheless, Greta Christina disagrees with PZ. Or so she says!
It has to have a coherent hypothesis in the first place.
And thus far, religion has completely failed to do this.
Sorry, Greta Christina, but your comment there pretty much shows that you do, in fact, agree with PZ.
Your article there concedes to the point that not only has religion not come up with a coherent hypothesis in the first place, it has to do more than come up with some good evidence for its hypothesis.
So, in other words, this is not a matter of evidence, but a matter of coming up with coherent definitions in the first place, definitions that include such important concepts like standards of evidence -- what should be considered evidence, and even if evidence is sufficient for belief in the claim.
I mean, listen to (or, rather, read) the things that you are saying (or, writing): You speak of evidence as if it is going to be evidence that convinces you of the religious claims, but then you say -- in the same article, no less -- that religion has to do more than come up with some good evidence for its hypothesis, and it has to have a coherent hypothesis in the first place.
So, Greta, is your belief in the religious claims contingent on the evidence or not?
Is your beef with the religious claims with the lack of evidence (implied by "what exact evidence would persuade me that God was real" article), or is it with the incoherency of the claims themselves?!
Really, these two are not the same by any stretch of the imagination. This is a difference akin to the difference between debating whether one broke the rules and whether there are any rules for one to break in the first place.
And, finally, this is where I am going to explain one of my pet peeves about some of my fellow atheists:
Their habit of being Obsessed with Evidence.
What do I mean by that?
Well, first of all, I should make it clear that I think that evidence is a good standard. Our ability to evaluate the evidence is an excellent tool to have when we are faced with claims of any kind. A rational person needs to be able to judge evidence as it comes along.
But many of my fellow atheists seem to have a problem with the importance of evidence. They feel that there is this universal standard of evaluating claims, a standard that they refer to as evidence. So, every claim is on equal footing in relation to this standard, and for every claim that comes along, whether one ought to believe a particular claim or another depends on which one happens to have more evidence on its side. If one can present enough evidence to tip the scales in its favor, it is the one that has won the day. They apply this reasoning to the claims of theism, and say that they are atheists because the these claims do not have enough evidence on their side. They add that if theism had the evidence to tip the scales in its favor, the only rational thing to do is convert to theism.
This sounds like a great way to look at evidence, but it never really worked in the real world.
It certainly never always worked in such a way in science, the system of knowledge and investigation that PZ, Coyne, and Greta Christina (and I!) think so highly of. The historian of science has the physicist Thomas Kuhn, author of the well-known book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, to thank for dismantling the notion that scientific theories are accepted or not accepted because of some universal standard of evidence with which the theory "tips the scales in its favor" in order to gain acceptance. One review sums up Kuhn's main thesis:
Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996) argued that scientific advancement is not evolutionary, but rather is a "series of peaceful interludes punctuated by intellectually violent revolutions", and in those revolutions "one conceptual world view is replaced by another".
According to Kuhn, when a new scientific paradigm goes up against another, it is not going to be evidence that settles the dispute. The reason for this is that these two paradigms, which could be thought of as "worldviews," are inherently incommensurable. In other words, one paradigm cannot be measured according to the standards of another. The paradigms are so fundamentally different that even their very standards of evidence themselves do not mesh in any coherent way. Any attempt to apply the rules of one paradigm (e.g. "But my paradigm is simpler"), is to beg the doxastic question; that is, to presuppose the truth of the arguer's own paradigm and to shoehorn the opponent's paradigm to fit his or her own paradigm.
Evidence in this case cannot be used by one paradigm to tip the scales in favor of another not only because the paradigms have not come across a neutral point of view that comes up with an agreement on what should be considered evidence in the first place, but all of the evidence that each paradigm provides for itself is said to be theory-laden. By theory-laden, we mean that all of the evidence of a given theory or paradigm -- and that means all of it -- is predicated on the presupposition that everybody has accepted that theory or paradigm; the so-called evidence can be considered evidence if and only if the truth of the theory or paradigm is held to be correct.
More about the term is here:
A concept, term, or statement that is theory-laden makes sense only in the light of a particular theory or set of principles. Even experience is always shaped by theoretical traditions and expectations. Every observational term and sentence is alleged to carry a theoretical load.
So, basically, every time a proponent of a particular paradigm presents "evidence" in favor of his or her paradigm, that evidence will always be preambled with an implicit or explicit statement, "Well, since my paradigm is true, and yours is not..."
Nowadays, we like to take comfort in the delusion that Heliocentrism (Sun-centered universe) was accepted over the old model of Geocentrism (Earth-centered universe) because it simply had more evidence to tip the scales in its favor. And yet the example of a clash of paradigms that Kuhn had in mind was the one involving Geocentrism and Heliocentrism. Kuhn would say that these two world systems, or paradigms, offered theories of justifying themselves that were theory-laden. One could accept the theories of Geocentrism if and only if one accepted Geocentrism in the first place, and another could accept the theories of Heliocentrism if and only if one accepted Heliocentrism in the first place. Galileo, using his telescope, could have presented a Geocentricist with all the evidence in the world in favor of the Heliocentrism, but the Geocentricist could always call into question whether the observations from the telescope itself even could reflect reality in any way, since these observations, and even the accuracy of the telescope itself, were laden with the theory of Heliocentrism. In either case, the paradigm was more than coming up with some good evidence for itself. It had to have a coherent hypothesis in the first place. And this coherent hypotheses did not mesh with that of the other paradigm.
We also like to delude ourselves into thinking, as Copernicus did when he proposed it in his famous work De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, that Heliocentrism was "simpler" than Geocentrism. Simpler? According to whom? And according to whose standards? The notion seems to come from the idea that the Heliocentrism did not have to rely on the awkward and clumsy systems of epicycles that made Geocentrism so messy. And yet, as historian of science Owen Gingerich pointed out, Copernicus still had to resort to the use of epicycles, along with the regular orbits of the planets, in order to make his calculations come out right. In fact, the number of epicycles that Copernicus had to use actually was higher than the number used in the most widely used versions of Geocentrism at the time. In this case, Occam's Razor would have favored Geocentrism because it involved fewer leaps in logic in terms of the use of epicycles. Coupled with the fact that Geocentrism actually had a system of physics behind it (developed from the ideas of Aristotle), while Heliocentrism did not (Galileo and Newton had to come along and build one from scratch), Geocentrism actually would have appeared more favorable than Heliocentrism. The two paradigms were incommensurable, and yet nobody even had to compare the two in order to determine which had "more evidence" to tip the scales in its favor (as if that would have settled the dispute, anyway!). On its very own, Heliocentrism had serious internal flaws, but Geocentrism, on the other hand, did not.
But how does this large collection of tl;dr-worthy philosophy relate to my fellow atheists and their obsession with evidence? As I mentioned above, there is a number of atheists who say that if theism were to provide the evidence for its claims, the only rational thing to do is to accept the claims of theism. But is that really the case? Is it really just a matter of evidence? Is their potential faith really dependent on whether evidence can be provided or not?
It turns out that, no, that does not seem to be the case when these atheists actually engage the believers. The atheist ends up rejecting all of the evidence that the theists offers. How do we know this? We can show it through a typical example.
Atheist: "Give me evidence that your god exists, and I will convert. I promise."
Theist: "Of course I have evidence. Look around you. The beauty and complexity of the world is the ultimate evidence for my God."
Atheist: "But you are begging the question! You can't just assume that the beauty and complexity we see is something that should be considered evidence for a god!"
Theist: "But it is perfectly good enough evidence for my God."
Atheist: "That is still begging the question!"
Theist: "I can just assume it. And I just did."
Atheist: "And I am still unconvinced of your god."
The atheist here is perfectly correct in pointing out that the theist has begged the question. And yet the atheist who is so obsessed with evidence apparently is so blinded by his or her obsession that he or she does not recognize that it is more than just evidence that needs to be around in order for the claims to be acceptable, even though he or she seems to be aware, at least unconsciously, of that fact about evidence when calling the theist out on the question-begging.
What we have in the above exchange is a fundamental disagreement on standards of evidence -- a clash of paradigms. In one paradigm, faith and the Argument from Design are perfectly legitimate ways to show the existence of god, but in the other, there is no prior agreement that faith or the Argument from Design provide any weight to the legitimacy of the god claims. In that case, evidence is not as important as what should be considered evidence in the first place. Not only have the atheist and theist not agreed on the evidence itself, but more importantly, they have not agreed on a neutral point of view that tells them what a "god" is, and what would be good enough for both the atheist and theist to consider evidence.
This would be like if two children invented a brand new game to play, but then never decide on a clear winner because they not only have never agreed on the rules in the first place, but also do not have the luxury of having a third party telling them how the game should be played.
Consequently, according to the theist's paradigm, he or she has all the evidence that is needed; according to the atheist's paradigm, the theist has begged the question. And it goes the other way, too. According to the atheist's paradigm, he or she has all the evidence that is needed that existence can do without a "god," but according to the theist's paradigm, the atheist has begged his or her own question. Just as the theist, from the atheist's point of view, cannot just assume the truth of the Argument from Design, the atheist, from the theist's point of view, cannot just assume that the universe can account for itself!
So, essentially, the atheist's pointing out of the question-begging on the theist's part betrays his or her statement that his or her belief or lack of belief has to do with whether evidence can be provided or not. What the atheist really thinks is that, as Greta Christina put it, religion has to do more than come up with some good evidence for its hypothesis, and it has to have a coherent hypothesis in the first place.
In other words, evidence is great, but we need to know how, and whether, evidence applies in the first place!
It should be clear at this point that the atheist and the theist simply are not going by the same standards of evidence. Their standards of evidence just do not mesh in any way. The atheist cannot properly consider the theist's evidence as either good or bad simply because all of that evidence is theory-laden with the presupposition of theism; the atheist cannot rightly accept that evidence as such without accepting theism, first. While the atheist can be perfectly willing to accept evidence, he or she is not accepting the theist's standard of evidence, and consequently cannot accept the theory-laden evidence that the theist gives!
We atheists cannot go about our ways acting, whether consciously or not, that our paradigm, with its corresponding standards of evidence for the existence of things, is in the same playing field as that of the theists, and that is just a matter of evidence that is going to settle the despite either now or some future time. And the same goes with the relationship between science and religion. Regardless of how the two interact with one another, they do not have identical ways of doing things. Their paradigms also do not mesh, in the sense that the standards of evidence within science are not bound by the standards of evidence of religion, and vice versa.
This lack of a recognization of the differences in paradigms is where I think Greta Christina and Coyne make their biggest mistake. Whether they recognize it or not, Greta Christina and Coyne are conflating the theistic paradigm with the (rationalistically) atheistic one, as well as conflating the religious paradigm with the scientific one. They are presenting either atheism and theism, or religion and science, as competing points of view, with the same basic standards of evidence, in a battle of trying to provide which one happens to have more evidence with which it may tip the scale in its own favor. And according to this notion, there could always be a day in which either theism or religion, for whatever reason, somehow tips the scales in its favor, thereby making belief in theism or religion rational.
And yet neither Greta Christina nor Coyne actually think that this is the case. They show that they do not believe this in the very things they write. Their conflations have blinded them of what they actually believe about theistic claims.
In Greta Christina's case, she shows that she does not really think that the standards of evidence between science/religion or atheism/theism are the same simply by saying:
Religion has to do more than come up with some good evidence for its hypothesis. It has to have a coherent hypothesis in the first place.
Yes, exactly. It's not evidence, but the standards of evidence.
As for Coyne -- oh boy, Coyne! Seriously, I find a huge irony here. Coyne is one of the biggest and loudest proponents of the notion that science and religion are incompatible. And yet, somehow, they are compatible enough so that, some day perhaps, there could be "evidence" for a "god" that would tip the scales in favor of theism.
Dude, Jerry, if science and religion are incompatible, they are... well, you know... incompatible. They are not compatible. Which means that their standards of evidence are not compatible. Which means what is meant by "god" is not compatible. Which means what could possibly be meant by "evidence for god" is not compatible. Which means that whatever possibility there is for the existence of this "evidence for god" is not compatible. And they are not compatible because they are two entirely different paradigms!
Whatever possibility there may be for "evidence" for "god" really depends on the paradigm we happen to be using, what the paradigm defines as "god," and to what extent something called "evidence" would apply to this "god." As it happens, at this point, the term "god" (as well as "supernatural" and other terms that religions are so eager to throw around) is still within the paradigms of religion and theism. As Greta Christina pointed out, thus far, religion has completely failed to have a coherent hypothesis in the first place. An objective standard of determining what is real theism, in the first place, is not forthcoming. At this point, god talk is, well, just god talk. People holding onto the paradigms of religion and theism would disagree with this statement, of course. In their opinion, not only has religion and theism provided a coherent hypothesis in the first place, it is also axiomatically true, and therefore not evidentiary. The "evidence" that is given really is really something being used as mere window dressing, something extra designed to appeal to the believer's intellectual side (as opposed to faith, which is designed to appeal to the believer's emotional side). As far as these theists and religionists are concerned, this "evidence" not only exists, but is available to whomever is willing to look for it. They explain the atheists' rejection of this evidence in various ways: Sinfulness, denial, ignorance, pride, and so on. And so: "Those pesky atheists keep asking for evidence, but they never accept anything that is given to them!"
But a major problem arises when the evidence-obsessed atheists reject the evidence with which the theists and religionists provide them (the "evidence" that is laden with the theory of theism and religion), and then attempt to take matters into their hands in a "okay, if you won't provide the evidence, then perhaps someone among us will someday!" sort of way. What happens at this point is that these atheists delve into the theistic and religion paradigms, and then cherry-pick certain concepts and terms, like "god" and "evidence for god" and "supernatural," that make sense only within those theistic and religion paradigms. After this, these atheists pull those religion- or theism-native concepts and terms out of these original paradigms, and then proceed to shoehorn them into their own non-theistic/religion paradigm in order to thrust their own standards of evidence onto them. And, naturally, being evidence-obsessed atheists, the standards of evidence that they throw upon these concepts and terms are tied to their own notion that there is a universal standard of evaluating claims (thus conflating the theistic paradigm with the atheistic one, and conflating the religious paradigm with the scientific one), which they call evidence, that is used to show which side of the dispute can tip the scales with more evidence and win the day.
But whether these evidence-obsessed atheists realize it or not, by atheism-izing or science-izing these religion- or theism-born claims, by construing these claims in that evidence-obsessed way, these religious or theistic claims no longer become religious or theistic claims, since they are no longer within the paradigms of religion and theism. What has happened is that these atheists have appropriated (hijacked? co-opted?) the language of theism and religion when attempting to investigate the nature of reality in their evidentiary, empirical, reason-based methodology. They have actually taken a word of dubious and idiocentric meaning in the first place, god, and used it in their own way of looking at the word, without fully explaining what it could possibly mean in a scientific or atheistic, or at least either in a non-religious or non-theistic, context.
I mean, think about it: What exactly is a "god" according to an atheist's perspective, anyway? What exactly is a scientific definition of "god"? Whatever kerfuffle there was a few years back when the IAU was coming up with an official definition for planet (and poor Pluto!), I can just imagine the difficulty we would have in trying to pin down an objective definition of god that does not depend on theism and religion!
This reminds me of a certain something that Daniel Dennett said:
"What you say implies that God is a ham sandwich wrapped in tin foil. That's not much of a God to worship!"
So, yeah, god, in a scientific or atheistic context, could very well be nothing more than a ham sandwich wrapped in tin foil. And why not? If we do not have an objective definition of god, then we can place the label on anything, according to the dictates of our (or anyone's) incredulity and sense of wonder. God could be a modern human, with his or her Internet and cell phone, when compared to a Cro-Magnon. Or it could refer to a powerful alien being that can emulate any "miraculous" feat found in our mythology books, and yet still is as natural and subject to scientific scrutiny as we humans are. Or it could refer to a powerful being that knows enough about us that it can escape our past and present powers of detection, and still also be natural and subject to rational investigation. Or, god could be a raging elephant, from the perspective of a tiny ant.
But however the word god (or any of the other religion-based terms) may be defined within a scientific or atheistic context, this new definition would be very different from that of the theistic or religious definition, both semantically and conceptually. Consequently, there is going to be "evidence for god" and "evidence" for "god." One of these definitions is going to fall under the standards of evidence within the paradigms of religion and theism, wherein faith and arguments like the Argument from Design are perfectly legitimate ways to argue the truth of theism, wherein "evidence" is there to quell the intellectual needs of the believers; the other of these is going to fall under the standards of evidence within the paradigms of science and atheism, wherein beliefs really are contingent on the evidence that can be brought in to support the corresponding claims, wherein evidence is not mere window dressing, wherein claims are evaluated on the bases of reason, empiricism, and rational investigation, not of faith. Naturally, it is entirely possible to define god in such a way that, yes, there can be evidence that we may find someday by our system of rational investigation of the world, science. God could be, for example, one of the beings mentioned above.
And perhaps the most important thing to say here: And should we find evidence for any new being that we have scientifically called "god," the theists and the religionists cannot come back and say, "Well, told you so!" Well, no, they did not tell us so, because the basis of their claims, conceptually and methodologically and semantically, are completely different from any sort of "god" claims of scientific inquiry. Again, if science and religion are not compatible, as Coyne so often says they are not, then they are so incompatible that the theists and the religionists cannot take credit for being right should any rationalistic definition of god actually have any bearing on reality. We found evidence of this god thing through the standards of evidence of the scientific and atheistic paradigms. And this is the closest way that atheism could be "proven wrong," and yet it really would not have been proven wrong, since such evidence would not be any sort of vindication of the paradigms of theism and religion. We need to give credit where credit is due, and if such "evidence" for "god" derives not from the paradigms of theism and religion, then we cannot give them credit for providing that evidence.
In reality, though, we can call into question exactly how appropriate it would be to appropriate the term god and try to come up with some sort of scientific or atheistic, or at least a non-theistic and non-religious, definition for it. Frankly, coming up with any sort of definition would make it subject to the sorts of criticisms levelled against pantheism, which is one great big semantic dance. At best, using theism-derived terminology like god and supernatural in a scientific context, even used to be cute or poetic, can be confusing, since such terms are still productive within only the religious and theistic paradigms. They are still thought of as "religious" terms even now. These terms are loaded, and they cannot just shed their religious and theistic connotations so casually. It is bad enough that we have people referring to the Higgs boson as the "God Particle," as if it has anything to do with actual religion or theism. At worst, using such terminology can be seen as being deceitful or fallacious, whereby it is felt that there is either a equivocation of terms by the proponents of these scientific uses of the theism-derived terms, or a deliberate attempt to let non-theistic or non-religious ideas slip by, hidden by the use of god talk.
So, really, let us let god talk be god talk.
Now I am going to get back to PZ Myers, Greta Christina, and Jerry Coyne.
In the end, whether any of them really realize it or not, I think they are actually in agreement on some very fundamental issues. The problem is that they seem to be talking past each other, seeing a disagreement that really is not there. All of them seem to see the inherent problems with the religious and theistic paradigms, and consequently do not accept any of their initial premises and presuppositions. If a theist tried to use the Argument from Design on any of them, they would (and they should!) point out the theist's use of the fallacy of begging the question.
But PZ quite rightly recognizes that god talk is god talk, and since he does not accept the initial premises and presuppositions of the theistic and religious paradigms, he cannot accept their "evidence," either, since all of it is predicated on the pre-accepted truth of theism and religion. He also seems to recognize that "evidence" for a "god" in a scientific or rationalistic sense is simply an abuse of language, sort of like calling the sun a "god" in a scientific sense. PZ quite literally has nothing left over for "evidence for god" to be. He is too honest to accept the "evidence" of theism and religion (which is not evidence at all, in any rational sense), but he is also too honest to peg any sort of rationally understandable aspect of the universe as "god" because of the theological and religious baggage that the word has. And this pretty much sums up my own position.
Like PZ, Greta Christina and Coyne do not accept the initial premises and presuppositions of the theistic and religious paradigms, and therefore also cannot accept their "evidence," either. But Greta Christina and Coyne seem to be less bothered by the use of "god" and other religious- and theism-derived terminology when speaking in a non-religious, non-theistic context. Naturally, the context that they have in mind is the rationalistic one, the one in which evidence actually does count for something, while faith and theistic arguments do not. And yet even PZ also accepts the rationalistic approach to knowledge and understanding.
Where Greta Christina, Coyne, and PZ seem to be talking past each other is at that very difference in what is meant by "evidence" and "god."
None of them accept the "evidence" of the paradigms of theism and religion, since they do not accept the initial premises and presuppositions, but they can accept the evidence according to the rationalistic approach. And they would, including even PZ. But PZ would not use theistic-derived language and terminology to refer to what this evidence is pointing to.
And yet while PZ rightly keeps his focus on the god claims of theism (where it belongs, really) when he speaks of his refusal to accept "evidence" for a "god," Greta Christina and Coyne seem to be seeing that there is no difference between the paradigms of theism/religion and the paradigms of atheism/science, and get the impression that PZ is not willing to accept the evidence for claims that carry the "god" label. But that is not what PZ is saying at all. What the criticisms of PZ from Greta Christina and Coyne seem to be doing is contributing to the idea that PZ is closed-minded and dogmatic, an example of what an atheist should not be when evaluating claims rationally.
But PZ is letting god talk be god talk, but Greta Christina and Coyne think it is okay to carry god talk into the rationalistic, non-religious and non-theistic, realm. PZ can certainly accept the rationalistic evidence for things given that "god" label, but why should he accept the use of the label itself?
So, again, I believe that these three have the same fundamental ideas about what they would consider acceptable evidence, but there is a difference in terminology, together with its accompanying collection of confusions, that is making this dispute seem to be a difference in concept, instead.