Alan Roebuck and the nature of evidence

I am pleased to see that Alan Roebuck has returned to defend his position in the comments on my post of a few days ago, and seems quite eager to continue the discussion regarding the evidence. Apparently, he is disappointed that I gave his comment only a short reply, so I shall return to it for a more detailed examination.

Since the question of God’s existence has been debated since the beginning of time and has been discussed at length by all the great philosophers (as well as the not-so-great), and since entire libraries have been written to argue for God’s existence, we must ask “What do they mean by ‘No evidence’?”

I can’t speak for the atheists, since I am a theist myself (see the Patron Goddess link above). But I am both a skeptic and an ex-Christian, so I can at least address the question of what the phrase “no evidence” means. It means “no evidence.” Meaning, however, depends on context, and when skeptics say there is “no evidence” of God, we are speaking about evidence in the context of evidence that is (a) objective, (b) reliable, and (c) verifiable.

Obviously, it would be trivial to refute the “no evidence” claim by dumbing down the definition of “evidence” to the point that Saturday morning cartoons are “evidence” that Smurfs are real. In that sense, Roebuck is correct, there is “evidence”–of the subjective, unreliable, and unverifiable sort–for astrology, dragons, magic, demons, gods and goddesses, nature spirits, and other magical, mystical, mythical phenomena. If we adopted such a definition of “evidence,” however, we would be taking the skeptics’ comments out of context. Skeptics are claiming that, in the context of evidence that is objective, reliable and verifiable, there is no evidence of the Christian God. Thus, it’s only fair to evaluate that claim in that context.

Now, we can look at specific arguments that are offered as evidence of God, but before we do, we should take a moment to consider what would happen if any of the arguments for God were valid evidence of His existence. Suppose, for a moment, you were a Christian who wanted to convince unbelievers that God is real. What sort of evidence would you prefer: evidence that is subjective, unreliable, and unverifiable, or evidence that is objective, reliable and verifiable? If you’re dealing with skeptics, then you want to give them the best and most solid evidence you’ve got. Burying your good evidence under a pile of conjectures and fantasies and superstitions only makes it harder for you to prove your point. It is in your own best interest, as a debater (and even more as an evangelist), for you to put your strongest arguments out front where they will be easiest to find.

This means that really good evidence ought to bubble up to the top, especially for a body of believers who had supernatural help in applying the wisdom of God to the problem of how to convince skeptics. The Holy Spirit wouldn’t be fumbling the debate by hiding his best evidence under a pile of weak arguments that can be easily picked apart by reasonable men. If there are any better arguments for the existence of God, therefore, we should expect to be presented with those arguments first and foremost.

The problem with the Courtier’s Reply is that it fails on this point. It presumes that the most visible arguments for God are not the best arguments for God. And why aren’t they? What strange curse forces God to give His followers so many weak and ineffectual arguments that finding the good stuff requires a lifetime of diligent and unrewarding research in the wandering and pointless philosophies and traditions of men?

We can see that there is no good evidence for the Christian God just by the fact that Christians even need to appeal to the Courtier’s Reply. If they had good evidence, there would be no need to hope that somewhere “out there” in the vast repertoire of rationalization and superstition and conjecture, there must surely be something worth considering. The good stuff would be the first thing believers would present to the unbeliever. The quantity of evidence would be secondary to the quality of evidence, and therefore the best evidence would overshadow the weaker and less reliable arguments.

Unfortunately for believers, the good stuff is lacking. It’s all pretty much the same quality, fit only for those who eagerly want to be convinced. There’s not really any of it that’s suitable for convincing the skeptic, or even the open-minded investigator. You have to want to be convinced first, and then the “evidence” seems convincing.

That’s why believers would rather argue about something else, like whether or not unbelievers are sincere, or well-informed, or stupid. If we can get the unbelievers to focus on defending themselves, then they might not notice that we don’t really have any better evidence than the arguments they’ve already found problems with. So we try to change the subject to whether or not the problem is on the unbeliever’s side.

And how can they invalidate all of the evidence? My claim is that they are (possibly implicitly, perhaps without even being aware of it) judging the evidence by a standard that denies that certain lines of evidence can ever be valid. I observe that this invalid standard is basically naturalism: the belief that only the physical really exists (i.e., is a “substance”), that science is the highest form of knowledge, and that anything that cannot be validated by science can safely be assumed not to exist.

There are multiple problems with this attempt to make unbelievers the scapegoat for the lack of good Christian evidence. He gets the definition of “naturalism” wrong (straw man fallacy). Not all skeptics are naturalists (I’m not, for one). And the only thing needed for evidence to be scientific is that it must be objectively verifiable as being either true or false.

If you complain about the requirement that “evidence” be verifiable as either true or false, you are pretty much confessing that you want to believe evidence that is indistinguishable from falsehood. Otherwise, if it gave you any reliable way to distinguish true evidence from false, you wouldn’t need to speak so contemptuously of evaluating the evidence scientifically. Nor would you need to give the unscientific evidence priority over the scientific. Things that really are true in the real world do quite well under scientific verification.

There are, of course, some things science can’t ever verify, namely your subjective attitudes and feelings and fantasies and emotions. Science cannot tell you whether you like Twilight better than Harry Potter. Those are subjective truths, and they properly lie outside the domain of scientific inquiry. And if God is indeed merely a subjective fantasy, then it is true, science cannot evaluate Him.

Note that naturalism (a view you implicitly endorse) is a negative doctrine: it says that we must reject certain conclusions or possibilities that we would accept if we were not naturalists. Naturalism does not add new knowledge or possibilities, it takes them away. Thinkers who attempt to be rational (including myself) acknowledge that empirical and scientific evidence can be valid. What makes us different from you is that we do not falsely reject other forms of evidence a priori.

There are two kinds of evidence: those that can be measured against the standard of objective reality, to see if they are consistent with real-world truth or not, and those that cannot. All evidence of the first type is scientific. If you have “evidence” that does not derive from objective reality, and cannot be tested for consistency with objective reality, then objective reality cannot be the source for your evidence. In that case all you have to go on are the words of men. Unfortunately, there is a term for the practice of believing what men tell you, just because they tell you, in the absence of real-world consistency with the facts. That term is “gullibility.” It is no shame, therefore, to be different from those who do accept unscientific evidence.

My basic point is this: it is absurd and dangerous (not to mention invalid) to reject theistic evidence unless you have very good evidence for naturalism being true. Evidence should only be ignored if there is a good reason to ignore it. Atheists have the burden of proving that this rejection is valid, and they have not so far succeeded.

This argument would be fair IF naturalism were the only possible alternative to Christianity. Obviously, this is not the case. Realism, skepticism, and countless non-Christian religions (such as my own) provide a practically unlimited number of alternatives to Christianity. Sadly, once you admit the kind of subjective, unreliable, and unverifiable evidence that Prof. Roebuck favors, you can’t muster a consistent argument against any of the other religions being equally true. You’ve lowered the bar until virtually anything qualifies as “true,” and consequently you have no way to distinguish real truth from false “truth.”

And that, folks, is precisely why science insists on the higher standards of objectivity, reliability, and verifiability.

3 Responses to “Alan Roebuck and the nature of evidence”

  1. Hunt Says:

    I guess we have Plato to blame for the fact that idealism still holds such sway over our opinion. Plato convinced us that his ideas were more real than reality, and I don’t think we’ve ever recovered from it. It’s not easy to convince a person who believes, say, that the ideal of “perfect good” is more real than anything in the physical world, that his idea of God might have no substance to it. Once ideas become more real than things, anything is possible.

  2. pboyfloyd Says:

    Judging by where Mr. Roebuck’s original article was published, Intellectual Conservatives, I’m leaning towards the idea that he simply wants to demonstrate how easy it is to ‘tu quoque’ the notion of ‘The Courtier’s Reply’.

    “Christian’s assume God, you say, well, you assume materialism! Checkmate!”(not an actual quote)

    Now, no matter how we answer, what mountain of evidence we bring to bear, he can counter with his ‘mountain of evidence’.

    You can simplify it, “Where is HE then?”, but you’ll get back 100 books which boil down to, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

    A thorough rebuttal is met with, “But you’ve already been checkmated, this is fluff after the fact. Oh, It’s NOT? Prove that you’re not assuming materialism then?”

  3. Alan Roebuck Says:

    Thanks for giving a civil response. Most of my adversaries here have not been civil.

    You question my assertion that most public atheists are materialists, and my use of the word “naturalism” as a synonym for materialism. Most atheists argue as if they are materialists even if they have not formally decided that that’s what they are, and for most people naturalism is more or less equivalent to materialism. Naturalism is generally a more fully worked out system based on materialism. There may be a sophisticated difference, but it’s not germane to my basic point. My basic point is about what most atheists say publicly, which is to apply materialistic standards to all arguments and evidence.

    You call yourself a theist, but your definition of the god in which you believe does not make any meaningful contact with the generally accepted notions of deity. I would describe you as an unorthodox, colorful, atheist.

    Your position of skepticism appears to be basically materialistic even if you formally reject that doctrine. You say that evidence must be objective, reliable and verifiable. But what do you mean by these?

    For example, when Christians refer to the eyewitness testimony of the Apostles and others that Jesus of Nazareth was executed, dead and buried on one day but then alive three days later, you would presumably say that this evidence is not valid. But why not? I presume you accept the evidence of many other ancient eyewitnesses when they speak of other matters. Most likely, you regard the testimonies of the Resurrection as invalid evidence because you regard that sort of miracle as impossible (or at least unknowable) a priori. That is, you reject the evidence on the basis of a presupposition of materialism. It may not be a presupposition that you have clearly identified and subjected to rigorous analysis, but that’s what it boils down to. Most likely, you’re a practical materialists even if you don’t know it.

    And if that’s not why you reject the testimony of the Apostles, what is your basis for rejecting it? And even if you have other reasons, most public atheists reject it for exactly the reasons I have identified.

    The fact that a lot of bad evidence and arguments are given for God does not prove that none exists, unless you are covertly insisting on evaluating all evidence and arguments according to materialistic or skeptical standards. If you insist on a standard that will make proving God impossible then of course, God will be impossible to prove.

    So my main question returns: Have you any argument or evidence that materialism (or whatever your worldview is) is correct? And do you know how to evaluate worldviews? Do you know how to examine a lens to see if it is distorted, or must you accept whatever it appears to show?

    You said

    “And the only thing needed for evidence to be scientific is that it must be objectively verifiable as being either true or false.”

    Unless you are redefining the meaning of the word “science,” this statement is a covert acceptance of materialism. Contemporary science is at least functionally materialistic. But it is materialism that is being challenged (at least by me.) So far, my opponents refuse even to attempt to justify their materialism.

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