I could buy my own island resort if I got money for every time an atheist told me, “I would believe if only I had some evidence”. A few of them might actually mean this, but my experience tells me that most of these guys just throw this out as yet another smokescreen for unbelief. It is all bluff and bluster in other words, and they really have no intention at all of believing in God.
In this two-part article I provide some thoughts on the related issues of evidence, proof and the question of God. The first part will mainly deal with philosophical sorts of concerns, while the second part will deal with biblical and experiential matters.
Concerning the issue of evidence, it of course all depends on what exactly the unbeliever means by “evidence”. They usually seem to mean a sort of 100 per cent absolute proof which is required of almost nothing else in life. Indeed, except for some mathematical and geometric truths, we are largely left with only degrees of certainty in everyday life.
In deductive reasoning we can offer absolute proof. For example, two plus two will always equal four. A triangle will always have three sides. But little else can offer such fool-proof conclusions. Even when deductive reasoning is used, there is lots of room for challenges.
Logical arguments for and against God can be set up using deductive reasoning. But of course the premises can be challenged, so while the argument may be valid (following the proper syllogistic form), it may not be sound, if the premises are not true.
Inductive reasoning, on the other hand, offers only a high degree of certainty. This is basically how scientific proof operates. Scientists can rightly argue that the sun should rise tomorrow because the sun rises every morning and that has always been our experience thus far. But they cannot give an absolute 100 per cent proof or guarantee that it will rise tomorrow morning.
Indeed, very few things in life can be proven absolutely. At best we can have high levels of certainty for things that are really only just probable. We may be ‘certain’ that the car is still in the parking lot where we left it 10 minutes ago. But can we be 100 per cent sure? No, but that does not mean we must be left with raging doubt and scepticism.
The threshold for proof must be suited to the issue. We can have very strong confidence about something even though we may not have 100 per cent proof. I can be very confident that the chair I am sitting on will not collapse, but I cannot be 100 per cent sure about this. But I do not need to be. But if I am about to jump out of an airplane with a parachute, I will want a far higher level of certainty as to whether it will work. On the other hand, I cannot really prove to you that I had donuts for breakfast. But do I need to?
The truth is, there are different sorts of proof and different sorts of evidence. For example, there is historical proof, scientific proof, legal proof, and so on. Historical proof depends on artifacts, documents and the like from the past. The past cannot be repeated, so this differs from scientific proof, where you seek to repeat something.
Even legal proof is not 100 per cent certain, but relies on a high degree of probability. In courts of law there is talk of “beyond reasonable doubt,” not “beyond any possible doubt”. That is certainly not the same as 100 per cent proof.
Other terms heard in law courts are: “the preponderance of the evidence,” “a high probability,” and “a reasonable case,” and so on. Obviously if there are major consequences, such as the death penalty, then you want to have the highest possible probability of proof that can be achieved.
Furthermore, proof can come from different sources. It can come from that which is self-evident; or it can come from data from our senses; or from the testimony of experts; or from conclusions from other arguments, etc. All of these factors will lead to differing levels of certainty, proof and convincing evidence.
God, faith and proof
It should be clear from the above that in most aspects of life we rely on inductive reasoning, and we do not expect 100 per cent proof. We believe with a fair amount of certainty that the floor we walk on will hold us up, but we have a bit of faith thrown in as well. Past experience tells us that most floors are solid. So we do not test every step we take, or act very hesitantly. We go by past experience, and we take (literally) steps of faith.
We might be able to prove something to a level of, say, 85 per cent, but faith takes our certainty level to 100 per cent. So can we prove that God exists? Can we prove that God is good? Again, it depends on what you mean by proof. We cannot prove that God exists with the same degree of certainty that we can prove some mathematical proofs.
For example, science cannot prove God. But it cannot disprove God either. Science is about nature, while God is beyond nature. So God is not a proper field of study for science. But God still can be argued for. There are numerous bits of evidence that in a cumulative case can make a strong and convincing case for God.
The reliability of the Gospels, the consistency of the biblical accounts, the various archeological confirmations, and so on, can be appealed to. Various philosophical arguments can also be made. Together they make not a fool-proof case but a strong case that God exists, or that Jesus existed, and so on. High probability is the most we can ask for here. This is true with many other aspects of life.
Indeed, all philosophical debates can only deal with probability, not absolute certainty. Thus a good argument for God’s existence need not make it certain that God exists, just highly probable or likely. In the same way, the arguments for atheism can only be argued for with various degrees of certainty.
So the demand by atheists for “proof” or “evidence” needs to be carefully teased out before proper discussions can even commence. And other issues also need to be taken into account, such as the willingness of the sceptics to seriously follow the evidence wherever it may lead. But that is the subject of Part Two: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2010/03/23/evidence-proof-and-belief-part-two/