Evidence, Proof and Belief – Part One

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: billmuehlenberg.com/2010/03/23/evidence-proof-and-belief-part-two/

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9 Replies to “Evidence, Proof and Belief – Part One”

  1. In my experience talking with unbelievers about the existence of God, I have found that when the apologetics are covered, their problem with God (& with his existence) is never due to a lack of ‘proof’, but it is always a personal moral problem.

    I remember 15 years ago having conversation with a young woman was a passionate greenie who was very vocal that there was no God and that Christianity was tosh. About 90 minutes into the coversaton she said this to me:

    “It is not that I cannot believe in God or in Jesus, I simply don’t want to believe in God. I want to live my life the way I want to”.

    It was a Romans 1:18 moment!

    Joshua Bovis

  2. What people don’t get is that the science of discovering whether Jesus is called God is called history.

    The historical evidence is ample, but somehow it’s always overlooked.

    Michael Hutton

  3. “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.”

    This is less certain than you think. Triangles are fine in Euclidean geometry but there are also non-Euclidean axiomatic systems where our intuitive Euclidean norms do not apply. All that is required is internal deductive soundness. Whether they actually describe anything physical is an external matter. They offer proofs but not necessarily contingent, material truths. So I don’t think an argument from this particular angle is relevant to arguments for the existence of God.

    Your claim that human reasoning is largely inductive and “iffy” is correct. It is also partly subconscious as can be seen when the solution to a teasing problem pops into your mind when you thought you had given up and were focused on something else. Deductive logic seems more to apply to the finished product when it is being checked for consistency and freedom from fallacy.

    Reasoning about God is of course inductive. You can see that in the analogies and metaphors that are used. But there is the problem of just how far you can go with an analogy before lapsing into incoherence when attempting to understand the ineffable. Not all thinking about God is reasoning. What are we to make of the claims of mystics?

    John Snowden

  4. I once heard a saying that:
    A man with an argument is no match for a man with an experience.
    I believe there is irrefutable proof of God’s Existence but it’s just like a bug sitting on a leaf. The bug sees the leaf as its world it may even see other leaves or twigs but it doesn’t consider the entire tree or the forest or the land or the earth or the solar and galactic systems. We have. We know our place in this dimension perhaps as far as the outer reaches of the solar system but we know there is more and we know we as human/animals are miniscule in the scheme of things.
    The body our robotic human structure is the temple of the Holy Spirit that carries us around and enables us to move around deduce, produce and conclude the structure around us. It is not us. Here’s a stupid suggestion look at your feet are they really who you are of course not but they are your transport.
    We know the structure of all around us is intricate and magnificent in it’s diversity but consider beyond this the stability of Gods immediate creation. We are just close enough to a star to maintain all we see and are. The earth’s magnetic field prevents harmful radiation from destroying us, the solar wind travels from the sun at a million miles an hour to a point in space at the outer reaches of our solar system beyond which it is depleted yet it protects our system from harmful gamma rays and others. Gradually it wanes yet is recharged every eleven years in the form of sunspot activity. Yes all this may one day decay but God is aware of that and has told us that one day there will be a new heaven and a new earth.
    Science has done none of this in fact science has not really produced anything that cannot already be found in the above environment. Science uses these building blocks to build all we think we need. Other than this Science merely finds occasional pieces of the jigsaw of God’s creation.
    For those who may be tempted by evolution consider this. Evolution is supposed to be the refinement of a species I.e. eventually to a form of perfection most suited to its particular environment. According to evolution we all came out of the primordial slime and when we did ascend from microbes to bugs etc we were or would have had to have been self replicating. So at what stage did evolution take a massive step backwards and decide that nearly all things would require male and female to reproduce and that a rather messy but enjoyable sexual conjunction would be required and how did we survive the transition?
    Of course there is hard evidence and proof of God it’s all around us but we are led by blind guides.
    In honesty it takes greater faith to believe in evolution and yes even science than it does to believe the hard evidence of God.
    Basically if we look back over time we have stopped being thinkers and have become deluded by the glitter of the man made consumables.

    There is none so blind as those who cannot see.

    Dennis Newland

  5. Although we hear about all sorts of fathers who neglect their role as parents but my experience is the many do not. And my view of this matter is simplistic.Most of us love and respect our fathers who usually do all that is needed for us especially when we are young. When we compare our Father God with our own faiher’s efforts they pale into insignificance. This is because of God’s grace in providing the means for us to make our way through life. His provision of Biblical guidance is beyond human comprehension and His enormous effort is that of the great Father. After all; why did he bother to do it anyway? Must have been for love and concern for us as feckless humans because without it our lives would be a very different.
    Peter Rice

  6. Bill you should really write more books, the stuff you write should not be kept from the public!

    Many thanks, Anthony Lichoudaris

  7. Hi Bill,

    We cannot disprove God, we can only disprove the arguments/evidence leading to a conclusion there is a God.

    Likewise we cannot disprove unicorns, we can only disprove the arguments/evidence leading to a conclusion there are unicorns.

    Ben Green

  8. Thanks Ben

    But you have not disproved any arguments about God’s existence here – just thrown out silly objections from the usual shallow atheist sources. Why not try some original thinking and real searching instead of relying on the same old tired atheist websites?

    And throwing out liberal Christian websites (as you do in your comment on part 2 of this piece) does not in any way make an argument. There is a ton of serious New Testament scholarship on all these issues, including the Gospel of Mark. The real question is, are you serious about learning truth and open to follow the evidence where it may lead, or is your mind already slammed shut, with have no intention of letting any counter-evidence sway you?

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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