Evidence Yes, But Evidence For What?

shoesDuring my catch-up reading I came across an observation made some time ago by Deacon Duncan at Evangelical Realism that got me thinking.

This is the old superstition vs. science dilemma, the fellow who says shoes are made by elves in a hollow tree, and then cites the existence of shoes as evidence that elves are real.

Phrased like that it is easy to see the error in the reasoning. Yes, shoes could be evidence of elves, but there are other, less fantastic, possibilities and we should consider these first. When the example is elves, most people will be willing to look critically at the claim and see through it. Those with a sense of irony and a knowledge of rhyming slang may even describe it as “Cobblers“!

Nevertheless, this kind of fallacy appears surprisingly regularly. For example, consider the patterns sometimes found in fields, known as crop circles. Often these can only be fully appreciated from the air and seem to describe the shape of some kind of complex craft. While some crop circles are created by people making no unusual claims about them, others are claimed as evidence of alien visitors. In my view it’s far more likely to be evidence of mischievous earthlings.

When a patient improves after having taken some previously untested treatment or medicine, is that evidence that the treatment is working or that their immune system is doing its job? In cases like these it can be hard to tell, so thorough clinical trials are needed, involving more than one patient, placebo controls, etc.

Similarly, the creationist website, allaboutcrreation.org makes this popular claim:

Where is the proof of God? If we’re willing to open our eyes, we’ll see the fingerprints of God all around us and all throughout us. Our very existence proves the existence of a Creator God.

270px-CropCircleWI’m sure most of us have seen religious people point to a beautiful flower and say, “There! That’s evidence that God exists!”. Again, this could be evidence of a great many things, including the symbiotic relationship between flowering plants and insects which are attracted by bright colours and floral scents. The fact that we as humans think that the flower is beautiful may be evidence that we are adapted to appreciate a fertile ecosystem and the fruits that it can bring.

Even the Bible has some of this kind of gargantuan jump, in reverse from what they are trying to establish – the existence of a god, to a piece of alleged evidence, as in Romans 1:20:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

I think that verse could be rephrased to be clearer about the leap of logic it’s making. Anyone care to make a suggestion?

In all cases it seems we are in danger of leaping to a conclusion that is not necessarily the cause of the evidence we’re seeing. The solution is perhaps to imagine several possible causes and try to understand why we should prefer one over the others.

6 thoughts on “Evidence Yes, But Evidence For What?

  1. The fact that we as humans think that the flower is beautiful may be evidence that we are adapted to appreciate a fertile ecosystem and the fruits that it can bring.

    Richard Dawkins spoke of this clearly last night on the Colbert Report. He pointed out also that beauty in the opposite sex is part of natural selection, survival, and ultimately evolution–my wording not his.

  2. Thanks Lorena, yes it is a well used argument, which I guess means it needs to be addressed frequently!

    I haven’t seen the show, but I heard that in true Colbert style he talked over the top of Dawkins, so perhaps the show was less informative than it could’ve been?

  3. You couldn’t be more right. Colbert was even more intrusive than usual. I’ve always thought that he was a closet atheist, but last night Dawkins could hardly put a word in. He’s such a good sport, though, that he weathered the storm really well. He used every opportunity to put in a witty comment.

    It doesn’t matter, though. Given the type of people who watch the show, it was a win-win situation, I suppose. All Dawkins has to do is announce that a new book is out.

    BTW, thank you for linking to the definition of Cobblers.

  4. I caught the Colbert epidsode last night too. It’s fascinating the amount of things that evolution can account for. Currently reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond. It’s especially fascinating what evolution tells us about ourselves.