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.

Divine injustice

Confusing signsA common atheistic argument is that any kind of divine judgement which requires people to have heard and believe a particular religion is unfair. This was in fact the first argument against religion that occurred to me as a teenager and set me on the road away from Christianity.

In response to this, in the plethora of comments which followed an article on de-conversion.com, a Christian called Joe advanced the following argument by analogy.

…if you won free tickets to Hawaii, but were told some others will not be going there because they refused the free tickets, would you give up your free ticket? Would you reject the free trip to Hawaii, even though you knew that the other people had been “offered” the same thing but rejected it? How lame and stupid would that be?

His analogy differs slightly from the commonly accepted ideas of the Bible. The tickets are offered but not accepted. This is different from Christianity, and most religions, which are not offered to everyone, because not everyone gets to hear about them.

During a discussion in a pub a Christian friend of mine recently made a similar argument. His version imagined the protagonist bobbing around in the water as the Titanic sunk. As a helicopter approaches and offers to pull them from the water, they wouldn’t say, “Hey, why aren’t you saving that guy too?”.

As is often the case in face to face debates, that sounded wrong to me, but I didn’t have an answer ready off the top of my head. However, on later consideration, the analogy of the helicopter rescue is flawed for a different reason. It would be unreasonable to complain that the helicopterHelicopter rescue is not rescuing everyone because the helicopter:

  1. Does not have the ability to do so.
  2. Does not claim to provide perfect justice.

Now it seems obvious that neither of those apply to any judgemental deity. Most monotheistic deities are generally considered omnipotent and at least in the case of the Christian God, having perfect judgement is reputedly one of his qualities. So when people question a doctrine that requires belief in a particular god for salvation, they’re asking “What kind of justice is that?”. They’re not just saying it’s unfair, they’re saying it’s unfair and yet it claims to be fair.

Responses to this usually invoke the ineffability of God – “God’s ways are not out ways” or “We cannot know the mind of God”. The trouble with those answers is if you go down that route then all bets are off. You might as well give up trying to understand anything about what God thinks or wants from us. Your guess would be as good as mine.

Neither of these contemporary examples are the first to use this line of reasoning. In Mere Christianity, C.S.Lewis says:

Here is another thing that used to puzzle me. Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him. But in the meantime, if you are worried about the people outside, the most unreasonable thing you can do is to remain outside yourself.

C.S. Lewis statueThere are several problems with this. I’m going to gloss over the “We knows” which assume the Bible’s accuracy. For the sake of brevity I’ll even ignore the Bible verses which do explain what the arrangements for the ominously-named “other people” are. In my opinion, the important issue here is this: A being claimed to dispense perfect justice appears to be monstrously unjust. It’s not justice to require that people chose the one true religion out of the many that exist and have existed, some of which many people will never hear about. Worse still the choice is made on pain of death or eternal damnation (depending on how you interpret the scriptures). Yet this being is supposed to be loving, just and omniscient. It casts doubt on the whole idea.

By saying it is unreasonable for us to worry about the people outside, Lewis seems to be trying to appeal to our selfish side. You don’t want to be on the outside, do you? It’s dark out there and well, we just don’t know what happens to people who get left out there. Stop fussing and come inside.

If this used to puzzle Lewis did he resolve it merely by ceasing to think about it? This doesn’t strike me as very intellectually honest. Simply suggesting that people should stop worrying about this issue is not addressing the argument.