I wonder if one of my favorite writers, Robert Ringer, fully understands the nature of the burden of proof, the difference between seeing and detecting, and how and when we are justified to infer causes that we cannot directly observe.
In “Now You See It, Now You Don’t,” an essay distributed to his email list that will probably be posted at some point at his web site, Ringer writes:
“Atheists argue that because you can’t see God, that’s proof (or at least strong circumstantial evidence) that He doesn’t exist. I can certainly see where it’s reasonable to draw an inference that God does not exist based on the fact that no one has ever seem Him. However, in his book The Universe in a Single Atom, the Dalai Lama makes an equally reasonable case for the opposite point of view.
“He suggests that just because you can’t see something, that is not proof, in and by itself, that it does not exist. In other words, invisible phenomena such as mental telepathy strongly support the idea that there’s a whole lot more to life than the material world we are able to see.
“The Hubble Telescope project would appear to give solid backing to the Dalai Lama’s position. Hubble scientists long ago discovered that not only is all matter moving away from all other matter at unfathomable speeds, but those speeds are actually accelerating. Thus, the scientific evidence has forced them to conclude that there is an invisible force in the universe that is greater than the gravitational pull of all matter in the universe combined.
“In fact, there are many things that we know exist, through firsthand experience, even though we cannot see them. We know that wind exists, but we can’t see it. We know that sound waves exist, but we can’t see them. We know that air exists, but we can’t see it (though we can see foreign particles in the air, which is an entirely different matter).”
1. Mental telepathy? What’s that? Does it have something to do with beaming your thoughts into the brain of another without any discernable method of communication like speech or facial twitches, nor any means of intuiting the thoughts of another like long familiarity or shared past? If there were in fact no actual means of transport, how in fact would the thoughts travel between the two minds? What is the actual evidence for telepathy, and will scam-buster James Randi be allowed to test the claim under properly controlled conditions?
I haven’t read Mr. Lama’s book. But it is strange that Robert Ringer cites “invisible phenomena such as mental telepathy” as if the reality of said phenomena were self-evident, so obvious as to immediately illuminate rather than becloud his musings. I can agree that we often infer the existence of thoughts and feelings within the minds of others even though they are physically invisible to us. We are conscious of our own consciousness, and we can observe the sundry manifestations of the consciousness of others. Such manifestations include speech, writing, thumbs-up signs, sex, television watching, etc. But none of this inferential process has anything to do with “mental telepathy.”
2. What is the relationship between “sight” and “the five senses”? Could it be that the sense of sight is one of a panoply of five senses with which most human beings are equipped? Could it be that, even though we’re not able to see it, we can perceive the wind by means of our other five senses? For example, by hearing it and feeling it? Might the wind be detectable by instruments and by the movement of the items that the wind affects? Do we not possess sensory means of observing the fluttering of a gauge or the flattening of a shack? One suspects that Ringer would immediately assent to these points. But by sidestepping relevant considerations he is drawing a parallel to allegedly reasonable warrants for mystical belief that he is not entitled to draw.
3. What is the relationship between perception of a phenomenon and perception of evidence of a phenomenon? Perhaps, that both require perception? There is no need to delve into specialized scientific debates to understand our ability to infer the existence of things that we cannot perceive directly. We don’t, for example, need to witness a murder to know that one occurred; we do need to see the corpse. Nor need we witness our own birth, or the births of others, to know that such births must have occurred. We do need to see something of the consequences of such births.
4. Can an atheist make a firmer claim about the state of the evidence for the existence of a God than simply that we cannot see a God, “just as” we cannot see the wind? Yes. He can say that there is no credible evidence whatever for the notion of a God–none at all, none of any kind. And he can further note that he is not logically obliged to “prove” that an unsubstantiated fantasy does not exist in order to be fully justified in abstaining from believing in that fantasy.
One can only offer evidence for positive claims about reality. One can’t offer any evidence for the nonexistence of things that don’t exist. Proof is about pointing to things in reality that support one’s conclusion. Things that exist either can be pointed at directly, or leave traces that can be pointed at. Things that don’t exist not only can’t be detected by the senses, but also leave no detectable traces. Nonexistent things exert no impact on reality. They don’t exist. They’re not there. There are no footprints of nonexistent things that are characteristic of nonexistent things and that can be cited as proof of their nonexistence. There is no indentation of a certain depth that could lead a sober investigator to cry, “Aha! We are dealing with a nonexistent entity here! Only things that don’t exist leave prints exactly .042 centimeters deep!”
Things that don’t exist leave no footprints, therefore the insistence that one point to such footprints as proof of the nonexistence is unreasonable, a kind of epistemological shell game. All the atheist need do to justify his lack of belief is show that none of the alleged “evidence” of a God actually holds water. The point might be easier to grasp if one considers fantasies one does not already unreasoningly believe in. Few advocates of the God hypothesis hold out for the hypothesis about the invisible naked fairy princesses with a limp breakdancing on Mars. Yet the amount of evidentiary support for each proposition is identical, i.e., zero.
What they consider to be evidence
Of course, for many theists, the wind itself constitutes “evidence” of a Supreme Being, just as all phenomena constitute evidence of one. “How could we even have all this stuff surrounding us–and so well-designed too–unless there were a God? If the universe hadn’t been created by such a being (an all-powerful being with good design instincts), the universe couldn’t exist.”
One need only inquire who then created and designed God to expose the futility of this alleged proof. Certainly if evolutionary forces aren’t enough to explain the intricacies of the birds and the bees, the God who confected them would be surpassing wondrous enough in constitution to require a maker to explain his own existence as well. And that back-creator would be more stupefying still in his creative abilities, requiring some sort of further causal explanation. That way lies infinite regress. In any case, any uber-creative factor would already have had to be in existence itself in order to do anything, and hence could not have created the whole of existence from scratch. So what is gained by fabricating an undetectable yet magically omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent Factor X or supernatural overlord? Why not simply accept the universe as a given, which must have always existed in some form or another, some aspects of which we can understand, some of which we cannot, at least not yet?
All the “evidence” provided for the existence of God is of just this character, some easily ripped tissue of fallacy. What it comes down to in the end is mere faith, mere belief, despite the lack of any evidence for the belief. It comes down to a feeling. Well, people believe an awful lot of things, many of them mutually contradictory, based on their strong feelings. What you need to justify substantive claims is evidence. Evidence and reasoning. This requirement does not injure but rather greatly assists the attainment of moral values and personal meaning. The evidence of the senses is the sine qua non, what gets the ball rolling.