Burden of Proof

In a Pharyngula comment, Walton lays out very clearly who has to do the proving when we’re talking about a god.

Matthew Segal said:

The sort of god PZ has decreed impossible to believe in has little in common with Augustine’s, or Plotinus’, or Aquinas’, or with any other great theologian’s God.Natural science is epistemically closed to theological issues, not because they are unreal, but because the scientific method “works” precisely because it allows the scientist to bracket such ultimate metaphysical concerns to focus in instead on some specific slice of the observable universe. But just because science does not and should not enter such metaphysical terrain does not mean it should remain unexplored.

There is no experimental test for God, and no rational proof, either.

[Walton replied:]

Define your terms here. What do you mean by “God”?

If we were just talking about a vague deistic conception of “God”, without making any concrete claims as to what “God” is or does, then I’d agree with you: that kind of “God” is empirically untestable and unfalsifiable, and therefore outside the epistemological scope of the natural sciences. I don’t see any good reason to believe that such an entity exists, but I can’t rule it out.

But the orthodox Christian conception of “God” is a lot more specific than this. It relies on a number of fairly concrete historical fact-claims: the claims that Jesus was a divine being, born of a virgin, physically resurrected from the dead and ascended into heaven. Further back, it also makes pretty strong claims about Yahweh’s active intervention in human history, and his deep concern with the lives and sexual practices of one small ancient Near Eastern civilisation. These aren’t vague metaphysical claims; they’re claims of material fact about actual history, and they therefore are empirically testable and need to be substantiated with empirical evidence. And the evidence just isn’t there. If we’re expected to take Christianity seriously, then Christians need to provide some more convincing material evidence for their historical claims.

The burden of proof is on those who make extraordinary claims: they must furnish extraordinary evidence. Otherwise, I see no reason why I should take the claims of orthodox Christianity any more seriously than I take those of astrologers, or those who claim to see ghosts or talk to the dead, or the man who claims to have lived several decades without water. Like those people, Christians make concrete fact-claims about actual events in the material universe, and they fail to substantiate those fact-claims with convincing evidence. That’s all there is to it.

[Matthew again:]

The veracity of God’s existence is revealed only to the sufficiently prepared subject. Knowing God depends upon a psychological movement, or the development of a higher organ of perception within the soul; it has little to do with outward or external evidence. All the traditional attributes assigned to God (all-good, all-powerful, all-present, all powerful, etc.) are merely the intellect’s feeble attempt to analyze/rationalize what is essentially a unified transrational reality.

This sounds to me like a very wordy way of saying “I know there’s no evidence, but I really really want to believe it anyway”. Without having furnished any convincing reason to believe in the existence of (your conception of) God, how can you possibly know that your “higher organ of perception within the soul” and “unified transrational reality” aren’t figments of your imagination? The human mind has a considerable and demonstrated capacity to delude itself: which is why, in life, we rely on reason and evidence, rather than our own perceptions and gut instinct, to differentiate truth from falsehood.

Posted in religion. Tags: . 1 Comment »

One Response to “Burden of Proof”

  1. Alan Says:

    “The veracity of God’s existence is revealed only to the sufficiently prepared subject.”

    Any prospective subject can easily prepare by taking dimethyltryptamine.

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