Saturday, July 14, 2007

Thoughts on Atheism, Theism and Agnosticism, Part IV

I want to talk a little bit about who I think in the religion debate has the burden of proof.

I think if the debate between atheism and theism is strictly about the existence of a being called "God" or multiple beings, then it is up to the Theist to prove that such a being exists, since we are not born with any innate idea of one, and God does not automatically reveal itself to us in the way that the American landmass does. In that case, people in Africa or Eurasia could postulate about there being a landmass across the ocean and then go and find it, even if they have no direct information about it or experience of it.

However a group of atheists could not simply postulate the existence of a higher being and then find one. Travel to the top of Mount Olympus, and you will find no Gods, and look at satellite pictures of the space above the clouds, where we find no heaven. It is a much deeper question, requiring a different sort of evidence to be presented.

So what would be evidence of God's existence? If the burden of proof lies in the court of those trying to say there is exists an all powerful being who created the universe, then what would they have to produce in order to be accepted as right? I think this question is one that has not been settled in this argument between atheists and theists. Both sides need to agree to a set of criteria to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, the existence of God. This evidence would largely have to be of the miracle variety, since it would mean the suspension of all known laws of science that could easily explain away something possible giving the way that physics are known to work.

I think Bertrand Russell once said that if a voice came to him and predicted everything he was going to do exactly as it unfolded for the next twenty four hours, then he would believe in a supreme deity. Unfortunately that sort of evidence is very subject to one's individual bias, and though it make an individual atheist a theist, it would not be enough to convince the large numbers necessary to settle the debate for good, or at least the time being.

The web site Why Won't God Heal Amputees posits one sort of evidence, that if God exists and is all powerful, then he should be able to spontaneously regenerate the missing limbs of amputees. Why does this beat out curing cancer as a better proof of God's existence? because there are cases of cancer going into remission for unknown reasons, but there are no recorded cases of a lost leg or chopped off arm growing back in its entirety. Even more miraculous would be to regrow such a limb with every scar and tattoo in its proper place.

So could this work as definitive evidence? For the God that Christian Theists want, I think it is. After all, they posit a God who listens to prayers and is all loving, who rewards faith in this life and the next. If someone, say a child, who lost a limb by stepping on a land mine, something clearly not their fault, then their prayer should be heard, since I don't know anyone more religiously devout and afraid of God than children once they are told it exists, or more deserving since they are generally free of any major sin.

But it doesn't happen. It never has. though plenty of people have prayed I'm sure for their arms and legs back, and people have prayed for them, we have no cases of people regenerating their limbs. Could it happen? Yes (since it is not contradictory). And that is why it works as potential evidence for the existence of an omnibenevolent God. It has convinced me not to believe in such a being, since I have no seen its presence working separate from any explainable laws of psychology or physics.

For those who simply believe in God who is all powerful, it does not work. If such a miracle did happen, then of course one who believes in a God could always use it to support their proposition. But if such a miracle fails to happen, then they still are able to claim a defense, since they never made a claim about God answering prayers. All powerful and all loving are two separate properties, after all.

What then, is the evidence to prove God's brute existence? What is put forward are often philosophical explanations for the existence of God, which in turn make major assumptions about the nature of the universe. One important one comes up in the cosmological argument for the existence of God, the assumption the universe was created as opposed to being randomly generated, or that there was a start to it at all, versus thinking that the universe has always existed.

When one strips down the argument, this is what it boils down to, propositions about the origin of the universe. When the nature of the creator is put aside and the debate turns to there having been an act of creation, things become a little more complicated. In this area, in this debate, the burden of proof I think disappears, because all propositions about the nature of the universes start out equal. There is no talk of some being, but rather debate about philosophical properties. It becomes more about trying to convince someone that there is such a thing as cause and effect, or time, rather than the presence of absence of an invisible pink unicorn in the room.

One thing that those who believe in God have to show, not related to their burden of proof about the existence of God, is what difference God's existence makes in the world. Morality doe snot need God, and neither does science or philosophy. If the theists could show that their faith makes a difference in the world (and not form inspiring acts of charity)then I am willing to buy their propositions about the Universe, but as it is , feel that the existence or non-existence of god makes little difference except that if God exists then by definition, I could never have any free will, which might be pleasing to some.