Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Verdict That Demands Evidence

When it comes to claims that the Scriptural accounts of the Supernatural show that Scripture cannot be reliable, I am always struck by the "matter of fact" way it is stated by certain individuals, as if it is proven and anyone who says otherwise is clearly "ignorant," "behind the times" or otherwise "not rational."

Yet, when I begin to ask questions about the basis which they use to justify such claims, I find there is in fact no evidence.  Instead, terms come up like "well no, I can't prove it, but it seems more probable."

In other words, we have an assertion which is unproven.  We have a verdict with no evidence to establish it.


[A note for those who do not think this way: Yes I am aware that not all people argue this. However, I am dealing with the argument of those people who do make these assertions]

The Logical Form of the Objection

First of all, lets put the argument into a syllogism. 

While the ways the argument is expressed do vary depending on the speaker, the logical form of the argument tends to be consistent in running as follows:

  1. No [Supernatural] is [True] (No [A] is [B])
  2. Some [Scripture] claims [Supernatural] (Some [C] is [A])
  3. Therefore Some [Scripture] is not [True] (Therefore Some [C] is not [B])

The syllogism is a valid form, so whether or not the conclusion is true depends on whether the premises are true.  The minor premise is indeed true.  While some parts of the Bible do not speak of supernatural things (for example the genealogies) other parts certainly do (God interacting with man for example).  So ultimately whether or not the syllogism proves the conclusion depends on whether the major premise is true.

This is where we run into problems…

Is "No [Supernatural] is [True]" a statement proven true?

I've discussed this before in past blogs, but I think it should be considered here.  To say "No [A] is [B]" requires us to know everything about [B] to be sure that there is no [A] in any part of it. 

[Note: The Euler circles in these diagrams should not be considered drawn to any "scale"]

 euler-circle-1 (Figure 1: If we want to assert this…)

If we do not know all parts of [B], we cannot be sure there is some part of [A] which is inside it.


(Figure 2: …We need to know all about that which is in the section [??] to know there is no [A] in it)

The one who asserts no supernatural is true [Figure 1] needs to be sure that the part of section [B] marked [??] (representing what we do not know) contains no part of [A].  However the nature of something being unknown is we don't know it is.  So a person claiming that something does not exist which falls within the realm of what we do not know is presumptuous to say the least.


Can We Be Sure We Know What is in Section [??]

Probability about the unknown based on what we do know can only go so far.  In some areas knowledge of what we know can lead us to suppose with reason what is most likely to happen.  "The sun rose yesterday, the sun rose today, the sun will rise tomorrow" is a pretty safe bet based on the assumption that there are no conditions that will change to make this statement false.  However, if there is some undetected flaw in the sun which makes it go nova tomorrow, then the statement would be false.

I discussed this in an article on the discovery of the existence of the Americas.  When there was no knowledge of the existence of the American continents, it seemed probable to assume that there was no land between Europe and Asia travelling West.  There was no evidence of any land mass, and a person who assumed that the unknown portion of the globe was more of the same as the known portion of the globe would not have been considered unreasonable.

However, when it came to knowledge of the globe in 1491, the knowledge which was not known [??] showed to be false the assumptions that what was unknown could be deduced from what was known.

The Importance of The Qualifier "IF"

This is why we need to be careful in stating something absolutely when it deals with the unknown.  Physical proof of things are limited.  So long as what we know is accurate, a statement can be made.  However when something we think we know is inaccurate then even if there is no physical evidence which we know of to contradict it, it is still wrong.

This is why, when dealing with the unknown, we need to qualify our statements with IF.  "IF assumption [X] is true, then conclusion [Y] seems to follow from it."  Using IF recognizes that what we think is true follows from what we observe but we do not know whether there is a condition where it could be false.

As an example, it is generally assumed by science [or at least was assumed when I was in college] that nothing can exceed the speed of light.  As I understand it, nothing has been observed to exceed the speed of light [though I understand there is some dispute about tachyons], and Einstein's law is still considered to be true.  So when we say "Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light" we generally have the unspoken condition "assuming there is nothing which exists that disproves this."  We have evidence for it, and so far no evidence against it.

Does the Continual Observance of a Condition Mean There can be no Other Conditions?

Because some things can be discovered which disproves what was understood to be universally true.  In ancient times, "No swans are Black" was once used as an example of what could be universally true… until black swans were discovered.  The problem with the assumption was: No matter how many white swans were seen, this did not prove this was universally true, and the first sighting of a black swan showed this assumption was false.

Remember though that even before the first black swan was spotted, the claim "No swans are black" was false, even if science of the time could not verify it.

Applying this to the Rejection of the Existence of God

Ultimately the invoking of science to say God does not exist is based on the assumption that what we can know from science is all there is to know.  However, if this assumption is false, then even qualifiers like "most likely" are still wrong.  If God does exist, and science cannot detect the existence of God, then it does not matter how many claim that knowledge of science "makes God unnecessary."  We have no evidence for the proposition that "God does not exist." 

So whether or not that claim is true, it cannot be said to be proven true or even "most likely" true from knowledge of science (See the section "Empirical Knowledge and Empiricism" below).


On Scientific Knowledge and its Limits

Science has made numerous advances, and things (such as cells) which were once considered to be completely simple have been shown to be more complex than had been thought in previous centuries.  Atoms which used to be considered the smallest level of unit beyond which it could not be divided again were discovered as possible to split.

Science has also showed that certain things were impossible.  Alchemy was once considered a science, with the desire to transmute lead to gold.  Expanded knowledge of Science showed that this sort of thing was not possible, especially not at the level where those who studied it were attempting to change it. 

So certainly science does have value in showing how the physical world works.  The problem is when one assumes that what we can learn from science is all we can know.

Science and Scientism

While science is defined as:

the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.

(Soanes, C., & Stevenson, A. (2004). Concise Oxford English dictionary (11th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press).

we need to recognize that what it is qualified to speak on is also what it is limited to speak on.  It can only observe and experiment on things in the physical and natural world.  If anything exists which is not within the physical and natural world, science cannot observe it or experiment on it.  It would be useless to appeal to science if something exists which science cannot now, or in the future, observe.

This is where we need to draw the line between Science and scientism.  The two differ on the grounds that the latter is not science, but a belief that only what can be observed by science exists.

Scientism claims what is shown in Figure 3, that we can [eventually] know from science all things which exist:


(Figure 3: This is what Scientism assumes, but…)

However, if what science can discover is not equal to what exists, then the claims of scientism are false.  If the situation looks like Figure 4, then there are things which Science cannot comment on


(Figure 4… if the situation is more like this, it shows limits to science)

The problem is, since we do not know that the ratio of things which exist to things science can discover is in fact 1:1.  If "All [A] is [B]" is the assertion, any part of [A] which is not part of [B] makes the assertion false…whether we know it is true or not.

So ultimately, claims that Science will eventually explain miracles or show God does not exist assumes that nothing exists which Science cannot discover eventually. 

Empirical Knowledge and Empiricism

However, this assumption begs the question: How do we know only that which is physical/natural exists?  The assumption is that only empirical knowledge exists.  If there is more knowledge than empirical knowledge, then this assumption is false.

Empirical knowledge can be defined as: knowledge based on, concerned with, or verifiable by observation or experience rather than theory or pure logic.  Empiricism is defined as: the theory that all knowledge is based on experience derived from the senses.  The difference between the two is that the first is in fact a true source of knowledge.  The second is a philosophy which assumes only Empirical knowledge exists.

Flaws with empiricism can be shown in two ways.

First of all, the concept of Empiricism cannot be demonstrated by empirical knowledge alone.

Second of all, there are more ways to gain knowledge than through empirical knowledge.  Consider this scenario:

A friend and I share an apartment with a table and two chairs.  My friend tells me he has invited some guests over, and he is going to get two more chairs so that everybody who will be present will have a chair to sit on, I use reason to show that if there are two of us and two chairs, and he intends to get two more chairs so everyone present will have a chair to sit on, then by use of reason I know that, assuming he spoke accurately, he has invited two guests and there will be four of us.  I don't have to ask my friend how many people are invited to empirically learn this information before I can know it.  This is known as philosophical knowledge, which is based on reason and not on the senses.

Yet Another Form of Knowledge: Revelation

There is a third form of knowledge, which is real, but cannot be known through reason or through observation, but only through being informed by another.

I'm no scientist.  I take the word of the scientist that E=MC2 is correct because I cannot establish the truth or falseness of the claim on my own but the scientist is seen as a reliable witness.  He reveals to me what I could not understand on my own.

Another example could be a man seeks to court a woman and wishes to give her a gift which would be meaningful to her.  He cannot by science or reason deduce what she likes.  However, perhaps the woman's roommate tells the man that the woman would love a single red rose and loves Pachelbel's Canon in D.  If the man rejected the roommate's knowledge based on Empiricism or claimed such information was Irrational he would be ignoring a valid source of knowledge.

All of us depend on another to reveal to us in one way or another knowledge we need but have no way of figuring out on our own.  Doctors examine us when we are ill and tell us we need to change our lifestyle or we could wind up making it worse.  Friend's tell us how to get to "Bill's house."  Things we cannot know by our own resources can be reliably transmitted to us by one who knows.

This kind of knowledge is called Revelation: the revealing of something previously unknown.  We cannot know this on our own, but we believe the one who reveals it to us is trustworthy.


If God exists, and is omniscient, it stands to reason such a being would have knowledge we could not know on our own.  If this being chose to reveal His knowledge to us, we would have to consider whether the source of knowledge was trustworthy, because we would not be able to verify it through observation.

Does this mean we have to hold it on ipse dixit?  No.  When a person tells us a thing, we need to consider the source.  If a person tells us a thing, the question becomes whether the person is a credible witness. 

Lying, Insane or Telling the Truth?

Consider the following [fictional] examples:

Example #1: Mel, the town drunk, claims to have been abducted by aliens.  He claims they did some "things" he can't quite remember.  He can't remember when it happened, but he remembers waking up on the side of the road naked and a medical examination shows he was drunk at the time.  If we know he has often blacked out, confused dreams for reality and has been found passed out on the side of the road in various forms of undress in the past, we might not consider him reliable.

Example #2: Fred is considered a level headed man, a hard worker and a person who speaks the truth and does not lie… a person of integrity in other words.  He claims to have been abducted by aliens and gives an account which seems to be consistent, mentioning the times it had happened.  A medical examination shows him to have been shaken by the event, but he shows no signs of mental impairment or derangement.  In this case we would have to consider some things.

If Fred in this case was considered a reliable person who was honest and ethical, we would have to ask:

  1. How well do we know the universe?
  2. How well do we know Fred?
  3. Is Fred irrational, easily deceived or given to lying?

If we know Fred well, and we don't know the universe well enough to know that aliens can't exist we have to ask which is more logical: Is he lying, insane or telling the truth?  If we can see he was not mentally impaired and we know he does not behave in a dishonest manner, we have to decide what we believe.

A priori Assumptions or Objective Evaluations?

In the example #2 above, we either have to decide that Fred is trustworthy or else we have to base our conclusion on our a priori (based on theoretical deduction rather than empirical observation) assumption that "aliens can't exist" and therefore he must have been lying or impaired but we couldn't detect it.

This would be a verdict yes, but it would not be an objective evaluation, but based on the belief aliens cannot exist.  Now based on what we know of the universe, extraterrestrial life is not something we can prove exists.  It may be true, but based on the evidence we have we cannot prove it true.  Neither can we prove it does not exist.  We can decide we think it more probable to think they do or do not exist, but we cannot claim it is "scientific" to hold one view.  If someone were to attack the opponent's view, claiming there were no aliens, it may be true or false, but if one wanted to say the other was unscientific, there would be no evidence to justify that. 

Likewise, when it comes to people, like the Apostles, who claim that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and rose from the dead, the people who reject it do not do so from evidence of lying or of derangement, but from a belief that: the supernatural cannot exist, the Apostles could not have experienced what they claimed, therefore they were lying or insane or deceived.  That's not objective evaluation.  That's ideology.

[In case you're wondering, I hold no beliefs on the existence of aliens.  There is no empirical evidence they exist, and even if they do, given the possibility of vastly different technology levels and the vastness of space, even if they do exist, there is no guarantee we would ever be able to discover them.  I would say however that the absence of empirical evidence is not "proof" they do not exist.]


"Back to the Beginning"

Thus we are back to the beginning: The claim that anything which cannot be discovered by science does not exist [or, more mildly, "most likely does not exist"].  The problem is, such a claim cannot be made as a proven statement because it lacks evidence.  The claim "No [Supernatural] is [True]" is entirely based on the ipse dixit of the person who believes it.

Now, does this mean that both believers and unbelievers are both proclaiming an ipse dixit when it comes to a claim which cannot be verified empirically and we have no way of knowing which is correct?  No.  When a person makes a claim, we have to ask ourselves what they say and whether they are credible.  What is credible may not be determined by empirical knowledge alone

Using the Right Tool for the Job

Christians believe that the witness of those who knew Jesus Christ is credible.  Objections to such claims can be examined.  Claims based on empirical knowledge can be looked into empirically.  Claims based on philosophical knowledge can be studied for logical flaws.  Claims based on revealed knowledge require an analysis of the one who reveals.  But one doesn't evaluate philosophical claims with empirical knowledge.  One uses the right tool for the job, and using the wrong tool means the job fails.

It is one thing to say "I don't believe in the credibility of the witness" (though such a statement would need to be backed by evidence if one wanted to establish it as anything other than a personal opinion).  It is quite another to say things like "God does not exist" or "The Supernatural does not exist" and claim that such a statement has its basis in empirical knowledge.

To make such a claim is to give a verdict that demands evidence… evidence which does not exist and cannot exist due to the nature of empirical knowledge.

No comments:

Post a Comment