What is Evidence?

Scientific_Evidence_God is real(1)

I’ve been told, ad nauseum, that there is no evidence that God exists. Over the past few years, I’ve considered quite a few concepts of evidence, and asked a great many atheists, only to be left wondering what this statement actually means.

It’s actually fairly easy to summarize the matter. The definitions are as follows.

1. Evidence as any factual support

If the term “evidence” is to be applied to something non-physical, like God, I’d assume that we are using a broad definition. Such as “any fact counted in favor of a claim being true”.

The problem with that definition is that, by it, there is evidence for God’s existence. In fact, there is evidence for nearly anything. Certainly, the fact that science turned out a success after western monotheism’s prediction that the universe followed regular patterns is, on this view, evidence in its favor. The question wouldn’t be “is there evidence?”, but “is there sufficient evidence to accept the claim?”.

2. Scientific Evidence

I then considered the idea that the term “evidence” was being used in a stricter way. Such as is applicable to the physical sciences.

The trouble with this is that it is so obvious to most that this is simply bad reasoning. To claim that there is no physical evidence for the non-physical is hardly earth-shattering. And, in fact, it may not even be true. The evidence of the origin of the universe definitely counts in favor of the idea of the non-physical, even if it doesn’t in any way prove it conclusively.

3. Experience as Evidence

Trying to get back onto the topic of the non-physical, I briefly considered the idea that direct experience was being demanded. Of course, the prevalence of spiritual experiences made the claim of a lack of evidence untrue under this definition.

4. Evidence must be “Sharable”

Some have, in contrast, emphasized that experiences needed to be “sharable”. That is, testable by other people, in order to be considered evidence.

That struck me as simply pushing the problem back a step. If one demands that “testable by other people” means that a thing must be testable via the senses, then this is simply another claim that there is no physical evidence for the non-physical. If, however, one simply means that it must be experienced by others, the theists need only point out that it has been.

5. “Evidence” is for the theist to define

Mostly, the answer I get when I ask those who make this claim what is meant by “evidence” is even less helpful. The reply is generally a simple “you tell me”, followed by a rant about how theists can’t give an answer that they would accept.

Of course, it seems perfectly obvious why this might be: any answer that comes to mind undermines the claim being made. I wouldn’t expect someone making such a claim to be eager to accept any of them.

As such, I honestly have no idea what is meant by the claim that there is no evidence for God’s existence. And, to be perfectly honest, I doubt that most of the people making the claim have a terribly precise idea what it means. At least, that is what they’ve told me when I’ve asked.

As such, I don’t find the claim nearly so compelling as its proponents seem to expect. To me, “there is no (undefined term here) for God” doesn’t strike me as a reason to abandon my position.

4 responses to “What is Evidence?

  • mtemples

    Of course the proposition that there is no physical evidence of the non-physical is false. This may seem trivial but, for example, my living room wall that I am sitting next to is painted. This is evidence that someone painted it. But “someone painted it” is not physical – at least not physically present, though it was a physical event at some time in the past. But it only remains as an idea. Most evidence is only evidence of ideas, but ideas that have a physical basis. The past does not really exist – only the present exists – but we have ample evidence that the past existed, that what is now an idea was once physically present. The courts have rules of evidence, which are probably helpful here. When evidence is used to support ideas about ideas rather than ideas about physical presence, it is deemed either conjecture or hearsay, thus unacceptable as evidence.

    When you say “The evidence of the origin of the universe definitely counts in favor of the idea of the non-physical,” I’m not sure I understand what you mean. If you mean that there is evidence that points to the universe having an origin, I don’t see how that points to the non-physical. If you mean that the origin itself is evidence of something, then it’s confused. The origin itself is conjecture, not evidence. It may be evidence of something about those who conjectured it, but not evidence of anything physical or non-physical. That would be like saying the theory of evolution is evidence of evolution.

    What would constitute evidence of a transcendent god? I don’t know. As an atheist, I wouldn’t have a use for it. For believers, why should they need it – isn’t belief enough? The only possible uses I can see for godly evidence is either for believers to reassure themselves in their belief or for them to beat atheists with. So far, believers haven’t had much success with the latter, and let me tell you, no amount of subtle evidence would rock me. It would take a pretty grand display to make me think there was anything to supernaturalism.

  • Debilis


    I’m not sure I understand your dichotomy of “support of ideas about ideas” versus “ideas about physical presence”. Assuming I’ve read it correctly (which might be my first mistake), I have two difficulties with this.

    First, that this assumes that “ideas” and “physical presence” are the only two things in existence. That there is nothing else is exactly what the argument from a lack of evidence is trying to prove. It would be circular to assume it at the outset, then.

    The second is the claim “support of ideas about ideas” is simply conjecture or hearsay. Again, if one starts with this as an assumption, there’s no point in making any claims about a lack of evidence, since we’ve defined “evidence” to exclude anything but physical presence. Under this definition, some incarnation of God could float down from the sky, shoot lightning everywhere, create worlds in front of us, and this would count only as evidence of something physical or “hearsay”, not anything spiritual or supernatural.

    As to the origin of the universe, the fact that the universe has an origin is backed by a great deal of evidence. But, the origin of the universe implies the non-physical because the physical reality we experience began at that point (and so was caused by something else. This is not to say that the theory of an origin is evidence of an origin, it is to say that the fact that the physical universe has an origin is evidence that something else caused it.

    The concern over evidence is for those who are interested in the question. If one’s atheism or theism is presuppositional (simply assumed), one does not need to bother with evidence (or, indeed, any kind of rational inquiry). But I’m definitely not interested in beating atheists with anything (though I’ll admit to a desire for reassurance in my own beliefs), I’m only interested in those who are genuinely searching, and would like some straight-talk answers to questions like “why should one believe in God”.

    If you aren’t interested in that kind of consideration, I have neither the ability nor the desire to change your mind. I think you should be allowed your own views, as much as anyone else.

    On that note, best to you.

  • mtemples

    I take it that I have been dismissed from making comments on your blog. I will continue to read it on occasion, but will post any comments I might want to make on my own rather neglected blog: http://quartermere.wordpress.com/
    Evidence, and what may be known from it, are near and dear to my epistemologist heart. I have a dry writing style which I don’t mean to be confrontational, merely expository. But it gets taken the wrong way sometimes,

    • Debilis

      Apologies if it seemed that way! You haven’t been dismissed, nor did the thought remotely cross my mind. Rather, I loved your response, and was eager to give my thoughts in reply.

      I definitely have a point of view (as is obvious), but I’m not interested in this being a place of universal agreement. Please feel free to present your thoughts at any time. They are appreciated.

      So, apologies if I seemed angry or dismissive in that last comment. I did not mean to be at all.

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