What evidence were you expecting, anyways?

The atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell was famously asked what he would say if after he died he found himself standing before the God in whose existence he did not believe, and God asked him, “why didn’t you believe in me?” Russell’s reply was, “not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence!”

I was having a blog debate with an atheist not long ago. The atheist said, “after centuries of theism and all of the searching we’ve done without finding any evidence, I think we’re justified in discarding religion and moving on.”

In my response, I conceded that we can be justified in disbelieving the existence of some entity E if we expect certain kinds of evidence in the case of E’s existence, and after thorough investigation that evidence does not turn up. I then asked the atheist what evidence he was expecting to find in the case of God’s existence which had not turned up.

Being the good sport that I am, I offered a couple of suggestions for him to consider while formulating his answer. For starters, I said, if God existed we might expect to find that the universe had a beginning rather than finding that the universe had always existed. Hey, wait a minute. According to a considerable amount of evidence that cosmologists have discovered, the universe did have a beginning. That’s pretty interesting when you think about it, since according to the First Law of Thermodynamics (also known as the Law of Conservation), matter can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed into energy (and vice-versa). So if there is no God, we might well expect that the universe had always existed. In fact, that was the dominant view among cosmologists in the early part of the 20th century before the Big Bang theory became widely accepted.

Another bit of evidence that we might anticipate if God existed is evidence of design in the structure of the universe itself (as opposed to it being a haphazard jumble). Again, the evidence for design based on the fine-tuning of the universe for life is extremely well documented. The structure of the universe both in terms of the values of the fundamental constants of physics and the initial conditions at the very first moment of the universe’s existence had to be within a staggeringly small range in order for life to exist. Even the skeptic Fred Hoyle was so impressed by this cosmic fine-tuning that he remarked that it appeared that a superintellect had monkeyed with the physics, as well as with chemistry and biology. He further commented that the numbers were so overwhelming “as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.” Since Hoyle wrote that statement, the list of “anthropic coincidences” (those values that are necessary for a life-sustaining universe) has continued to grow longer.

My atheist interlocutor never did answer the question as to what evidence he expected to find in the case of God’s existence that hadn’t turned up. That seemed a little odd to me. If you’re going to conclude that there is no evidence for something, I think you should have some idea of what evidence you might expect. I wonder what Bertrand Russell would have said in answer to that question. Maybe after he died he did say to God “not enough evidence!”, I don’t know. If so, I can imagine God saying in response, “what evidence were you expecting, anyways?”

The Unexplained

Some people are more curious than others. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing I don't know. But many people are interested in unexplained phenomena, and Live Science today carried an article on the "Top Ten Unexplained Phenomena". I like what it says on the opening of the slideshow: "Science is powerful but it cannot explain everything." Sounds like something I could have said myself!

A couple of the items were a bit of a surprise to me, like the #1 item: the Taos Hum. While it's something I've maybe heard of once or twice it probably wouldn't make my top ten list. I don't know if they're supposed to be in any particular order or not, but it was a bit of a surprise. If you don't what it is, you'll have to check out the article!

The ones that were most interesting to me were the Mind/Body problem (although interestingly they called it the "Body/Mind Connection" - perhaps a bit of materialistic bias there?) and near-death experiences (NDEs). Interestingly, NDEs was one of the factors that led former atheist Patrick Glynn to believe in the existence of God in his book, God: The Evidence. He cited studies that showed that the features of some NDE experiences simply could not be plausibly explained naturalistically, and the reluctance of some atheists to accept the evidence appeared to be more indicative of their anti-supernaturalistic prejudice rather than good reasons. Some people falsely believe that NDEs have all been satisfactorily explained scientifically, but that's just not the case. The mind/body problem is another area where materialistic researchers seem to be looking for love in all the wrong places. But die-hard materialism dies hard.

It was interesting to see that Bigfoot is on the list, but not the Loch Ness Monster. It seems to me like it's been a long time since the last reported Bigfoot sighting, but maybe I haven't kept up. I'm also not sure when the last reported sighting of "Nessie" was. What most people who aren't from British Columbia probably don't know is that we have our own version of Nessie, affectionately known as the "Ogopogo". The Ogopogo is rumored to live in Lake Okanagan, a beautiful lake in the Okanagan valley. Tricia and I took our honeymoon there, and still have a stuffed Ogopogo that we bought on that trip.

In a recent online debate with an atheist on the evidence for the Resurrection, he employed what I now refer to as the "Bigfoot defense." The apostles claimed to have seen Jesus, but so what? People have claimed to see Bigfoot also, so that proves that eyewitness testimony is unreliable.

I pointed out to him the many problems with his argument. First of all, this argument could be used to invalidate any eyewitness testimony of anything, which would basically undermine most of the judicial system as well as almost all historical inquiry. Eyewitness testimony, to put it bluntly, is the foundation of almost everything we know. Even scientific truths are based on eyewitness testimony. A scientist observes some phenomenon, he writes down his observations, develops a hypothesis to explain it, and so on. But it all starts with eyewitness testimony of some event.

Another problem, of course, is that the evidence for Bigfoot has absolutely no connection to the evidence for the Resurrection. It's not a legitimate argument to say, "people say they've seen Bigfoot and there is no Bigfoot (although he didn't say how he knew that), so therefore there was no Resurrection". In logic this is called a non sequitur, meaning it "does not follow". The conclusion does not follow from the premise. In this case it does not follow in any sense of the term.

The evidence for Bigfoot sightings that I've seen (granted, it hasn't been a big area of study for me) are always brief glimpses from a distance. There are a couple of reported films I guess, but it's hard to prove if they're authentic. By contrast, the disciples reported many encounters with Jesus after his Resurrection, which included personal interaction on multiple occasions with individuals and groups over a period of forty days. At least some of the apostles were put to death for their faith in the risen Christ, and some traditions report that all of them except for John were martyred, all without changing their stories or renouncing what they said they had seen. The evidence is just of a totally different quality.

Skeptics use a similar form of argument against the Resurrection by saying there are no UFOs, or no fairies, or no whatevers (I noticed ghosts were on the top 10 list of unexplained phenomena also along with UFOs, making it quite an interesting grab bag), so therefore there was no Resurrection either. Again, these are non sequitur forms of argument. The evidence for the Resurrection has to be taken on its own merits. It can't simply be swept under the rug along with everything else that the skeptic has decided not to believe in.

I also can't figure out why skeptics are so against Bigfoot and Nessie, or the Ogopogo. These are not reputed to be supernatural beings, but just different species which perhaps haven't been discovered yet (or have they?). Nessie and Ogopogo could be members of some family of "living dinosaurs." Why not? Scientists have discovered other species which were thought to have been extinct for millions of years, like the famed coelacanth. Actually, my favorite Ogopogo legend says that there is actually an underground waterway that connects Lake Okanagan and Loch Ness in Scotland, and that the two creatures are one and the same. Well, that would explain why sightings are so rare, what with all that time spent swimming in between British Columbia and Scotland. That's enough to wear any sea monster out!

Near Death Experiences

We've all heard stories of people who have died and have been resuscitated, and afterwards have told of what they experienced while they were dead. These experiences often include things like travelling through a tunnel towards a pure white light, seeing deceased loved ones, and going to heaven. These experiences are often called near-death experiences, or NDEs.

Skeptics dismiss such stories as the effect of oxygen deprivation on the brain or some such thing. While some NDEs will admit of such an explanation, there persist in the literature some NDEs which defy natural explanation. As I mentioned in my post on the Unexplained, NDEs were one of the factors that led former outspoken atheist Patrick Glynn to abandon his atheism and believe in the existence of God and of the afterlife.

In The Spiritual Brain, Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary shed some more light on this topic. They describe documented cases where people who were clinically dead said afterwards that they had an out-of-body experience (typical of many NDEs) in which they were able to accurately describe details of things that were happening to them while they were clinically dead. Detailed studies have shown that NDEs are more common than you might think. One study by Dutch cardiologist Pim van Lommel found that of 344 patients, all of whom were clinically dead, 18 percent afterwards reported having some sort of NDE, and 7 percent reported some sort of very deep experience.

But can an NDE transform a skeptic? Perhaps not. Philosophical atheist A.J. Ayer had an NDE, one which was somewhat negative (some cases of NDEs are negative rather than positive experiences for the person involved). When he died for good the following year he was still apparently an atheist. He did, however, exhibit some changes in his life after his NDE, another common effect of NDEs. Such changes often include greater compassion towards others and becoming a nicer person.

One philosopher, Neal Grossman, was arguing with a committed naturalist about NDEs. Beauregard and O’Leary record the exchange thusly:

Exasperated, I asked, “What will it take, short of having a near-death experience yourself, to convince you that it’s real?”

Very nonchalantly, without batting an eye, the response was: “Even if I were to have a near-death experience myself, I would conclude that I was hallucinating, rather than believe that my mind can exist independently of my brain.

Essentially, for the committed naturalist there is no amount of evidence, not even their own experience, that would persuade them to give up their belief in naturalism. In this sense naturalism is perhaps not that unlike a very fundamentalist religion.

Skeptical of Skepticism

One of the curious features of modern post-Enlightenment thinking is that doubt or skepticism is held as a high virtue. Part of thinking scientifically is that conclusions are always supposed to be tentative, and we should be prepared to revise them pending future new evidence or better theories. In practice, of course, scientific theories are often held with anything but tentativeness, and some scientists who disbelieve in the supernatural certainly do not seem prepared to revise that belief under any circumstances.

One thing I've noticed, however, is that skeptics tend to apply their skepticism selectively. When it comes to ideas like the universe popping into existence out of nothing, or of an unprovable hypothesis like the multiverse theory (that our universe is just one out of an unknown number of unobserved alternate universes), the skepticism applied to supernatural claims suddenly seems to disappear. In fact, the very attraction of the multiverse theory, as even cosmologist Sir Martin Rees admits, is as a way of escaping the conclusion that the universe was, in fact, designed. If this universe is the only one that exists (which as far as we know is the case), the conclusion that it was designed for life is virtually inescapable. Indeed, as William Lane Craig points out, the fact that the multiverse hypothesis is taken so seriously by many scholars (even though there is no empirical evidence to support it and quite possibly can't be even in principle) is a backhanded compliment to the strength of the cosmic fine-tuning argument. Of course, no scholar that I know of says that they know for certain that there are multiple universes. But that's really the point. The theory allows the skeptic to have a permanent out, never having to explain the evident fine-tuning of the universe, and never having to actually prove the hypothesis empirically, all the while denigrating belief in God for lack of evidence!

Even if God is the best inference of all the evidence, the goal of the skeptic is just to suggest that there could be (as far as we know) some possible natural explanation for the evidence, no matter how outlandish. This strategy is seen in many different areas. For example, in regards to the origin of life on earth, some skeptical scientists have actually suggested that the first life forms were sent here by aliens on an intergalactic spacecraft. This is due, of course, to the insurmountable difficulties that scientists have encountered in trying to explain the origin of life on earth naturalistically. The more the issue is studied, in fact, the more difficult the problem has become. Some scientists suggest that maybe things are different in other places in the universe, and so life could arise elsewhere more easily where it doesn't seem possible here. Skeptical approaches to the Resurrection like that used by Bart Ehrman also utilize this strategy. Ehrman thinks all that is needed is any outlandish theory to explain the evidence, even if the explanation has no evidence in support of it at all. Detailed analysis of such theories, however, quickly show that they hold no water whatsoever.

One skeptic I interacted with felt that God could certainly not hold him accountable for simply "having a higher evidential standard" than most people. However, skeptics don't have a higher evidential standard. It's just a selective one. Even as the apostle Paul writes in Romans 1:18-20: "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse." The advances of modern science have not changed this fact one bit. If anything, they have made this argument even stronger.

So I think it's a little funny that the word skeptic should be only used for people who doubt the supernatural. I'm skeptical about a lot of things myself. For example, I'm skeptical that the universe could come into existence with no cause and for no reason, I'm skeptical that there are untold billions (or even infinite) other universes out there, I'm skeptical that inanimate matter just came to life on its own one day and started to reproduce, eventually developing into all life forms on planet earth, and I'm very skeptical that my conscious existence can be explained purely in terms of the emergent properties of brain chemistry (look for more on that one in future posts). I guess you could say I'm skeptical of skepticism. And I refuse to suspend my skepticism until someone can prove to me that the above mentioned phenomena have a natural explanation. So there.

Is naturalism a rational belief?

Skeptics often assert that belief in God is irrational. This is a little hard for a theologian to understand, given the abundance of apparently sound arguments for God's existence. But I believe there's a better question than "is belief in God rational?", and that is the question "is belief in naturalism* rational?" I believe there are good reasons to think that the answer to this second question is "no."

Consider this argument. If naturalism is true, then we are the products of some entirely natural, unintelligent process that produced all of our features, not just physical but also mental. Our thought processes are thus a result of the operation of natural selection that slowly and gradually weeded out the less fit among our ancestors. Those with better adaptive abilities survived and reproduced, while the ones with lesser abilities did not.

The problem is that the traits necessary to survive and reproduce (which are the traits favored by natural selection) have no obvious connection to the traits necessary to produce true beliefs about the universe. It's easy to see how natural selection would favor members of a given species who are highly skilled in hunting or cultivating food supplies, or who have a high sperm count. But there is no reason at all to believe that skills in things like logic or advanced metaphysics should be thus favored. Natural selection is a blind process as Richard Dawkins likes to remind us. As a law it simply states that organisms more fit for survival will survive and pass their genes on to their offspring, while the ones that are less fit will die off.

But in that case, if naturalism is true then we have no reason to believe that our mental faculties are reliable at producing true beliefs. But our belief in naturalism (for those who believe in naturalism) has been produced by these same faculties, the reliability of which is unknown to us. As philosopher Alvin Plantinga puts it:

even if we thought it likely, on balance, that evolution would select for reliable cognitive faculties, this would be so only for cognitive mechanisms producing beliefs relevant to survival and reproduction. It would not hold, for example, for the mechanisms producing the beliefs involved in a logic or mathematics or set theory course. . . . It is only the occasional assistant professor of logic who needs to know even that first-order logic is complete in order to survive and reproduce.

This argument does not necessarily prove that naturalism is not true. It simply aims to prove that it is not rational to hold a belief in naturalism, for in holding such a belief one is obligated to believe something else that undercuts the belief in question. This is striking, for often the skeptic asserts that belief in God is not rational while belief in naturalism is. But for one who believes that God exists, and that he has in fact designed our belief-forming faculties in such a way that we can adequately (if not perfectly) comprehend his creation, this problem is eliminated. The Christian theist can have high confidence in his or her rational faculties, for those faculties are a product not of an unintelligent process like natural selection, but of an intelligent creator who created us in his image.

This argument is very much strengthened by the observation that our brains appear to be hardwired to believe in the supernatural from birth. While many naturalistic philosophers have scrambled to come up with a good evolutionary explanation for this remarkable fact, they apparently have missed the more obvious point. Under naturalism, belief in the supernatural is false. And yet this (according to naturalists) false belief appears to be pre-programmed into our noggins in advance. This actually gives us less reason to trust our belief-forming faculties if naturalism is true and strengthens the argument presented above. So if naturalism is true, we can have no confidence in our belief that it is true. On the other hand, if we have been created by God this observation that we are pre-programmed to believe in him makes perfect sense. Thus theism is a far more rational belief than naturalism.

*Just to clarify, here I'm referring to what is known as metaphysical or ontological naturalism, the belief that there really is nothing more than nature. This is somewhat distinct from methodological naturalism, which suggests that we should act as if nature is all that there is in formulating scientific theories, while remaining indifferent to the question of whether or not nature is all that exists.

Why there almost certainly is a God

I enjoyed listening to the podcast of the debate between Keith Ward and Robert Stovold (well, not really a debate I guess, more like an informal exchange). Ward focused on the distinction between "scientific" explanations and other kinds of explanation.

Says Ward,
The fundamental question [is] what do you mean by 'explaining' something? And I think Richard Dawkins assumes there's only one sort of explanation, and that is scientific explanation. But there are other sorts of explanation. . . . He assumes that God would be a scientific explanation. [With] that sort of explanation you have to be able to measure quantities, you have to be able to have a regular law, you have to be able to predict what's going to happen next. None of these things is true of God creating the universe. If God creates the universe it's not a scientific sort of explanation.

Ward says (rightly, I think) that Richard Dawkins doens't believe there is any other kind of explanation. But, says Ward, most philosophers do, and one of those is what he calls "personal" explanation.

Personal explanation . . . talks about consciousness, values, and purposes. . . . Science doesn't deal with any of these. It has never dealt with consciousness with any adequacy, though it's sometimes tried. Never dealt with values. It's value-free, just says "this is what happened." Never dealt with purposes. You just say "here there are laws." There's no purpose. That doesn't mean these things don't exist. My basic response to Dawkins is, "why do you miss out the most important thing in human life?", consciousness, value, and purpose, and say that the other stuff that science quite properly talks about is all that there is? Now God would be . . . the ultimate personal explanation of the universe.

Ward also emphasizes that he doesn't believe that personal explanations can be reduced to scientific or material causes. This is actually where a lot of the debate in philosophy is still raging today. Because of the brevity of the podcast, he didn't get into this argument much at all. I don't know if his book, Why there almost certainly is a God, covers this topic in detail, but it would be interesting to see. Ward is obviously an accomplished professor and philosopher with much to say about it. So far I've only been able to find his book for sale on Amazon U.K. (not U.S.) and in the bookstore of the "Unbelievable?" website.

Nevertheless, I think Ward's distinction is a helpful one, because it reminds us of the limitations of science. For many people scientific materialism has become a substitute for traditional religion. The problem is, it makes a lousy religion because it doesn't actually have an answer for any of the big questions in life, or even give you any means of determining if there is an answer. This is one of the points I raised in my post, "Why science can't explain everything."

Ward also spent some time talking about the argument from religious experience. This is another interesting area of study that I'm currently doing some reading up on with the book, The Spiritual Brain by Mario Beauregard and Denyse O' Leary. They attempt to make the case that empirical evidence actually supports the argument that in religious experiences the mind of the believer is actually in contact with a supernatural entity. I'll have more on that after I finish the book. Ward simply asks the question, "why should I think I'm deluded if I believe that I've experienced the presence of God?"

It's a good question. My first real experience with the presence of God occurred when I was 15 years old. I had read a book on the trustworthiness of the Bible based on fulfilled prophecy from the Old Testament that could not be explained naturally. At the end of the book was a section on how to become a Christian. After I had read it (I didn't do anything else, I just read it) I suddenly and quite unexpectedly felt a warm, loving presence in my room. I can only describe it by saying that I felt as if a 1000-watt lightbulb had been turned on inside of me. I actually really thought to myself, "this is weird. Is this some sort of psychological thing?" I didn't quite know what to make of it. A few days later during football practice (I was trying out for our school's football team), the coach put me in front of the rest of team, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, "this is a man who's hitting [ie. blocking and tackling in football parlance] has improved 100 percent in the last three days." On my way home I thought to myself, "what's been different about the last three days?" Then I realized that was how long it had been since I had had this experience in my room. It was such an experience that it made a difference in my life that was actually observable to others even though I didn't notice any difference myself.

One could argue, of course, that people from lots of religions claim to have spiritual experiences, and many of these religions teach things which are contradictory. That's true, and it's an objection that was brought up by the atheist on the podcast. But that's where objective evidence-based arguments come in. We can discern the truth between religions by examining their truth claims. Only Christianity has the claim of the Resurrection, and only Christianity has the evidence to back it up. Christianity does not deny that people in other religions can have spiritual experiences. But Christianity does teach that only through Jesus Christ do we encounter the one true and living God.

Free will and the mind-body problem

The question of whether human beings have a non-physical component is a long-standing debate in philosophy. It's sometimes known as the mind-body problem. Are all of the features that we associate with mind (such as consciousness, personal identity, conscience, and so forth) real, or are they simply the effects of the functioning of our brain?

Materialists of course believe that our mind has no reality or existence apart from our brain. They sometimes point to the fact that people with brain damage often undergo dramatic changes in their behavior and personality to show that these things are simply products of brain function. This objection, however, does not address the question. Nobody denies that there is a connection between the mind and the brain. The question is whether the mind just is a product of the brain's activity, or if there is something more to it. As Dinesh D'Souza has pointed out, "When I bash my radio, the sound stops. Does that mean the radio is creating the sound waves? Isn't it more reasonable to say the radio is simply the instrument or conduit that makes it possible for us to hear those sound waves? . . . The brain may well be the necessary vehicle for mental activitity. It does not follow that brains and minds are identical."

But in my opinion the biggest problem for a materialist conception of the mind is that of free will. If our minds are simply the product of our brain chemistry, then free will is an illusion. Our thoughts and actions are determined by the laws of physics and chemistry, and we have no control over them. Indeed, there is no "we" to control them, because personal identity is also an illusion if materialism is true. "We" simply are the product of our changing brain states, and those states change because of purely physical causes.

While some materialist philosophers of mind just simply say "okay, free will is an illusion," in my experience most people aren't willing to do that (of course, whether they are unwilling or simply predetermined is an open question!). Most people believe in their own ability to choose. In fact, I would go so far as to say that even those who deny free will still live and act as though free will was real. They deny it in theory, but not in practice.

One big problem with jettisoning free will is the problem of making a coherent case for moral responsibility. That is, if we don't have free will, how can we be morally responsible for our actions? Some philosophers have tried to overcome this hurdle without much success. Morality and moral responsibility depends upon our ability to make moral choices.

In an interesting study, subjects were given passages from a book to read about consciousness. One group was given a passage that said that free will was an illusion. The other group had a passage that said nothing about free will. All the participants were then given a math test in which they were told how they could cheat on the test without being caught, but then were told not to. The group that read the passage denying free will were more likely to cheat, and the more strongly they denied free will based on a survey they had filled out, the more likely they were to cheat. You can read more about that here. This study would seem to empirically demonstrate that there is a connection between belief in free will and moral behavior.

If we have free will, then materialism is false. Contrary to what modern materialists tell us, we do have a non-physical mind. The fact that our mind may survive our physical death should be enough reason for anyone to seriously consider what their destiny after death will be.