Do Atheists Need More Evidence?

Michael Antony has a thought provoking article in the new issue of Philosophy Now.  He says atheists don't play fair.  They accuse theists of lacking evidence, but "tend not to worry much about providing evidence" for atheism.  Antony looks at five possible defenses of the idea that theism requires more evidence than atheism and finds them all wanting.  

If one of the defenses appeals to me, it's #5: absence of evidence is evidence of absence (the "Hanson-Scriven Thesis" so "HST").   This would mean that atheists don't have to come up with their own evidence that God does not exist, if theists lack evidence that God does exist.

Sounds pretty good.  What's the problem?  First Antony says theists don't lack evidence. At the very least they have weak evidence--
religious experience, the fine-tuning of physical laws and constants, the apparent contingency of the universe, etc. These and other points, although far from decisive, and although explicable in other ways, could conceivably be mentioned in a compelling argument for the existence of a divine being.
So for the HST to help atheists it must be construed as saying that absence of strong (as well as weak) evidence is evidence of absence.  But that, he argues, is implausible.
Consider the claim that earthworms have a primitive form of consciousness. There is little evidence for this, certainly no strong evidence. Nevertheless, many consciousness researchers believe it (with varying degrees of confidence).... Or consider string theory. Again, there is nothing that could properly be called strong evidence for it, yet many physicists believe it. Such examples could be multiplied. Yet if we were to take HST seriously, given that there’s no strong evidence for any of the above propositions, we would rationally have to conclude that the negations of the propositions are true: that earthworms are not conscious .... and that string theory is false. But that is absurd!
As Antony points out, HST is typically asserted in connection with a bunch of ridiculous entities--the Tooth Fairy, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the teapot orbiting the sun. That, he thinks, steers atheists wrong.
It is now easy to see where Hanson and the New Atheists go wrong with their example-based defense of HST: they select examples that conform with HST and ignore cases of the sort just offered that conflict with it.
OK, he convinced me.  HST can't be affirmed if you consider the whole spectrum of cases.  But maybe there's a narrower principle something like HST that's correct.  What's correct is a principle specifically about "the ridiculous." Absence of evidence for the ridiculous is evidence of absence. But then Antony balks at the suggestion that the God hypothesis is ridiculous.  He thinks there's no reason why "religious belief, because it lacks strong evidence, must be judged to be just as ridiculous as the Tooth Fairy or goblins."

Sure, the sheer lack of strong evidence doesn't make the God hypothesis  ridiculous.   It could still be ridiculous because .... well, because why? Antony is right to press atheists on this question.

Take just one aspect of the God hypothesis--the notion of a disembodied mind.  It's one thing to be uncertain whether the nervous systems of worms can or can't support consciousness.  Both views are credible. But must I really take seriously the possibility of disembodied mind--God?   What a bizarre idea. It sure does seem odd to think a disembodied mind could do so much--like create the universe, perform miracles, and do all that's normally attributed to God. If there's no strong evidence for something as odd as that isn't it fair to say there's no such thing?

Maybe this is just to say there's a presumption against very weird things being true, and it's up to people who believe in them to come up with very good reasons.  Skeptics about these things get to disbelieve more lazily than believers can believe. Something of the sort strikes me as true, though I can't say I know how to say it more precisely.  Ridiculous, weird, odd, bizarre.  There's got to be a better way.

There's lots more in the article. Have a look!


amos said...

The existence of God (in the sense of a omniscient, omnipotent, loving Deity) isn't coherent with
what we otherwise know or have strong evidence of. It doesn't fit or mesh with our naturalistic worldview. Isn't that evidence of a sorts? If you claim that Barack Obama is a secret member of Al Qaida, I'll begin to bring up data about Obama which don't fit with him being from Al Qaida. If someone doesn't have a previous naturalistic worldview, there isn't much you can say to her in favor atheism, except the problem of evil.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, this should be fun.

Wayne said...

Yeah, Amos hits the nail on the head. The evidence that supports god, is discredited by 1. much more plausible and testable hypotheses, and 2. evidence to the contrary.

But Antony is right in that all of this doesn't prove correct the atheist position, it just proves incorrect the theist position. But I think that is enough. I'm not particularly interested in trying to prove the non-existence of God. Does that make me an agnostic? I dunno... I don't think so, since I don't believe.

But I'm comfortable enough with agnosticism to say that it might be the position I'm committed to.

Faust said...

To be brief:

1. The softer version would be "extrodinary claims require extrodinary evidence." It's still not "evidence of absence." I think strictly speaking Antony is correct.

2. I think Antony overstates the "new atheist" position. I seem to recall that Dawkins acknowledges that the problem should be viewed as one of probability. So he resovles the issue by saying something like "there is a continuum of certainty here and I'm 99% sure God doesn't exist." (paraphrase of course). While Hitchen's is fond of hyperbole, I'm confident that if pressed he would give ground to a position of "the idea of God is ridiculous, implausible and absurd rather than definitively disproven." But maybe not, in which case perhaps Antony has provided a useful corrective.

3. All of the preceeding I think goes to my general sense that my own postiion is a good one to take: i.e. I generally do not identify as an atheist. I have long found it to be a hopeless category. I think identifying oneself as a naturalist is much much better. It sets the table for the proper conflict. Because it is impossible to reconcile the vast bulk of mainstream religion with naturalism one conveniently rejects vast swaths of onto-theology, while still leaving the door open to interesting alternative interpretations of the religious enterprise (e.g. Mark Johnston, Tillich etc).

4. To continue with a variant of (3), I think the very thing that has made all this talk of God "ridiculous" is precisely the rise of naturalism. Prior to the rise of science, God seemed a LOT less ridiculous because there was no alternaitve framework to hang our hats on. Sure it seemed silly to some, but it was a lot harder to answer questions about how it all came to be without Darwin et al. I think this is well understood by the enthusiastic "science is the real" crowd, and we should dispense with "atheism" and stick with the naturalism that brought us to consider supernaturalism absurd in the first place.

Of course that might not sell any books, so...maybe not such a good idea.

Taylor said...

Darwinian theory doesn't explain the origin of universes, although Dawkins seems to think that some kind of natural selection might. Dawkins assigns an extremely low probability to the existence of an Intelligent Designer, but he has no evidence for such a claim. Does anyone here know how and why universes come into existence -- not how they evolve once they do exist, but the conditions that precede any Big Bang and give rise to particular laws of logic and physics?

Has anyone read Star Maker, by Olaf Stapledon? There are more things in that novel than are dreamt of in Dawkins' philosophy.

amos said...

Taylor: Most people who are atheists are atheists about the Judeo-Christian God, an omniscient, omnipotent, loving Creator, not about deism or pantheism, not about God as Big Bang or pre-Big Bang.

Taylor said...

amos: I believe you are correct about "most people". But Dawkins thinks he has an argument against ANY Creator. I think one can be a rational atheist when it comes to the Abrahamic God, but one should be agnostic about whether there is an intelligence at the ultimate root of existence. So I'm an Abrahamic atheist but a root agnostic.

Actually, I find it quite plausible that this current life is some sort of virtual-reality experience. (I should have signed up for "Norse Gods Valhalla Adventure" instead of "Sisyphean Exam Grading Grind". Perhaps I confused "Bolder Epic" with "Boulder Epic".)

Jean Kazez said...

Faust--"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence"....I like it. It is extraordinary to think there's a mind that is completely disembodied and also the cause of the entire universe. In any other context, we'd say "rubbish" to such a thing. For example, my son has a mysterious rash. "Ahhh...there's a disembodied mind that's been hovering over him lately and causing the rash." Utter silliness! I don't have to suspend belief while great minds think it over. I can just disbelieve it. The person who believes has much more work to do to justify their view.

fallore said...

Burden of proof is on theists. Things aren't disproved by lack of evidence, but there's no reason to believe in something with no evidence. As an atheist I don't have to worry about providing evidence: my claim is that the universe is as it appears.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Antony says, "there is weak evidence for a divine reality – religious experience, the fine-tuning of physical laws and constants, the apparent contingency of the universe, etc. These and other points, although far from decisive, and although explicable in other ways, could conceivably be mentioned in a compelling argument for the existence of a divine being."

That is something only a theist would say. How could anything count as (weak or strong) evidence for a divine being?

No, I don't expect to find many atheists who would agree that there are any compelling arguments for the existence of a divine being.

Antony does not address one of the biggest problems with theism: since God (or the supernatural in general) is defined outside of scientific testability, then nothing at all could count as scientific evidence for God or the supernatural. Theists, in order to argue that there is evidence for God, have to appeal to some other standard of evidence. The problem is, no other standard is universally recognizable. (We might even say that "science" by definition encompasses all universally recognizable methods for gathering evidence.)

Evidence for theism isn't just sparse. It's defined out of existence. That makes theistic belief irrational, if not ridiculous. (Maybe it's only ridiculous when theists try to make it sound rational.)