Why Do So Many People Have a “Winner Takes All” Approach to Evidence about Gods?
If you’ve a regular reader of this blog — or any other blog or website devoted to the existence of God — you’ve probably noticed how often partisans for one side or the other have a “winner takes all” approach to the evidence. In the past, even I was guilty of making statements like, “There is no evidence for God’s existence.”
It now seems to me that one should be very cautious before making such statements (or the theistic equivalent, “There is no evidence against God’s existence.”) The more I study the nature of evidence in the abstract, the more hesitant I am to make the blanket statement “there is no evidence at all for God.” Yes, you read that correct.
Why on earth would an outspoken atheist such as myself say that? Three reasons. First, I think it’s very hard to defend such a statement. I cannot think of a successful “in principle” argument for that conclusion, which means you would have to give an empirical argument for it instead. But that, in turn, would require showing that every argument for (or against) God’s existence fails. That’s a time-consuming task at best.
Second, I think way too many people talk about evidence without really thinking deeply about what it means for a piece of data to be evidence. Once a person thinks long and hard about what it means for something to be evidence, they will learn that there is evidence and then there is evidence. Some piece of evidence, e, can be weak evidence for a hypothesis h, strong evidence for h, or somewhere in between. This is why in real life there are many cases where there is weak evidence for H1 but stronger evidence for H2. It may even be the case that most empirical questions are like that, rather than a situation where there is zero evidence for H1 and all of the evidence supports H2. This leads to my third point.
Third, the “winner takes all” assumes there are only two options: (1) ALL of the evidence supports theism, or (2) ALL of the evidence supports atheism (or naturalism). But why are those the only two choices? Why can’t a theist say this:
“I’ll admit that the arguments from evil and divine hiddenness are some evidence for theism, but I think they are outweighed by the evidence from the beginning of the universe, the cosmic fine-tuning of the universe, consciousness, morality, etc.”
Likewise, why can’t a naturalist say this:
“I’ll admit that fine-tuning, libertarian free will, and consciousness are some evidence for theism, but I think they are outweighed by the evidence from the course-tuning of the universe / hostility of the universe to life, biological role (and moral randomness) of pain and pleasure, evolution, mind-brain, dependence, and divine hiddenness.”
Finally, why can’t an agnostic say this:
“I’m an agnostic, but not because I believe there is no good evidence for or against God’s existence. Rather, I’m an agnostic because I think there is good evidence both for and against God’s existence. I think fine-tuning, libertarian free will, and consciousness are some evidence for theism. I also think the coarse-tuning of the universe / hostility of the universe to life, biological role (and moral randomness) of pain and pleasure, evolution, mind-brain, dependence, and divine hiddenness are evidence against God’s existence. And I don’t know how to weigh the former against the latter.”
My own view is that so-called the fully stated evidence about ‘fine-tuning’ isn’t evidence for God’s existence; I haven’t decided (pun intended) if I believe libertarian free will exists; and I think consciousness is evidence favoring theism over naturalism. But I believe that evidence is outweighed by all of the naturalistic evidence.