My Response to Matzke

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I should probably leave it up to Sanchez to defend himself, but I’ll say this: it is true that “Evolution is no more or less ‘naturalistic’ than any of these other sciences.” But what Sanchez was saying, correctly, is that evolution demonstrates that there is no need for a divine spark to set in motion, or to maintain, the processes that gave rise to life, and/or consciousness. To say that science does not “conflict[] with the theistic theological view that God creates the universe at every moment of its existence” is beside the point. The point is that, as Sanchez quoted, there is no need for such a hypothesis.

Further, taking the basic view that the onus of proof is on him who asserts the claim, the existence of a natural explanation for the origin and diversity of life makes it far more difficult for those who claim the existence of a supernatural entity to support that proposition on the basis of reason. They must resort, as Sanchez points out, to actual faith, something that is somewhat rarer than is often claimed.

Matzke suggests that I am “insisting that evolution proves atheism.” It’s rather obvious that I’ve done nothing of the sort. What I’ve done is insisted that evolution deprives the Argument From Design of whatever logical force it once had—an argument that for the longest time was thought to “prove” theism. Again, the onus is on him who asserts the claim. This is, incidentally, why Matzke is wrong to say that atheism is a religion. It obviously is not. It’s simply the belief that the case for the existence of some Supreme Entity has not been made. Sure, a person can believe in both: he can go through life insisting on reasons and logic in everything except The Most Important Things; yes, a person can simultaneously believe in science, backed by experiment, logic, fact, observation and reason, and also believe in a Supernatural Entity. But I believe he does so at the cost of his intellectual integrity.

I’ve never made a secret of the fact that I agree 100 percent with Richard Dawkins, and then only because it’s not possible to agree more than 100 percent. I do believe that it’s science or religion, in that I believe it is logic, evidence, facts, and reason, versus the will to believe in the absence of reasons. Whether that changes any minds or not is irrelevant. It’s the truth as I see it, and all I can do in the service of “changing minds” is to say the truth as I see it. I will not trim the truth as I see it to suit the demographics of an audience. I very strongly disagree with the proposition, advanced by an unfortunately large number of American defenders of evolution, that we should avoid mentioning this conflict, or try to smooth it over, so as to appease the sensibilities of those too sensitive to face it.

Finally, as to comments, I no longer have the time to police the comments in all my posts, and so I open comments only when I think people might really have questions or something constructive to contribute. I will open comments here.

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Timothy Sandefur responds to the Nick Matzke post I commented on yesteday. I sometimes forget that Panda's Thumb is a group blog of whose writers don't necessarily agree on everything. Nice to see it home to a debate like this. Read More

186 Comments

Thanks for the reply, Tim. I will think on it and may reply in the comments. I suspect we’ll be agreeing to disagree on this one. My statement about “insisting that evolution proves atheism” was aimed at Weisberg, who gets pretty close to this even if he doesn’t say it.

I retract my implication about comments from my previous post, that was unwarranted speculation on my part.

ts Wrote:

Again, the onus is on him who asserts the claim.

If people asserted their claim based on scientific evidence, then you might have a point. But it’s clear that many people do not base their religion on scientific evidence, and so your complaint that science has not provided said evidence is baseless.

The entire source of these arguments is that “ID is not science because it cannot be disproven by evidence”. By this definition, evidence of God is wholely outside the realm of scientific endeavor. So it seems rather contradictory to claim that since science has not provided said evidence, that belief in God is somehow intellectually dishonest.

Attempting to base one’s belief in God on science is intellectually dishonest. It’s why we get so upset at the ID folks. But if one’s belief is outside the realm of what science can disprove, and the believer knows it, then what is the problem? My ethical system is not based on science in any way; does that make it intellectually dishonest to follow it?

If you believe that the only truths are those which can be provided by scientific evidence, then I can see where you’re coming from. But I think that’s treating science as a religion, as the source of all truth, and as an atheist, I cannot believe in a single source of truth.

[Oy, CKW has created an id clash by referring to Tim Sandefur as “ts”. I’ve modified my id for now; I hope I don’t need to do this permanently. I go by ts elsewhere on the web.]

I’m posting here what I had originally intended in response to Tim, but ended up posting in Nick’s thread when Tim’s disappeared.

———-

In George H. Smith’s book Atheism: The Case Against God, he writes

The subtitle–The Case Against God–has a twofold meaning: first, it refers to the philosophical case against the concept of god; and secondly, it refers to the psychological case against the belief in god. As a philosopher, I am continually amazed by the credence given to religious claims in the intellectual community; and, as a human being, I am appalled by the psychological damage caused by religious teachings–damage that often takes years to counteract.…

It is my firm conviction that man has nothing to gain, emotionally or otherwise, by adhering to a falsehood, regardless of how comfortable or sacred that falsehood may appear. Anyone who claims, on the one hand, that he is concerned with human welfare, and who demands, on the other hand, that man must suspend or renounce the use of his reason, is contradicting himself. There can be no knowledge of what is good for man apart from knowledge of reality and human nature–and there is no manner in which this knowledge can be acquired except through reason. To advocate irrationality is to advocate that which is destructive to human life.

It is not my purpose to convert people to atheism; such efforts are usually futile. It is my purpose, however, to demonstrate that the belief in god is irrational to the point of absurdity; and that this irrationality, when manifested in specific religions such as Christianity, is extremely harmful, In other words, I have attempted to remove the veneer of intellectual and moral respectability that often enshrouds the notion of a god. If a person wishes to continue believing in god, that is his perrogative, but he can no longer excuse his belief in the name of reason and moral necessity.

He then goes on to present his argument with over 300 pages of reasoning, logic, and evidence. Yet there are people here who have never inquired into any of the facts or literature of atheism who state that it is held as a matter of faith – just as many creationists do the same in regard to evolution. And the common argument against ID is that there is no evidence for it and there’s a better, reason- and fact- based explanation for what ID purports to explain. But the same goes for a great deal of religion, certainly the religion that those who cling to creationism believe in, and that is instrumental in their rejection of evolution. To pretend that religion has nothing to do with it is to ignore the elephant in the middle of the room when 64% of Americans believe that “human beings were created directly by God”, and only 22% believe that “human beings evolved from earlier species” (54% think not and apparently 24% are undecided – http://biz.yahoo.com/prnews/050706/nyw130.html). We may be able to keep ID out of the classroom, but that’s just one battle. To push beyond that 22% is going to take a lot more, and its not reasonable to hold that religion is off-topic relative to a discussion of education in evolution when it is such a huge driving factor, and when it plays such an important epistemological role.

Nick (Matzke) Wrote:

My statement about “insisting that evolution proves atheism” was aimed at Weisberg, who gets pretty close to this even if he doesn’t say it.

If he doesn’t say it then you have no business aiming it at him. Nor should you claim that he gets “pretty close” without supporting quotes. In fact, by my reading, he gets no closer than Tim does, which is not close at all, because empirically removing support is in an entirely different category from deductive proof.

Jacob Weisberg Wrote:

That evolution erodes religious belief seems almost too obvious to require argument. It destroyed the faith of Darwin himself, who moved from Christianity to agnosticism as a result of his discoveries and was immediately recognized as a huge threat by his reverent contemporaries. In reviewing The Origin of Species in 1860, Samuel Wilberforce, the bishop of Oxford, wrote that the religious view of man as a creature with free will was “utterly irreconcilable with the degrading notion of the brute origin of him who was created in the image of God.” (The passage is quoted in Daniel C. Dennett’s superb book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.)

At this point, agreeing to disagree strikes me as similar to creationists agreeing to disagree with evolution.

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I’m agreeing with CKW. In the simplest sense, this multi-post discussion has drifted further and further from an accurate description of how people act and think in the world.

“Yes, a person can simultaneously believe in science, backed by experiment, logic, fact, observation and reason, and also believe in a Supernatural Entity. But I believe he does so at the cost of his intellectual integrity.”

Hmm. Timothy, you clearly have a powerful and well thought out view of the world. At the same time, I don’t believe it quite matches how things work, y’know?

Whatever Weisberg did or did not claim or almost claim, it’s not a very good article.

“That evolution erodes religious belief seems almost too obvious to require argument.” That’s never a good sign, reading that sort of claim

“It destroyed the faith of Darwin himself, “ http://www.corante.com/loom/archive[…]f_newton.php

“ and was immediately recognized as a huge threat by his reverent contemporaries.” Pennock claims that evolution gained broad acceptance surprisingly quickly, with anti-evolutionist creationism being a later, largely American development. I don’t know enough about this to judge.

Whatever Weisberg did or did not claim or almost claim, it’s not a very good article.

I don’t think the point here is literary criticism. What people do or do not claim is rather important (as is Nick misrepresenting it). And ditto for

Hmm. Timothy, you clearly have a powerful and well thought out view of the world. At the same time, I don’t believe it quite matches how things work, y’know?

The issue is whether Tim is right that belief in the supernatural (or evidence-free belief generally) has a negative effect on intellectual integrity. And as far as how things work, I think there’s extensive evidence that there is such an effect, and that it has a lot to do with why so many people have false empirical beliefs about biology and why creationists make so many bogus and dishonest arguments. Of course, there are many other ways in which intellectual integrity is affected, but as far as the issue of evolution goes, I think theistic thinking is clearly the one that is most germane.

Weisberg conflates all religion with a particular brand of Biblical-based Christianity, thereby making the same mistake that so many political analysts made after the 2004 election. Remember all that horsehocky about “values”?

There’s religion and there’s religion. In the US, “religion” usually means “Catholic, Jewish or Protestant, and mostly the latter, especially the fundamentalists.” That’s why we get such perversities as the reinterpretations of American history claiming that “establishment of religion” means “establishment of sect.” A more considered view would recognize that there are many varieties of religious thought, and that only a small number of them are threatened by evolution, the heliocentric solar system, or diseases caused by microbes.

Tim Wrote:

This is, incidentally, why Matzke is wrong to say that atheism is a religion. It obviously is not. It’s simply the belief that the case for the existence of some Supreme Entity has not been made.

Then you must personally define “atheist” in a non-standard way. I believe the common accepted usage is “one who believes there is no God” (c.f. Webster’s). In that case, atheism is, if not a religion per se, a faith at least. There is a clear logical difference between not believing that there is a deity (agnosticism, a consequence of believing that the case has not been made for the existence of some Supreme Entity) and believing that there is no deity (atheism, which would necessarily follow only from being convinced that the case has been made for the absence of any Supreme Entity).

Belief in the absence of a God given that “the case for the existence of some Supreme Entity has not been made” is either irrational or faith-based.

Douglas

“That evolution erodes religious belief seems almost too obvious to require argument.” That’s never a good sign, reading that sort of claim

Hyperbole held back isn’t a good sign? That seems surprising, considering how much snark there is in your fisking of Weisberg. But really, does evolution undermine the argument from design or doesn’t it?

” and was immediately recognized as a huge threat by his reverent contemporaries.” Pennock claims that evolution gained broad acceptance surprisingly quickly

Among whom? And how many of them had their faith challenged as a result, hmmm?

Crap.

Sorry, ts (not Tim Sandefur). Although the term “id clash” also has a confused meaning, especially around here. *cough*

Then you must personally define “atheist” in a non-standard way. I believe the common accepted usage is “one who believes there is no God” (c.f. Webster’s).

Rather than reading Webster’s, you might find an atheist and ask, or read material put out by atheist organizations, or read encyclopedic or other reference sources. For instance, http://www.infidels.org/news/atheism/intro.html

“What is atheism?”

Atheism is characterized by an absence of belief in the existence of gods.

That’s the standard, not non-standard, position of atheists, not the “common accepted usage” – which reflects widespread ignorance as to the actual position of atheists.

frank schmidt Wrote:

Weisberg conflates all religion with a particular brand of Biblical-based Christianity

Can you back that up? Weisberg explicitly says “Evolutionary theory may not be incompatible with all forms of religious belief, but it surely does undercut the basic teachings and doctrines of the world’s great religions (and most of its not-so-great ones as well).” He could be wrong, but he seems to be saying that the undercut applies to each of several religions, not that it applies to a particular brand of Christianity which he then confuses with all religions.

A more considered view would recognize that there are many varieties of religious thought, and that only a small number of them are threatened by evolution, the heliocentric solar system, or diseases caused by microbes.

Since neither you nor Weisberg have enumerated which religions you have in mind, the truth value of your statement can’t be determined. In any case, the primary concern for both Weisberg and folks here is the number of Americans involved, not the number of varieties of religious thought, and Weisberg dealt with those numbers.

CKW Wrote:

Although the term “id clash” also has a confused meaning, especially around here. *cough*

Huh, I missed that entirely. I don’t think those neurons fire in my head unless it’s capitalized. :-)

Is there not a word for the system of beliefs that positively asserts the nonexistence of gods or supernatural beings?

Disbelieving in god is no more “faith based” than disbelieving in Santa Claus.

Is there not a word for the system of beliefs that positively asserts the nonexistence of gods or supernatural beings?

Naturalism. There’s also materialism or physicalism, but there are non-materialist naturalists (David Chalmers, for instance).

Is there not a word for the system of beliefs that positively asserts the nonexistence of gods or supernatural beings?

ts is describing “weak atheism” whereas the above position is an example of “strong atheism”.

See for example http://atheism.about.com/od/atheism[…]ong_weak.htm

I tend to think of them more as “atheism” and “antitheism” rather than “weak” and “strong”

Atheism is characterized by an absence of belief in the existence of gods.

Certainly, if that is your “precising” definition of atheism, then I have no quarrel. However, since ‘atheism’ is not a technical term, I will continue to accept the lexical definition as authoritative (and yes, I am very familiar with the info at the infidels website). FYI, I know several self-labelled atheists and numerous agnostics in real life, all of whom conform to the standard lexical definitions. IME, which may not be yours of course, the usage at www.infidels.org is an outlier. I assume the lexical def is also what Matzke had in mind.

I will continue to accept the lexical definition as authoritative

You will accept the lexical definition as authoritative as to what atheists believe, contra what many atheists say they believe? Does anyone have a word for that?

I know several self-labelled atheists and numerous agnostics in real life, all of whom conform to the standard lexical definitions.

First, this strikes me as a claim of convenience; they aren’t here to testify, and it’s easy to be mistaken about fine details of peoples’ beliefs, especially when this ambiguity exists (one that you appeared earlier not to be even slightly familiar with). Second, the definition given at infidels includes both weak and strong atheism (they get into the distinction later in the article), so your atheist friends also conform to that definition.

I assume the lexical def is also what Matzke had in mind.

Actually you don’t have to assume it because he stated somewhere in his thread that he was using the strong form – which is unfortunate because then he isn’t talking about the same thing Tim and Jason are. But there’s another wrinkle, which is that Tim wrote “This is, incidentally, why Matzke is wrong to say that atheism is a religion”, but Nick has stated that he didn’t say that (and doesn’t believe it), and a careful reading of his piece reveals that, indeed, he didn’t.

I’m pretty impressed by the quality of the comments. Let me just say to ts (Not Tim Sandefur) that I’m a great admirer of George Smith, and am glad to see his work mentioned.

Although anedcdotal evidence has its limits, let me chime in and state that

1) I’m an atheist, in the “weak” sense (which is a bit of a misnomer, being philosophically on much stronger ground that the so-called “strong” atheism);

2) I have _never_ met any other kind of atheist;

3) I have met several weak atheists who adamantly refused to be called thus, choosing instead “agnostic” as their self-defining label.

However, ts is perfectly right: just like one would read Marxist thinkers to find out what Marxists say and think, and read evolutionary biologists to discover what evolutionary biologists say and think, one must read atheist thinkers to find out what atheists say and think.

I, for one, insist that what I -an atheist- say and think be solely determined by what I say and think, and not by “popular usage” of a word that centuries of theist monopoly on language has loaded of negative connotations.

What I’ve done is insisted that evolution deprives the Argument From Design of whatever logical force it once had—an argument that for the longest time was thought to “prove” theism. Again, the onus is on him who asserts the claim.

There are a couple of considerations from physical law alone that strongly suggest ID. First, the provisional “atheist” Frank Tipler writes:

It is quite rare in this day and age to come across a book proclaiming the unification of science and religion. It is unique to find a book asserting, as I shall in the body of this book, that theology is a branch of physics, that physicists can infer by calculation the existence of God and the likelihood of the resurrection of the dead to eternal life in exactly the same way as physicists calculate the properties of the electron. One naturally wonders if I am serious.

I am quite serious. But I am as surprised as the reader. When I began my career as a cosmologist some twenty years ago, I was a convinced atheist. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that one day I would be writing a book purporting to show that the central claims of Judeo-Christian theology are in fact true, that these claims are straight-forward deductions of the laws of physics as we now understand them. I have been forced into these conclusions by the inexorable logic of my own special branch of physics.

He and the respected cosmologist John Barrow made essentially that deduction from Schrodinger’s equation. The derivation is on Page 471, of The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, a peer-reviewed book by Oxford University Press. Tipler and Barrow’s claim might fall outside of ID proper, but such demarcations need not result in dis-allowing Barrow and Tipler’s results in support of ID theories.

Thus even at the cosmological level, there are reasons from physical law alone to infer design at the highest level. The question arises therefore, if design physical law suggests design at the cosmological level, can we reasonably infer design at the biological level. Armed with this, we can take the more scaled down definition of ID, the forensic detection of ID without reference to the Designer’s identity, and simply proceed. We know if we must regress all the way to the Designer at the cosmological level, we can do so, as physical law reasonably infers His existence, however, it is not a requirement within ID proper that such a regress is invoked. We only need to establish in the case of biology that design took place.

Consider a simple example of specified complexity, a computer password. The conceptual information is the password in the user’s mind. The physical information is the physical memory in the computer that stores the password. The coincidence of the conceptual information and the physical information constitute CSI according to Dembski’s definition.

Consider what it would take to break the password, especially one that is pretty long and deliberately cryptic? Only an act of intelligence!

Natural laws can be described as:

1. deterministic 2. stochastic 3. some combination of #1 or #2

If a user’s password is compromised, neither 1,2, or 3 can be appealed to as an explanation without reference to intelligence. It is not an argument from ignorance, it is a “proof by contradiction.” For example, we would not expect that someone playing with a box of scrabble letters would easily arrive at your password, if your password were say 50 characters long! Neither 1,2 or 3 would be a reasonable avenue without reference to intelligence, or you giving the password away!

There are “universal passwords” which (for whatever reason) humans can recognize and infer a human-like intelligence was at work. Examples of such “universal passwords” are easily recognizable designs by other humans.

Natural law, in and of itself, can not account for the presence of “universal passwords” in physical reality. That is why, for example, we can recognize music, or heiroglyphics, or physical Turing Machines (computers) as designed entities. Neither 1,2,or 3 in and of itself can explain the existence of physical Turing Machines.

But it seems biology is rich with these Turing Machines (computers). As George Gilder recently commented there are trillions of them in the human body. And as Stephen Meyer pointed, there is lot’s of software running on these biological computers. For the same reasons one would not expect 1,2 or 3 to compromise a computer password, one would not expect 1,2 or 3 to form biological Turing Machines (a universal password recognizable to humans).

ID at the cosmological and biological scale is a very reasonable scientific position. To say science can speak to such issues is a philosophical position, not a scientific one.

There are many arguments for the existence of a God, or the rational justifiability of holding such a belief. Teleological, cosmological, ontological, moral, transcendental, religious experience based, etc.

To my mind they all - how do I put this delicately? - suck monkeyballs. Each an “ID” of its respective field metaphorically speaking.

However, all refuting ID carefully break down the flow of argument in one popular style of argument for theism. Only in that very narrow sense does such an endeavor aid atheism.

To say science can speak to such issues is a philosophical position, not a scientific one.

I meant to say

To say science can NOT speak to such issues is a philosophical position, not a scientific one.

Typing and spelling are not my fortes. :-)

I agree with Aureola Nominee. It is extremely aggravating to every atheist I know to step into these kinds of conversations and have someone leaf through a dictionary and announce what we believe.

I also find the syntactic hairsplitting of “I don’t believe in god” vs. “I believe gods don’t exist” to be a waste of time. There is no evidence for god, period. This is sufficient. I don’t believe in god, and I have pragmatically concluded that gods don’t exist; do not try to pigeonhole me semantically, as if those two possibilities are mutually exclusive and fixed. We are human beings, not rigid logical constructs ruled by grammar.

Consider what it would take to break the password, especially one that is pretty long and deliberately cryptic? Only an act of intelligence!

Do strikingly unintelligent statements by ID hawkers have any implications for the validity of ID?

Oh, we were having such a great time clawing at each other - don’t bring ID up now!

Ok, what I was about to write before I spilled a glass of lemonade tea on the computer - go Jillian’s comment over at Pharyngula.

I would like to announce that entries are now being accepted for the very first Evolution/Religion County Fair (I was going to do a Carnival, but was just a little too … exciting); All entries must be pre-registered by August 21; winners will be displayed at One Long Argument on August 22. Entry classes will deal with numerous aspects of the relationship between evolution and religion (including, of course, humorously-shaped vegetables - I mean posts). Additional information will be available at http://onelongargument.blogspot.com Entries can be submitted at [Enable javascript to see this email address.]

steve Wrote:

Disbelieving in god is no more “faith based” than disbelieving in Santa Claus.

Santa Claus-ism (and Easter Bunny-ism and Tooth Fairy-ism) make specific “real-world” predictions which can be tested. Those predictions turn out to be false; therefore Santa Claus-ism has been falsified.

I can’t think of any way to falsify the existance of God, since “he” (“it”?) has no inherent properties that provide predictions that can be falsified. Specific religious beliefs (creationism, miracles, etc) can and have been falsified, but the question of God is necessarily outside the realm of what science can answer.

PZ Meyers Wrote:

I don’t believe in god, and I have pragmatically concluded that gods don’t exist; do not try to pigeonhole me semantically, as if those two possibilities are mutually exclusive and fixed.

They are not mutually exclusive; one cannot have the latter without the former.

However, it’s quite possible to believe the former and not the latter; I do not believe in god because of the lack of evidence, but since absense of evidence is not evidence of absense, I refuse to come to any final conclusions. I do not believe in God; I also do not disbelieve in God.

The “strong atheists” would probably label me an “agnostic” instead. I do not like the connotations of that, when used by those atheists; it implies that being aware of one’s intellectual limitations is somehow a bad thing. It implies that those atheists are sure that they know the truth, when by their own admittance they have no evidence.

On this thread and elsewhere I’ve observed grown-ups marshalling arguments to attack stories about talking snakes as if it made sense to debunk mythology with syllogisms. I’m in favor of simply dismissing theology, at least literalist theology, instead of lending it credit by acting as if it were something worth refuting.

Theobald: “Absence of evidence is [sometimes] evidence of absence”, is self-contradictory, since in the first part the presence of evidence is denied and then in the second part its presence is affirmed.

ts: If this is what Theobald intends as a “trivial proof”, it is trivially invalid — the two instances of “evidence” refer to evidence for two different things, one the negation of the other, so of course evidence is first denied and then confirmed. The sentence means that absence of evidence for P is [sometimes] evidence for not P. Duh.

Theobald: Evidence cannot be absent and exist simultaneously. Thus the statement is inconsistent.

ts: Of course it can. Evidence of the existence of God is absent and evidence of the existence of bananas exists. There’s something really seriously wrong with you if you think the two instances of “evidence” in the aphorism refer to evidence for the same proposition.

No, the magnitude of the ‘evidence’ is of course the same in both instances. P and not-P are mutually exclusive. Evidence for P is identical evidence against not-P. Evidence relevant to P is necessarily relevant to not-P, and vice versa. If there is evidence about P, then there is necessarily evidence about not-P. If there is no evidence about P, then there is necessarily no evidence about not-P.

All of this confusion will become very clear if you specifically think about the technical definition of ‘evidence’ as the likelihood or log-likelihood ratio of two hypotheses given a set of data.

“Absence of evidence is [sometimes] evidence of absence” means that if I search the room for an elephant and don’t find one, that’s evidence that there is no elephant in the room. The absence of evidence for an elephant is evidence that there is no elephant. If P is the hypothesis that there is an elephant in the room, the lack of evidence for P is evidence for not-P. This isn’t a situation where “there is no evidence *about* P”, it’s a situation where there is no evidence *for* P.

There is lots of evidence that is *about* gods–all sorts of documents, testimony, and arguments. There is lots of evidence that is for the existence of gods (the existence of religions, religious documents, religious experience, philosophical arguments), and lots of evidence that is against the existence of gods (the existence of *contradictory* religions, naturalistic accounts of religion and religious experience, philosophical arguments).

Many (likely most) people who are theists are not theists on the basis of evidence or argument, but because they were raised in a particular culture. Many (perhaps most) people who are atheists are atheists on the basis of evidence or argument, and have adopted their viewpoint in spite of their culture.

Jim Wrote:

“Absence of evidence is [sometimes] evidence of absence” means that if I search the room for an elephant and don’t find one, that’s evidence that there is no elephant in the room.

That may be what users of the phrase mean, but that is not what the phrase means. The case you have described is not an absence of evidence. Rather, when you have searched a room and find no elephant, that is the presence of strong evidence for no elephant being in the room.

Using the malign phrase above only sows confusion regarding the proper meanings of ‘evidence’ and ‘data’.

Absence of evidence leads to an *inference* of absence. The only way to get evidence of absence is in situtations where in principle it is possible to obtain a proof of absence, namely where data can potentially come from a complete search. I agree with Douglas, that in such situtations, it is semantically incoherent to assert this is “absence of evidence.” It is presence of evidence.

The logical positivist notion that only those things with evidence can exist or be meaningful has not been demonstrated to be necessary nor philosophically tenable.

As I wrote earlier, and which seems to have gotten buried:

An ‘absence of evidence’ can result for at least three reasons: (1) there is no applicable data at present, (2) the evidence is indecisive (e.g., the support for two competing hypotheses is more-or-less equivalent), and (3) we don’t know what at least one of the hypotheses in question specifically predicts about the data under consideration. In any of the three cases, the adage “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” is appropriate and true.

OTOH, when a model predicts certain types of data, and we search for that type of data and find instead another type, that is not ‘absence of evidence’. Rather, this is the case where we have positive data which does not jibe with the hypothesis in question. It is the presence of evidence. The maxim “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” does not apply to this situation, and those who invoke it in this case are confused about the proper scientific meanings of ‘evidence’ and ‘data’.

ts has given the layman definition of ‘evidence’ as “A thing or things helpful in forming a conclusion or judgment”, which is fine. It should be obvious that, rationally, when evidence is absent, i.e. when we have nothing helpful in forming a conclusion, then we should suspend judgment and not form a conclusion.

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This page contains a single entry by Timothy Sandefur published on August 13, 2005 5:32 PM.

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