One approach to forming beliefs that’s popular amongst atheists might be summed up by the dictum ‘in the absence of evidence, assume absence.’ It’s an appealingly simple line, made attractive by the way it seems to suit very well a number of instinctive thought processes. In this post I want to look at this idea a little, and see if it’s capable of doing the work often asked of it.
First, the folksy, intuitive version. In any number of situations, we take the absence of evidence as strong support for the proposition of absence. Maybe, while I was writing this and my back was turned, dastardly aliens slipped into my house, abducted my family and replaced them with replicas, identical in every way except that in twelve month’s time they will revert to their true natures and call their friends in to slaughter me. Not impossible, perhaps. And if it did happen, there’d be no way of knowing until it was too late, right? Except, we don’t seriously entertain the possibility (unless we’re unfortunate enough to suffer from Capgras syndrome, wherein the imposter scenario feels terrifyingly compelling).
The human imagination being what it is, it’s possible to invent limitless situations in which a phenomenon for which we have no positive evidence is nevertheless logically possible, and hence impossible to deny. And yet, we instinctively understand that using this as a basis for belief is problematic, to the extent that those who do believe get categorised by a fancy syndrome. Bertrand Russell was famously making a point something like this when he pointed out it was not possible to rule out the existence of a teapot orbiting in space, yet this in itself does not appear to justify the belief. It still feels much more reasonable to say there is no such teapot than to say there is. In the absence of evidence, it would appear that believing in absence makes good sense.
In the same way, we don’t believe in the Loch Ness Monster, or fairies in the garden or any other manner of fancies, and are probably quite justified in resisting their existence. Show me the evidence, we say, and I’m prepared to be swayed. Until then, it’s a better bet to guess/believe they’re not real.
Occam’s razor offers a similar principle. It suggests that the best policy in forming views of reality is to limit ourselves to concepts that are absolutely necessary to explain known phenomena. To sanction invention beyond necessity (so choosing to believe in the teapot when there is no known phenomenon that needs the teapot to exist in order for it to be explained) is to invite unnecessary error.
So, if no to teapots, alien abductions and fairies, why not no to God? Richard Dawkins makes exactly this point when he comes after agnostics like me. You’re agnostic about God, in a misguided bid to be fair minded, he challenges, so why not be agnostic about the teapot too? Come right out and say you do not share the common belief that there is no teapot orbiting in space.
So, does the argument work? As it’s an argument not just against theism, but against agnosticism too, I ought to be able to show it doesn’t. Where might the weaknesses be?
For me there are two major objections to the approach. The first is that, as is so often the case with analogies, the comparison isn’t entirely a fair one. The teapot exists in splendid isolation, invented as a possibility for the sheer fun (or demonstrative power) of it. The God hypothesis isn’t exactly like that. Rather God might be offered as a solution to a conundrum, a way of viewing the world that offers a solution to a particular set of problems (existence, the meaning of morality, consciousness etc). A sort of metaphysical Higgs Boson (prior to the latest results). And, if God stands as one possible solution, no-God stands as the other. We night think then, not of the case of a positive belief being challenged by the sceptic (with the burden of proof lying with the believer) but rather as two competing explanations, each therefore requiring to establish itself, and equally vulnerable to the teapot challenge. A strong atheist isn’t just avoiding belief in God, they’re actively believing in no-God. Atheism is established not just through the negation of the case for God, but in the assertion of a positive alternative, a universe that exists without cause or purpose. At the point we say ‘I don’t know why the universe exists, I just know there was no God involved’ the theist is, I think, entitled to ask how you know that. What we have, therefore, is something of a double-spouted teapot, one that can pour it’s scalding doubt in either direction.
The second counter-argument, somewhat obviously, is that the whole case hinges upon what counts as evidence. What if a particular space mission reported seeing a teapot out their window, but by the time they scrambled to get a photograph, it had disappeared? Later, a second mission reported the same thing, but again failed to get a photograph. Does that make the teapot any more likely? I suspect it does (without making it certain, we might speculate an optical illusion, group delusion, prank…) Regardless of our own beliefs, we need to accept that a great many sincere people report experiences that they consider to be powerful evidence of a God figure. We sceptically disposed types immediately think of the other possibilities, but it perhaps a step too far to say there is no evidence. Rather, as in the case of the astronauts, we have no verifiable evidence. The difference between verifiable and non-verifiable evidence is, to me, crucially important in this debate, and I promise to devote a post to it.
Are these two objections sufficient to dismiss the ‘no-evidence equals no justifiable belief’ case against God? I’d say yes, but with an important caveat. Burk noted in his comments on the last post that it’s interesting how there are so very few deists about, those who believe there’s something out there beyond our understanding, responsible for the way things are, but who don’t take the next step of naming and personalising it. It’s not just that people believe in God, they often believe in a very specific and detailed version of that God. My hunch is that, with regard to objection one, the teapot case could still be levelled against specific versions of God belief, in that these beliefs contain teapot like features, details that are not strictly necessary to answer the big ‘why are we here?’ questions (in that a stripped down version would still provide an answer.) A bit like claiming, prior to the confirmation, that not only does the Higgs Boson exist, but its real name is Bob.
A similar case might be constructed against the second objection. If we begin to think of personal revelations in terms of their details, we find that in many cases these revelations are in conflict, perhaps even contradictory. It’s like the astronaut looks out the window and says, look, a teapot, and then the second astronaut says, no, it’s a cow. It’s fair to consider this diminishes the credibility of the teapot sighting, and send us in search of alternative explanations.
So, my take on this, not surprisingly, is that the no-evidence principle doesn’t demand atheism. There’s still room for those like me who deny the teapot but remain open to the possibility of a God. As always, I’m open to refutations.