On Burdens of Proof, Science and Faith

I was going to leave a comment on Amber Restorative’s (from now, just called “Amber”) blog post, The Burden is Heavy, but It’s not Mine to Bear. But my comment became long and sprawling and to be honest if I was going to put that much effort into writing something I’m going to share it with my readers. It is worth saying now that Amber’s post is a post I largely agree with, and I also didn’t see the benefit of leaving a long, slightly argumentative comment when I agree with Amber in the long run.

The original post is about the ‘burden of proof’; whose job is it to give evidence for their conclusion? The point of my post is to make comments on what I believe “faith” is and who has it, what a default position is, and science. This is important to me because it underpins the entire nature of the theological conversation.

Amber opens with a comment on faith, and how the atheist’s position—“believing there is no God”—is a position that needs to be substantiated with evidence. Let me first clarify Amber’s position: Amber understands that the true definition of atheism is to “disbelieve”, but cannot understand any “noteworthy” difference between that technical definition and the definition he is working with. And that may well be true.

If I live my life as if I don’t accept the claims that God exists, surely I am living my life as if no Gods exist. So the difference between the technical definition of atheism and the one that Amber uses is practically non-existent. In fact, the two claims are practically the same. But they are philosophically different. If you come across a person that has never heard of God (call this person ‘Alex’), and you tell Alex that there is a moral, omnipotent, loving, personal intelligence that has power and dominion over the entire universe Alex is not going to just believe you. Alex is going to ask how you came to know that. Alex is under no burden to disprove your claim, for if you know a thing you should know how you know it.

A fellow blogger, MyAtheistLife, argues that the most popular definitions of God are logically impossible, and therefore don’t even make sense. This is true: omnipotence (the power to change what will happen) isn’t compatible with omniscience (knowing what will happen); omnipotence is self-limiting and not really omnipotent (think: can God create a boulder so heavy not even God can lift it?); mercy and justice are incompatible (either you give someone a just punishment or you take mercy on them, how could you simultaneously do both?). That argument is evidence against God, but it also adds another layer to the story of a theist trying to convince Alex that God exists; if MyAtheistLife is correct then what the theist is saying to Alex is ‘jibber jabber jello pudding diesels is true’. Why would Alex need to present evidence against your claim if your claim simply doesn’t make sense?

Which brings me to Amber’s comments on faith. I’ve written notes on faith before, but Amber answers the challenge at the end: what do I have faith in? The answer is science. I do not have faith in science. Science is how you could write a blog on a device and put it into a system that I, from any place in the world, could read what you have written; science is how my laptop works; science is how I got to Thailand and back again; science is how we eradicate illnesses; science is demonstrative. I believe science works within the confidence intervals provided by its track record. “A wise man apportions his beliefs to the evidence”.

One of my biggest problems with faith is that if you are not going to associate your beliefs with the level of evidence available you are essentially stabbing in the dark at sentences and believing them. If you are not guided by a method of knowing I should be able to convince you of anything. With that in mind, invisible Pokémon live in my garden. Prove me wrong. And more importantly, how could Alex explore my claim about invisible Pokémon and a claim about God?

When a believer puts forward and argument for God they rest on faith somewhere. If we take the Cosmological Argument (sometimes called the prime mover argument) for God as an example you will see what I mean. The argument is that for the universe to begin to exist God is necessary. This works by taking (often outdated) cosmological understanding and framing it so that we ask “how did we get something from nothing?” We are then told that God is the only answer. This argument has faith that a God even exists; the arguer has faith that the limits of their imagination are limits in reality; the arguer has faith that science has not even hypothesised one other alternative that is consistent with observation.

Now is a good time to reiterate the difference between belief and faith. Belief comes in varying levels of confidence, and evidence prescribes that level of confidence. Faith comes at a level of confidence completely independent of evidence. For example, science has hypothesised alternative models to how the universe began: Lawrence Krauss wrote a book on it; the New Scientist has a video on it. But part of the Cosmological argument persists in its claim that God is the only option. This is a belief held independent of the evidence. Other options have, inarguably, been offered.

More importantly, I don’t have to have any trust in science at all to be an atheist. I could write-off a claim of Gods as incoherent and never call on science and still be an atheist.

Despite the fact that Amber and I disagree on what exactly faith is, and with whom the burden of proof rests, we agree on something else: science is trustworthy and atheists have met their burden of proof!

I’m guessing you didn’t see that coming. Amber is an atheist, and he has what he calls ‘justified faith’ in science and he believes that atheists have demonstrated God’s existence to be unlikely enough to not consider. What Amber calls justified faith I call well-earned trust. After all, science adjusts its views based on evidence and observation and has built great things for us to use and to marvel at. Science has been a continued open-invite to God, but God has never shown up. Science has shone a bright light into the dark unknown where we thought God might have lived—disease, seasons, luck, sun rise etc.—and He wasn’t there. Science is turning up the lights in the remaining dark corners, and God’s silhouette isn’t obvious anywhere.

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