The Real Evidential Problem

There are many persons who say they believe in God. I think they are mistaken.

I have said this many times before and it is always misunderstood. I think it might be misunderstood because the phrase ‘believe what you like’ is so common. It seems to me that there are many persons who think we are free to believe whatever we like. We are not. You may not believe whatever you like and you are not entitled to your opinion.

A person is not entitled to their opinion because having an opinion is not an entitlement. When a person tells you they are entitled to their opinion they are doing no more than expressing an opinion.

When a person expresses an opinion they might as well say ‘I’m speaking now’ or ‘it’s me speaking’ because what you are hearing is their opinion by default because it is them saying it. It is true a person can think whatever they want. I think a sense of entitlement is a problem in society.

That a person can think whatever they want does not mean they can believe whatever they want. Persons seem to believe they can believe whatever they want. This is easy to test.

If belief is a choice then you might want to choose to believe you are rich, or that a relative of yours who is dead is alive. But why stop there? Why not choose to believe they are alive and sitting next to you having a conversation? I think if belief was a matter of choice then the world would be populated by significantly happier and more contented humans.

That you cannot believe your dead relative is alive and well and having a conversation with you, or that you cannot believe you live on Mars should tell you belief is not a choice. But why is belief not a choice? Belief is not a choice because belief requires evidence. What is evidence? Consider the words of the evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins:

“Our five senses – sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste – do a pretty good job of convincing us that many things are real:  rocks and camels, newly mown grass and freshly ground coffee, sandpaper and velvet, waterfalls and doorbells, sugar and salt. But are we only going to call something real if we can detect it directly with one of our five senses?[..] How about radio waves? Do they exist? Our eyes can’t detect them, nor can our ears, but again special instruments – television sets, for example – convert them into signals that we can see and hear. So, although we can’t see or hear radio waves, we know they are a part of reality. As with telescopes and microscopes, we understand how radios and televisions work. So they help our senses to build a picture of what exists: the real world – reality.”*

Whatever definition you wish to give to the word ‘evidence’ it must, ultimately, connect to our five senses, either directly or with help from instruments. (If it doesn’t connect to our senses from outside our brains, then it is just subjective, internal experience, not evidence of something from the real, material universe.) Of course the radio waves and other things mentioned above would be sensed in ‘real-time’ – in that the things mentioned exist at the same time we do. But what about something which existed in the past, which we can’t see now and is something which we don’t have instruments to detect?

“We understand how water, with minerals dissolved in it, seeps into corpses buried in layers of mud and rock. We understand how the minerals crystallize out of the water and replace the materials of the corpse, atom by atom, leaving some trace of the original animal’s form imprinted in the stone. So, although we can’t see dinosaurs directly with our senses, we can work out that they must have existed, using indirect evidence that still ultimately reaches us through our senses.”*

The senses must be stimulated from outside the person. If a person says they “know in their heart” God exists, they are not to be taken seriously. Just as a barrister who said “I know in my heart the accused is guilty” would not be taken seriously. Subjective experience (or internal physiological sensations) is not evidence for something which the claimant says exists outside of their body and mind.

Evidence is always something external to the person and detectable with one or more of the five senses directly or through the use of different types of instrument if it falls outside the narrow range of our senses.

So why does belief require evidence? What stops a person believing something for which there is no evidence?

The simple answer is that evidence causes belief. Evidence is the reason to believe. Evidence is where belief comes from. Yet some persons will claim to believe something for which there is no evidence, how can they be right?

I would say they are not right, they are mistaken. This brings me back to my first two sentences. The person who says they believe in God is mistaken. It is not belief they have, it is faith. This is a distinction which actually has a difference and is independent of the person’s wretched opinion. Why do I say they are mistaken? How do I know?

It is obvious words are not evidence. If I speak the words ‘the earth is flat’ I do not have evidence the earth is flat. If I speak the words ‘clouds are made of candy-floss’ I do not have evidence clouds are made of candy–floss. If I speak the words ‘I believe God exists’ I do not have evidence that God exists, but – and crucially – I would not have evidence that I believed those things existed, either. All I would have would be some internal physiological sensations which I called ‘belief’ when I should be calling them ‘faith.’ So what is the difference between belief and faith? The difference is in how they are caused, not how they feel to the persons experiencing them. Just as one cannot tell the difference between water and vodka by looking, one cannot tell the difference between faith and belief by feeling.

A person could tell the difference between the two by asking what and where is the evidence for what they call ‘belief’? Which of their five senses has been stimulated from outside their body and mind, by something which exists in the real-world – reality – and is detectable directly through those senses or by instruments which detect the stimulant? If the person cannot answer this, they know they are experiencing faith, not belief, when they claim the earth is flat or God exists.

I think it is true that if a person has no evidence for what they say they believe then they do not believe it – they are just unaware of their mistake. But why does this matter?

It matters because words matter and words matter because they are used to demonstrate thoughts. Words cannot be re-defined to suit the speaker as they see fit. The word ‘evidence’ has to mean something in order for it to mean anything, and the word – and the person using it – becomes absurd if the person is allowed to state that they ‘know’ the earth is flat or God exists on the basis of what they ‘feel’ and this is allowed to be taken seriously in the public square. It debases what evidence actually means when claims about reality external to the person are concerned and actually debases things which we know are true by allowing piffle to be spoken about in evidential terms. It equalises junk to truth.

A person who believes God exists should agree with every word so far. Why would someone who believes God exists want their position to be equivalent to someone who says they have ‘evidence’ John Lennon visits them in their dreams, that their ‘belief’ he does this is evidence because it feels real to them, and they can say they have evidence because they are entitled to their opinion?

The ‘gap’ in the argument here is as follows. A person might say that belief in God will not be proven by either the theist or the atheist. This is true. They might then say that because one can never have proof either way, belief in God is a choice. All the talk about flat-earths or candy-floss or dead relatives talking to you is all very well when discussing beliefs which can be proven to be false, but when no proof is available – a person has no choice but to choose. (And there’s a problem with that idea lurking not too far under the surface, is there not…)

They have travelled along the road of reason and logic and come to the fork in that road. Now they must choose. Belief in God or no belief in God?

Yes, this really is what some people think.

This stupid ‘argument’ – which is an insult to the intelligence (but not quite as much an insult as the ‘arguments’ in support of capital punishment) comes from a misunderstanding about what ‘agnostic’ means. Terms like ‘believer’ or ‘unbeliever’ or ‘non-believer’ are separate from what agnostic means because agnostic is a term about what we know, not what we ‘believe’. A person can be a ‘believer’ and will still be an agnostic. We are all agnostics by default. The lack of proof for God either way makes this so.

What does the person have at the fork in the road, as they approach this monumental ‘choice’? Belief in God or no belief in God? If arrived at the point where ‘belief’ in God is one choice on offer, then it follows that the person has no belief as they approach that ‘choice’, for how can they choose something they already have? But if they already have no belief, then how can no belief be a choice, either? For how can a person choose something they already have?
The ‘choice’ is an invention of theists who want to make their position and the position of the atheist equivalent opposites. So they try to claim both positions are ‘beliefs’ or ‘faith positions.’

They are not.

Some theists go to a great deal of trouble to delude themselves.

So, it is reasonable to argue that a person who says they believe in God is mistaken, that they have misidentified faith for belief if their ‘belief’ has no evidence to cause it.

It is reasonable to argue for a definition of evidence because words cannot be re-defined on the whims of the person using them.

It is reasonable to argue that evidence is always external to the person and detectable via one or more of the five senses, or with instruments if the evidence falls outside the narrow range of our senses because it is absurd to say that a delusional person who believes John Lennon visits him in dreams has evidence this happens.

It is reasonable to suggest a ‘believer’ should agree to the above because what kind of believer wants his ‘belief’ (faith) in God to be obviously frivolous and equivalent to the Lennon position?

And it is reasonable to argue that belief/unbelief is never a ‘choice’ because not having one means you already have the other so there is no choice to begin with.

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