googlef87758e9b6df9bec.html A Sure Word: When asking for evidence becomes a red herring

Thursday, February 8, 2018

When asking for evidence becomes a red herring

When I discuss the existence of God or creation with unbelievers or evolutionists, I'm often confronted with demands for evidence. I understand. Some things are harder to believe than others. If I were talking with someone I'd just met, and he told me he has a dog, I would tend to believe him. In my 50+ years of this life, I've known lots of people who own dogs. Based on my experience, owning dogs is usual and a claim to own a dog is reasonable.

If, on the other hand, a stranger told me he owned a sloth, I might be more suspicious. I know sloths exist but it's not usual that people own them as pets. I might ask him where he got a sloth and where does he keep it? If he says he found it as a stray and took it home, I would likely conclude he's lying. If he said, instead, that he operates an animal rescue, the sloth was recovered from a smuggler of exotic animals, he lives on a large piece of land outside of town, and now he keeps the sloth there in a secure enclosure, I would not be as quick to dismiss his claim. Now what he is saying is plausible. I could ask him more questions like, what does he feed the sloth and what does he do with it during the cold months? How reasonable his answers are will lend credibility to his claim to own a sloth.

My point is this: we make judgments about the truthfulness of claims all the time. Sometimes we have evidence that helps us make a judgment but often we don't. In fact, usually we don't. An employee is late because, “There was an accident.” Your son says, “I'm spending the night at Johnny's.” A student tells the teacher, “My dog ate my homework.” As soon as we hear claims like these, before we have a shred of evidence, we already begin to form opinions about whether they are true. We're not “blank slates” who approach every question with complete objectivity. We all have biases, experiences, and prejudices that influence our judgment. What is my history with this person? What do I think of his character? How plausible is what he says?

Over my years of studying apologetics, I constantly encounter skeptics who demand “evidence.” They will ask me what evidence do I have for a recent creation? What evidence do I have that the Bible is true? What is the evidence for God? I understand why someone would ask questions like these. It's like me asking questions to the person claiming to own a sloth – he's trying to decide how likely it is that what I'm saying is true. I welcome sincere questions. However, it's my opinion that most of the time, people who demand “evidence” before believing anything about God or the Bible, are using their demand for evidence as a red herring to derail the conversation.


Following are some statements I often hear from skeptics about evidence. I'm sure you've probably heard most of these too. I'm going to use them to illustrate my point.

I don't believe anything without evidence.”

When I hear people say this, my first response usually is to ask them, “What evidence led you to believe that you must have evidence to believe anything?” I ask this to try to get them to see that they really do believe some things without any evidence. Of course, I can't recall a time anyone conceded that point. They usually respond with a lot of bluff and bluster but I've never had anyone actually show me evidence to support this belief.

Here's the case: most people aren't scientists. They don't conduct experiments. They don't have laboratories. They don't do research. They haven't seen any evidence for evolution. Instead, they've heard the secular theories and explanations of the evidence and have chosen to believe them. So they do, indeed, believe some things without evidence. Their demand to creationists to provide evidence is essentially special pleading aimed at forcing creationists to play by the arbitrary rules of the evolutionist.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Carl Sagan made this famous quote but, just like the quote above, it doesn't stand up to its own standard. Some might say Sagan's statement is an extraordinary claim; where is the extraordinary evidence that proves it's true?

The fact of the matter is that even extraordinary claims often require only ordinary evidence. Take a resurrection, for example. To prove someone has risen from the dead, you need only to show he was once alive, that he died, and that he was later alive again. When we discuss the resurrection of Christ, we talk about the written accounts made by people who knew Him intimately during His ministry, who were witnesses to His death, and who later saw Him alive again. They talked with Him, touched Him, even ate with Him after they saw Him die. Yet, instead of trying to impeach this compelling evidence, many critics simply dismiss it saying the Resurrection requires “extraordinary” evidence. So you can see that the demand for extraordinary evidence is a gimmick that allows skeptics to dismiss much of the evidence for God, the Bible, and Christianity without really having to rebut any of it.

Claims made without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

By now, you can probably already see the flaw in this statement. Saying, “claims made without evidence cane be dismissed without evidence,” is itself a claim and, so, must have evidence to support it. The critic who makes this claim is basically giving me a free pass to ignore it!

Even though the statement contradicts itself, critics still employ it as a way to excuse themselves from having to answer logical arguments. Let me give you an example: nothing can create itself. Are we agreed? So for nature to exist, it had to be created by something outside of nature – something “super” natural. Logically speaking, this is a valid argument for the existence of a supernatural Creator. It's so simple, yet so obvious that many critics have difficulty refuting it. Instead, they say, “Well,... do you have evidence for a supernatural Creator?”

Something can be true and have no evidence. Where is the evidence for Washington's crossing of the Delaware? No amount of scientific inquiry will discover it. The only reason we know it happened is because people who lived at that time wrote about it. Much of what we know about God is also what has been written down by the apostles and the prophets.

But besides the historical evidence, we do have compelling logical arguments for God. If we know scientifically, that matter/energy cannot be created naturally, then it must have been created supernaturally. We know that complexity and purpose are the characteristics of created things and so point to a Creator. We know that objectivity morality can only exist if there is a transcendent Lawgiver. I'm not asking for anyone to believe in God with a blind faith. I'm asking them to confront the many arguments that have already been made and quit hiding behind a flimsy demand for more evidence.

Further reading:

3 comments:

Steven J. said...

I think you're conflating epistemological claims ("these would be good grounds for believing that X is true") with ontological claims ("X is in fact true"). I don't see how you would go about adducing evidence for the proposition that evidence is a reason for believing something (if you really think it isn't, why should -- how could -- evidence dissuade you?). Rather, such claims are axiomatic: they are accepted because we can't help but believe them.

Your own analogy shows the principles at work. If you friend tells you he owns a dog, you are likely to simply believe him, assuming you don't have experience with him being a pathological liar. On such matters, you do have evidence -- your friend usually tells the truth about such matters, and you know it from personal experience. If I, who've never met him and show no signs of knowing anything about him, though, say he has a dog, you're going to ask how I know -- and my failure to provide any good reason is likely to make you dismiss my claim without going to the trouble to prove me wrong.

You note that you'd have more questions, and more doubts, if your friend claimed to have a pet sloth. I suspect that if he claimed to have a pet stegosaurus, you wouldn't believe his unsupported word no matter how much detail he provided about its care and diet. You'd want, at least, to see for yourself. If you don't like "extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence," try "the amount of evidence must be proportional to the unlikelyhood of the proposition."

You don't really get into the problem of interpretation of evidence: how many different phenomena could account for the evidence we have, and what is the most likely explanation for it? Above, this is implicit in the question of whether your neighbor with the alleged pet is lying or deluded, or telling the truth. Given that we know that eyewitnesses can lie (even about being eyewitnesses), or be mistaken, or be misunderstood by those who relay their accounts, these things need to be taken into account with witness or alleged witness testimony. Other problems arise with circumstantial and forensic evidence (and, I suppose, since most of the time we're depending on other people's accounts of such evidence, the problem of incorrect eyewitness testimony arises even here.

Steven J. said...

Where is the evidence for Washington's crossing of the Delaware? No amount of scientific inquiry will discover it. The only reason we know it happened is because people who lived at that time wrote about it.

I don't think that anyone has ever questioned Washington's crossing of the Delaware on, e.g. the grounds that it was physically impossible, or made absolutely no sense in the context of the Revolutionary War, or contradicted rival accounts of that War, or that if true, we would have evidence for it that we lack. In other words, it is not an extraordinary claim: it's more like a pet dog than like a pet triceratops.

Much of what we know about God is also what has been written down by the apostles and the prophets.

Quite a bit (including the scriptures of multiple religions) has been written down by various people claiming to be apostles and prophets. Presumably not all of them are telling the truth, because they contradict one another.

If we know scientifically, that matter/energy cannot be created naturally, then it must have been created supernaturally.

One obvious contrary possibility is that matter and energy are uncreated and have, in some fashion, always existed (this might imply a cyclic universe, or we might simply abandon the idea that either time extends infinitely into the past or was created at some point, and just accept that time only goes so far into the past and that's all there is to say about it).

We know that complexity and purpose are the characteristics of created things and so point to a Creator.

Complexity is a characteristic of designers working under constraint: a computer is complicated because we don't know how to make a simpler thing with the same capabilities. Omnipotence could bestow sapience, sentience, and motility upon a rock or a mud puddle; complexity is an argument for a finitely powerful cause of living things and their adaptions.


We know that objectivity morality can only exist if there is a transcendent Lawgiver.

Sam Harris would disagree with you; he has argued that morality can be grounded on objective facts about human beings. Richard Dawkins, on the other hand, has argued that since, e.g. modern Christians don't approve of stoning homosexuals to death (despite that supposedly being the command of a morally perfect God), Christians don't really base their morality on the supposed objective commands of God, but like everyone else are stuck with a subjective morality built on a foundation of quicksand. He doesn't want to argue that "anything goes," and I don't think he differs much in practice from Sam Harris' position, but the problem of demonstrating that there is an "objective" morality as opposed to a morality that most people just agree with, is quite difficult.

RKBentley said...

Steven J,

Thanks for your comments. I'm sorry for the delay in publishing them. I'm not sure what happened. For some reason, I haven't been getting alerts on your comments. What's really weird is that another visitor (Jason Head) left a comment in between two of yours and I did receive a notice and published that one. Very strange.

A person on twitter made the same point as you've made, that my increased skepticism of the claim to own a sloth demonstrates Sagan's point that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Perhaps I didn't articulate my argument as well as I could have. My point is that I am able to form an opinion about the truthfulness of the claim WITHOUT having to see the sloth.

Like I said in my post, no one is truly a blank slate. We have biases, prejudices, and presuppositions that weigh into every judgment we make. I'm less likely to believe a person has a pet sloth than a pet dog because I have already learned that pet dogs are common and pet sloths aren't. And you're right, I'm not sure how likely it is that anyone could convince me of having a pet stegosaurus without seeing it for myself. That's because I'm already fairly certain that they're all extinct. Of course, I would be more apt to believe an account of a dinosaur sighting than you would be because I believe dinosaurs were contemporary with man as recently as a few centuries ago. You believe they were wiped out 60+ million years ago.

It is about epistemology. That's why it's called presuppositional apologetics. It's getting people to rethink their prejudices. I'm convinced that most people who claim to be atheists simply don't want to believe in God. No amount of evidence will ever be enough for someone who refuses to believe. My refusal to believe in the pet stegosaurus has no bearing on whether or not the person truly owns a pet stegosaurus. If a habitually liar tells me it's raining, his bad reputation has no effect on the weather. If an atheist refuses to believe in God, that doesn't mean there is no God.

Thanks again for your comments. God bless!!

RKBentley