Sunday, October 23, 2016

Evidence For The Divine: A Sunday Rumination

     Blanket statements about people deserve a thinking man’s suspicion. Who among us has met everyone who’s ever lived? Not I, certainly. Yet there are...persons who’ll glibly toss off generalities about human motivation as if God Himself had revealed all the secrets of Nature to them. That irritates me, to say the least.

     Here’s a recent one that sounds wise, in a contemporary, highly cynical fashion:

     No man is so virtuous that he can resist the highest bidder.

     Really? Do you suppose he knows this from personal experience? I can name several without stopping to think that gave everything, their lives included, rather than renounce their highest principles. Among them were men an Emperor had offered to raise to a great height, if they would only agree to renounce their faith and kneel before him.

     I don’t expect much from most people. Mediocrity is the rule. But he who vents his opinions about Mankind should bear in mind his own membership therein; his statements about us should not suggest that he views us from some superior position. And a blogger who casually tosses off the phrase “religious nuts” about men of sincere faith – men who, in some cases, have paid heavily for their faith – has two and a half strikes against him from the outset. But that’s all to the side.

     What I really want to talk about today is the evidence for the existence of God.

     Not too long ago, I viewed a YouTube video made by a physicist, in which he claimed that the existing consensus about the origin of the universe constituted proof of the existence of God. It was a clever pitch, and I admired it somewhat, but it had a fatal flaw: in reality, we do not know how the universe came to be. What we have is a conjecture that cosmological theorists have rallied around. However, as none of them were present to witness the actual event, conjecture it is and shall remain.

     Proof of the Divine is denied to us by our natures as limited, mortal creatures whose powers of observation are tentative and uncertain. We’re even deludable, which throws a monkey wrench into a personal witness of any phenomenon that resists being reproduced. So proof of the existence of God, in the sense of an irrefutable demonstration of veracity, is beyond us. But then, proof is beyond us in all matters that touch upon reality.

     What remains when proof has been excluded is evidence. The law allows for “persuasive but not conclusive” evidence for a proposition, which a jury is allowed to include in its considerations. Evidence can be persuasive to one mind though another shrugs it aside. And of course, it can be for or against the proposition at hand.

     Concerning varieties of evidence, there is one sort that distinguishes disprovable propositions from those that must remain matters of faith: evidence that arises from prediction. A disprovable proposition is one that links a cause to an effect. It will always be of the following form:

  1. Given certain specific initial conditions,
  2. If stimulus X arises,
  3. Consequence Y will result no more than Z seconds later.
If we can formulate an experiment whose outcome would test such a hypothesis, the hypothesis is disprovable. If the initial conditions are met, stimulus X is applied, and consequence Y fails to occur within Z seconds, the hypothesis has been disproved.

     But there can never be such an experiment about the existence of God.

     I’ve written in the past about the process of definition, so I’ll spare you any repetition of that material. In brief, definition is appropriate only to categories: sets of items that share observable characteristics. A unique thing that’s incapable of being reproduced is equally incapable of being defined. When the Thing under consideration is held to be outside our spatiotemporal universe, we should know better than to attempt to define it.

     God is such a Thing. We cannot know Him in His entirety. Our human limitations make that impossible. However, theists attribute certain characteristics to Him with a degree of confidence:

  • Omnipotence (from our perspective);
  • Omniscience (again, from our perspective);
  • Justice;
  • Mercy.

     (Note that the last two attributes temper one another. Absolute justice would know no mercy; unlimited mercy would leave no room for justice. But this is the least of our difficulties in “coming to grips” with God.)

     Insofar as the nature and history of the universe as we know it are consistent with the existence of a Creator with those characteristics, it is permissible to take them as evidence of such a Creator. However, they do not and cannot constitute proof. An infinite number of possible explanations exist for every aspect of spatiotemporal reality, and many of them make no room for God. He who prefers one of the non-theistic alternates has a perfect right to his convictions.

     But there is another kind of evidence, equally disputable but in many ways the most persuasive of all: the willingness of good men to sacrifice everything for their faith in God.

     History is replete with stories of men who, offered the choice of renunciation or death by torture, chose the latter. The Founder of Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth, is the best known. (And yes, He was a man as well as the Son of God; both parts were vital to His mission.) But what’s more striking than that the Redeemer should have accepted torture and crucifixion is the willingness of His Apostles, and hundreds of saints over the subsequent centuries, to make the very same choice.

     Once again, however persuasive these data might be, they are not conclusive. Men are capable of being deluded. Some immerse themselves in fantasy lives impervious to reality. It’s for each man who lives to decide whether to be persuaded.

     I have so decided. Your preferences are your own affair.

     The secular tendency of our age is such that any degree of religiosity is sufficient for someone to call you a “religious nut.” Nor is there any shield against such an epithet. I can testify to that from experience: my wife thinks of me that way. The problem is exacerbated by the behavior of many Christians to dismiss or demean non-believers. That’s quite as wrong as the converse.

     Yet we improve, little by little. Over the centuries Christians have unlearned the prejudices and arrogances that caused them to disparage others (to say nothing of the historical persecutions we should have learned from our own experience to eschew). Today’s Christians tend to be far more tolerant of others than those others are of us – and I regard this, too, as evidence of the existence of God, for if our theocosmogony is at all correct, He would not wish us to push others away with disdain or contempt.

     I know there are nonbelievers among the Gentle Readers of Liberty’s Torch. I’ve said many times that theirs is a defensible position, and I’ll stand by that. But to my Christian readers I address what might be the most important thought I’ve ever had:

What would benefit the social and political order of these United States more than this: that an overwhelming majority of Americans might become sincere and humble Christians?

     At this time, 74% of us identify ourselves that way...yet as a sociopolitical body we often behave rather differently. Perhaps the time has come for each of us to ask himself:

Do I really believe?
If so, what does that imply?

     May God bless and keep you all.


downeast hillbilly said...

Thank you for your ruminations, this one particularly. For one whose mind is not settled in these matters,they provide valuable grist for the mill.

Jimmy the Saint said...

Years ago, I had a biology teacher who was an almost-unbelievably devout Christian. He had a tendency to get preachy that was pretty annoying, but there was no doubting his ardor.

He explained why he was such a believer, though. The study of biology basically shows that humans are nothing more than mobile pain sensors that only exist to make more copies of themselves. He said he simply couldn't accept that that was the entirety of existence, and there had to be something more.

I'm about as irreligious as they come, but that's always stuck with me.

Anonymous said...

It is indeed curious that a nation that claims to be majority Christian can countenance abortion and the so called 'right-to-die'. I pray that God will spare this country its due if only for the sake of the one (few?) truly good people in it.

As for those who say every man has his price.. perhaps they are engaging in transference. Even with those who will die for their faith they too have a price - eternal life with Our Lord. A very wise, yet difficult, choice to make.

downeast hillbilly said...

I keep running into either a variant of "Pascal's Wager" or the snarky "An agnostic is just an atheist who lacks the courage of his convictions." I reject both.

Anonymous said...

If, as a Christian, I'm not to dismiss, demean or disparage, what have you left me as a tool of change? My opponent will gladly take any love shown as an indication of surrender and, without guilt, will make new demands. If I turn the other cheek, it will be promptly struck, accompanied by new demands. The pattern continues. Now what?
Historically, in Christian society, dismissal, demeaning and disparaging are EXACTLY the tools used, and they were used promptly and effectively.


downeast hillbilly said...

Demean and disparage all you like, and good luck with that. For the record, I make no demands, but we agnostics are absolute magnets for evanelicals, all of whom demand the chance to proselytize. Prompt, but not effective, especially when they emit mindless tripe. Pascal's wager effectively auctions one's soul to the highest bidder. With apologies to Rev. Dodgson, snark is inventive, but ultimately meaningless, except as a means to "score points." Effective? No.