There is a very popular atheist argument that only objective “scientific” facts count as evidence for anything. I call this the Objectivist Fallacy (OF), which is a form of scientism. Examples of the OF include the often-heard statements and questions addressed to theists “How can you believe in something you cannot prove?” and “I am rational – I only believe what has been objectively proven with scientific evidence”. Then there are the evidentiary statements like “Your feelings are not evidence” and “Please list any evidence for the existence of God”, by which they mean experimental, objective, and repeatable evidence, as would be useful for establishing the existence of a new planet or a new species.
We can see that the objectivist arguments of atheists are fallacious when applied to many areas of human thought such as artistic criticism, creativity (even scientific creativity), politics, economics, fashion and popular culture. The idea that there exists a single factual truth, demonstrable by objective evidence, is actually a faith statement without much basis from objective evidence in the majority of cases. It is not even universally true in science – far from it.
I think most people would agree that it makes no sense to ask for objective evidence to back up the following statements of belief:
“Kandinsky is the greatest artist of the past 150 years.”
“Wagner was a terrible composer.”
“The Democratic Party platform is the only hope for national survival.”
Arguments can be marshalled in favor or against each of these, but the idea of finding objective evidence to prove any of them is absurd. I once asked an atheist objectivist if there was any way to gather objective scientific evidence for the quality of artwork. He said that such evidence is simple – the commercial value of a piece of artwork gives a quantitative “objective” measure of its quality. I think that answer illustrates, if anything, the depth of desperation that anti-theists find themselves when resorting to these arguments.
Here are some other such statements:
“The origin of life began with metabolic cycles, and replicator molecules were a later addition.”
“The origin of life began with replicators, which allowed for metabolism to occur.”
“Both replication and metabolism, each of which depend on the other, occurred simultaneously during the origin of life.”
These three scientific statements represent beliefs based on the same body of data, and the scientists who are proponents of these divergent viewpoints have for many decades fiercely debated them.
One might argue that scientific disputes happen all the time (indeed they do) but they are all eventually resolved by more evidence. And yes, that happens most of the time, but not always. There are some areas of science where different interpretations of the same facts have led to divergent viewpoints that have persisted, despite piles of evidence, for almost a century. One of these areas involves the various interpretations of quantum mechanics. Another is the origin of life.
My point is that the demand for evidence is fallacious when applied to issues of faith. If someone says that she felt herself called by the Holy Spirit and discovered faith after some personal crisis, the objectivist might ask her for verifiable evidence, beyond her own testimony that this really happened. If she reports that she experienced a dream or a vision, she would be told that “feelings don’t count, they are simply brain chemistry.” As if this provides any sort of argument against the reality of the woman’s experience. The idea that the scientific discovery of a neurological correlate or mechanism for a subjective experience renders that experience somehow “not real” is profoundly non-scientific.
What the people who use the OF fail to understand is that not all evidence is objective. The faith claim that it is cannot be proven to be true, and is easily falsified for so many areas of human endeavor. Most of the things we know come from subjective experience, without any possibility of being objectively proven. If I am asked what I ate for breakfast three days ago, I might remember, but I cannot back up my claim with any evidence. Courts of law tend to trust eyewitness reports from reliable people, even though it often cannot be objectively corroborated. If we were to reject the truth of all subjective experience on the grounds that they are not scientifically confirmed, we could not live or remain sane.
So, the next time you hear an atheist say “Where is your evidence for your sky daddy?” you can respond with “Sorry, that is the ‘Objectivist Fallacy’” and move on.
I love your examples. Thank you!
Good stuff, Sy. On a somewhat related note, I was talking with a friend of mine about these multiple layers of truth to life and specifically science, We are both musicians and so we made the comparison to musical genres in that there are several different ways of playing music, but they all use the basic elements of notes, chords, melodies, rhythm, and so on. In the same way, I see that in how biology, chemistry, physics, and other studies are all different genres of the same essential big picture: nature, what we would gladly call God’s creation. Each is important, and each gives special insights into God’s creativity, And they’re not the entire thing. God gave us many ways to see His creation, after all. I’m very thankful for that.
Great post. One of my favourite conundrums (as a biologist) is what came first – the DNA which is needed to synthesize the proteins or the proteins which are needed to synthesize the DNA?
It all comes down to belief in the end. We can all agree that the Universe had a beginning. That time, matter, energy all came from nothing. As theists we believe that God was the instigator of all things, whilst atheists believe that “something else” started it. It often appears to me that we are the rational ones and they are the ones who believe in magic.
Yes, Tricia, I totally agree. When I was an atheist, I was taught that there are some questions we dont ask, because they have no answers. Not a very scientific approach to the world.