Claims and Evidence

A claim is an assertion that something is a fact. “The world is round” is a claim. So is “the moon is made of cheese,” “the genetic material is composed of DNA,” and “the gravitational force applies equally at all scales of mass.”

Other than the one about the moon, all the above claims are based on evidence. Let’s look at some of the scientific examples.

When the claim that DNA was the molecule that governed inheritance was first put forward as a hypothesis, it was roundly rejected by the great majority of scientists, partly because of a lack of evidence, but mostly because it appeared to be entirely implausible. Arguments against DNA were focused on the fact that almost everything that happens in cells had been demonstrated to be mediated by protein enzymes. No one thought there was any reason why this should not also include genes.

Then in the 1940s, a scientist named Oswald Avery showed in experiments that it was the nucleic acid fraction of cells, and not the protein fraction, that was carrying the genetic information from cells to their offspring, at least in bacteria. This new evidence elevated the claim to some extent, but it was still not at all universally accepted, because of the continued sense of implausibility. How could the relatively simple DNA molecule (simple in the sense of being composed of only a few chemical components) encode complex information? The answer might lie in the details of the long polymeric structure of DNA, but nobody knew anything about it back then. And that’s where Watson and Crick came in. Their solution to the structure immediately showed that it was the sequence of the bases, and not simply their composition, that was the key to how genes worked. Now the plausibility of the claim being true became so much higher, and combined with Avery’s evidence and the evidence from later experiments, it was finally accepted that DNA is the genetic molecule.

Another way to frame a claim with no evidence and very low plausibility is to call it an extraordinary claim. Such claims are fairly common in science, especially if we include brand new ideas in the category of low plausibility. But the idea that such claims require “extraordinary” evidence to be considered true is wrong. There is in fact no such thing as extraordinary evidence. The term does not appear in the scientific literature. There is weak evidence and strong evidence, and they have nothing to do with the strength (or plausibility) of the claim. Less plausible claims might require stronger evidence to be believed than more plausible claims, but even weak evidence will immediately increase the plausibility of the claim, so in the end, whatever the initial plausibility of the claim, its truth will require the same degree of evidentiary strength.

Sometimes a very plausible claim with strong evidence, to the point that the claim is accepted as factual, can be overturned by additional weak evidence. The claim about the scale independence of the role of gravity was overturned by the evidence from mathematical research into the relationship between quantum and gravitational fields, which show that gravitation does not in fact extend to the atomic scale of matter. Stronger evidence was later found to confirm this counterintuitive truth about nature.

Another approach to the relationship of claims and evidence comes from the legal system, which can be applied to science in a general way. Testimony from a witness is considered evidence, and the strength of the evidence could depend on the characteristics of the witness. If a dozen highly respected members of the community, with no particular motivation to lie, all testify to something, and they are opposed by a single person with a criminal record and a strong reason to evade the truth, the weight of the evidence will clearly fall in one direction.

How does all of this relate to evidence for a Divine being, a Creator, God? It is clear that scientific proof for God’s existence does not exist. But what about evidence? There is evidence both for and against the existence of a supernatural Being, some of it coming from what we know scientifically about the natural world, since God’s creation should be expected to reflect something about the nature of the Creator. Most of this evidence relates to the proposition that there is something missing in a purely naturalistic model for how the physical and biological worlds came to be and how they work. The fine-tuning of so many physical and cosmological constants, the origin of life, the origin of biological information, and the mysteries of consciousness are some of these pieces of evidence. Calling them God of the gaps does nothing to dismiss them as evidence, since all evidence can at some future point be refuted by new discoveries.

A great deal of evidence is based on the absence of alternative theories (including the nature of proteins as the genetic molecule). But in addition to that kind of evidence, there is an overwhelming amount of nonscientific evidence for the reality of Jesus Christ as God incarnate. This includes historical and written evidence, eyewitness testimony, and subjective stories of the impact of religious belief on millions of people. One can easily dismiss the claims of human beings as false, illusory, impossible, etc., but again, those kinds of judgments can at most lower the strength of such evidence, they do not remove it from consideration. If they did, our entire legal system would collapse.

So it is completely false to claim that there is no evidence for God. There is both strong and weak evidence for God. As time goes by, some evidence will be dismissed, and new evidence will be discovered, as has happened in the past, in both science and philosophy. Meanwhile, each of us are free to believe in our own subjective evidence in salvation from grace and the deity of Jesus, without need to fear that all evidence for our beliefs is lacking. When the time comes, each of us who believe will learn that we were right, and those who do not believe may learn they were wrong. But if believers are wrong, we will never find out, and neither will nonbelievers learn they were right. Until then, follow all the evidence, weak and strong, and keep the faith.  

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4 Responses to Claims and Evidence

  1. Ignoring that last appeal, in that I might also blow the joy of an infinitely valuable, once-and-only life in a vain grasping at the non-existent… (I’m surprised that you went there, Sy) 😉

    I think there’s simply a limit on what can be known, if merely as Fitch’s, ” Paradox of Knowability”, that if some truths are unknown then some truths are unknowable. And this a fundamental epistemological challenge to both verificationism as well anti‐realism. “Knowledge” simply has structural limits.

    Evidence is that which is relevant to evaluating propositions of truth to which one is ignorant. And since knowledge isn’t analyzed in terms of justification, there’s no circularity of reasoning to using knowledge to analyze justification by evidence. And that being the case, I think it’s fair to assume that the probability of accurate knowledge can be improved by approaching it with evidence… an objective rather than subjective Bayesian epistemology.

    Regardless, we form our perceptions and beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, and emotive psychological reasons. And then, we then defend, justify, and rationalize them through reasoning, argument, and rational explanation. If I believe in “free-will”, then Ψ describes a universe that bends to it. If I do not, then it simply describes a fixed history described by the additive rules of classical probability. Belief first; explanation follows… belief-dependent realism. Existence manifests itself as the mere patterns on a self-painted canvas, entirely independent of, and yet entirely dependent upon human minds.

    • I am surprised that you are surprised, since this blog, “The Book of Works” is primarily about science and faith, though probably leaning a bit more to the science side (the book of God’s Works in the original). I don’t disagree with the rest of the comment.

      • Of course I know that. I was just giving you a friendly poke in the ribs for the appeal to Pascal’s wager.
        Regardless, I very much enjoy and appreciate the honest and intelligent perspective on that fundamental core of belief. Good cheer to you, always!

  2. dgilmanjm says:

    Love this post Sy.

    The idea that “extraordinary” claims require “extraordinary” evidence to be considered true is wrong. You are disagreeing with Anthony Flew. Love that!!

    My study of biology so convinced me that life as we know it did not come about by natural causes makes me puzzled that there are atheistic biologists.

    You can explain this much much better than I can:

    For life as we know it to exist, DNA must exist along with its repair system. When that many highly improbable things must all happen in the same place at the same time, the only logical inference is that it was deliberate.

    Science does not identify God; science never identifies the artisan of an artifact. For that, you need historical evidence, which must include eyewitnesses.

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