Fides et Scientia: Part 1

It is an objection I often hear: Can you prove God exists?

I often wonder what exactly that means. The word "proof," despite all its connotations of absolute certainty, has subtly different shades of meaning.

In mathematics or logic, for example, a proof is (ironically) fullproof - if you accept the initial postulates, which cannot themselves be proved. In law, however, "proof" is merely a measure of how convinced a judge or jury is of a certain charge. The phrase "beyond a reasonable doubt" comes to mind (begging the question of who, exactly, is reasonable).

So can we prove God exists? Probably not in the former, purely logical sense of the word; God is far too abstract, and logic far too indefinite. (I would argue, however, that there are very strong arguments for the existence of God set in a logical setting.)

There are also difficulties with the latter, "legal" sense of the word. Whether or not someone is convinced of God's existence will very much depend on how they weigh and evaluate the "evidence," which will very much depend on their emotional reactions to the idea of God. Brilliant men have both worshiped and rejected God, based much more on their predispositions than on any empirical evaluation. As Pascal said, "People almost invariably arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof but on the basis of what they find attractive." (That being said, after reading extensively on this issue, I have never seen any useful alternative to God proposed that was not itself God in some form. We all eventually must worship something.)

In short, there is no clean, magical proof that will supersede a person's desire not to believe in God. The Will to Disbelieve (to reference William James), as it were, can be just as powerful as any religious devotion. It is, in fact, itself a religious devotion.

But is a formal proof necessary to believe in God? Do we require formal proofs for all the propositions we accept? Not at all!

Consider this question: "Can I (Speaker for the Dead) prove that my father is not a murderer?" My response: "How could I?" When I am at school, my father could hypothetically be anywhere; when I am asleep, my father could hypothetically do anything. (If this were insufficient, he lived thirty years before I was even born!) The simple truth is that I cannot.

Does this mean I believe my father is a murderer? Does it mean that I remain "agnostic" on the issue, saying I can never know? Not at all. What it means is that absolute certainty - proof - is not necessary to accept a proposition. (If it were, we could not accept anything.)

(The argument could be made that my belief in my father's innocence is based more in emotion than in reason. But the mere fact that we are emotionally prone to accept certain ideas says nothing about the actual validity of those ideas. The truth is that we can never extricate emotion from our reasoning process, try as we might. Though it may be true that belief in God is "wishful thinking," it is also true that many non-theists "wish" God did not exist.)

Likewise, the idea of God - encompassing morality, aesthetics, metaphysics, human emotion, spirituality, fate, and many other sensitive topics - cannot be treated as a mathematical syllogism which can only be accepted if empirically proved.

Am I lowering the standards for belief? If proof is not required, can we not then believe anything?

No. That proof is unnecessary does not imply that evidence is unnecessary (or nonexistent).

Consider the commonly held proposition that all life evolved from ancient simple organisms (a keystone of Darwinism). This proposition is not merely a scientific one, but a historical one; it is a statement about past events. To prove it empirically would be impossible, requiring knowledge of every genotypic mutation of every species - ever. Nevertheless, it is almost universally accepted within the scientific community, because the extant set of data (which falls far below the standard of "proof") is sufficient for them.

Why should God's existence be held to a higher standard?

(Here, I have not addressed evidence for or against God's existence. My thesis is only that no empirical, absolute proof is required to believe in God. Such a standard, in my opinion, merely evidences the personal need of some to avoid God at any cost.)


Elena said...

I enjoyed this. :) Hadn't thought of questioning the very concept of a proof itself.