The Language of God: On Darwin

The Language of God, Chapter 4

By B.J. Marshall

Collins spends only three pages discussing the history of Darwin’s publishing his theory of evolution through natural selection, but there are a few points that I want to discuss concerning how Collins (and apologists in general) lift quotes, provide misinformation, and arrange material to help guide the reader to draw certain conclusions. Now, I’m not saying that atheological counter-apologists – if I may use such a phrase – are immune from committing these same errors. I am saying that, as a critical reader, it is important to notice these things. Or, at least, it’s important to ask a few questions.

One such question is, “Did [whomever the author is attributing a quote] actually say that?” One example is when Collin cites Darwin’s last sentence in the last chapter (Recapitulations and Conclusions) of “On the Origin of Species”:

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved” (p.98-9).

So, I found a copy of the first edition of On the Origin of Species at both TalkOrigins and Project Gutenberg. Neither copy of the first edition contains the words “by the Creator.” I was sure to check multiple sources in order to corroborate evidence – I consider Project Gutenberg a neutral source, whereas I’m sure Creationists could argue that Talk Origins is biased. Richard Dawkins mentions the omission of “by the Creator” in this video. There are web sites that mention Darwin being pressured to include “by the Creator,” but I cannot substantiate or corroborate those claims yet. I did get a distinct sense that Darwin was writing in a similar vein as Laplace, when the latter told Napoleon he “had no need of that hypothesis [of God]“.

While I fully grant that Darwin’s subsequent editions of “Origins” included “by the Creator,” I found it interesting that Collins simply took this for granted. Honestly, though, I imagine most people take the “by the Creator” part for granted. The concept of natural selection is difficult enough for people to wrestle with; the lay reader probably doesn’t know or care about differences among editions. But that raises another point: The reader – at least Collins’ intended audience – probably just takes his word for it, thus falling prey to an argument from authority.

Another example of lifting quotes is the dreaded ellipsis (…). Collins uses is when describing how Darwin did not see the conflict between evolution by natural selection and religious belief.

“I see no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of anyone…. A celebrated author and divine has written to me that ‘he has gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that He created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms, as to believe that He required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the action of His laws’ (p.98).”

The part Collins omits involves a comparison to how the great discovery of the law of gravity was attacked by Leibniz. OK, not a terrible thing to exclude, since a Leibniz attack doesn’t affect the context or meaning of the passage being quoted. But it’s still good to check. Of course, the “celebrated author” still misses the point. Darwin’s point was to show that populations of species change over time. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection doesn’t have anything to say about abiogenesis, which is what the “celebrated author” seems to purport. To me, it seems that Collins includes this quote about the “celebrated author” as a red herring.

Finally, Collins talks about how Darwin’s personal beliefs “remain ambiguous” and seemed to vary throughout the last years of his life (p.99). First, I’m not sure whether Collins wants to paint Darwin in a bad light here, as if changing one’s beliefs is a bad thing. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but a less charitable person might not. Collins drops two quotes here with no context:

“At one time, [Darwin] said, ‘Agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.’ At another time [Darwin] wrote that he was greatly challenged by ‘the extreme difficulty, or rather the impossibility, of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity for looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflect I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man, and I deserve to be called a Theist’ (p.99).”

I want to first address the typical misunderstanding between (a)gnosticism and (a)theism. Many videos are around that cover this topic, but here it is in a nutshell. (A)gnosticism is a position about knowledge; (a)theism is a position about belief. Here’s how one can break it down:

  • Agnostic atheist: I do not believe any gods exist, but I don’t know that they don’t. Examples include me and Matt Dillihunty, who leave ourselves open to the possibility that a god might exist.
  • Gnostic atheist: I know no gods exist.
  • Agnostic theist: I believe a god(s) exist, but I don’t know that it/he/she/they don’t.
  • Gnostic theist: I know a god(s) exist. Examples include William Lane Craig, who asserts that the self-authentication of the Holy Spirit is enough to convince him of God’s existence even in the face of any possible evidence you could throw at him. (Also mentioned early in his book Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics.)

Now that’s out of the way, I want to discuss these two quotes that Collins tosses about. Even if we concede that agnosticism and atheism are not compatible (which I wouldn’t normally do), there’s no way of telling which quote came first. Was Darwin agnostic/atheistic before or after he was a Theist? I found the Theist quote on page 93 of Darwin’s autobiography, but the surrounding context for this quote doesn’t look so good for Collins. Immediately following that sentence, Darwin continues:

“This conclusion was strong in my mind about the time, as far as I can remember, when I wrote the Origin of Species; and it is since that time that it has very gradually with many fluctuations become weaker. But then arises the doubt – can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions? May not these be the result of the connection between cause and effect which strikes us as a necessary one, but probably depends merely on inherited experience? Nor must we overlook the probability of the constant inculcation in a belief in God on the minds of children producing so strong and perhaps an inherited effect on their brains not yet fully developed, that it would be as difficult for them to throw off their belief in God, as for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear and hatred of a snake.”

I encourage you to check out that link because the quote I just provided comes with footnotes. It includes an exhortation by Emma Darwin to her son, Francis, to not include a portion of the above so as to avoid pain to Darwin’s religious friends. So, Darwin questioned childhood indoctrination, eh? Why didn’t Collins say anything about that?? Interesting.

While this section didn’t have much to do with the overall theme of Collins’ book – the successful harmonization of science and belief – I’d like to conclude this post with some observations that might help the critical reader:

  1. Question sources: I find it very helpful to take an obscure portion of a quote and Google it. I get better results then when I Google themes like “Darwin Agnostic” and “Darwin Theist.”
  2. Quote mining: I find it helpful not just to find out the correct attribution of a quote, but to also read the surrounding paragraphs or even pages.
  3. Corroborate: Similar to what I did to confirm that the first edition of “Origin” did not include “by the Creator,” it isn’t enough to just find a single source that agrees with your hypothesis. In addition, the source that does agree with your hypothesis might itself be of dubious merit. (For example, I wouldn’t give much credence to the evidence for UFOs by looking at a web site entitled “Uncle Bob’s Story of His First Sober UFO Encounter.”)

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

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  • Reginald Selkirk

    I think it is relevant to note that the word “agnostic” was only coined in 1869 by Darwin’s friend T.H. Huxley, so Darwin could not have claimed to be one before that time.

  • Roi des Faux

    Not wanting to derail the conversation from the main point of your article (which is very good, by the way, I *really* bothers me when people misrepresent information, especially quotations, to further their argument), I think your definition of (a)gnostic is a little off. I don’t see there being a conflict between saying I know something, and being open to the possibility that I’m wrong. For example, I would feel comfortable saying that I know that global warming is really happening, it’s at least significantly attributable to human activity, and it’s going to cause sea levels to rise and weather patterns to shift. However, I am open to the possibility that I’m wrong, contingent on new information/analysis that refutes what I believe. I think the standard you’re using above is that to know something is to claim 100% certainty, which is not how people use the word in most contexts. The functional definition is something like “this is has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt”.

    The other issue is that whenever you talk about god, there are hidden assumptions to what you mean. If someone asks me if I’m an atheist or theist, I say atheist, because that’s true no matter what god they’re talking about. However, if they were to ask whether I’m gnostic or agnostic, my response would be “What do you mean by god?” I’m agnostic about the more subtle theistic gods, but I think that the type of god most people believe in has been shown to not exist beyond a reasonable doubt (and in many cases beyond an unreasonable doubt).

    That being said, I love this series and look forward to reading it every week.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    I’m close to finishing Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, and while he does not really get into discussions regarding the Bible and Biblical Creationism, he does comment favorably on the influence of Christian missionaries in places like Tahiti and New Zealand.

  • John Nernoff

    Last year I read “On the Origin of Species” the Illustrated Edition, general editor David Quammen, 2008, part, inter alia, on the first edition of 1859. I recommend this edition because of the excellent and copious illustrations and sidebars showing excerpts from the original.

    Of note is the lack of “by the creator” in the concluding paragraph.

    Also, many religious apologists are anxious to reconcile evolution with theism, with the characterization of “God” as being good or benevolent. I do not believe this can in good conscience be done. Evolution entails myriads of life forms to be consigned to the chopping block; many are hunted down, tortured, eaten alive or sentenced to death just for practice. Various diseases affect all. How this carnage be subsumed under the aegis of a good god is beyond my understanding of the language.

  • http://pandasthumb.org RBH

    You wrote

    I did get a distinct sense that Darwin was writing in a similar vein as Laplace, when the latter told Napoleon he “had no need of that hypothesis [of God]“.

    From Darwin’s letter of March 29, 1863, to Hooker:

    But I have long regretted that I truckled to public opinion, and used the Pentateuchal term of creation, by which I really meant “appeared” by some wholly unknown process. It is mere rubbish, thinking at present of the origin of life; one might as well think of the origin of matter.

    Darwin wasn’t in Laplace mode but in “We don’t know enough (yet)” mode.

  • konrad_arflane

    One such question is, “Did [whomever the author is attributing a quote] actually say that?” One example is when Collin cites Darwin’s last sentence in the last chapter (Recapitulations and Conclusions) of “On the Origin of Species”:

    While I fully grant that Darwin’s subsequent editions of “Origins” included “by the Creator,” I found it interesting that Collins simply took this for granted.

    1) So the answer to the question you actually ask is an unequivocal “yes”. He did, in fact, say (well, write) that.

    2) How do you know that Collins “took it for granted”? The 1st edition of Origins is the only one that *doesn’t* include “by the Creator”. It hardly seems warranted to criticize a man for “taking for granted” that a book includes a quote which it does, in fact, include in five of its six editions. Why assume that he didn’t check for himself in one or several of the later editions?

    Hell, even if he knew about the absence of the quote in the first edition, it doesn’t go beyond lazy scholarship (ie. not checking if Darwin at any point stated *why* he made the change). When an author issues more than one edition of a work, we generally take the latest edition to be authoritative. If not for the letter quoted above by RBH (or similar evidence), the argument could even be made that “by the Creator” might have been omitted from the first edition by mistake.

    Look, I’m no fan of apologetics, but in this case it appears to me that your prior opinion that “apologists quote-mine” has led you to infer something that just isn’t there.

  • BJ

    @konrad_arflane:

    I think you may be correct that I drew a hasty conclusion.

    I bristled at Collins’ quoting the “by the Creator” part because I’ve read how Darwin regretted inserting that. (Thanks, RBH, for the reference.) The way I understand it, authors usually only change content in future editions to correct errors or improve understanding. Darwin changed his future editions to include “by the Creator” in order to cater to the religious.

    However, my bristling at that comment should not have led me to the conclusion that Collins took the “by the Creator” part for granted.

  • http://cafeeine.wordpress.com Cafeeine

    First, I’m not sure whether Collins wants to paint Darwin in a bad light here, as if changing one’s beliefs is a bad thing. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but a less charitable person might not.

    And in my opinion the less charitable person would be reaching, considering one of the main themes of Collins’ book is that he himself changed his beliefs by turning to Xianity.

  • archimedez

    B.J.,

    “Agnostic theist: I believe a god(s) exist, but I don’t know that it/he/she/they don’t.”

    I think you meant “…but I don’t know that it/he/she/they does/do exist.”

    For my part, I don’t like the mixing of the agnostic and atheist categories, such that one can be an adjective of the other, because it defeats the purpose of having a distinction between atheist and agnostic in general usage, and because belief and knowledge are not different kinds of things but rather are the same kind of thing, just that one has a higher degree of confidence than the other.

    Agnostic, though, at least in the strong form, implies no confidence in the whole enterprise of examining whether or not gods exist; or, worded differently, confidence that the whole enterprise is null/void/meaningless/pointless. That’s conceptually distinct from having no confidence in the claim that god exists. If you’re an agnostic with regard to the (non)existence of gods, you are agnostic in that you believe it is pointless/meaningless/null/void to assign a level of confidence because there is no way of establishing any degree of disbelief or belief in gods.

    If you are an atheist who has been exposed to claims of gods’ existence and don’t believe those claims, you are an atheist because you’ve met the requirement (a) that you have confidence in the enterprise of examining the issue of gods’ existence and in reaching some degree of confidence in your beliefs about it (i.e., it is a viable question), and then, having passed that hurdle, (b) you find that you are confident enough in your belief to conclude that gods probably do not exist. A strong agnostic doesn’t go past hurdle (a).

    Imagine you have a scale where you can assign a level of confidence to your belief in whether or not god exists, where higher numbers indicate net confidence with the proposition.

    God exists God does not exist
    3 2 1 0 1 2 3

    Some people seem to think our definition of agnostic should be diverse enough that an agnostic is someone who would select zero on that scale. However, it is probably more accurate to call such people “undecided,” or “non-committal.” They’ve accepted the idea that one can have a level of confidence in the question; that is, they are willing to play the game of whether or not gods exist. A strong agnostic rejects the game. They would need another option (i.e., “can’t know” or “invalid question” or “does not compute”) beside the scale if they were to respond at all.

    Agnostic atheist can mean an atheist who (1) lacks a belief in god, or doesn’t believe in god, yet at the same time (2) believes/knows the whole question can not yield any degree of confident answers or beliefs one way or the other and that no level of confidence in the (non)existence of god can be assigned. That seems to me a nonsensical construct.

    Anyways, since your agnostic atheist and gnostic atheists differ only in degree of confidence of their beliefs, why not just get rid of the a/gnostic adjectives entirely and replace them with weak and strong?

  • Keith

    I have to question the validity of Collin’s attention to Darwin’s religious beliefs. If we want to know whether a theory conflicts with religious claims there is limited value in considering whether the theorist’s beliefs happened to produce a sense of cognitive dissonance in his or her mind. The conflict between theory and religious claim must instead be decided by objective fact. That Collins feels the need to shine the spotlight on Darwin’s personal beliefs simply demonstrates how short of good arguments he really is.

  • kennypo65

    I believe that whether or not god(s) exist is irrelevant. My morality isn’t based on fear of punishment by anyone, whether god or the cops. What does that make me?

  • BJ

    My notions of a/gnostic and a/theist have been shaped largely by The Atheist Experience podcasts which I’ve listened as I deconverted these few years ago. What they stress is that the burden of proof lies with the one making the positive claim. So, shouldn’t the burden of proof be on the theist to demonstrate their god? Until now, I simply refute their arguments and show how their demonstrations are poor and not compelling.

    I have near 100% belief that Santa doesn’t exist, but I don’t go around telling everyone that I’m agnostic toward Santa; I flat out say, “Santa isn’t real.” I now wonder why no one doesn’t ask me, “Hey, why do you say that – you know you can’t prove a negative!” Yet, if I were to say “God isn’t real,” you KNOW people would be tossing out the “can’t prove a negative” bit.

    Maybe I am a real atheist and just haven’t taken the plunge. I don’t know – remember, I’m still new at this, have 31 years of Catholic baggage, and am trying to figure this stuff out.

    I’m not entirely sold that belief and knowledge are “the same kind of thing,” or else traditional epistemology wouldn’t have focused so hard on beliefs being “justified true beliefs (JTB)” in order to account for knowledge. The JTB accounts have been seen as incomplete, evidenced by things like Gettier problems. I know of other accounts of epistemology that hinge on justification (reliability or evidence), but it all seems to me to say that knowledge has to be “belief plus.”

    The cognitive dissonance is getting to me. I need to go watch Dr. Who with the wife now.

  • archimedez

    B.J.,

    Re belief plus, What’s wrong with belief plus a level of confidence?

    Anyways, even if we accept fully a difference between knowledge and highly confident belief (I don’t, but, I can accept that for argument’s sake and still make the rest of my point) when classifying persons, there is still the problem that agnosticism is not directly about god, but rather is directly about whether the entire subject of the existence of god is viable (see my “hurdle (a)” in prev. post).

    Your definition:
    “Agnostic atheist: I do not believe any gods exist, but I don’t know that they don’t. Examples include me and Matt Dillihunty, who leave ourselves open to the possibility that a god might exist.”

    As I see it, someone who does not believe gods exist is not an agnostic and that the term agnostic doesn’t meaningfully apply to them even as an adjective attached to the word atheist. Agnostics think atheists and theists, the entire spectrum of them, are wrong. Atheists think agnostics and theists are wrong, theists think atheists and agnostics are wrong. It is no more sensible to talk about an agnostic atheist than it is to talk about a theist atheist.

  • Alex SL

    Not so sure about this agnosticism/atheism matrix. When pressed, probably all minimally sophisticated theists and atheists would admit that we cannot know anything with complete 100% certainty, and that we cannot prove negatives.
    I get the feeling that an atheist is usually somebody who says “I currently do not see sufficient evidence to convince me that gods exist”, while an agnostic is somebody who says “I really, really, really want to stress that you cannot prove a negative, but I currently do not see sufficient evidence to convince me that gods exist”. In the end, the consequence is the same: disbelief.

  • Jim Baerg

    “and that we cannot prove negatives.”

    To the extent that ‘prove’ makes sense outside of formal logic, negatives can be proved. I can prove there is no elephant in my living room by going in & looking. In many (if not most) cases the exhaustive search needed to prove a negative is an impractically large task, but doable in principle. The impracticality in most such cases is why the burden of proof should be on the person making the positive claim.

    The main problem for an attempt to prove that God doesn’t exist is large number of varying conceptions of God. One might prove that God A is self-contradictory or is inconsistent with observable facts about the universe (eg: omnipotent AND omnibenevolent) & be met with ‘what about God B?’. This can end up as pointless as conversing with someone who says “What if there is a *tiny* elephant behind the couch?”.

    Note: “You can’t prove a negative” & “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” are two of my pet hates.

  • BJ

    @kennypo65: Apatheism refers to people who consider the god question to be irrelevant. It’s a combination of apathy and a/theism.

    @Alex SL: I gather from your response that you don’t necessarily see that an agnostic is someone who questions the futility of asking the god question because there’s just no way to know. Is that correct?

    @archimedez and @Jim Baerg: For awhile I’ve been really close to teetering over the edge to strong atheism, where I assume the “burden of proof” by making the claim “There are no gods.” One big reason for this is the whole “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

    I think I mention this in my blog series; if I haven’t already, it’s in a backlog waiting to be published. Basically, absence of evidence IS evidence of absence if you’ve looked everywhere that you’d expect to find evidence of presence yet came up empty.

    I tell my exterminator I think I have termites. She comes out and inspects my place, using her expert judgment, her checklists, and her state-of-the-art Termite Detector 20×6 Ray Gun. She can’t find any. She concludes “There are no termites in your house.”

    Why can’t we do that with God?

    The problem I have with accepting the burden of proof is exactly that: the theist will move the goalposts. I think the solution might be to begin the conversation with asking “What do you mean by god?” make sure you have a solid understanding of that version of god, and then knock it down. You won’t be accused of attacking a straw-man, and they probably won’t move the goal post too much without redefining their god, which they might not want to do.

  • archimedez

    B.J.,

    On the topic of Darwin quotes, the first edition of the Origin does not contain the phrase “by the Creator” in the “There is grandeur in this view” quote, but the first edition does contain the phrase “by the Creator”, where Darwin briefly makes a reference to first origins, just a paragraph earlier. The copy I have is a paperback Penguin Classics edition, edited and introduced by J. W. Burrow, and on p.49 it states that it is the first edition. On p. 458, in the Recapitulation and Conclusion, Darwin wrote

    “Authors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created. To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual.”

    I’ve also verified this at the talkorigins and gutenberg links you provide. Hence, when Darwin in later editions also included the “by the Creator” phrase explicitly in the “There is grandeur in this view” part, it is not inconsistent with what the text of the first edition implied viz. “originally breathed into”, in light of what he had already stated just a paragraph earlier on the same general subject of first causes. (The “originally breathed into” of course implies agency). The uninitiated, who did not know Darwin’s private views at the time, would have had some grounds for believing the author was at least a Deist with respect to first origins.

    “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

    Of course, Darwin was not, in any edition, literally referring to a Creator, and admitted elsewhere that he only used that language out of fear of negative reaction from other people (as RBH in comment # 5 notes above). So, he didn’t believe in a creator, but he did deliberately use ambiguous but suggestive language in the first edition (admittedly to mislead some readers that he did assume the existence of one), with regard to first causes.

  • Alex SL

    Jim Baerg,
    Quite so, but we are not talking about one room here. When somebody says negatives cannot be proven, it is usually to be understood to refer to claims like “there are no black sheep (anywhere)”, under the assumption that you cannot be sure you haven’t missed any sheep, or checked in all places where god could hide (metaphorically).

    BJ,
    Maybe self-proclaimed agnostics will make that argument; but the vast majority of self-proclaimed atheists will freely admit that they cannot be 100% certain either, just like you cannot be 100% certain that you are not the proverbial brain in a jar hallucinating the entire world. And in practice we have to live our lives either in a way that shows that we consider the existence of a specific god to be a reasonable assumption, or in a way that shows that we don’t do that. And agnostics and atheists live their lives in exactly the same way, having drawn exactly the same, the latter, conclusion. That is why I do not see much difference, except in the case of the weird and presumably tiny minority of atheists who believe that they have the 100% certainty.

  • archimedez

    Alex SL,

    Indeed it would be more difficult practically to prove the claim that there are (1) no black sheep anywhere than either (2) no black sheep in my living room, or (3) some (more than zero) black sheep somewhere. Testing to confirm claim, (1), if it is false, could involve an endless search, whereas testing for claim (3), if it is true, could be stopped as soon as a single black sheep was found, though (2), whether true or false, could be tested very quickly and easily.

    I have for some time thought the idea that “you can’t ‘prove’ a negative” to be obviously false, but I wonder whether the idea that “it is practically more difficult to ‘prove’ a negative as opposed to a positive claim” is correct.

    Something else that occurred to me is that theists’ claims can be rephrased in the negative, possibly making them more difficult to prove. For example, the implied claim that “all atheists are not, and never have been, and never will be, correct in their position on the question of the existence of god.” That’s a negative, and has the same kind of problems that theists attribute to atheists’ claims about the negative claim being more difficult to ‘prove.’

    It is also possible to phrase atheists’ claims about the status of gods in the positive, e.g., “gods are fictional/mythological/imaginary/fabricated entities.” It is not difficult to cite evidence in support of this claim. The positive claim also implies a negative, i.e., gods don’t really exist. One can also see it as a classification problem, e.g., if one had to make the choice, should the religious texts (Bible, Quran, etc.) of the major religions be put in the fiction or the non-fiction section of the bookstore? Most theists would probably agree that the proposition that “gods are fictional/do not really exist” is true of every religion except their own.

  • archimedez

    correction to the above: “Testing to confirm claim, (1), if it is false,”

    should say “Testing to confirm claim (1), if it is true,”

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Something else that occurred to me is that theists’ claims can be rephrased in the negative, possibly making them more difficult to prove.

    Not really. Changing the semantics that are used does not alter the main thrust of the positive assertion that gods exist.

  • BJ Marshall

    I’m glad we’re talking burden of proof, because it confuses me. Perhaps I see it too simply.

    Why should I believe any claim without sufficient argument and evidence to persuade (compel might be a strong word) my belief? The one who says “X exists” needs to provide such arguments and evidence; until then, “X does not exist” is the default position and needs no “proof.”

    Otherwise, do I need to go around endlessly “proving” out of existence logically possible things I dream up, like sentient tomatoes or six-legged winged tree sloths?

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    To me, you don’t seem to be confused at all.

  • archimedez

    OMGF,

    “Not really. Changing the semantics that are used does not alter the main thrust of the positive assertion that gods exist.”

    I think you’re right, at least if we are keeping things simple and straightforward, as in “gods exist” versus “gods don’t exist.” I think the example I came up with concerning all atheists being wrong etc. is just a bad example that doesn’t really illustrate what I was trying to get at. I will give this some more thought.

    I do think that some hypotheses can be phrased in the positive, and rephrased in the negative yet essentially involve the same test (like in example (2) in my comment #19). (Or vice versa). (This of course depends on what else is in the room, whether the sheep is hiding, etc. If it is a small room with no other obstacles, the sheep could be seen right away. If the room is large with lots of obstacles and camouflage, the sheep would be difficult to detect). With others, there may be real practical differences in testing, depending on the real (but at the time of testing, unknown) probabilities of finding whatever thing is claimed to exist or not exist. It may be that sometimes positive claims are more difficult to test, and sometimes negative claims are more difficult to test.

    But I do need to think about this more!

  • Joffan

    What about invisible sheep in the room, hmm? Invisible noncorporeal sheep that dodge away from you? Prove there’s none of THEM!

    :-)

  • archimedez

    B.J.,

    “until then, “X does not exist” is the default position and needs no “proof.”"

    I would say the default position in that example is ‘we don’t know,’ but yes the burden remains fully on the one who makes the initial claim until someone else makes a counterclaim, at which point both sides have the burden.

  • BJ Marshall

    I would say the default position in that example is ‘we don’t know,’ but yes the burden remains fully on the one who makes the initial claim until someone else makes a counterclaim, at which point both sides have the burden.

    See, this is where the burden of proof gets stickier for me. If I were to accept your proposition that the default position is “we don’t know,” then it seems to me that anyone who deviates from that position would incur some burden of proof.

    • “X does not exist.” = Burden of proof
    • “We don’t know whether X exists.” = Default position
    • “X exists.” = Burden of proof

    Seems silly for me to dream up six-legged winged tree sloths and then be all like “Do you think they exist?” and get the reply “We don’t know.”

  • archimedez

    BJ,

    I agree with you on the six-legged winged tree sloths and other such examples, i.e., we do know something about this already, so we have a general hunch, if you will, that it’s a wildly fantastic claim. (And if one is a biologist of tree sloths, one might have more than a general hunch). What I responded to–and pardon any misunderstanding I may have caused by my use of the word example–was your more general “Why should I believe any claim…” part. If I knew nothing else about the probabilities associated with the particulars of the claim, I would go with “I don’t know” as the default. But with examples where we do have some knowledge of what seems plausible or probable (e.g., about sloths, winged creatures, genetics and morphology, etc.), I think there would be grounds for coming down, one side or the other in our default assumption (yes it exists, or no it doesn’t), with whatever level of confidence justified by the data.

    Claims of god’s existence also seem to me to be wildly fantastical, at least when we get into the specific claims about specific gods, where the claims involve scenarios where the laws of physics are violated (miracles), and so forth. We know things about biology, physics, psychology, and the study of myths and legends, etc., that inform our evaluation of fantastic religious claims that at least make reference to interactions with real things in the real world. We can draw upon this knowledge to determine where we ought to put our default assumption.

    Deism (as compared with particular theisms like Christianity, Islam, etc.) is more difficult to grapple with, because the claims seem so vague, abstract, and remote, but nevertheless the burden of proof is on the one who makes the claim (or counterclaim).

    BTW, I enjoyed your discussion of Darwin’s views, as it brought back memories of a course I took, years ago, on Darwin. I was wondering what exactly Collins was trying to suggest by citing Darwin’s various statements involving religious language. Was Collins trying to suggest that Darwin was, at the time of writing the Origin, a “theist” with regard to first causes, or that he was a theist viz. secondary causes too?

  • BJ

    Collins’ book is an attempt to get the lay reader to see that one can accept the theory of evolution and still be a theist. The Darwin quote about “I see no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of anyone….” really gets to this point; the two ideas can exist in harmony.

    The quote about Darwin being a Theist (“When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause …. I deserve to be called a Theist.”) is really all Collins adds about Darwin’s own personal beliefs. It says nothing further about the basis for Darwin’s theological views (nothing about secondary causes). Collins starts that chapter with “Darwin’s own personal beliefs remain ambiguous and seemed to vary throughout the last years of his life” (p. 99), and the rest is pretty much included in the body of the blog post.

    I think Collins ends that paragraph with “I deserve to be called a Theist” to further punctuate his point that evolution and theism are not incompatible. See, even the guy who discovered evolution thinks it’s OK! I see it as an Argument from Authority, but Collins probably hopes that’s good enough for his readership.

  • archimedez

    BJ,

    In the autobiography where Darwin says “When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man, and I deserve to be called a Theist”, I’m under the impression that he’s not using the term theism accurately. Darwin has just spent the previous pages arguing why the Christian belief in God is probably wrong. Hence, when Darwin talks about “an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man” possibly involved in first causes, it sounds to me like a vague deism at most.

    Anyways, Collins has muddied the waters here, contributing to the confusion about Darwin’s beliefs instead of clarifying them.