Q&A: What counts as proof? What beliefs are provable?

This post is linked to a series inspired by Michael Egnor’s eight questions for atheists

I buried some comments about my beliefs about epistemology and evidence for Christianity in the tail-end of yesterday’s answer to the question “What Caused the Universe?”  The comments thread has been posing some interesting questions, so this post will serve as follow-up and extension of yesterday’s thought.


Lukas asked:

Would it be fair to summarize this by saying that you think a theory must be falsifiable on order for it to be worthy of belief?

Not exactly.  I don’t have a falsifiable criteria that differentiates the world in which other people are separate minds, not contingent on my impressions of them from the world in which I am a Boltzmann brain.  Never the less, I believe that the physical world exists.

For non-scientific claims, falsifiability can still be a useful heuristic for me to decide how seriously I ought to take claims I do not currently believe.  After all, coming up with conditions for falsifiability requires that we think seriously about the implications of our theory and requires us to think hard about what the world would look like if our theory is not true.  In wacky, less scientific cases, an explanation of why falsifiability is unlikely to be satisfied can still move a theory past this hurdle.  The critical point is to demonstrate why a belief should be exempted, rather than simply assert that it cannot be falsified.


Charles said:

While I can find no good reason to challenge you based on the ground rules you have laid out I can ask a simple question: Is there a scenario (or situation, or question, etc) where you can accept, or even imagine that science will fail to provide an acceptable answer? In other words in your worldview is it possible there are aspects to ‘knowing’ that can not or do not fall under the scientific method?

My answer depends at least a little on how expansively we’re defining the scientific method.  Plenty of judgments are not made rigorously or validly (I’m looking at you, Political Science and Sociology).  However, even if we know that these studies are somewhat flawed, we can still sometimes glean data.  And, in these cases and others, we’re helped by scientific reasoning. to uncover bias and other flaws.<

However, some questions are pretty much exempt from rationalist heuristics.  As I discussed above, in the case of the Boltzmann brain, sometimes we decide between two scenarios on the basis of intuition or aesthetics, when data is lacking.  Scientific reasoning can only go so far in judging the validity of our sense perception, since our judgments are rooted in  our empirical observations to begin with.


Crowhill added:

Does it strike anyone else as a case of hubris for humans to think that they know anything at all about causes at this sort of level?

It’s one thing to say that a bullet caused the hole in the side of a car. That’s kinda at our level of expertise.

But to talk about the origin of everything? C’mon.


Fair point.  The other thing to keep in mind is that, for the most part, there are almost no practical consequences from being wrong on these questions.  Whether or not expansion will slow to the point where the Universe is destroyed in a Big Crunch, we humans have plenty of other things to worry about in the intervening time.  Cosmology is interesting, but not necessarily more interesting or relevant than number theory.

Christianity puts emphasis on cosmological questions because they hope that any uncertainty in this field will spur a belief in a God who is capable of filling in the gaps. Personally, I’m unmoved by this tactic because

  1. I don’t know enough about our uncertainty in these cases to think about whether it could ever be expected to be resolved in a naturalistic universe to begin with.  I don’t think we’re guaranteed an answer.
  2. I’m confused the idea of a personal, loving God, whose proof of existence lies primarily in the failures to date of scientists to completely flesh out advanced topics in theoretical physics.
  3. I think God-as-Prime-Mover is so vague as to be useless.  If I were convinced to become a deist, I would not have additional duties to God or a new understanding of moral life.  What would be the point?
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  • "Christianity puts emphasis on cosmological questions" No, it doesn't, unless when you say "emphasis" you mean "makes some mention of." Catholics believe that man can come to know that God exists using his natural reason. But the cosmological argument is only one such argument. The Catechism states:“Created in God's image and called to know and love him, the person who seeks God discovers certain ways of coming to know him. These are also called proofs for the existence of God, not in the sense of proofs in the natural sciences, but rather in the sense of "converging and convincing arguments", which allow us to attain certainty about the truth. These "ways" of approaching God from creation have a twofold point of departure: the physical world, and the human person.”http://www.vatican.va/archive/catechism/p1s1c1.htm#II"…because they hope that any uncertainty in this field will spur a belief in a God who is capable of filling in the gaps."You are mischaracterizing the argument. As we have learned more about evolutionary biology, we have found less and less reason to postulate a designer. As we have learned more about physics and astronomy, we have found more reason to postulate a designer. "If I were convinced to become a deist, I would not have… a new understanding of moral life."If you were convinced that God exists, wouldn't that make you more open to the possibility of divine revelation? I think a consistent atheists needs to be a moral relativists. I think Richard Rorty explained it best:Anybody who thinks that there are well-grounded theoretical answers to the question "Why not be cruel?" … is still, in his heart, a theologian or a metaphysician. He believes in an order beyond time and change which both determines the point of human existence and establishes a hierarchy of responsibilities.

  • I find the end of this post a little weak. I don't think any intellectually honest person continues to promote a "god of the gaps" view with modern cosmology.For a very long time I was absolutely convinced that I didn't believe anything that couldn't stand up to rigorous testing, think Richard Dawkins here. But I honestly have come to realize that even if one should be able to test all 'knowledge' or at least only act in a way consistent with that scientific knowledge, there are clearly areas where we can't know it all rationally. This then brings us to the question, do you want to live in that world? Maybe desire is a good enough reason, I don't know, but I do know that it is a powerful one. In addition to the Argument from Desire also find the prime-mover argument one of the more compelling classical 'proofs' for god (see Aquinas for the version I find compelling), but it does not in anyway prove anything more than a deistic god, and my calling it 'compelling' does not imply I believe it has scientific certainty.Either way what it comes down to for me is that now I have a view that not all things which can be known can be known scientifically, the question remains can they be known practically at all if that is the case.