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Apr 23 2013

Meaningful answers

Huffington Post UK helpfully reported on the Twitter blowup, with lots of tweets - so much pleasanter to read than Storify.

I went back to the December NS piece in which Mehdi Hasan confirmed his belief in flying horses. Really he’s not talking about the flying horse in particular, but about how reasonable it is to believe in goddy things overall. It’s the usual shifty kind of thing.

In trying to disparage “faith”, Dawkins and his allies constantly confuse “evidence” with “proof”; those of us who believe in God do so without proof but not without evidence. As the Oxford theologian (and biophysicist) Alister McGrath has observed: “Our beliefs may be shown to be justifiable, without thereby demonstrating that they are proven.”

Those atheists who harangue us theists for our supposed lack of evidence should consider three things. First, it may be a tired cliché but it is nonetheless correct: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. I can’t prove God but you can’t disprove him. The only non-faith-based position is that of the agnostic.

That’s not the issue; the issue is which is more reasonable. Is it more reasonable to believe in an untestable hidden god that answers prayers, or is it more reasonable not to?

Second, there are plenty of things that cannot be scientifically tested or proven but that we believe to be true, reasonable, obvious even. Which of these four pretty uncontroversial statements is scientifically testable? 1) Your spouse loves you. 2) The Taj Mahal is beautiful. 3) There are conscious minds other than your own. 4) The Nazis were evil.

Shifty, shifty, shifty. Not even close to a good comparison. 1 and 2 are certainly susceptible to inquiry and evidence. 2 and 4 are value judgements, and thus a different kind of thing from an ontological claim.

Third, there are plenty of good, rational and evidence-based arguments for God. You don’t have to agree with them, but it is intellectually dishonest to claim that they, too, like God, don’t exist.

No it isn’t, not if the reason you don’t agree with them is because you consider them not good and/or rational and/or evidence-based. In any case the claim is shifty in the sense that it assumes that all those arguments are good arguments for God, when in fact some of them are arguments for a first cause and similare abstractions. The two are not just automatically identical.

Four hours ago Hasan replied to a tweet asking if he was equally ”open-minded” about dragons.

Mehdi Hasan@mehdirhasan

@Chriss_m But dragons arent the meaningful answer to any question. A divine creator is. To the question of existence. #nicetrythough

What the hell does that mean? “Meaningful”? That’s not any kind of legitimate criterion for how we know things or whether we have good reasons to believe something. An answer can be “meaningful” without being true. #nicetryyourself

19 comments

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  1. 1
    Aratina Cage

    Stuff like this brings out the worst of HuffPo. Dawkins “attacks” a journalist, but what of the journalist “attacking” the indisputable–that horses cannot fly? I don’t know how it is there now, but the way it used to be handled in the comments section on HuffPo was A) the theist writing the article would say something ridiculous like that, B) atheists would comment about how ridiculous such a belief is as Dawkins did, and C) moderators would delete the atheist comments but leave the theist comments that viciously went after the atheists!

    Anyway, my teddy bear is meaningful to me, but that doesn’t mean I can claim it is alive and has magical powers without looking utterly ridiculous.

  2. 2
    Raging Bee

    I can’t prove God but you can’t disprove him.

    That claim can be made to “support” any and all supernatural claims ever made by anyone in the entire history of Mankind! I’m still waiting for y’all to show me proof that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, so neener!

    Second, there are plenty of things that cannot be scientifically tested or proven but that we believe to be true, reasonable, obvious even…

    ALL FOUR of the subsequent examples are subject to inquiry and evidence, to some degree or other — even the “subjective” value judgements can be backed up by evidence and reason (including widely agreed-upon definitions of words like “beautiful” and “evil”). So this statement is just plain wrong.

    Third, there are plenty of good, rational and evidence-based arguments for God.

    Such as…? I haven’t heard even ONE such argument that I couldn’t have seen through in high school.

    (Besides, “rational” arguments for the existence of God are a bit like diet plans: if they work, why are so many of them?)

  3. 3
    Gregory in Seattle

    “But dragons aren’t (sic) the meaningful answer to any question. A divine creator is. To the question of existence.”

    Ah, but WHICH divine creator? Atum masturbating the universe into existence? Marduk, who murdered Tiamat and make the world with her corpse? Vishnu, who dreams the cosmos into existence? The Demiurge? And why that one divine creator rather than another?

  4. 4
    SallyStrange

    I tweeted at Hasan that he can’t prove that divine dragons created the universe. No response yet.

  5. 5
    Raging Bee

    But dragons arent the meaningful answer to any question. A divine creator is. To the question of existence.

    Special Pleading to the rescue!

  6. 6
    sawells

    Just while making a cup of tea I’ve thought of the following questions to which “dragons” have been a meaningful answer:

    What kind of animal left these big bones and claws and teeth in the ground?

    Why is there fire and smoke coming out of that mountain?

    Why does it rain?

    Now, I’m fully confident that “a divine creator” is no better an answer to “the question of existence” than “dragons” were to any of those questions.

  7. 7
    Argle Bargle

    I can’t prove God but you can’t disprove him. The only non-faith-based position is that of the agnostic.

    Agnosticism is about the existence of gods. Atheism is about belief in gods. I am agnostic about gods. I fail to see any “good, rational and evidence-based arguments’ for gods but I don’t rule out the absolute impossibility of such evidence ever surfacing. However, based on the lack of such “good, rational and evidence-based arguments” I disbelieve in gods. Note that’s not just Hasan’s favorite pet god but any gods whatsoever.

    First the theists have to show evidence for gods for me to accept existence of deities. Then they have to show evidence that their particular god or gods are the default. Hasan is conflating both of these into one argument.

  8. 8
    Kevin

    “Evidence-based arguments for god”…such as?

    Seriously, if you have an evidence-based argument in favor of the existence of god, trot it out. I’m eager to hear this.

    Oh wait … it’s going to be the same tired watchmaker analogy, isn’t it? No. Don’t trot that one out.

    Or maybe the “fine tuning” argument? Please no. I threw up in my mouth a little bit just thinking about how tired that cliche is.

    And finally, let’s please throw out the phrase “evidence-based argument”, shall we? It’s either evidence, or it’s an argument. An argument isn’t evidence, nor is an evidence an argument. Evidence can provide support in behalf of a conclusion — but even then, that conclusion is not an “argument” in and of itself. It’s the worst kind of mental midgetry to try to shoehorn “argument” with “evidence” and come out with anything usable.

    And arguments are not proof of anything because — wait for it — you’ll love the circularity — they can be argued. Not me saying that — it’s the folks at aquinas.org. You know, the Catholics who would gladly burn every Muslim at the stake if ever there was that much wood.

    And evidence is not puppies and rainbows and warm fuzzy feelings. Nor is it existence (the universe) itself. Please stop using the word “evidence” in this way. Evidence either supports your hypothesis contrary to the null hypothesis, or it doesn’t.

    “There are no gods” is the null hypothesis that must be disproved. The existence of the universe does not disprove the null hypothesis. It’s actually irrelevant to it. The existence of the universe is evidence — at present — of neither a ‘god’ or a ‘no god’ state. Because the answer to the question “what happened that resulted in the appearance of our universe” is — at present — “we don’t know and neither do you.” Please stop acting as if disproving science improves your position. You still have all of your work ahead of you to prove the god hypothesis — as Hitchens said on many occasions.

    Hitchens would have dispatched this little weasel before the ice cubes melted in his scotch.

  9. 9
    Rich

    I’m so tired of religious people misstating the logical fallacy here. It is NOT true that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” it IS the case that “absence of evidence is not PROOF of absence.” But honestly, if you have a theory that a dog has been coming into your backyard, and you go back there and there is no evidence that a dog has been there, that is absolutely very good evidence that a dog has not been there. Similarly, the fact that every time we look for evidence of God, none seems to show up, is absolutely evidence that there is not God. It’s just not proof. Evidence is not the same thing as proof. The former is inconclusive, the latter is by definition conclusive.

  10. 10
    Kiwi Dave

    I can think of questions to which ‘a million dollars in my bank account” would be a meaningful answer. I better check it out.

  11. 11
    peterh

    “… there are plenty of good, rational and evidence-based arguments for God. ”

    In a purple pig’s nether eye!

  12. 12
    doubtthat

    “I want it to be true” =/= evidence.

  13. 13
    Ant (@antallan)

    FFS, science isn’t about *proof*. It’s about inference to the best explanation, and “God” never is. We’ve seen that at least since Laplace.

    Besides, not all hypotheses need to be explicitly falsified. Hypotheses that are not better *explanations* than established models can be rejected without further inquiry.

    Not that “God” is a coherent hypothesis in the first place.

    /@

  14. 14
    bad Jim

    I really hate “X is not the answer” statements. “War is not the answer” is false if the question is “What was the occasion for Auden’s September 1, 1939.” Similarly, “dragons arent the meaningful answer to any question” is generally false in discussions of Game of Thrones, or so I gather (only having watched the first season).

    The most risible assertion, of course, is “there are plenty of good, rational and evidence-based arguments for God”. It’s, what, a sophomoric version of the courtier’s reply, a suggestion that the writer only knows the arguments by repute.

    Unlike the rest of you heathens, I’ll stand up for agnosticism, and claim that having no good reason to believe something implies that one ought not to believe it. I’m happy to call myself an atheist, but that old time religion was good enough for Huxley and it’s good enough for me.

  15. 15
    'dirigible

    He’s a Meinongian? Meaningfulness is simply a property…

  16. 16
    Bernard Hurley

    There’s a herd of pink and green striped elephants roaming around the forest near where I live. What you’ve never seen the trees they tear down and the mess they leave? Well then, didn’t you know that there’s a band of faeries and goblins following them round clearing that all up? No eye witnesses? Well, these elephants are pretty damn good at hiding, and, you know, absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. Besides it’s clearly the most rational explanation for the incident when I prayed to them for my bus fare home and found a pound coin.

  17. 17
    hoary puccoon

    There’s some evidence that “dragons” is not only the meaningful, but the correct, answer to:

    “What is the English translation of the traditional Chinese term for fossilized dinosaur bones?”

    Of course, God is probably the answer to “how did people explain wind before they understood air pressure?”

  18. 18
    Amy Clare

    He employs similarly shifty arguments in this article where he outlines his antichoice position:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/mehdi-hasan/being-prolife-doesnt-make_b_1964683.html

    I kind of feel annoyed at Dawkins for giving this guy a victory.

  19. 19
    deepak shetty

    Is it more reasonable to believe in an untestable hidden god that answers prayers, or is it more reasonable not to?
    You see similar views being expressed by accomodationists as well (science cannot disprove the supernatural or ghosts or whatever) – And I think the standard we should apply in these cases is the legal one instead of the scientific one. Is there reasonable doubt that the supernatural exists? Of course not – otherwise every murderer could use that as his defence.

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