Proof, and the absence thereof

If I were to write a book, I would like it to be an apologetic piece. Not in the “I’m sorry” sense, but rather in the apologetic tradition of defending the Christian faith (note that I don’t say ‘religion’). I have sooooo many emerging thoughts on the advent of the ‘new atheism’, that en vogue movement that loves to slate Christian faith from a supposed scientific perspective. I thoroughly enjoy debating issues of faith with atheists.

Through these discussions I have been searching for a common grounds of sorts that will allow us to agree on a starting point from which to engage – so often these “religion” conversation deteriorate into into petty slander.

I think I may have found such a starting point, and it is an uncanny point of departure for people of faith: proof. Let me explain …

Donald Rumsfeld, former US Secretary of Defense, is rumoured to have said:

The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

This truth may just be a starting point for common ground discussion between Christians and atheists, especially if you are not a overly-sensitive Christian. I mean, can we really prove the existence of God?

The only time we can do this is when considering our own interpretations of certain “facts” e.g. the beauty of nature as an indicator of the existence of God. This is not a proof of God, just a proof of nature’s brilliance.

In the same way, atheists cannot disprove the existence of God (hat tip to Rumsfeld). The absence of evidence proving the absence of God is not proof of the non-existence of God. This proposition is bound to get up the nose of some atheists I know, as well as some Christians.

What say you?

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One response to “Proof, and the absence thereof”

  1. Konrad Michels says:

    Do you realise who Rumsfeld was? Do you realise that Rumsfeld was a Republican Bush puppet taking his orders from one of the most dangerous and destructive presidents the USA has *ever* had? Do you realise that this is the same Rumsfeld who also gibbered:
    “There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns; there are things we do not know we don’t know.”?
    Does you know that this absence saying is actually *not* a Rumsfeld saying but is more accurately attributed to Carl Sagan as far as I can tell? Nice to see you went to the trouble of checking this up and correctly attributing it.
    Anyhow, this is not a new argument, and has been around for a long time, and is fantastically misunderstood by most people who quote it.
    Argument from ignorance, also known as “argumentum ad ignorantiam” or “appeal to ignorance”, is an informal logical fallacy; it asserts that a proposition is necessarily true because it has not been proven false (or vice versa). This represents a type of false dichotomy in that it excludes a third option: there is insufficient data and the proposition has not yet been proven to be either true or false. In debates, appeals to ignorance are sometimes used to shift the burden of proof, and this is exactly what you have done here, and exactly what Rumsfeld did with it, albeit that Rumsfeld did it in the context of the alleged weapons of mass destruction, which, quite comically in the context of what you are trying to say, were never actually ever found nor was any evidence ever found to suggest they ever existed. So you have basically shot yourself in both feet several times here by firstly misattributing the quote, secondly not appreciating the context in which Rumsfeld had used it, and thirdly the breathtaking self-indictment it was of the phony propaganda that Bush had used to take the USA to war.
    To circle back to Carl Sagan on this briefly, he explains it far more eloquently than I ever could, and since he coined the term I figured he should have the honour of putting the final nail in the coffin:
    “Appeal to ignorance — the claim that whatever has not been proved false must be true, and vice versa (e.g., there is no compelling evidence that UFOs are not visiting the Earth; therefore UFOs exist — and there is intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe. Or: there may be seventy kazillion other worlds, but not one is known to have the moral advancement of the Earth, so we’re still central to the Universe.) This impatience with ambiguity can be criticized in the phrase: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
    Very unconvincing I’m afraid. You are most certainly not the first christian to try and use this line to debate atheists, and sadly you won’t be the last. All that all of you who use this argument have succeeded in proving is that none of you understand the philosophical point of the argument.
    One last point about your title: Science doesn’t ever prove anything. It disproves bad theories or hypotheses and it supports good ones. The term proof applies in systems such as mathematics which are self-contained and clearly defined.
    If you say that science proves anything you either don’t understand sceince or you don’t understand the meaning of proof. Proof implies certainty. There is no such thing as certainty, there is only best approximations of degrees of certainty, which itself is a contradition in terms, for certainty measured in degrees is by definition uncertain.
    This is fundamentally what separates science from religion.

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