Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence


The omniscient, omnipotent and transcendant God of the Old Testament is scientifically and logically implausible; we all know this by now. He exists outside of time and space and comes swooping in periodically to violate the laws of physics on behalf of specific people(s) for morally unimpeachable reasons; numerous rational arguments against his existence have been made most famously here as well as here and here and here and doubtless many more places (submissions welcome). But all those proofs are beside the point; we all know fairy tales when we read them, and that God doesn’t exist; he is manifestly implausible, and scientists who believe in him do so with a different brand of logic than that which marks their academic work.

For those of us who want to use one way of thinking to think about science and the rest of life, however, it is difficult to avoid noticing that there is a particular conception of God who does not run awry of the laws of science or the scientific method.  To understand this requires an understanding that not every thought the human mind can think can be thought scientifically – that not everything is amenable to empiricism. 

But it is astounding how many secular humanists don’t know this. They think that all Gods are created equal, and that to disprove the manifestly silly Biblical God is to disprove the existence of an immanent God – the God most often associated with mysticism and panpsychism, and referred to as a universal witness or consciousness.

The form in which most people are familiar with the idea of immanence is that “God is the Universe” – that is, where the Catholics have just Jesus as God incarnate, those who believe in an immanent God believe the entire universe is an incarnation.

But an immanent God is far lass powerful than a transcendant one. He is merely omnipresent. He is not omniscient, not omnipotent, does not violate the laws of physics (either continuously or sporadically), does not pretend to conform to moral law (as known to humans), or give a hoot about any one individual (in whom, one suspects, he does not quite believe, being, well, everything).

It sounds like not much of a God, and in a sense it isn’t; all of science clicks along entirely unchanged by such a God’s existence. From an empirical standpoint, no experiments change, no equations change, no discoveries change; the atheists’ beloved evolution (the fact of which they conflate with full causal understanding) is not challenged.  It would, then, appear that science has nothing to lose to an immanent God – which explains why no funded science project devotes any attention to the subject.

But then sheer viscerality kicks in. Immanence makes their skin crawl. Should you ever mention – as I frequently do – that I see no reason not to believe (and many reasons to believe) that the universe as a whole is conscious, and that consciousness scales in exactly the same way that matter scales, with more complex consciousnesses being comprised of smaller ones, just as the human body is comprised of atoms – you will find that a certain subset of people start calling you names.

They don’t disprove your position (as we’ll see, it is impossible to empirically); they just get contemptuous, and then mistake their contempt for science.  I myself cannot figure out what the problem with an immanent God is – you give up exactly nothing of modern science when you believe in him, and make no claim that science supports his existence. You believe in him non empirically, as a first principle, and dont understand why the empiricists think he threatens their empiricism.

I suspect, however, that to realize that science does not have the power to disprove the existence of a universal consciousness feels, emotionally, like  setback to many people who psychologically experience modern science the way their great great grandparents (and everyone before them) experienced God. They had thought science could think everything worth thinking, and discredit everything not, and finding out that empiricism is not omnipotent and omniscient is like finding out the iPhone can’t also cook breakfast, and that feels like a loss.

Now to be fair, it may not be that introspective and heartfelt. Those who dislike immanence may not dislike an immanent God so much as many of the people who go around talking about immanence. Some of them – okay, fine; all of them – can be so annoyingly touchy-feely, vague, hyperbolic and impressionistic that one becomes willing to do anything to make them go away. Even if you have to resort to saying “my daddy can beat up your daddy.”

Nevertheless there is a certain metaphysical view of modern science – a way of thinking about science, though not science itself – that requires the assumption that immanence exists. I hold this view, precisely because I know metaphysics are unavoidable in science, and I prefer my custom made one to the standard issue crap they’re selling. And therefore it becomes exasperating to find that every time one talks about immanence one’s opponents drag any number of red-herrings into the mix, and begin claiming many of the following:

  • I don’t believe in evolution
  • I don’t believe in the laws of physics
  • I don’t believe in the scientific method
  • I am not a competent thinker per se
  • I missed the part of my education where science disproved the existence of a universal consciousness.

Now while of course personally I find this amusing/annoying, in that I am in a near constant state of trying to create for myself an empirical metaphysics – a metaphysical model of “what the universe is doing” that adheres to the findings of empiricism, and neither undercuts nor goes beyond them, and therefore is destined to evolve with science rather than emerge full-blown and utterly true in 2012, I have found that it is best to give critics a simple logic problem that shows that agnosticism and not atheism is the proper role for science.

Once you do that, you emphasize that it is science that ought be agnostic (about an immanent God), not human beings,  and that human beings – who tend, empirically speaking, to have an interest in metaphysics – are thereby released to think their metaphysical thoughts without being constantly badgered by so-called “scientifically minded” people for thinking them.  After all, if the proper position of science on immanence is agnosticism, then that means that they have no scientific grounds for contesting immanence.

This requires them to engage in a fair fight if they still don’t like it: metaphysical system against metaphysical system.  It is then, as the fair fight plays out, that the metaphysics of immanence show themselves to have two powers that the metaphysics of atheism lack: efficiency and depth.  Once you assume consciousness scales (just like matter) rather than being a special case that does not exist below or above the level of the human brain, you are able to answer several niggling questions, and avoid several others, that bothered you greatly when you believed that God was only in your brain (eg, that the only consciousness in the universe is in neurons arranged just so.)

 The key, however, is to get logic rather than emotion into play, and to get your critics to abandon all the obedience to authority that has everyone who loves science believing that means they have to hate all forms of God.

Here’s the logic.

1. In empirical science, one must make risky hypotheses, and then attempt to disprove them. Failure to disprove the hypothesis results in an increase in confidence that it is valid; as time goes on, and the hypothesis is never refuted over multiple trials, one becomes increasingly confident that it is true.  Major hypotheses that have never been falsified become, over time, theories and laws.

2. What makes this sort of empiricism possible are tools that are capable of both sensitivity (the ability to detect the event of interest when it occurs) and specificity (the ability to fail to detect the event when it does not occur.) Thus, for example, if you consider your nose a “tool” for detecting brownies, you want to smell brownies when they are present, and to not smell brownies when they are not present. Seems wildly obvious – but many seculars forget this when God enters the equation.

3.  Often the tool that detects the thing when it is present, and fails to detect it when it is not, are the same tool.  You use the same nose to smell (or not smell) brownies, the same eyes to see (or not see) your pet dog, the same fingers to feel (or not feel) if your hat is on your head, and so forth. This is because it’s ability to be successful at detection is what makes you trust it when it fails to detect.

4. All this in mind, consider the following. If I installed a carbon monoxide detector in your house, turned on the “on” switch, and in the ensuing silence told you that your home was free of carbon monoxide, you would ask me an obvious question: are you sure the batteries are in? Which, expanded, is your way of asking are you sure it is capable of working? After all, a rock, or a guitar, or a turtle would also fail to make noise, but you wouldn’t take their silence as a sign that there was no carbon monoxide in your house. You need that tool to successfully detect carbon monoxide – many, many times in a row, moreover – before you treat it’s silence as proof that there is no carbon monoxide in your house.

5. Now do the following. Take the example above in #4 and substitute God for carbon monoxide, and an atheist for the carbon monoxide detector, and the universe for the house. If an atheist tells you “I do not detect God in the universe” it is equivalent to saying “a carbon monoxide detector does not detect carbon in this house?”  So if we are being consistent, we must ask does the atheist have a proven track record of successfully detecting God? 

6. The atheist will likely respond to this question “no, there is no God to detect.”  It is not an atheistic view to say “God exists but I cannot detect him;” if anything, this is standard operating procedure for believers.

7. The atheist who wishes for scientific support for his atheism is now in a bit of a pickle. How can he be sure that God does not exist if he has no proven ability to detect God?

8. The only possible way out that I have been able to think of – though there may be others – is to claim that evolution has given us as a species an ability that he as an individual has never manifested, but that it lies latent in him: human belief in God shows that it is possible for humans to detect God, and therefore his failure to detect God is like an untested carbon monoxide detector failing to detect carbon monoxide.  So long as it is built just like every other working detector, we have good reason to assume that there is no carbon monoxide.

9. But the evolutionary argument fails unless God exists. If God exists, and detecting him is evolutionarily beneficial, then we have an explanation of why humans can detect God – they evolved to because detecting God is adaptive – and therefore a reason to trust the individual atheist’s failure to detect God.  But if God does not exist, as the atheist says, then why on earth would evolution have given us the ability to detect him? It makes no evolutionary sense – there is no selection pressure to detect something that does not exist, and so no reason to expect the human species has an ability to accurately detect God, and therefore no reason to expect that the individual atheist’s failure to detect God has any bearing on the God question.

10. The whole problem is avoided by rejecting the idea that atheism has a scientific basis. What we are describing, from a scientific standpoint, is an untestable hypothesis. We simply lack the tools to know whether or not there is a supervening consciousness in the universe.  Empiricism will never prove that there is or isn’t.

11. As a result, panpsychism (and other forms of a belief in universe consciousness) is neither scientific nor anti-scientific. It is ascientific.  Once one realizes that ascientific is not identical with anti-scientific, it means that while atheists are perfectly free to attack the idea of an immanent God, they cannot do so under the aegis of science. Disbelief in God is a metaphysical, not a scientific position. Agnosticism is the only viable scientific position – and that means leaving metaphysical beliefs untouched.

Question: is there a flaw in this explication of why Pascal noted – when he made his wager – that we cannot prove or disprove God’s existence? 

Photo Credit: http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2011/12/16/1324013078091/Christopher-Hitchens-phot-007.jpg

2 thoughts on “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence

  1. I happen to agree with you that the scientific community’s default position on God – both the Christian and other forms and your immanent versions – should be agnosticism. However, I feel that your argument breaks down in the logic example that you offer. As I understand it, the atheist does not see him/herself or other people as a detector of God. A person who detects God is clinically insane.

    Wait, let me define atheist not as a person who does not believe in God, but as a person who does not believe in God *and* thinks others should not believe in what is not real either. I recognize that this is not the standard definition of atheist, which is why I am taking the time to define it here. I prefer to call such people anti-theist, but that term is currently not in the common lexicon.

    The issue is that human beings have no God-detector that is outside of ourselves. There is no film or machine that is capable of detecting God. Absent that, for such people, there is no way to prove He exists. Keep in mind, a person who detects God is a faulty detector – a false positive.

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About Peter Freed, M.D.

I am a psychiatrist (psychopharmacology and psychotherapy) specializing in the so-called "personality disorders," particularly narcissistic and borderline personality disorders. I was a Fellow and then an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia from 2004- 2011. I am currently in private practice in NYC.