Do Christians have the burden of proof?
Regular Network Norwich and Norfolk columnist James Knight asks whether Christians need to be able to prove the existence of God.
The first thing I ought to say on this matter is that the term ‘burden of proof’ should really be replaced with ‘burden of evidence’, for as Bertrand Russell showed with his celestial teapot illustration, it is impossible to prove a negative existential claim (that is, a claim that such a thing does not exist), and it is impossible on these terms to prove beyond doubt the positive to that negative. As Christians we do not offer proof that God exists or that Christ is God incarnate – we supply evidence and testimony which assist people in building their epistemological framework. Unless the theist and atheist are willing to admit this from the outset there will probably be a stalemate. Before we get on to the theistic situation, let me recount a famous story from the Hellenistic period:
There was a Sophist philosopher Protagoras who agreed to instruct Euathlus in rhetoric so the latter could practice law. Euathlus in turn agreed to pay Protagoras his fee only after winning his first case. However, Euathlus chose not to practice law upon completing his training, and so Protagoras sued him for his fee. Protagoras maintained that he should be paid no matter what; he argued that if he won the case he should be paid by order of the court; while if he lost he should be paid by the terms of his agreement with Euathlus. Euathlus, who had learned something from his study with Protagoras, maintained that he should not pay no matter what; he argued that if he won the case he should not pay by order of the court; while if he lost he should not pay by the terms of his agreement with Protagoras
This describes a stalemate much like the stalemate often reached when theists and atheists argue about the burden of proof and with whom it should lay. Just like the case above, burdens of proof are often dilemmas that invariably lead to counter-dilemmas – one must define exactly what the belief is before any talk of burden of proof occurs – after all, most of the atheists I have met do not disbelieve in the actual God of the Bible, they disbelieve in a God that they have created or imagined in their own heads, or they are happy to let sceptics like Richard Dawkins create strawman caricatures that virtually nobody in the world actually believes in. It may be easy and comfortable and expedient to set up this strawman for the purposes of knocking it down, but it does don’t really provide much of a challenge to one’s intellect.
Let’s have a look at how the situation with Protagoras and Euathlus created a stalemate and how it is synonymous with position of the theist and atheist. Protagoras had a rather disingenuous scheme in bringing the suit in the first place, but the situation really boils down to Euathlus wanting to show off his mental dexterity. Had Euathlus hired another lawyer he could have escaped the paradoxical situation in which he found himself; if he won with a lawyer his victory would have averted the paradox, and if he lost with a lawyer he would have not yet won his first case. But even if he appeared in a stalemate, one might suggest that equity favours Protagoras, and that if he’d have sued in a second case he would have won.
Yet equally a judge could put paid to this by ordering a reconstitution of the contractual boundaries, or he could decree that this case will not count as Euathlus's first case. Without bringing in policies or principles of this kind, in fact, it is difficult to see how the case could be decided, since the only positive argument favouring both Protagoras and Euathlus relies on a contradiction in the alternative position. Here we see that if the two arguments are truly equal in weight, the one with the burden of proof must find himself in the more precarious position out of the two (in this situation, their cases are not really equal, so here this works against the plaintiff Protagoras). The only way this can be resolved outside of the demarcation lines is if one of the two men relents and offers the hand of grace to the other, or if the contract is positively reformed in equity by an external agent.
Consider the analogue with the debate between theists and atheists. It is often thought that because the theists are claiming a positive (that there is a God) to the atheists’ negative (that there is no God) this means that the burden lies with the theists, but I have never been happy with this conclusion, and it is for this reason. Not only does the world appear to be entirely consistent with the world the Bible says God has created, but also however far back we search philosophically in trying to ascertain why we exist at all, we will not find a good epistemological trail by simply going back further and further expecting the answer to lie in something elementally simple. In naturalistic terms, whatever we ascribe to the meaning of existence we will have to omit the thing itself – nature cannot contain her own explanation unless she is self-evident, and she doesn’t contain the fundamental complexity to be self-evident. In other words, how the universe came about cannot be explained by the laws of nature – however far back you go looking for an explanation, the last initial explanation still needs explaining if one is a naturalist. However far back you go, you still need an initial explanation of causation – otherwise you are faced with an infinite regress and thus the burden is too great to reconcile with the truth.
As I said, if we keep going back further we eventually reach a point where we have to admit that existence cannot contain its own explanation - there must be something that is self-evident, and such a Being would be vastly more complex than anything we see in nature. The Christian has a positive answer to this dilemma; he contends that the source of all human activity, that is, the power behind human decision making, is from a Being that exists outside of nature itself. The Christian cannot reconcile the whole complex nexus of choice, free will, moral conscience, emotions and, most importantly, existence itself with an impersonal and uncaring nature – much less settle for an infinite regress as his best explanation; for he knows that in order to avoid the infinite regress problem he must contend that there is something of a priori infinite complexity that bootstraps existence - a fact that is self-evident, a fact that has no cause because it contains its own explanation. The Christian claims to have found the explanation that contradicts the logical hiatus that sullies the infinite regress problem – the answer is in the Aseity of God. Given the foregoing analysis, the burden lies with the atheist not the theist - the atheist has the infinite regress problem to surmount before he can discharge any burden.
What I have described thus far is the cardinal difficulty for the atheist – a difficulty which removes the manacles from the theist. But in truth this is an area of analysis that is scarcely reached; after all, most sceptics really want to bemoan a lack of evidence for any supernatural God, so now the discussion between the theist and atheist becomes a bit like a case in a court of law (as per above). In an ordinary court of law case, the burden of proof (as much as proof can ever be obtained) is on the prosecution counsel; the prosecuting lawyer must convince the jury that the defendant is guilty – hence the term ‘innocent until proven guilty’. If the prosecution counsel fails to present enough convincing evidence, the jury will ordinarily acquit the defendant.
With Christian apologetics and other forms of justification for the existence of God, we are like the defendant being cross-examined by a prosecuting atheism – unless we can be shown to be guilty of fallacy we should be acquitted – or at the very least the prosecution counsel ought to admit that theology is a very complex subject that requires much more thought than they are willing to allow. There will, however, be times when this scenario is not played out – the atheist will probably not think it worth his while trying to prosecute and he will probably insist that as he has been given no reason to believe he can be justified with his atheism. In effect, what he’s saying is "I don't believe in God because no one has provided me with any credible evidence that God exists". And this, of course, is a duty we must take up in convincing the atheist that God is ready to reveal Himself to all who ask.
Here in admitting this we have uncovered something very important when it comes to burdens of evidence. The atheist when he adopts a rather arbitrary form of atheism actually impels the theist to shoulder the burden. In other words, the one who says there is probably no God impels the theist to say why he thinks there is a God, but the one who says there is almost certainly no God stigmatises himself with the burden of demonstrating why he is so convinced. So we see that burdens of evidence depend on the claim being made, but they are also conditioned by the strength of the convictions of those debating the issue in the first place.
I have shown why the burden of proof or burden of evidence is epistemologically intractable, but I have also shown why, if it lays anywhere first off, it lays with the atheist – at least in the sense that he must show that he can engage in the deeper issues and also that he has a sound conception of the God he is choosing to reject.
Do Christians deal with Proofs?
I have already said that as Christians we do not deal with proofs – certainly not in the traditional sense – we do not prove God like we prove a mathematical theorem. However, I once wrote a couple of articles (here and here) which speak of a proof by experience; that is, an a priori certainty that one can distil from his or her own relationship with God. Although they are vitally important as one seeks to affirm the really of God through one’s one experience they are tangential to the tenet of ‘proofs’ that we are discussing here) which speak of a proof by experience; that is, an a priori certainty that one can distil from his or her own relationship with God. Although they are vitally important as one seeks to affirm the really of God through one’s one experience they are tangential to the tenet of ‘proofs’ that we are discussing here) which speak of a proof by experience; that is, an a priori certainty that one can distil from his or her own relationship with God. Although they are vitally important as one seeks to affirm the really of God through one’s one experience they are tangential to the tenet of ‘proofs’ that we are discussing here which speak of a proof by experience; that is, an a priori certainty that one can distil from his or her own relationship with God. Although they are vitally important as one seeks to affirm the really of God through one’s one experience they are tangential to the tenet of ‘proofs’ that we are discussing here.
As a reminder about what we are dealing with here let me make an allusion to what I said earlier; one must realise that God is an infinitely complex personality, so the best we can do is sample Him. The Father has revealed Himself to us in Christ Jesus, and although the Bible is the word of God – one can learn lots more about God both from creation around us, and most importantly from having a relationship with Him.
The sceptics who say there is absolutely no evidence for God are not living in the same world in which I am living – to me the world doesn’t just hint of God’s existence, it shouts it at the top of its voice. The question is this: given that in the eyes of the sceptic, awareness even of the most elementary facts of God into which all other blessings should percolate is accessible only by a form of contemplative reasoning towards which they have little desire to gravitate, and for which they often lack the inclination, capacity for discernment and quite often the emotional resources, how might they be expected to realise their need for a change of thinking?.
There is a great story often recounted about Elizabeth Anscombe saying to the brilliant Wittgenstein, that she can understand why people thought that the sun revolves around the earth. Wittgenstein asks, “Why?” - Anscombe says, “Well, it looks that way.” - To which Wittgenstein responds, “And how would it look if the earth revolved around the sun?” In other words, the way something looks from a certain standpoint is, from the individual’s perspective, a direct proprietary fact about the person's perception of that 'something'. ‘How it appears from a certain place’ is, nonetheless, also of interest in its own right and belongs to what is sometimes called ‘the reality of the appearance’. In Biblical times the ancient Hebrews referred to it as 'language by appearance' – so, for example, if something 'filled the earth' it did not necessarily, in the literal sense, fill it entirely.
The Christian view of proof
We are now ready to ask the question: Do Christians deal with proofs? In the strictest sense, no we do not. Those that ask for empirical proof seem to overlook the fact that, in one sense, Christians do not believe what they believe because of empirical proof, although empiricism does play a part in the totality of a Christian’s psychological make-up. The Bible talks of certainty, that we can be certain of Christ in us, therefore even a posteriori empirical evidence of some kind would not be as powerful as the relationship with God from within a priori selfhood. What I mean is this; a man can have a much better idea of God by how He works inside him than he can by what he sees in the external world – God’s method of communication is at its strongest when Jesus Christ works inside our minds in ways that show it is Him and not us. The Bible, in fact, confirms that the man that knows God but hasn’t seen empirical evidence has much greater certainty than the man that has been shown a miracle but has no relationship (see Matthew 11:21-24). Absolute Certainty, as the book of Galatians implies, can only occur a priori.
Let us say that a man observes an event which by ordinary definitions of empirical investigation could be construed consensually as a miracle. Let’s say that it happens to some of the biggest sceptics in the public domain - would that be the certainty they are looking for? Perhaps in the sense of satisfying evidential demands, but even the event or, more accurately, their observing the event has connotations which cannot help but diminish slightly the content of certainty. Their observation of this miracle would be a proprietary event occurring personally in first-person selfhood, and as long as they continue to analyse the evidence or certainty, and as long as they attempt to convey it linguistically, they will be in the strictest sense letting go of the a priori certainty, for in the strictest sense a priori certainties involve no externality whatsoever – they are at their most powerful when they have an absence of cognitive or descriptive embellishment. All external realities must be perceived by the self before one can have assessment and knowledge of them, therefore the business of looking for proof or certainty via perception of events in the external world is never as compelling as the knowledge of God that one can acquire from His working inside us. This, I think, is why Jesus placed so much emphasis on our asking God for revelation in ways that can occur inside one’s own personhood directly from God – for He knows that what we perceive externally would never be as compelling evidence as what we receive internally.
So when we talk of certainty, that is, being certain that God exists and that we can have a relationship with Him, the certainty that one searches for is the certainty that need not involve any a posteriori facts – our mind is more than equipped to work out our salvation with our powers of reason. Of course, the fantastic evidence for Christianity being true is overwhelming and a likely catalyst in one’s searching for a relationship with Him, but when folk talk foolishly of ‘no evidence for God’ or they overlook this greater reality of the situation, they are guilty of emphatic errors of thinking. I understand that it is hard to reconcile for those who are sceptical, but the Socratic paradox about a man lacking the courage to venture out upon so perilous a voyage of discovery without God behind him is not far from the truth. That is to say, if the event of man knowing God has to come from God first he must trust that the casting of his net will be fruitful because it is not just his arm doing the casting, but God’s too.
There is another thing to consider regarding proof, and in particular, hasty demands for proof - one might be quite startled to learn that there are mathematical conditions under which the opposite situation is true - there are statements that are true if and only if they are unprovable. Most people have heard of Godel’s incompleteness theorem; well further on there is a sort of meta-theorem in that its truth depends crucially on an object-meta-level distinction, which I will explain briefly. Godel considered a simple formal system containing the basic axioms of the arithmetic of whole numbers (stress, whole numbers). He assigned each object-level statement a unique code number, and then he assigned a code number to each proof of an object-level statement. What this shows is that by means of this encoding, object-level statements about numbers can also be understood as expressing meta-level statements about the system, or about individual object-level statements.
Given the foregoing, a question might well be asked: Doesn’t this mean that an extension of this system can be used to show that if in most cases there are formal systems incapable of proving some truths there must be a self-same system which insists that no formal system can prove all truths? Yes, in principle that is true, but it is a bankrupt enterprise trying to impute this onto the non-mathematical subjects in place, in the ‘God or no God’ debate. I said that in mathematical terms this object-level statement about whole numbers says of itself, via the numerical coding, that it is not provable. If the axioms are all true and the system is consistent, it is possible to conclude that such statements (that are true if and only if they are unprovable) are neither provable nor disprovable from the axioms - that it is independent of them. Therefore I would be cautious about using the word ‘proof’ when using inductive techniques to consider whether or not God exists, particularly bearing in mind that the warrant for the use of the inductive principle of inference is the inductive principle itself.
Of course, as atheism shows, understanding the self does not come without distractions and, again as atheism has shown, some of the distractions are strong enough to lead a man into philosophical trouble - nature’s digressions and distractions lead folk away from the truth. There is a better chance of a man realising this if he remembers that Christ does not just claim to have access to the truth, or that He is able to lead a man to the truth, in fact, He claims to BE the truth. That is why, if Christ is the truth, it is impossible to hold on to satisfaction, fulfilment, blessedness, and wisdom without Him – He is the vine, we are the branches connected to Him. By definition every act that recedes from the Truth must be arbitrary or pernicious, for you can be sure that all the very best things on earth will be from Him. Even the caprice that lurks in the hearts of those that follow false religions is entirely knowable the moment one steps outside looking for the truth. The only other gods that really exist are the false gods that have been created by the self, usually as a result of some arbitrary thinking process or pattern; that is, the falsity attaches itself to human reasoning like a leech to skin and confounds the reasoning process so that even clear thinking can be transposed into some muddled perceptivity, all the time not affecting the proprietary convictions and supposed certainty felt from within.
The sensible man knows how important the truth is, but equally he knows how dangerous falsehood is, and that if Christ is the Truth, falsehood must underpin every instance of badness that we see in the world. If one searches for the Truth then things like moral goodness, wisdom, good judgement, character development, greater vision, tangible life goals and awareness of reality in a wider and more glorious framework will follow.
I have said from day one, and I will continue to say it - we do not deal with proofs on here, not in the way that atheists are demanding. Of course some Christians maintain that no proof is a good thing because it helps define for them what ‘faith’ really is all about, but I do not think this view is always helpful, particularly for the atheists who frequently misunderstand what faith really is. ‘Proof’ of complex activity such as, say, macroevolution just isn’t humanly possible (although that is no reason to disbelieve it - we have overwhelming ‘evidence’ that macro-evolutionary theory is true) - all we ever do is perceive samples emanating from the subject in question, samples that provide us with palpable indication of the efficacy of that which is being sampled. ‘Proof’ is an impossible demand to fulfill - either for evolution or for God (but there is great ‘evidence’ for both). Given that no set of finite samples is as big as the source object; the best we can get is ‘evidence’, and from evidence we can use our rationale to make logical inferences. It is by doing this that we shall get closer to the truth about the awesome majesty of God and we will see Him in places that we could not have previously anticipated. And here is the most important point:
No-one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made Him known. John 1:18
God has made Himself known, but not by some emphatic exhibition for all to see, but through the person of Jesus Christ - that is how He chose to make Himself known. Any that have seen and understood who He really is would be able to recognise the Father in Him (John 14:7). God is not a static object like a huge table or chair or planet, He is a tri-aspectual personality (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and can only ever be sampled bit by bit. We sample Him by getting to know His personality through the express revelation of Christ and the Holy Spirit that lives in us. It ought to be quite clear really, after all, in human terms we only ever sample personalities bit by bit; the quintessence of relationships is that they are cumulative, expressive, gradual, productive, and their true qualities all come about by development and growth. When sceptics ask to see God as some evidential ‘whole’ their demand is as silly as a man saying to another man’s wife – ‘show me everything she is, the whole person in totality’ or saying to his friend ‘you say there is a society out there, go and get it and bring it to me so I can see it’.
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James is a Norwich local government officer, author and Proclaimers church member in Norwich. You can access his current collections of columns here
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