Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The problem with empiricism

Recently on Yahoo Answers, somebody posted a question asking Christians to say what they think the best argument against the existence of God is. Most of them said something like lack of empirical evidence.

Empiricism is the idea that all of our knowledge comes through sensory experience. Empirical evidence is evidence that can be apprehended through the five senses. If you're an empiricist, then you would demand empirical evidence for anything before you would consider it an item of knowledge.

David Hume tried to take empiricism to its logical conclusion in his book, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding. (I highly recommend that book to everybody, by the way.) What he arrived at was radical skepticism. The reason is that before your senses can tell you anything, you must first know a few things your senses cannot tell you.

You must know that your sensory experience corresponds to a real external world and is not just an illusion in your mind before your senses can tell you anything about the external world. You must know that your memory corresponds to real past experience if your knowledge is to cover anything beyond what you are experiencing at the moment. You must know the uniformity of nature if you are going to make any generalizations based on your sensory experience or arrive at any probabilities. None of these things can be known through your senses. If we don't know these non-empirical things, then we don't have any empirical knowledge either.

There are actually a whole lot of things we know that our senses can't tell us. We know the content of our thoughts, how we're feeling, the basic concepts of math and geometry, the laws of logic, that "ought" implies "can," and that the simplest explanation is the best (i.e. Okham's razor/the law of parsimony). In fact, we know many of these things with more certainty than we know things that our senses tell us. It's possible that we could be mistaken about what we're percieving (it could be an illusion), but it's not possible that we could be mistaken about the content of our thoughts. We know what we're thinking merely because we're thinking it.

But I think it's a little hasty to say there is no empirical evidence for God. The cosmological argument and the teleological argument both rely on empirical evidence.


At 6/01/2007 9:28 AM , Blogger DagoodS said...


The problem for many (myself included) may be that the lack of empirical evidence when it comes to God, results in a lack of uniformity as well. It is this lack of uniformity that leaves me scratching my head saying, “Even if there was a God—what would it look like?”

Stealing your example recklessly: When it comes to math, I can take visual empirical evidence, such as two sticks, place two more sticks next to them, and demonstrate the ides of “2 + 2 = 4.” Having taken three children through the Elementary school process of learning addition, subtraction, and multiplication, I see their papers are filled with concrete demonstrations of the concepts therein.

Further, if we take those same concepts and demonstrate them in Japan, or Saudi Arabia or Antarctica, the concepts remain the same.

I agree you are correct that there is no actual empirical sense of “addition,” it is still a concept that we can pragmatically use AND pragmatically predict outcomes with empirical results.

The, at times frustrating, difference is that “God” seems to vary greatly depending on when and where one is born, what education a person has, and one’s environment. I am told, with the same empirical evidence of the universe, of gods who created in 6 days, in 13 Billion years, and gods who pushed the Big Bang and waited to see what would happen. Of multiple gods, of one god, of one Triune god. Of omnipotent, of limited, of Calvinist, of Catholic, of almost as many varieties of God there could be.

As to the specific Christian God (depending, of course on which variety of that brand of God one is talking) there are empirical problems as well.

We all seem to agree on the non-empirical concept of “2 + 2= 4”. When it comes to the non-empirical concept of God, it seems an almost impossible task to find three people who all agree on what that God looks like. Oh, they may all agree there is a God. Ask what that God is likely to do tomorrow and we find no predictability, no verification, no way to make any determination about what that God is.

At 6/02/2007 12:08 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...


The more evidences there are, the less diversity there should be. So I can agree that lack of empirical evidence contributes to diversity in beliefs about God. But what I'm addressing in my post is the idea that empirical evidence is the only kind of evidence that counts.

Even without empirical evidence of God, there is still debate about whether there's one God or more, whether God is a trinity or not, etc. People offer arguments for these various views. They aren't just left with assertions merely because they lack empirical evidence.

The mere fact that people disagree is no reason to say nobody knows or that no view has better arguments in its favour than others. People disagree on a variety of things, not just their conception of God. People even disagree about things we do have empirical evidence for. For example, in quantum physics, there's the Coppenhagen interpretation, the many worlds interpretation, string theory, etc. These various views aren't arbitrary just because people disagree. There are reasons for and against them.

I don't think our knowledge that 2 + 2 = 4 is empirical. We can perform the same operation of adding two sticks together in our heads and arrive at the same result purely by reflection. When we "see" it with our minds, we don't need to test it by actually putting two sticks together. If that kind of test were necessary to confirm what we've already grasped in our minds, then one test wouldn't be enough. We'd have to repeat the test over and over using different objects so that with enough tests, we could arrive at a high probability that 2 + 2 = 4. But that's absurd. Even for people who do need a physical illustration of the point, all that's required is for them to be able to understand what the illustration means. In that case, it just takes one example for the person to know that 2 + 2 = 4 no matter what objects you add together. They reason they are able to grasp this principle with just one illustration is because the knowledge is not really empirical. It's a rational intuition.

At 6/03/2007 7:50 AM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

The statement that there is a lack empirical evidence for god is more of a verdict than a commentary on process.
So although the Comological and Teleological Arguments rely on empirical evidence, if you believe that the arguments fail, then retrospectively, the evidence used is by definition, not evidence for god. Now, you could argue that the same evidence could in principle be used as part of a Better Argument that does not fail, so the evidence is in fact evidence-for-the-existence-of-god, it is just that atheists don't realise it. However, since atheists are not convinced by this, it is consistent for them to say that lack of empirical evidence is the main factor.

As far as a priori knowledge is concerned, such as 2+2=4, the Ontological Argument would seem to be more applicable but in my view this fails too (yes even Alvin Plantinga's revamp). So, are you aware of any watertight arguments in support of synthetic a priori knowledge?

At 6/03/2007 10:35 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Psiomniac, by that reasoning, any atheist ought to just say simply that there is no evidence for God at all. No need to stick the word empirical in there. Again, the issue I'm addressing in this post is the idea that empirical evidence is the only kind of evidence that counts.

I don't know of any watertight arguments for synthetic a priori knowledge, but I consider things like our knowledge that our senses correspond to reality, our memories correspond to a real past, causation, the uniformity of nature, morality, and possibly even God are items of synthetic a priori knowledge.

At 6/03/2007 10:38 AM , Blogger DagoodS said...


I agree with your premise that things (such as “2 + 2 = 4”) exist, without their being empirical. If I came across as in disagreement on this point, I apologize. I was fleshing out more than arguing.

What I think, though, are people looking for verifiability and predictability on an empirical basis from such concepts.

For example, I if I told you that needed to measure 25 feet, and I told you I had two 10 foot tape measures, we know from non-empirical mathematics that our empirical application will fail. Or if I say I love my wife but refuse to help her ‘cause I want to watch TV, you may question the empirical application of the non-empirical “love.”

Even the examples you give of mutli-verses or quantum physics are theories we develop from what we see, and provide predictability. Just as other scientific theories have failed and been abandoned from subsequent observation and experimentation—so too can these.

Can we say that about God? Unfortunately, there is no system that seems to be in place by which people who subscribe to a certain aspect of God can meet, discuss, learn, and abandon such belief based upon new developments.

To be straightforward, I do think many find the comparison of God to ideas such as mathematics or love as an excuse. Having been a theist, I can get my mind to wrap around the idea—but some can’t. How does “love” create a world? By speaking, one has a mind (physical), consciousness, intent, etc. As humans we use things such as math but in and of itself “math” doesn’t do anything.

The reason it seems an excuse, is that it seems as if the theist makes a claim about a god doing this, looking like this, saying that, being this, etc. And when we try and look to confirm whether the god does, looks, or says, we are informed that God is non-observable. The evidence is non-empirical.

At 6/03/2007 10:53 AM , Blogger DagoodS said...

ephphatha: Psiomniac, by that reasoning, any atheist ought to just say simply that there is no evidence for God at all.

Hmmm…. (sorry to jump in, but this might help explain what I am saying.) Depends how one defines “evidence.”

My mind (for obvious reasons) limits “evidence” to that of the five senses. Oral testimony of observations and actual demonstrative pieces of tangible objects (including documents.)

However, in addition to the evidence, we have argumentation as to the interpretation of that evidence.

A simple illustration would that of a criminal trial in which the mother of the accused testifies that the Defendant was with her at the time of the crime, and therefore has an alibi. In its most basic sense, the “evidence” is oral testimony of the location of the defendant at a certain time.

One could reasonably argue that there is “evidence” the Defendant is innocent. But, all we really have is the mother’s statement. Argumentation (and other evidence) may demonstrate that is not so much evidence of an alibi, rather evidence of a mother who loves her child very much and cannot envision them committing a crime.

Believe it or not, it is not even lying. They are confusing one incident for another time, and have managed to convince themselves that it MUST have been on that same date.

For me, I would claim there is “evidence” for God. The universe is a tangible object by which we could make the argumentation for a creator. I would say morals are “evidence.” The fact that the vast predominance of humans believes in god is “evidence.” All of these things are items in existence in which a theist can derive the argument for a god.

But just like the mother’s alibi testimony, there is other items in existence that cause some question as to whether that evidence could equally hold for a completely different conclusion—i.e. no god. Obviously, after looking at all the evidence, I am more persuaded by the arguments that the conclusion should be no god.

I do think, though, to claim that there is “NO” evidence for God is incorrect. From how I define evidence.

At 6/03/2007 11:04 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...


I must've misunderstood you about math. I thought you were trying to argue that our knowledge of math is empirical, and that we can "prove" it by testing it in the tangible world.

The disconnect you see between things like math or love on the one hand and God on the other is that math and love don't cause anything, but God supposedly does. And if God causes things, there should be empirical evidence.

Well first of all, I don't think that's why people compare God to math and love. Everytime I've seen the comparison, it's merely to point out the fact that not everything that exists is physical or tangible. The disconnect you see is irrelevent to that point, but maybe you've seen the comparison used in different ways. I dunno.

Second, the way the cosmological and teleological arguments work is by reasoning from effects to necessary and sufficient conditions. We already have the effects all around us, so we can reason from them. When you say we can't look to see if God really does these things, I'm not sure what you mean. Do you mean we can't observe the creation events all over again? If so, why can't we simply reason from the creation event that already happened?

Or do you mean that we can't actually see God himself doing these things? If so, I don't see that as any liability. The reason we know about magnetic fields is because of their effects. We can't observe magnetic fields directly either, but that's no reason to doubt them.

At 6/03/2007 11:18 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...


I've seen evidence defined both ways--the way you define it and the way psiomniact defines it. I'm not really interested in debating the meaning of the word "evidence," because we're just quibbling over a word after all.

But I am curious how you reconcile your statement that "evidence" is limited "to that of the five senses" with your statement that morals count as evidence. Neither moral thoughts and feelings, nor morals themselves are apprehended by the five senses. Do you mean moral behavior or moral statements?

What would you think about a situation where something tangible was evidence of something intangible. Could you then use that intangible thing as evidence for something else?

For example, somebody's testimony or behavior might be evidence for a motive. A motive is a mental property that is intangible. Could that motive then be used as evidence that the person is lying or guity of some crime? Or would it be disqualified as evidence since motives can't be apprehended directly by the five senses?

At 6/03/2007 2:41 PM , Blogger DagoodS said...


Coupla things I should clear up, but your use of evidence/motive sharply brings my position into focus, so I will address that.

I agree that motivation is a non-empirical. As much as I would love to, we have no medical machine that measures “motivation” or can look into our brains and say, “You performed this physical act for this reason.”

Yet neither you nor I are left puzzling over what this strange word “motivation” means. You and I are each familiar, through our experience and learning, as to what that is. If I told you I ate lunch and my motivation was “purple” you would question what I meant by that, as this does not conform to what you understand “motivation” means. On the other hand, if I told you I ate lunch, and my motivation was that I wanted to enjoy the flavor of a burrito; that makes perfect sense.

Even as a non-empirical concept, “motivation” is an idea that you and I can discuss, and be on the same page. We can each understand what the other person is talking about.

In the legal field, an obvious example in which motivation comes into play is “premeditation.” If a murder is premeditated as compared to non-premeditated, that is the sole difference between First and Second-degree murder. So we ask juries to make the decision as to the defendant’s motivation regarding premeditation. We give them the tangibles, asking them to determine an intangible or non-empirical.

Focusing on one piece of evidence; assume that I (the accused) brought a gun to the party. That is empirical evidence. It was observed (sight) by others.

Why is that evidence relevant to the motivation of premeditation? Because it is NOT the norm to bring a weapon to a party. A gun has the capability to end human life very quickly. People that carry guns normally are prepared to use them. (They are not a typical accessory like a wallet or necklace.) I am not a police officer or military personnel. The empirical evidence that I am carrying a gun makes it more likely than not that I would use it, given the chance.

The prosecutor would not bother to introduce evidence (even though it, too, is empirically available) that I was wearing shoes, or that I had eaten a burrito for lunch that day. Those are normal things that regardless of motivation on premeditation, people do.

Bringing us back to god—what is normative? What is normal? I can tell the difference between a person that brings a gun to a party and a person that does not. How do I tell the difference between a universe created by God and one that is not?

We have a piece of evidence—the universe. (The empirical.) What non-empirical concept can I develop from it? That there is a creator? That there is not? It seems to me that this enters the area of argument, not evidence.

You can bet your bottom dollar that the prosecutor will repeat, in his or her argument that the one item of “bringing a gun to a party” is evidence of motivation of premeditation. You can also bet the Defense counsel will attempt to down-play it and make it as normal as possible. Which one is more convincing may depend on other facts. And, of course, on the jurors’ perceptions.

(Part of this constant theistic debate depends on each individual. What you find convincing, ephphatha, may not move me. And vice versa.)

It is this reason that I would say there is “evidence” for God. The question is whether applying the argument, God still is a viable option, and, of course, what type of God. Your blog entry noted a question to Christians as to evidence of God. That is sorta two different questions. Is the person asking for evidence for the Christian God, or just god in general?

The more definitive one gets as to their description of a God, the more problematic some evidence may be. (I.e., and not to open a can of worms, but a person that holds to a God that can commit moral and immoral acts does not have the Problem of Evil a theist that holds to a God that can commit solely moral acts.)

This is why I was pointing out (to me) the difference between the non-empirical concept of math as to God. While both are non-empirical, we can still discuss math and even have the audacity to say, “That is a WRONG answer.” (My grades in College Calculus are a testament to that reality.) With God, it is this perpetual, “What I think…” without any real way to ever come to any consensus that something is correct or incorrect.

To answer some of your questions in which I was not clear:

ephphatha: And if God causes things, there should be empirical evidence.

I really have no clue. Like we agree, there are non-empirical “things.” Do all non-empirical things have empirical results? We have discussed math, and I think there are empirical results. Like tape measures. Love and motivation I would say have enough empirical results that you and I can communicate effectively and understand the meaning of the words.

Are there non-empirical things with non-empirical evidence of their existence?

What I was really saying was that if God causes things, it has to empirically exist. (As near as I understand non-empirical.) I don’t think you are saying that God is entirely unobservable, indeterminate and never will be. At least at some point there is some empirically quality about God that we can observe with some sense. Unfortunately, that has been frustratingly perpetually left out of our reach.

Which causes some to eventually say, “Hey, isn’t it possible that this god-thing is entirely made up?” Which is why they start to ask for empirical evidence. (Bringing us back to the top of the circle.)

ephphatha: If so, why can't we simply reason from the creation event that already happened?.

But reason what? Isn’t that the tough question? I have wild roses that grow…well…wildly about my property. They are invasive, and if you leave even the smallest bit of root they re-grow. Every spring, part of my duties is to monitor our flower beds and dig them up as they appear. They laugh at Round-up.

What do I “reason” from that regarding the universe? That there is a creator? That there was a Fall? Or that there is a creator who likes wild roses? Or that there is a creator that could care less what grows and I happened to “win” the lottery by getting wild roses? That it is simply how life happens? That the creator wants me to keep busy hands?

I know that is kinda stupid, yet I use it to show that even though we have the universe, attempting to determine the reasons or the non-empirical behind it gets us into complete speculation.

We have people that commit immoral acts. We have people that commit moral acts. Does that tell us there is a moral God that has some unknown reason to allow immorality to exist? Or an immoral God that has some unknown reason to allow morality to exist? Or a God that is both immoral and moral? Or no God, and these are concepts (like math and love and motivation) that humans developed in order to effectively communicate and socialize?

I would also note that when I attempt to utilize this method—deriving concepts from observations about the universe—I am often met with the statement that I can’t. I look about me and say, “I observe evil. I would eliminate evil. God does not. Therefore (based upon my experience) God either does not have the desire, or does not have the ability.” To which I am immediately informed that God is so much smarter and wiser and greater than I am, so I can’t use my own observation to determine what God is like.

I must confess a bit of frustration in that. First I am told that by observing nature, I should derive a God. When I do, and attempt to derive a God, I am told I cannot use my observations. (And NO, this is NOT by you, ephphatha. Just my general discussions with theists)

Can I trust my reason when it comes to deriving non-empirical from empirical?

ephphatha: Do you mean moral behavior or moral statements?

I meant morals in a general sense, both behavior and statements about that behavior, I guess. I was trying to give the benefit of the doubt to the theist on that one.

To me, morals are, like logic, a way to communicate and socialize. Yet, if there was any empirical evidence, it is the observation that we ALL seem to have some moral system. You and I may disagree as to what it is, yet we all understand “good” and “evil” and even recognize when others or we violate that system.

At 6/03/2007 7:48 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...


I appreciate the explanation of how motive is established, but it doesn't really answer my question. Let me try to clarify my question and why I'm asking it. You originally said that "My mind (for obvious reasons) limits 'evidence' to that of the five senses." Then later, you said there can be evidence for God (e.g. the universe). But God, as you will probably agree, is not apprehended by the five senses. That means there can be evidence of things that are not apprehended by the five senses as long as the evidence itself is apprehended by the five senses.

So I raised the question of "motive." As your long explanation suggests, a motive is not apprehended by the five senses, but there can be evidence for a motive that is apprehended by the five senses. What I want to know now is whether a motive can be evidence for something else, like lying or guilt.

The reason I ask is because if motive is not apprehended by the five senses, and you say that "evidence" is limited to the five senses, then to be consistent, you'd have to say that "motive" cannot serve as evidence for anything. But if you say that motive can be evidence for something, then you are not limiting evidence to the five senses. So what do you say? If you can establish that somebody has a motive, can that serve as evidence for anything else (e.g. lying or guilt)?

I'm just using "motive" as an example. My overriding question is that given the fact that something tangible can serve as evidence for something intangible (as you seem to agree with given that the universe can serve as evidence for God), could you then use that intangible thing as evidence for something else (like motive being used as evidence for lying or guilt)? If the intangible thing were established by tangible evidence, could that intangible thing serve as evidence for anything else?

Let me know if I'm not explaining myself clearly.

Reading the rest of your post leaves me thinking there's some kind of misunderstanding going on between us. I'm going to let it go, though, out of laziness. I've been going back and forth reading our messages so I can figure out where we went off course, but it is getting to be a chore.

At 6/03/2007 8:55 PM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

Psiomniac, by that reasoning, any atheist ought to just say simply that there is no evidence for God at all.

To be honest, I wonder whether the people that responded stuck the two words together out of habit rather than to distinguish empirical from a priori.

The point I was making was that if the argument succeeds, then you might retrospectively validate the evidence (of whatever kind) as being in favour. I don't think that this is restricted to empirical evidence though. I don't think that this is the only kind that counts. There is evidence, you might be persuaded by it that there is a god, I might not.
As in the alibi case raised by Dagoods, it is a question of judgement and interpretation of the evidence.
On the question of whether empirical evidence of things not apprehended by the senses, such as motivation, can be used to infer further things not apprehended by the senses, I would say that they could. The issue there might be the level of confidence in the inference if no further empirical verification were forthcoming. For example, the mother's motivation might be lying or guilt. Or it might be to uphold the law. The approach might be to gather sufficient strands of independent verifiable empirical evidence that all point in the same direction. in other words corroboration. I wonder whether it is this that some theists believe they have observed.

At 6/04/2007 10:42 AM , Blogger DagoodS said...

You explained yourself fine, ephphatha.

I guess the problem I see is that the farther out on that branch of intangible(s) we go; the more difficult it is to really claim it as evidence, as much as mere speculation.

What non-empirical concept can we derive from a non-empirical concept? And where do we sufficiently stop?

To throw (yet another) example into the mix, does the non-empirical notion of “motivation” provide us evidence toward another non-empirical notion of “mind”? However, there are empirical problems with “mind” as well (i.e. injury to the physical brain affects the mind.) Does the non-empirical “mind” provide us with evidence toward the non-empirical “consciousness”? I don’t want to travel too far down this rabbit trail, but I hope you can see that if we start to use intangibles to prove intangibles, we enter a dangerous arena of speculation upon speculation. Fun and all, but is it convincing evidence?

Maybe to sum up my conclusions in the matter: God is too large of an entity to rest on non-empirical concepts as the basis for its proof. The empirical evidence we have could go either way (and in my opinion leans toward there not being a god. That comes as no surprise.) The non-empirical concepts are so all-over-the-board that there is no consistency and no consensus. Leading me to be persuaded that it is humans speculating. ‘Cause that is exactly what it would look like if humans were.

At 6/04/2007 8:38 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...


I agree that if you arrive at an intangible probablistically from a tangible, and then another intangible probablistically from that intangible, then each step takes you farther away from certainty. That's because the margin of error multiplies. It's kind of like standard derivatives in physics classes. Pretty soon, it just becomes speculation.

But as I argued in the blog that got this whole discussion started, I think there are intangibles we can be even more certain of than the tangibles, and without which we could have no confidence in the tangibles at all. So I don't think that God is "too big" to rest on intangible evidence. In fact, I would have more confidence in God's existence if it could be demonstrated purely from logic and first principles alone than if I had to rely on tangibles. Tangibles can only given you probability, whereas logic and first principles can give you certainty.

I think that's why the ontological argument is still being discussed. It's almost universally recognized to be fallacious in some way, but it's still very interesting because if it is sound, then God's existence is logically necessary. It's impossible to be otherwise. If sound, the ontological argument would make God's existence certain, whereas the cosmological and teleological arguments can only give us probability.

That's probably also why the trascendental argument is so popular. If sound, it too would give us certainty of God's existence by making his existence logically necessary and irrational to deny. But I don't think that argument is sound either, unfortunately.

At 4/02/2016 1:29 PM , Anonymous Isaac said...

This was a great post and a great debate in the comments. Really fun read over all. It's rare for me to be interested in Theist Arguments. Now I have something fun to research for the next few days :D


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