Re: Carl Sagan's no evidence claim

Paul K. Wason (
Tue, 30 Sep 1997 09:34:28 -0500

Joel's point about what constitutes evidence of God and of God's
interaction with the world is well said. Has anyone on the list studied
this issue? Do you have any references to recommend concerning what
constitutes evidence of God or an objectively real spiritual world

One of Joel's points is that if we start with a limited view of
what could count as evidence, then any claim that God cannot be known (much
less that God doesn't exist) is very weak. The situation is further
complicated by looking for evidence in the wrong places. Thus "....when an
internationally renowned astronomer applies the same techniques he used to
unlock Mars's secrets to investigate our God and finds no evidence of the
His existence" then I would say it is as fair to conclude that God is not
much like Mars as to conclude there is no evidence for his existence.

John Polkinghorne has pointed out that in thinking about our
interaction with God (such as in prayer), a physical cause/effect model is
not adequate. A more apropriate analogy would be the interaction between
two people (taking care, though, not to slip into thinking the analogy is
exact). And if we understand the nature of the interaction differently, we
would, presumably, have a different understanding of what would constitute
acceptable evidence for it.

When people like Sagan claim there is no evidence for God, they are
dismissing the personal testimony of literally billions of people today and
throughout history. They may not say this in so many words, but they are in
effect claiming to know that every one of these billions of people is
deeply psychologically deceived. (It is also rather ironic that some of
these same scholars then turn around and claim that Christians are the ones
who are "arrogant" in their knowledge claims! But that is another issue.)

One obvious complication is that the exact content of this
testimony varies so much -- this is so even just among Christians, but far
more so if we take all claims of religious experience together, from Nuer
witches seen flying upside down to blinding lights near the city of
Damascus. It is reasonable for the sceptic to ask how these could all be
experiences of an objectively real "something" outside the person (like
God) if they are so different. Several possible answers come to mind -- 1)
they are all experiences of spiritual beings, but of different beings, 2)
they are all experiences of God, but how we understand and explain our
experience of God is so culture bound that when the descriptions are put
side-by-side they seem to be incompatible, or 3) some are experiences of an
objective spirit world while others are psychological quirks.

But while the varied content of these experiences makes it
difficult to use them as evidence for the specific nature of the spiritual
world, would I be wrong to assume that they can be taken together as
evidence for the existence of a spiritual world in general?


More bits from Joe's post:

>Indeed, the dubious logic in Sagan's ``no evidence'' claim bears an
>instructive symmetry to the Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gugarin's statement
>after returning from the first manned space flight: He knew God didn't
>exist because he had looked for and not found God while in outer
>space. The algorithm: Make an assumption of God's signature--if you
>don't find it you can safely conclude God's non-existence.
>Like Gugarin, Sagan's claim's central feature, his ``no evidence''
>assertion rests directly on assumptions, specifically:
> 1) his assumptions concerning God's nature (which is at odds with
>Judaism, Christianity, and presumably Islam); and 2) his assumption
>concerning the likelihood that God exists.
>Before Sagan could look for evidence, he had to assume or determine by
>empirical means what might constitute valid evidence. Deciding just
>how God could or couldn't act could not be tested empirically so he
>had to make assumptions about the character and action of
>God. Arguably, in this case Sagan was likely to guess wrong, casting
>doubt on his conclusions. Garbage in--garbage out; bad assumptions
>yield bad answers.
>In the case of God's existence, the only evidence Sagan would accept is the
>miraculous violation of the laws of cause and effect. Sagan assumes
>that any self-respecting deity would interrupt the natural flow of his/her
>creation so that even the most skeptical scientist could be convinced.
>Interestingly, in the book {\it Contact}, Ellie suggests some means by
>which God could do this such as ``a monster crucifix orbiting the Earth.''
>or ``the surface of the moon covered with the Ten Commandments '' (p. 164).
>Perhaps less evidence for biological evolution might also have made Sagan
>more inclined to trust the Almighty.
>Sagan's failure to find flying crosses or holes in evolutionary theory
>may entail God's non-existence but that seems dubious. Bad assumption
>might be a better conclusion; God need not operate in the miraculous
>way Sagan expects him to. Or perhaps God's secure self-image may
>preclude having to prove himself to every gun-slinging scientist
>challenging his existence.
>Note that which alternative one chooses from these or other choices
>depends strictly on one's prior assumptions concerning God, rendering
>Sagan's ``data'' useless as an empirical test. If you begin thinking
>it probable God exists you reject Sagan's interpretation (and vice
>versa). The ``evidence'' doesn't change peoples minds; only reinforces
>prior prejudices. To claim otherwise, as Sagan does, is sheer
>self-deception. Like the Cosmonaut, he's failed to see that his
>assumptions determined his conclusion.

Paul K. Wason (207) 786-6240
306 Lane Hall, Bates College
Lewiston, Maine 04240