So Mark Houlsby asserts that God does not exist. I challenged him to prove this assertion. Here is his argument:
I and others have attempted to refute this argument by arguing “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” We proffered plausible counterexamples: such things as protons (at one time), intelligent life in the Andromeda galaxy, and black holes (at one time). We argued that it is overwhelmingly likely that there are things for which we do not yet have evidence.
His response is odd.
As should be clear from his argument,
- There is no evidence for God.
- ∴ God does not exist.
he has a suppressed premise. What’s premise 2? It would have to be:
MH2: Anything for which there is no evidence does not exist.
Worse yet, he seems to hold
MH4: If X exists, necessarily there is evidence that X exists.
from his proton argument.
But evidence is an epistemological concept, pertaining to knowledge, to how we know that something exists or not, and what its properties are. Existence on the other hand is a metaphysical or ontological concept.
There seems to simply be no necessary connection between existence and evidence, such that either “a lack of evidence for X ⇒ X does not exist” nor “X exists ⇒ there is evidence that X exists.”
It seems perfectly obvious that there could be things which are unknown to us, because not yet discovered, or more strongly, things that are perhaps unknown to us in principle, given the limits of human cognition. Given his response to protons in the 1st century, he might claim the evidence is there, because the existence is the evidence. He would then be saying that the existence of X is the evidence that X exists.
This would make sense out of MH2 and MH4, but then he would be identifying existence and evidence, so his premises would translate (be substitution of equivalent terms) to:
MH2: Anything for which there is no evidence is something for which there is no evidence.
MH4: If X exists, X exists.
It would be impossible to deny these premises when formulated in this way, but the cost is that they are now vacuous tautologies from which nothing follows. It would make his argument against the existence of God circular, because MH1: there is no evidence for God would just mean MH3: God does not exist. When your first premise IS your conclusion, you are either begging the question (if you think you proved your conclusion) or you haven’t gone anywhere:
- God does not exist.
- ∴ God does not exist.
That’s valid, certainly, but it isn’t a proof. Presented as a proof it is question-begging.
This is ongoing, so I’m using my blog to keep track. Stay tuned!
On the question of evidence, I thought of perhaps an even better counterexample to Houlsby’s claim, after Thomas Nagel’s famous “What is it like to be a bat?” I was looking at my cat this morning, and wondering what it is like to be a cat. If we accept that cats and bats are conscious beings, then they are “experiencing subjects of a life” and so there is “something it is like to be them.” But human beings, it seems, can never know what it is like to be a cat. Because, by definition, a human being is a human being and not a cat. Even if, hypothetically, one could hook one’s brain to a cat and have experience cat experiences, this would still not be “what it is like to be a cat” but “what it is like for a human being to have cat experiences run through their brain.” Short of magic, where a witch turns a person into a cat, it seems there is an in-principle barrier to knowing what it is like to be a cat. Which is to say, there is no possible evidence that could tell us what it is like to be a cat. Again I Houlsby could make the move of saying “there is evidence, but it is completely unexperienceable by us as evidence.” But of course to do this would, again, utterly defeat his argument that God does not exist, unless he knows, for a fact, that there is no evidence for God, which would include evidence which is in principle not experienceable by any human being. But of course he couldn’t know such a thing.
His claim that MH1: There is no evidence for God is already defeated by AMH1: It is possible there is evidence of God that has not yet be discovered. I of course hold there is evidence for God, and plenty of it, but even if Houlsby rejects everything put forward as evidence, he is still not warranted in claiming there is none, but only that he has not seen any. Even worse, his peculiar definition of evidence seems to entail AMH1′: It is possible there is evidence for God that is not in principle experienceable by any human being (since he seems to hold that evidence can exist apart from it doing any evidentiary work for anything or anyone). This also radically undercuts his claim that there is no evidence for God since on this understanding, literally anything could be evidence for God, in such a way that it is, objectively, evidence, but it is unknown to anyone that it is evidence and how it is evidence. For all Houlsby knows, his fallacious argument that there is no God might be evidence for the existence of God; since he asserts evidence exists independently of its being known by anyone to be evidence, he has know way of knowing. Someone might discover a sound argument in which Houlsby’s fallacious argument for the nonexistence of God is actual evidence for the existence of God. I’m not saying that it is; I’m saying he can’t rule out the possibility that it is not, since for him “to be evidence” does not require evidence to do any evidentiary work for anyone.