“The heavens declare nothing really, the firmament showeth nothing really, day unto day uttereth nothing really and night unto night showeth nothing really. There is no speech or language from them, full stop, end of pre-scientific rubbish.”
Such would be a possible rewording of Psalm 19 in the hands of the so-called ‘New Atheists’ like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens, all of whom can be called militant atheists who reject the argument from/to design, which contends that the structure of the universe, the totality of nature testifies to the existence of God. Nature does indeed provide evidential proof of the existence of God as the inference to the best explanation of nature’s origin, in particular, the origin of the universe, the origin of first life and the origin of the information-rich nature of every living cell.
Level of proof needed
But why do I call it Nature’s evidence? Because I wish to emphasize in this public lecture, the nature of evidence in law and in life in general and the level of proof by which we operate in law and in life in general and ask that when we consider the existence of God we require nothing higher than that level of proof by which we operate in law and in life in general.
Our law courts deal with two basic classes of action, civil and criminal. In a civil case the level of proof is “a preponderance of evidence” which means, on balance, which side has more evidence in its favour.
In a criminal case the level of proof is higher than in a civil case, it is proof “beyond reasonable doubt” which means, not proof beyond every doubt but proof beyond a reasonable doubt, that is, proof that would move a reasonable, rational person to be convinced about the truthfulness of the case being presented by the prosecution.
We all act on levels of proof in life and the standard is usually proof ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ or to put it another way proof to a high degree of probability. Let me introduce you to a series of options that I often use in presentations. If a thing is not absolutely impossible it is possible, probable, likely or certain based on the supporting evidence.
Learn this fact of academic life, ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY IN LIFE IS POSSIBLE ONLY IN THE AREA OF MATHEMATICS, FOR EVERYTHING ELSE WE OPERATE ONLY ON A HIGH DEGREE OF PROBABILITY, THAT IS, BEYOND REASONABLE DOUBT.
So whether it’s an option to cross the road during busy traffic, marrying someone ‘until death us do part’, planning to go from point A to B via whatever means, we make our decisions on the basis of a high degree of probability, decisions based on evidence beyond reasonable doubt. Never based on absolute certainty!
Hear the sobering supportive words of John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford and fellow in Mathematics and the Philosophy of Science at Green Templeton College. Lennox informs,
“In my own field of pure mathematics, ‘proof’ has a rigorous meaning…such mathematically rigorous proof is not available in any other discipline or area of experience, not even in the so-called ‘hard’ sciences. There we find another, less formal use of the word ‘proof’ akin to the use of the term by lawyers when they speak of ‘proof beyond reasonable doubt’ by which they mean that there is evidence strong enough to convince a reasonable person that a certain claim is true.”
That same yardstick has to be applied to our assessment of evidence for the existence of God. Is the evidence adequate to ground belief ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, is there evidence enough to conclude with a ‘high degree of probability’ that there is a God, is God ‘the best explanation’ for nature and its complexities?
I would like now to add another dimension of law which also operates within the historical sciences like palaeontology, forensic pathology, etc.; this is the concept of circumstantial evidence which is based on the underlying idea that you cannot have an effect in the absence of a sufficient cause.
Circumstantial evidence arises where the ultimate fact in issue is not proved by direct observation or personal knowledge but is an inference or conclusion drawn from other facts.
Note the emphasis here on sufficient cause and not just cause. Sufficient cause moves it from the realm of possibility to probability and depending on the quality of the other facts involved in the case, the ultimate fact may be regarded as highly probable, reasonably certain or conclusive.
For example, if we go into a house and see a two year old child alone and we also see that a table has been properly set and meal laid out, there cannot be many persons who would conclude that it is probable, highly probable, reasonably certain or conclusively established that the child laid the table, prepared or acquired the meal which was neatly placed on the table. It is possible but not regarded as probable etc., because the child of two years while a possible cause of what has been seen would not be regarded as a sufficient cause.
However, if we go into the said house and see a fifteen-year-old we would not rule out the possibility that the fifteen-year-old may be responsible and if that is all we had all we could say is that the fifteen-year-old may have been responsible for the meal and the set table. But suppose we have additional information such as the fifteen-year-old has mental issues that prevent him or her from doing simple tasks such as setting a table then we would know that the fifteen-year-old is not a sufficient cause of what we see.
The key point is what explanatory inference can be drawn from the evidence before us. We shall probe the God-pointing evidence from Biochemistry/Microbiology and Astronomy concerning the origin of the universe, the origin of 1stlife and the information-rich complexity of all living things.
Rev. Clinton Chisholm, Academic Dean, Caribbean Graduate School of Theology