by Nikhil Gavankar
‘Scientists including doctors most commonly get mixed up between absence of evidence and evidence of absence.’
When I read this statement from the book The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb I was shocked out of my intellectual slumber with its simplicity and pithy expression.
I had seen one of my close relatives die of cancer post radiation and chemotherapy and came to realise that doctors, as well as us laypeople, misunderstand the difference between the two concepts. Doctors that generally perform tests on patients that have suffered from cancer and have been given treatment as per the latest techniques in medical science commit this fallacy unknowingly. Most patients are keen to know whether there could be a reoccurrence of cancer even after the treatment, which is a valid concern. What this means is that they want a confirmation that all the cancerous cells have been killed or eliminated by the treatment. The current state of technology does not allow us to check every cell and ensure that the malignancy has been eliminated. So what the doctor does is take a sample based on statistical sampling methods and examine those cells thoroughly. On the basis of the results, the doctor makes an assumption about the cells that were not examined. Most doctors state that the patient has been cured when the scanned cells give a negative result and assume that all the malignant cells have been destroyed. What doctors mean when they say that the scan is negative is that there is no evidence of disease based on the sample, which is different from stating there is evidence of no disease. Unfortunately, the latter is what they think they are saying, but evidence of no disease can only be justifiably proclaimed if the doctor has examined each and every cell in the body’.
What medical books use is a term called NED, which stands for No Evidence of Disease. However, there is no term called END or Evidence of No Disease, which is actually nonsensical and certainly contributes to the continuing confusion of the two statements.
During the 1960’s in the US most doctors were—due to the absence of evidence— un aware of the medicinal properties of breast milk. As a result, most infants in the US that were not breast fed had more health problems in their later lives than those who were breastfed. The health problems even included a higher risk of certain types of cancer. Even mothers that did not breast feed their infants had a higher risk of cancer later. This was another classic example of confusion between absence of evidence and evidence of absence, which led to disastrous consequences for a generation.
Take another example, that of tonsils. Tonsils were suspected to be a useless tissue. As it turns out, tonsils actually help in reducing the incidence of throat cancer. Unfortunately, before this was discovered most doctors assumed tonsils to be an irrelevant appendage due to the false equation absence of evidence = evidence of absence.
These examples can go on in terms of the irreparable harm the scientific community has done to the general population due to the fallacious equation of NED with END. The same equation has been the lot of philosophy as well although the damage may not be as much as has been the case with medicine since the impact has been in the realm of metaphysics and religion.
There has been a number of rational arguments made for the existence of GOD besides the fluid, poetic writings of mystics and saints that have been the treasured pearls of mankind testing the limits of human thought. Our attempt in this paper is to examine the arguments given by scientists and philosophers against the evidence of GOD and the logically fallacious conclusion their arguments entail in terms of securing adequate evidence that GOD does not exist.
Bertrand Russell, in one of his writings, says the following:
‘I ought to call myself an agnostic; but, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist. I do not think the existence of the Christian God any more probable than the existence of the Gods of Olympus or Valhalla. To take another illustration: nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice. I think the Christian God just as unlikely.’
Richard Dawkins argues in his book ‘The God Delusion’:
A friend, an intelligent lapsed Jew who observes the Sabbath for reasons of cultural solidarity, describes himself as a Tooth Fairy Agnostic. He will not call himself an atheist because it is in principle impossible to prove a negative. But “agnostic” on its own might suggest that he thought God’s existence or non-existence equally likely. In fact, though strictly agnostic about God, he considers God’s existence no more probable than the Tooth Fairy’s. . . .
Bertrand Russell used a hypothetical teapot in orbit about Mars for the same didactic purpose. You have to be agnostic about the teapot, but that doesn’t mean you treat the likelihood of its existence as being on all fours with its non-existence.
Agnostic conciliation, which is the decent liberal bending over backward to concede as much as possible to anybody who shouts loud enough, reaches ludicrous lengths in the following common piece of sloppy thinking. It goes roughly like this: You can’t prove a negative (so far so good). Science has no way to disprove the existence of a supreme being (this is strictly true).
Therefore, belief or disbelief in a supreme being is a matter of pure, individual inclination, and both are therefore equally deserving of respectful attention! When you say it like that, the fallacy is almost self-evident; we hardly need spell out the reductio ad absurdum. As my colleague, the physical chemist Peter Atkins, puts it, we must be equally agnostic about the theory that there is a teapot in orbit around the planet Pluto. We can’t disprove it. But that doesn’t mean the theory that there is a teapot is on level terms with the theory that there isn’t.
Dawkins summarizes what he calls “the central argument of my book.” It goes as follows:
1. One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect has been to explain how the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arises. 2. The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself. 3. The temptation is a false one because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. 4. The most ingenious and powerful explanation is Darwinian evolution by natural selection. 5. We don’t have an equivalent explanation for physics. 6. We should not give up the hope of a better explanation arising in physics, something as powerful as Darwinism is for biology. Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist is Richard Dawkin’s conclusion.
This argument is jarring because the atheistic conclusion that “Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist” seems to come suddenly out of left field. You don’t need to be a philosopher to realize that that conclusion doesn’t follow from the six previous statements.
Indeed, if we take these six statements as premises of an argument implying the conclusion “Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist,” then the argument is patently invalid. No logical rules of inference would permit you to draw this conclusion from the six premises.
A more charitable interpretation would be to take these six statements, not as premises, but as summary statements of six steps in Dawkins’ cumulative argument for his conclusion that God does not exist. But this charitable interpretation still does not justify the conclusion “Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist”, even if we concede that each of the six summary statements is justified.
What does follow from the six steps of Dawkins’ argument? At most, all that follows is that we should not infer God’s existence on the basis of the appearance of design in the universe. But that conclusion is quite compatible with God’s existence and even with our justifiably believing in God’s existence. Maybe we should believe in God on the basis of the cosmological argument or the ontological argument or the moral argument. Maybe our belief in God isn’t based on arguments at all but is grounded in religious experience or in divine revelation. Maybe God wants us to believe in Him simply by faith. The point is that rejecting design arguments for God’s existence does nothing to prove that God does not exist or even that belief in God is unjustified. Indeed, many Christian theologians have rejected arguments for the existence of God without thereby committing themselves to atheism.
So Dawkins’ argument for atheism is a failure even if we concede, for the sake of argument, all its steps. But, in fact, several of these steps are plausibly false. Take just step (3), for example. Dawkins’ claim here is that one is not justified in inferring design as the best explanation of the complex order of the universe because then a new problem arises: who designed the designer?
This rejoinder is flawed on at least two counts. First, in order to recognize an explanation as the best, one need not have an explanation of the explanation. This is an elementary point concerning inference to the best explanation as practiced in the philosophy of science. If archaeologists digging in the earth were to discover things looking like arrowheads and hatchet heads and pottery shards, they would be justified in inferring that these artifacts are not the accidental result of sedimentation and metamorphosis, but products of some unknown group of people, even though they had no explanation of who these people were or where they came from. Similarly, if astronauts were to stumble upon a pile of machinery on the back side of the moon, they would be justified in inferring that it was the product of intelligent, extra-terrestrial agents, even if they had no idea whatsoever who these extra-terrestrial agents were or how they got there. In order to recognize an explanation as the best, one need not be able to explain the explanation. In fact, requiring and explanation for every explanation would lead to an infinite regress of explanations, so that nothing could ever be explained and science would be impossible. So in the case at hand, in order to recognize that intelligent design is the best explanation of the appearance of design in the universe, one need not be able to explain the designer.
The Indian philosopher Laxman Shastri Joshi, who moved away from his early traditional Vedic moorings to the materialistic alternative of Marxism, has given several arguments against the existence of GOD, which according to him clearly proves that GOD does not exist. He examines six arguments in favour of GOD and then gives counterarguments. He presents his ideas in his long essay ‘Spiritual Materialism’, in which he is making a case for atheism.
1. Design of the Universe Argument – organization, harmony and design are the nature of things in the universe and from this it is concluded that there must be a being that is supremely skilled with infinite powers to design the universe and is called GOD. Joshi argues against this by saying that every object in the universe possesses energy inherent motion and transformable energy. The universe is constructed out of atomic substances whose natural attribute is motion, which is inherent in it. He further states that the wheels of the universe are rotating since time immemorial with no beginning.
2. Prime Mover Argument – it is expected that every motion needs a mover. The one power that has set the universe in motion is truly GOD, like a charioteer who directs and steers the horses. Joshi considers the cosmological concept of the BIG BANG or FIRST BEGINNING as erroneous. According to him the universe has no beginning. It has been there since time immemorial and has been subject to change. The very concept that there was a time when there was no change in the universe and that it was totally static is a concept riddled with logical fallacies according to him.
3. Prior Intent Argument – nothing can happen in this world without a purpose. Every object must have come into being for a purpose. Therefore the one in whose mind the purpose of the universe resides must be GOD. Joshi refutes this argument by saying that purpose is a mental trait, which involves desire and will which we see in all human beings. Desire means to want something which is lacking and hence the will to achieve. If GOD were to desire the universe it would mean that GOD is lacking something and hence is unfulfilled and imperfect which is not possible in the case of GOD.
4. Knower and Knowable Argument – every known object in the universe has its existence in the domain of the knower. Knowledge exists because there is a subject and an object of knowledge. It is not possible to say ‘the horse is white’ if there is no eye to see the whiteness. The world would exist even if all the living creatures would go to sleep and hence the existence of a subject who would know the world at all times and who else could this subject be but GOD. Joshi’s argument against this line of thought is that knowledge is object-dependent and not subject-dependent. The object that exists only when someone is aware of it, i.e. the object that does not exist when someone is unaware of it, has to be an imaginary object. The world existed even when there were no human beings or living organisms on it and hence the need for GOD is not required.
5. Beautiful GOD Argument – in this world one encounters infinite beauty that is enchanting, limitless and amazing. There must be a universal divine power that inspires imagination and creativity in poets, painters and artists. If the entire universe is seen as an artistic creation then such a wonderful piece of art logically necessitates the existence of a creative genius beyond all imagination, fountain of unlimited creative powers and virtues, called GOD. Joshi retorts to this line of thought by stating that world is definitely beautiful and amazing but it is the cradle of unlimited sorrows and pain as well as has been pointed out by all great Indian sages and philosophers from Buddha to Shankaracharya. There is a lot of ugliness, disorder and chaos in the universe besides order, harmony and beauty as well. It is a mixture. If this perfect being called GOD exists then he should be held responsible for the sorrow, pain, ugliness and disorder as well and not just the beautiful aspects of existence. This is a paradoxical situation and because of this there can be no benevolent GOD.
6. Moral Law Argument – this is an ethical argument for the existence of GOD. Human beings need a provider of norms and morals to allow them to discriminate between good and bad, sacred and profane. The need for a supreme divine ruler who segregates the just from the unjust and who is the source of all ethical and moral values in this world. This supreme, divine being is GOD who rewards human beings for good deeds and punishes bad people for the evil deeds. According to Joshi this line of argument for the existence of GOD is erroneous. Moral laws and ethics are a human creation through which society creates certain norms that lay down what is good and what is bad. What is considered moral or sacred differs between nations, periods, places, situations, and individuals and cannot be considered to be an abstract universal concept. There is no universal science of ethics and morality which is applicable across time, place and for all individuals. Moreover, many real-life cases have allowed us to see that good people get punished and the immoral are rewarded, which cannot be possible if there was a divine, just power called GOD. Joshi sees no merit in this line of argument.
I do not wish to examine the merits or demerits of the counter arguments made by Joshi. All the counterarguments outlined above if you examine carefully through the lens of the difference between NED and END laid down at the start of this paper will make it sufficiently clear that they lie within the realm of NED but Joshi makes it sound as if it is END which is a logical fallacy.
The conclusion that can be drawn from all the arguments and counterarguments is that there is no sufficient conclusive evidence that proves the non-existence of GOD, which those scientists who are militant atheists would like to believe. Healthy, moderate, unassuming and less presumptuous agnosticism is a welcome alternative to an unexamined belief in GOD and even more to a derisive, disrespectful and overconfident dogmatic defence of science and atheism. I fully understand the point that it is difficult to prove the non-existence of GOD but the least that I expect from modern science and some of its foremost practitioners is humility. It is meant to show that, in the absence of evidence either way it is not reasonable to conclude that there is no God. The reasonable thing to do is to suspend judgment. Leaving aside the fact that some theists think there is evidence for God’s existence, what I have been trying to argue here is that even if we accept the atheists’ assumptions —if we play on their home ground as it were and accept that there is no evidence either way—the atheist does not win.
I will ﬁnish up by simply saying that a similar thought is detectable in a passage from G.K. Chesterton’s great religious allegory The Man Who Was Thursday:
“Listen to me,” cried Syme with extraordinary emphasis. “Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front——”
Taleb, Nassim N. The Black Swan. New York: Random House 2007
Taleb, Nassim N. Fooled by Randomness. New York: Random House, 2004
Joshi, Laxmanshastri. Spiritual Materialism. A Case for Atheism (A. Khandkar, Trans.). Mumbai: Lok Vangmaya Griha, 2004
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