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The role of evidence in the Christian faith (Part 7)

We are continuing our previous examination of how God provides evidence for our faith in him. In particular, he uses the following patterns in the Bible when he provides evidence:

1. God provides evidence whenever he asks us to believe something, especially when he does something new. 

2. God expects us to test and verify the evidence he provides. 

3. God does not want us to be irrational. He does not want us to be overly skeptical or overly gullible, but to find the rational center. He rebukes those who refuse to test the evidence, believe too easily, don't believe despite the evidence, or refuse to infer beyond the merely empirical things.  

4. God provides evidence on his own terms. It is meaningless to test the evidence from outside the framework provided by God himself.  

5. We are to remember the previous evidence that God has provided, and take the past history of his faithfulness as evidence for our belief.  

6. Dramatic evidence, in the form of miraculous signs and wonders, comes only when God is doing something new and important. Other time periods are relatively more quiet.

Starting this week, we will address the some possible philosophical objections to these patterns.

"You can't actually have any evidence for Christianity. Evidence must be empirical, like it is in science. But there is no empirical evidence for God, which is why he must be believed on faith, with no evidence."

On the contrary, Christianity and science are empirical in exactly the same way. They both require you to infer non-empirical entities from the empirical evidence.

Now, one may say that the evidence for Christianity is not very good. Perhaps. But that is a topic for another discussion, and is irrelevant for the moment. The question at hand is whether Christianity, like science, is fundamentally based on empirical evidence, in the way that it processes and uses that evidence. I am claiming that the procedure for handling evidence is the same between Christianity and science. I am not yet claiming anything about what conclusion these procedures lead to.

Before we move on further, let's first establish a definition:

Empirical: based on, concerned with, or verifiable by observation or experience rather than theory or pure logic.

So, is Christianity BASED ON observation or experience? Absolutely; the apostles repeatedly emphasized that they were eyewitnesses to Christ's resurrection, that they directly observed and experienced him in his risen state. The ministry Jesus and the apostles are filled with miraculous events that happened to people which directly affected their physical states. God brought Israel out of Egypt through multiple physical miracles, and reminded them repeatedly of this fact throughout their history. Billions of Christians throughout space and time have experienced God in some direct, experiential, and personal way.

If it were not for these empirical events, Christianity would not exist. In particular, if the resurrection of Jesus Christ did not have empirical backing from the people who actually walked, talked, and ate with him afterwards, Christianity cannot exist. This empirical evidence is critical to the very existence of Christianity, just as experimental data is essential to science.

Is Christianity CONCERNED WITH observation or experience? Of course. Christians can sometimes get lost in some rather esoteric discussions about the nature of the Godhead or the minutiae of predestination, but we all agree with the Bible that faith without works is dead: our faith in God must make a difference in the real world. It is no accident that the two most important commandments are 'love God', and 'love people', and this love can be empirically observed and experienced by others. Nor is it an accident that science has its theories, but those theories must explain the real world: a theory that makes no predictions is worthless. There is an exact parallel between a Christian's faith making empirical changes in the physical world, and scientific theories making experimental predictions in the laboratory. In both cases, the ideas lead to, and are concerned with, some real-world consequences.

Lastly, is Christianity VERIFIABLE BY observation or experience? No, not directly; no one has seen God, nor is it possible for humans to do so. But the evidence we have - especially in the form of Jesus Christ, who was a physical, flesh-and-blood man - makes God known to us.

So, isn't this a case where science and Christianity diverges, since science can be verified by observation? Absolutely not; science is not directly verifiable by observation any more than Christianity is. No one has ever seen a scientific theory: for instance, no one has seen the wave function of of a hydrogen atom, nor is it possible for humans to do so (wave functions don't "live" in a space that we can "see"). But the evidence we have - partly in the form of the emission spectrum of hydrogen, which is made of real colors we can see - makes the wave functions known to us.

Do not think that the above example is peculiar in some way: It works that way in EVERY field of science. In evolution, no one has seen the descent of man from apes. It is not directly observable: it happened a long time ago, and nobody was alive from then till now. But again, the evidence we have - the physical evidence that we can actually, empirically observe, such as fossils - makes the history of man's evolution known to us.

Likewise, no one has directly experienced Einstein's general relativity field equations. It's not even clear what that would even mean. Even if you were to get spaghettified by jumping into a black hole, you would experience the physiological effects of spaghettification, but not the field equations themselves. However, the evidence we have - in the physical observations of things like Einstein rings - makes the field equations known to us.

Even in a highly "hands-on" field like medicine, no one has ever directly observed the Platonic form of the cause of a disease - not in the sense that they've observed the abstract model for how bacteria work to create toxins which affects the patient's body and causes the disease. That abstract model from bacteria to disease remains an abstract, nonphysical model. It is to be held in the mind, but not directly observed in and of itself. However, by collecting empirical data - such as measuring the patient's temperature or observing his blood under a microscope - that abstract model can be verified.

In each case, the unobservable, abstract entity must be inferred from the observable things accessible to our senses. We must infer the non-empirical theories from the empirical evidence. This process is exactly the same in science as it is in Christianity. To refuse to take this step - to instead just say "I only believe what I can see" - breaks a crucial link in the scientific method, and makes doing science impossible. As I have said before - if you only collect empirical evidence without inferring any non-empirical theories from it, you are not a scientist - you're a stamp collector.

This is only what we expect from Bayes' theorem, which I mentioned before as the logic that underlies the scientific method. Look at the equation:

P(hypothesis|observation) = P(observation|hypothesis)/P(observation) * P(hypothesis)

The whole point of that equation is to infer something non-empirical - P(HYPOTHESIS|observation) - from something empirical, P(OBSERVATION|hypothesis). Probabilities of hypotheses cannot be directly measured; otherwise we would not need to use this equation, as we could just directly measure P(hypothesis|observation) instead. However, they can be inferred from probabilities of observations, which we can empirically state as having occurred or not. The non-empirical must be inferred from the empirical.

So, Christianity and science are empirical in the same way: the non-physical, non-empirical entities at their heart cannot be directly experienced or verified, but they can be inferred from the physical, empirical evidence we have.

We will consider more objections in the next post.

You may next want to read:
The role of evidence in the Christian faith (Part 8) (Next post of this series)
Should we put the LORD our God to the test?
Science as evidence for Christianity (Summary and Conclusion)
Another post, from the table of contents

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