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Elephants In Yellowstone

Generally I stay away from the Huffington Post’s treatment of all faith or science related topics, but physicist Victor Stenger has a column and I suppose I can make an exception. In it he blows up the cliche that Absence of Evidence is not Evidence of Absence. He’s right; sometimes if there is no evidence for something – that is evidence that something isn’t there.

I can think of many cases where absence of evidence provides robust evidence of absence. The key question is whether evidence should exist but does not. Elephants have never been seen roaming Yellowstone National Park. If they were, they would not have escaped notice. No matter how secretive, the presence of such huge animals would have been marked by ample physical signs — droppings, crushed vegetation, bones of dead elephants. So we can safely conclude from the absence of evidence that elephants are absent from the park.

[…]

That is the situation with the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God. Until recent times, absence of evidence for his existence has not been sufficient to rule him out. However, we now have enough knowledge that we can identify many places where there should be evidence, but there is not. The absence of that evidence allows us to rule out the existence of this God beyond a reasonable doubt.

Now, I am not talking about all conceivable gods. Certainly the deist god who does not interfere in the world is difficult to rule out. However, the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God, whom I identify with an uppercase G, is believed to play such an active role in the universe that his actions should have been detected, thus confirming his existence. Let me present four examples. 

Stenger’s piece demonstrates that science can indeed weigh in on the supernatural. One often hears appeals to non overlapping magisteria or that science cannot measure the immaterial, only the material world. Besides the fact that we only have reason to believe we live in an all material universe (very broadly defined), Stenger’s argument shows to me that even if science couldn’t study immaterial objects (whatever those would be) it can study immaterial objects effects on our material universe. Since theists believe that immaterial/supernatural beings affect the material world there should be evidence for that. Unfortunately for their case, there is not. Emptiness has never glared so much. 


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  1. Pat
    August 17, 2010 at 9:30 pm

    Excellent piece Daniel. I fell in love with Ayn Rand because of her arguments against theism. Here's one:"The good, say the mystics of spirit, is God, a being whose only definition is that he is beyond man's power to conceive- a definition that invalidates man's consciousness and nullifies his concepts of existence…Man's mind, say the mystics of spirit, must be subordinated to the will of God… Man's standard of value, say the mystics of spirit, is the pleasure of God, whose standards are beyond man's power of comprehension and must be accepted on faith….The purpose of man's life…is to become an abject zombie who serves a purpose he does not know, for reasons he is not to question." [Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual]

  2. August 17, 2010 at 9:49 pm

    Glad you enjoyed the piece. I have certain disagreements with Rand on a variety of issues but I love her intellectual honesty and strength of conviction. She always offers a useful perspective and forces thinkers to question their assumptions. She's invaluable for that reason.

  3. August 17, 2010 at 10:05 pm

    Good article!

  4. Pat
    August 18, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    Rand believed that religion and socialism were one in the same kind of evil, in that both were destructive to individualism.

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