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Unless this god is physical and has effects on the world that are physical through a mechanism that is physical, how can we possibly ever have evidence for a god existing?

Many would argue that this assumes empiricism or physicalism (or the lesser known source physicalism) to be true, but is there really any sort of evidence that wouldn’t be empirical when it comes to the existence of a being? The only thing I can think of is some logical argument proving that God is a logical necessity. But that has clearly never been successfully done, and I would argue surely false, by the simple fact that one can imagine a universe existing for no reason without god.

So in conclusion, what evidence could there be at all ever for a god?

Violations of natural laws? Those may be explained by some new natural law we don’t know about yet, so that doesn’t seem to be evidence. Predictions in a book or coincidences that are other otherwise very improbable by chance? Improbable != impossible so I fail to see how this is evidence either.

What can be evidence? Or can there truly be none?

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  • Are you assuming that only physical beings can have physical effects on the world? Jul 14, 2023 at 22:24
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    I’m assuming source physicalism in that even when non physical causes have physical effects, those causes are ultimately rooted in physicalism. Such as mental events being rooted in the brain. I don’t think this is an assumption but rather what we have observed and in my eyes likely what may be the only thing possible.
    – user62907
    Jul 14, 2023 at 22:36
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    The idea of something non physical existing independently of the physical may not be possible, and even if possible or even coherent, may be impossible to get evidence for
    – user62907
    Jul 14, 2023 at 22:36
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    Most likely a happy accident, ancient Greece (Vive la Greece) seems to have all the answers; the catch is they're in the form of questions.
    – Hudjefa
    Jul 15, 2023 at 11:06
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    “A weak and deceitful generation seeketh for a sign and there shall no sign be given.” 🙂 Jul 16, 2023 at 20:01

8 Answers 8

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In conversations between theists, agnostics and atheists, this question is posed reasonably often, often phrased as:

"What would convincing evidence of god look like?", or "What would convince you of the existence of God?".

One of the most sensible answers I've encountered to this question goes along the lines of:

"I don't know, but if an omnipotent, omniscient god exists, it would presumably know how to persuade me of its existence. The fact it has not done so suggests that if such a god exists, it has decided not to persuade me".

If this is a reasonable response, it doesn't necessarily say anything about whether we can ever discover a god without that god's intervention, but in hundreds of hours spent listening to conversations between theists and atheists, I have have yet to encounter an explanation of how this might happen, so I share your curiosity.

I have friends who claim to know that a god exists because they have a personal relationship with "him". They are unable to provide me with anything from that relationship which convinces me that their relationship is real, but that on its own does not constitute proof that they are wrong.

Being convinced though is clearly a distinct state of affairs from being convinced because of evidence. We have all likely at one time or another been persuaded of something in the absence of what might be called reasonable evidence (even when we perceive that such evidence has been presented). Part of the problem is that we know our minds are capable of deep, profound delusion, so even phenomena which appears to confound our understanding of the 'natural order' - such as a sea parting and a lone figure walking up from the ocean floor to announce his divinity - might be attributed to misperception (as might the corroborating 'evidence' of a thousand simultaneous onlookers). I am not saying that I would not be persuaded by such an event. I might well be. But that's not to say I should be persuaded, especially when one considers that there is also the argument that any such act might be an act of deception by a sufficiently powerful entity; one who is immensely powerful advanced but does not meet the definition of the god of which we conceive.

My lack of ability to imagine, locate or accept any evidence returns me to the notion that if an 'omni-god' wants me to know of it's existence, I will know, and in the meantime there is nothing I can really do about it, other than to follow the advice of Christian friends and to sincerely ask for such an enlightenment, which has not to date been forthcoming.

To address previous answers: Many, many Christians would claim that God simultaneously exists outside what we know of 'nature' and intervenes within it, whether by miracles or the aforementioned 'personal relationship'. Whether metaphysics can be addressed by science does not necessarily impact upon whether a god might be able to demonstrate its existence in our realm, especially if that god is credited with creation of the physical world.

As to omnipresence, I don't see how the presence of something everywhere should necessarily alert us to its presence, unless by 'everywhere', our perception/'knowledge' is deemed a location (which would likely be debated by atheists and theologians alike). There are various theological positions on the nature of how the 'omnis' are to be construed, including some which are likely created to circumvent objections that arise when they transgress principles of logic.

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    Sensible musings! Another (slightly more well known) sensible guy There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle — Einstein. Somehow the atheists hearing this reduce the 2 ways to one. Maybe that's the miracle!! Aurobindo: The atheist is God playing hide n seek with himself
    – Rushi
    Jul 15, 2023 at 9:09
  • My reference to William Lane Craig below Dcleve's answer applies here too, perhaps more than there!
    – Rushi
    Jul 16, 2023 at 4:56
  • Most people would not view it as a hallucination especially when seeing others view the same thing. WLC is creating a strawman @Rusi
    – user62907
    Jul 16, 2023 at 5:28
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+50

There's a parable used by a popular spiritual teacher about an old beggar. Every day for years the beggar would walk out to an intersection and sit on an old crate, asking passersby for alms. Then one day on a whim he turned around and looked in the crate, and found that it was filled with gold.

The moral of the story (for our purposes) is that if you want to find evidence, the first thing you have to do is look for it.

This is not as snarky as it sounds when we consider the history of the theologism/empiricism dispute. Empiricists, because of some, err... — let's say 'overly aggressive' — attitudes from certain religious authorities, have tried to develop a restrictive definition of 'evidence'. In fact, I'm comfortable arguing that the most staunch empiricists try to establish restrictions on evidence meant to exclude anything that might possibly serve as evidence of theological, spiritual, or metaphysical positions. There is nothing, anywhere, that such people will accept as evidence for theism, because they refuse the idea that any such thing is evidence.

Of course, other people have more generous definitions of evidence. Many religious, spiritual, and philosophical worldviews hold that any individual can experience evidence of metaphysical principles with the correct application of certain practices — from asanas to meditations to contemplations to sheer determined faith — but then get bogged down in objections that this 'evidence' is too subjective, too ephemeral, or even just delusion or hallucination.

The point is that we are still wrangling over the fundamental point of what constitutes evidence, and until that's settled there's no real answer to the question.

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  • Splendid +1 for each para. Much of atheism is rebellion against tyrannical Christianity. Much of that may be justified but please don't call obviously political discourse as metaphysical!! William Lane Craig has a cute rejoinder on 'unbeliever' doubke standards that Ive linked in another comment
    – Rushi
    Jul 16, 2023 at 5:30
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    It is too bad that religion was so insecure that it had to resort to such aggression. They would have persuaded more people by being calm and sure. Now they have to live with the results.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jul 16, 2023 at 21:17
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    This is a bit of a strawman. Firstly, many skeptics (empiricists and beyond) used to be believers and have spent much time searching for evidence, both inside and outside their faith. Secondly, many, many skeptics have no problem with considering some hypothetical new category of evidence, and some (like myself) may even be happy to accept the Bible and spiritual experiences as forms of evidence. The main issue is with demonstrating that said evidence is reliable, and coming up with a reliable and consistent method for evaluating evidence to determine beliefs.
    – NotThatGuy
    Jul 17, 2023 at 8:43
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    "theologism/empiricism" seems like a false dichotomy. Both theists and atheists can approach the question through rationalism or empiricism. Many atheists engage with logical arguments from theists, and consider logical argumentation to be rather important. The wikipedia page on rationalism even mentions how atheism and rationalism were conflated. I'm also sure that at least some (if not many/most) theists would say their beliefs are empirical (as in justified only or primarily from sensory experience).
    – NotThatGuy
    Jul 17, 2023 at 9:01
  • It would be swell if the last sentences of 3rd-last and 2nd last paras were expanded but in any case, as you can see you've a bounty coming your way Ted!
    – Rushi
    Jul 18, 2023 at 3:40
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Without trying to judge this question in terms of all major concepts of monotheistic, transcendent deities, let us think over a question about an omnipresent being (the following argument applies to any being thought to be omnipresent, not just beings to which are also attributed omniscience, omnipotence, divine simplicity, etc.):

  1. An omnipresent being would be represented everywhere, to all things everywhere. This is the deeper meaning of "-present," here.
  2. So if there were an omnipresent being, there would be omnipresent evidence of such a being, i.e. we would always and everywhere have a quasi-perceptual awareness of that being (that one's mind automatically encodes a concept of deities is not enough, since e.g. Searle or Fodor (I don't recall which) argued that every possible concept is "pre-loaded" into our minds, in which case every concept would be "omnipresent" after a fashion; or Kant plausibly reasoned that pure reason will forge the concept of God no matter if God exists knowably for us, because pure reason automatically defines maximal versions of any of its other concepts).
  3. But even many avowed theists claim that we lack such quasi-perception (see about skeptical theism and divine hiddenness, for example); or such a state of consciousness is instead promised to the faithful in the world-to-come instead of this present(!) world.
  4. So, even if there is a deity with other maximal attributes, there is no deity with the attribute of omnipresence.
  5. So there is no omnipresent evidence of such a deity.
  6. If the belief-evidence relation should be proportionate, there should be omnipresent evidence for an all-encompassing deity, though.
  7. So there is no evidence for a maximal type of deity (perhaps for lesser notions of deity some evidence obtains, but not for an otherworldly and all-consuming fire).

This argument doesn't seem new, to me, I think it's a paraphrase of a combination of arguments I've read over before; or even if it's new, it's new as a subspecies of an established genus of arguments.


Condensed versions of the argument:

  1. If we ever anywhere had evidence present for us, of an omnipresent being, we would always everywhere have this evidence presented to us.
  2. We do not have such evidence at all times and places.
  3. Therefore, this evidence does not actually exist.
  4. The condition of this evidence's existence is temporal logical necessity (modulo omnipresence).
  5. Therefore, this evidence does not possibly exist (except as an abstract description).

"And we are done."


ADDENDUM: omnipresent simplicity

The point could be made, or a similar one made anyway, by considering a divine being that was omnipresent as well as simple in the sense of "having no parts." Then the presence of this being is partless, or it has only one part (itself) and this part is identical to the whole. At any rate, then, it would not do to speak of partial evidence of a partless presence, or partial presentation of evidence for this; no complex physical object or incident would be, by itself, a partial presentation of that divine being, and they are never a full presentation of it either (especially if it is utterly transcendent instead of imminent), so there would be no limited samples of physical evidence for that being that could ever be acquired (essentially). Again, the omnipresent simplicity would either always be entirely manifest to us wherever we went, but not in any limited manifestation of physical experience; or it would not exist anyway at all.

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    "This has been a test of the Deity Broadcast System. Had this been an actual deity, you would have been told where to go and what to do..."
    – Scott Rowe
    Jul 15, 2023 at 2:39
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    @ScottRowe oh man :P that's really good. The third clause is the best for me haha! But I do want to say that some divine-hiddenness conjectures are tantamount to an explanation for why there might be a being with other omni-attributes but not omnipresence (it's been a while since I read through the SEP omnipresence entry). Jul 15, 2023 at 3:33
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    Do you mean to imply that the existence of available evidence necessarily implies human knowledge of what the evidence means?
    – g s
    Jul 15, 2023 at 7:46
  • @gs if that's an implication of my reasoning, then hopefully it pertains only to higher-order evidence (evidence about evidence), in this case the presentation of evidence about presentation-based evidence. I have no committed doubts about the KK principle in epistemic logic (if we know T, we know that we know T) although I have no committed faith in that principle, either. Jul 15, 2023 at 12:52
  • There are multiple test cases of Omni claims, that they fail. Omnipotence plus omnibenevolence is refuted by the Problem of Evil test case. Errors in claimed divine revelation, refutes Omniscience plus divine communication desire. As does our lack of immediate telepathic knowledge of God. Omniscience in general is refuted by Quantum Mechanics. There are more test cases, but this list makes the point. the Classical Theist position is clearly falsified, in multiple ways. IF one wants to consider whether a God exists, start with less constrianed definitions.
    – Dcleve
    Jul 15, 2023 at 14:16
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Ill-formed question, metaphysical facts can't be assessed by science.

From a philosophical perspective, knowledge covers two realms:

  1. What comes from the senses (said "empirical"), what is physical. Science is the formalism of experience; in simple words, science seeks for empirical truth.
  2. What comes from reason, what is not physical, but metaphysical. Metaphysics seeks for deeper truths. This realm can't be addressed by science.

The concept of God is metaphysical (realm 2 on the previous list). When people ask proof, they are asking to assess scientifically (realm 1) a fact that is essentially subjective, meta-physical.

Things don't work like this. In order to have empirical proof about God (which implies in final terms, acquiring scientific knowledge), God must be reduced to a physical, observable phenomenon, excluding all metaphysical phenomena, like thermodynamics. Ok, so we have thermodynamics, which is not a proof of the metaphysical entity that is God.

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  • You say that it is an ill formed question and then end up explaining why we can’t have evidence for god.
    – user62907
    Jul 15, 2023 at 7:22
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    When people ask for "proof", they are asking for your justification for believing a claim, and based on what justification they should believe it (and that can come in whatever form you have it). We're looking for literally any method to determine beliefs, but the issue is that we expect something that can be demonstrated to be reliable, and that's something theists haven't managed to provide.
    – NotThatGuy
    Jul 17, 2023 at 9:04
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You might like to think about Berkeley's argument for the existence (and nature) of God in his Treatise of the Principles of Human knowledge and Three Dialogues or Hylas and Philonous. He argues that everything that we perceive that isn't a "hallucination or chimera" is evidence that God exists and that God is omnipresent, omniscient, ommnipotent and benevolent. I'm not saying the argument is sound, but thinking about why it isn't sound and why Berkeley thinks it is sound clarifies (IMO) the nature of the question.

His conclusion (section 156) shows how he approached philosophy. The previous sections (from 146) give more detail of what this involves.

The short summary is that Berkeley approaches his consideration of the evidence with an attitude that governs his interpretation of the evidence (and even what he considers the evidence to be).

You will think that he is begging the question. But he thinks that it is the sceptic and the atheist who is begging the question. So even that issue is not unaffected by one's starting point.

See SEP entry - George Berkeley and SEP - Philosophy of Religion especially section 2.2 on Wittgenstein.

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    "You will think that he is begging the question" - yup. "But he thinks that it is the sceptic and the atheist who is begging the question" - begging the question by not being convinced by the claim theists are making? There's a goblin named Roland living in my closet. Do you accept that as true? If not, are you begging the question? (Presuppositionalism seems to be giving up trying to offer any sort of justification for believing in God, and instead just accuses people who don't accept their claim of not having justification either, which just sounds silly if you scratch beneath the surface.)
    – NotThatGuy
    Jul 17, 2023 at 9:08
  • Let's be clear. I'm not a theist . But I am interested in understanding (whatever that might mean) the debate. You think the burden of proof is on the theist, and they try to rise to the challenge, but without any success; everything that they think points to God, you interpret differently. (That's very rough, but I think defensible.) It's a question of burden of proof and I don't see that the non-believer can really shrug off the need for some actual counter-arguments. For my money, the problem of evil does prove the non-existence of the Christian God, which is a good start.
    – Ludwig V
    Jul 17, 2023 at 14:16
  • I haven't heard of presuppositionalism before, but I looked it up. If it means the claim that "apart from presuppositions, one could not make sense of any human experience, and there can be no set of neutral assumptions from which to reason with a non-Christian" (Wikipedia), I like it and would make the same claim from my non-believing point of view. It means there's no point in merely knocking down arguments for theism. That is just Whack-a-mole. So, what next? Or does silence fall? That's not intended to be a rhetorical question.
    – Ludwig V
    Jul 17, 2023 at 14:21
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    Non-belief is a passive position. One doesn't have to engage with theist arguments, but if one does, one should explain why the justifications provided don't justify the claims, or why claims don't match reality. You can't technically prove non-existence, but the problem of evil/suffering (and divine hiddenness) is a very strong indication of the non-existence of a deity with the traits proposed by Christians.
    – NotThatGuy
    Jul 17, 2023 at 14:46
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    Presuppositionalism tries to force atheists into a stalemate, where both theists and atheists presuppose their respective conclusions. This doesn't really work, though, because (some) atheists can rebuild their model of reality from the ground up, using a consistent and reliable methodology. And many atheists used to be theists, so they started off with a presupposition, and found it to be unjustified, based on the evidence. So really all it does is show that any theist who uses it doesn't think they have good reasons for believing what they do.
    – NotThatGuy
    Jul 17, 2023 at 14:46
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This question assumes, from the outset, that evidence is "physical". This is grossly false.

All evidence is based on observations, and all observations are -- experiential. We assemble models and theories about what is happening "out there" that explain our observations, and the consistency/utility of those theories is used to infer the reality of their assumptions. This is the methodology of indirect realism. NO evidence is "physical", it is all initially experiential, then we construct models, hypotheses, and theories around it. Evidence therefore is all in Popper's world 2 and world 3 realms, and none of it is in world 1. https://tannerlectures.utah.edu/_resources/documents/a-to-z/p/popper80.pdf

I also provided you, in this answer from less than a week ago: Is a miracle the only possible evidence for the supernatural?, an explicit but different rebuttal to your premises. All theism is based on evidences. I directed you to Sam Harris's The End of Faith, plus three fairly good theologians who have each produced a collection of evidence-based books, plus listed a set of evidences that have convinced me of the reality of a God.

Posting a question that embeds assumptions that you already know are grossly wrong, is not the best way for you to find useful responses here on PhilSE. Reading CONTRARY ideas and thinkers, who provide examples of how your assumption set is too narrow, THAT is how to learn to do philosophizing better. Read Popper's Three Worlds, The End of Faith, and a book apiece from Swinburne, Moreland, and Davies. You won't agree with all of any of them -- I find it rare that I have over 50% agreement with any philosopher. But I find kernels of useful ideas in most of them. Then think thru how your assumptions are not valid, THEN reformulate your thinking to take account of the alternative ideas that broke the walls of your prior thinking, and come back to ask questions after this deliberate effort to find useful alternative ideas.

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Can we ever have evidence for theism at all?

Yes. If you search the Internet, you will find mountains of evidence for theism but what does evidence mean?

Spontaneous Generation was a theory of life arising from non-living matter originally proposed by Aristotle that persisted into the 17th century. There was plenty of evidence:

  • maggots spontaneous arising from dead meat
  • fleas spontaneously arise from dust
  • flies arising from manure.

This was all evidence for Spontaneous Generation that eventually became evidence of microbiology.

In the same manner, the quantity of evidence for theism is gradually growing smaller as it slowly becomes evidence of scientific processes.

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    "You don't need a Weatherman to know which way the wind blows."
    – Scott Rowe
    Jul 18, 2023 at 12:58
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    @ScottRowe Indeed. In general, the older the theory, the more likely it is to be superceded, corrected, improved or completely discarded. Theism is one of the oldest human theories so it seems natural that Theism would undergo the same changes.
    – user64314
    Jul 18, 2023 at 16:10
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No, we cannot have evidence for theism. God can only be shown to exist in two ways: a) by logical necessity and b) observation.

A) is trivially false since one can imagine a universe existing without God. B) is impossible if God is defined to be an immaterial being since we cannot observe the immaterial.

In other words, it is never justified to believe in the traditional conception of god.

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