Why I am Convinced God Exists 2: Assumptions and Evidence Standards

Michael Angelo's Creation of Adam (Source: Wikimedia.org)

Michael Angelo’s Creation of Adam (Source: Wikimedia.org)

In attempting to answer the question “Does God Exist?” I had to make some assumptions. In this post I discuss the rationality of my process, and lay out the handful of assumptions that underlie my broader analysis. These assumptions are, I believe, entirely reasonable: 1. I exist. 2. I can reason. 3. There are true answers to many questions related to God’s existence. Based on these, I discuss specific standards of evidence and proof used by various disciplines.

Previous Post: Introduction

In my previous discussions, I’ve used the term rational a couple times, and so it’s important that I tell you what I mean by that. Rationality is a term used in economics and political science to describe a process of thoughtfully pursuing goals using reason. That is, a person is considered rational when she has a goal she’d like to achieve, is able to reason through a set of options for pursuing that goal, and follow a path she believes will help her achieve that goal. This evaluation and path selection assumes she has enough information to make those judgments, and that she can reason through the consequences of selecting different paths. This doesn’t require perfect or complete information, but having enough credible information to make a reasonable prediction.[1]

Here, my goal is to conclude whether God exists, and rationality refers to my reasoning through the various paths that come up on that journey. As a result, I haven’t specifically addressed every question that could possibly be asked about what the world would be like if God doesn’t exist. Rather, I’ve selected the most pertinent lines of inquiry that I reasoned would help me answer the question for myself. Other people will probably have other lines of inquiry that will satisfy their intellectual curiosity on this question. If they’re rational, they’ll think systematically, too, and will pick questions that will, on balance, enable them to more or less objectively answer the question. The alternative is to cherry-pick paths that will lead them to the answer they want to be true, which is intellectually faulty and dishonest.

After I wrote about 12 single-spaced pages of analysis, I stopped. Had I made unreasonable assumptions that would inexorably lead me to the conclusion I wanted to be true? That is, since I want God to exist, did I frame the whole set of questions in such a way as to inevitably lead me to the conclusion that God exists? As I thought about it, I backtracked to my initial questions to figure out my underlying assumptions. I concluded that they are reasonable and realistic and need not lead to the conclusion that God exists. They are:

  1. I exist. By implication, this also means the material universe, what Carl Sagan called the cosmos, exists.
  2. I can reason. That means I have the intellectual ability to think through a series of questions and answers, imagine contrary views, evaluate contrary arguments, compile and evaluate evidence, and draw conclusions based on that process.[2]
  3. There are true answers to many questions. Some statements are true and other statements are false. By true, I mean true in the conventional way that people use the word and its partner, truth. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a true statement or belief as “Consistent with fact; agreeing with the reality; representing the thing as it is,” and truth as “Conformity with fact; agreement with reality; accuracy, correctness, verity (of statement or thought).”[3] So the true answer to whether God exists has to be consistent with the facts, agreeing with the reality of the way things are. Ascertaining the truth of a statement involves the exercise of reason (see my second assumption, above).[4]

That’s it—those are the core assumptions from which I’m working. Fundamentally, this is a search for the true answer to the question, Does God Exist?. Again, I don’t claim especially comprehensive or specialized knowledge in some areas, but I know how to evaluate many facts, I know how to compare and contrast ideas, and I know how to think reasonably logically.[5] I think I’m competent to evaluate whether an idea, concept, or statement conforms to reality within the normal bounds of normal human intelligence.

My process, therefore, was not to develop my own professional expertise, research agenda, or even a deep familiarity with the original professional academic research in any of these areas. Rather, I did my best to evaluate other people’s work while also thinking systematically through my own ideas and considering in broad strokes the alternatives. And that has to be enough. (Even if I wanted to acquire professional expertise in some of these fascinating areas, I already have a full-time job and my lovely bride has said she is not going to put me through graduate school again!)

Now that I have discussed my basic reasoning and assumptions, let’s turn to specific issues related to the standards of evidence or proof one might need in any area of study.

Standards of Evidence

Convincing someone of something depends on the standards of evidence the first someone requires. What kind of evidence would be adequate to prove that God exists? Logic, legal reasoning, experimental science, statistical reasoning and historical reasoning all provide input into addressing this question. In the end, I conclude that science and experimental reasoning provide language but not tools for evaluating whether God exists, because they are only appropriate for testing material things and processes. Since no one makes a serious claim that God is a material being, materialistic methods for “testing” for God simply aren’t appropriate.

There are many common standards used and familiar to many of us, and different disciplines make use of different proof standards. The “proof standard” leading to the conclusion that my ancestor Caleb Albee fought in the Revolutionary War is different than the proof standard that education affects the probability that a person will vote. The legal standard expected of juries for convicting criminals is different from the experimental standards for concluding that the rate of chemical reactions varies based on changes in the ambient temperature in which the chemicals interact.

Some common proof standards

Beyond a reasonable doubt. This is the burden of proof a prosecutor must meet in a trial in which someone is accused of a crime. The jury must find the evidence and reasoning so strong that any reasonable doubt about the accused’s guilt must be overcome. Note that this doesn’t eliminate any doubt, or any possible other explanation for a crime. Even though this sounds really difficult to understand, thousands upon thousands of our fellow citizens are able to apply this proof standard every year in nearly every jury trial held in our nation.

Preponderance of the evidence. This is the burden of proof that must be met for someone suing someone else in a civil suit, such as breaking a contract or agreement, or that the tree branch that fell on my car is your fault because the tree is on your property. Lower than the ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard, this simply requires a jury to assess whether, when all the relevant evidence is considered, someone broke a contract or ought to be held responsible for some bad outcome. Again, thousands of our fellow citizens apply this proof standard in civil jury trials every year.

Reasoning to the best explanation. This is a proof standard for drawing conclusions about historical events and relationships, such as in my hobby, genealogy.[6] This leverages documentary and archaeological evidence about the past: events and people, their lives and relationships based on contemporary accounts, documents and circumstantial evidence. This is fundamentally the basis for the discipline of History, which seeks to document whether, where, how, and why certain events happened. Since for most of human history there are no eyewitnesses now living, everything we know about the past is based on reasoning to the best explanation. (I have recently come to learn that in Logic, this is called abductive reasoning.)

Scientific statistical reasoning. This is based on probability and sampling theories, in which the likelihood of outcomes and relationships can be calculated; and hypothesis testing.[7] There are normally two major types of errors to avoid: rejecting a true statement instead of accepting it as true (a Type 1 Error), and accepting a false statement as true instead of rejecting it (a Type 2 error). Probabilities can be calculated for avoiding those errors. (In terms of God’s existence, a Type 1 Error would be rejecting the statement “God exists” when it is in fact true. A Type 2 Error would be accepting the statement “God exists” when it is in fact false.)

  • The standard point at which a statement is normally accepted as empirically supported is at the 95% probability level, though that standard is arbitrary. You have seen this used when the news presents public opinion poll results that include a margin of error notation (such as ± 3%). Billions of dollars in spending each year hinges on people applying this proof standard to marketing and political decisions. The important thing about this kind of reasoning is that it hinges on a probabilistic standard of proof rather than an absolute standard; even if we obtain a result for which we are 99.9% sure, we still allow a small probability (0.1%) that our conclusion is wrong. The lower that probability, the higher the confidence that we’ve correctly identified a true statement or rejected a false one.
  • Explanatory power is the statistical concept that permits us to calculate the proportion of variation in some phenomenon that is explained by a set of independent variables. Any group of explanatory factors will explain some amount of the differences in a thing we’re trying to understand. In my research, for example, I often am trying to explain why people vote or do not vote. The outcome is easy to understand: either a person votes or she doesn’t vote. If I have 10 variables that are plausibly related to that behavior, I can calculate rather precisely how good a job each one does individually. I can also calculate how good a job they do collectively.[8] One important point here is that even in the most rigorous analysis of individual behavior we never even come close to explaining 100% of the variation in anything (aggregated social statistics are an exception).
  • So as a social scientist using statistical and econometric methods, I am comfortable with (1) finding explanatory factors that are plausibly, logically and statistically related to a phenomenon I’m trying to explain. (2) Thinking probabilistically about how likely they are to actually be related to the thing I’m trying to explain, and being comfortable with that probability being a good deal less than absolute certainty. And (3) happy when a reasonably high level of explanation is provided by my factors without even coming close to explaining everything. I am satisfied with sufficiency and coherence, rather than incontrovertible proof, and every social scientist and economist that uses statistics operates on the same principles.

Experimental evidence of physical objects and processes (that is, conclusions that are based on the process of hypothesis testing, controlled experimental manipulation, and replication). Since this particular proof standard requires the ability to manipulate and replicate experimental conditions, it is inadequate to evaluate claims that cannot be subjected to experimental replication or manipulation. For example, we can’t replicate the creation of something from nothing, in which there is by definition nothing to vary or manipulate in the experiment; thus creation ex nihilo is an event not subject to scientific experimentation. On the other hand, experimental evidence is adequate for learning all kinds of things about the way the material world operates.

Basic Logic, including the Law of Noncontradiction, which says that “No proposition may be simultaneously true and false” and its partner, the Law of the Excluded Middle, “Every proposition must be either true or false.”[9] (Note that is a more formal restatement of one of my underlying assumptions.)

Understanding these standards of evidence and proof helps me reason about God’s existence in three specific ways.

  1. First, I can be okay with not having 100% proof of God existing, but with finding sufficient arguments and evidence for me to conclude that some things are very likely to point to God’s existence. Admittedly, this is a bit subjective, and the question is not subject to actual probabilistic calculations at all! But the principle is that in the rest of my intellectual life I don’t expect or get absolutely perfect or complete explanations for anything, so I’m comfortable with some gap between what I successfully explain and a perfect explanation.
  2. Second, a variety of kinds of arguments and evidence can be brought to bear on the question of God’s existence. When I teach students about methodological variety, I use the metaphor of triangulation, in which methods and accumulation of different kinds of evidence provide a process of narrowing the set of potential explanations to those that seem most plausible.
  3. Third, given what I observe in the world around me, I can reason out which theory and factors best provide a comprehensive, if not complete explanation for the world and for human behavior. Do the principles of an atheistic worldview do as good a job explaining things as the principles of a theistic worldview? If not, which theism provides the best or most reasonable explanation, or demonstrates the greatest explanatory power, for the way the universe and human beings actually operate? Again, I don’t need absolutely complete explanations, just logical, plausible, sufficient, coherent, and (hopefully) parsimonious ones.

In particular, I think it’s interesting to note that none of the legal or scientific standards of evidence requires 100% elimination of every other possibility every time in order to conclude that a person is guilty, that an historical event happened, or that an hypothesis is supported or refuted. On the other hand, the Law of Noncontradiction allows us to identify logical options and eliminate directly contradictory statements as equally true, so we can organize the logical outcomes in certain situations.

Extraordinary Evidence?

Finally, let me address the famous objection put forward by atheist astronomer Dr. Carl Sagan: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”[10] I have two responses to this. First, I am interested in evaluating extraordinary claims, such as “God exists” using evidence that is available. And the evidence one requires must be appropriate for the question one has. As I discussed earlier, as a political scientist my research questions drive my research methodology, and the same principle ought to to the question of God’s existence. It seems to me that what Sagan sought was the kind of scientific evidence that is simply inapplicable to the question with which I’m dealing. But my second thought is that I am willing to apply the principle within analytically-appropriate knowledge domains. So I think it is reasonable to expect extraordinary evidence to support Dr. Sagan’s claim that “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”[11] Or that nonliving matter spontaneously became living. Or that the universe started all by itself, creating everything from nothing, for no reason, or that it has eternally existed, or that the multiverse is actually scientifically provable.[12]

In conclusion, in seeking to answer the question Does God Exist?, there are several standards of evidence that come into play to some degree. Few, if any, of them hold absolute proof up as even possible to achieve. So whenever I think it’s possible to do, I will lay out my best understanding of the logical options for an issue. (For example, in the next section I’ll point out that on the question of God’s existence there are only two possibilities: Either God Exists or God Does Not Exist; there is no in-between state.) So there is a true answer! Then, thinking through other related questions, the various standards of evidence will come into play in ways that seem appropriate to the particular aspect of the questions at hand.

Does God Exist?

In this post I address a relatively simple yet profound truth: God either exists or God does not exist. There is no in-between state. What we believe about God’s existence is entirely irrelevant to whether God exists. And whether we can even know about God’s existence is also irrelevant. The fact of the matter is, there is a yes or no answer to this question. The real question is whether we can acquire sufficient reasons to conclude that one of these two is more likely to be true than the other.

Yes or No

Does God exist? There are only two answers, Yes and No, and they both can’t be true. That is, either God Exists or God Does Not Exist. Therefore, I have to evaluate which one of those answers corresponds to reality and the way things actually are, can be logically supported, and is evidentially supported.

Let’s lay out the logical options as a big picture roadmap for my analysis.

  1. One of these two statements is true, and the other is false: Either God Exists or God Does Not Exist.
  2. The question of God’s actual existence is independent of my belief about this. That is, it doesn’t matter whether I believe it or not, God either exists or does not exist.

Therefore, any person’s belief that God does not exist has no bearing on whether God actually exists. Similarly, any person’s belief that God does exist also has no bearing on whether God actually exists.

After I made these points at a recent talk, a young man suggested that there might be a third option—that we can’t know whether God exists. He was confusing knowledge about God with God’s actual existence. (In philosophical terms, the question of God’s reality is ontology, but the question of acquiring knowledge about reality is epistemology, and this was the difference.) Thus, it’s useful to address a third point related to knowing whether God exists:

  1. God’s actual existence does not rely on my possessing knowledge about God or about God’s existence.

What this means is that God may exist even if I don’t know it. Not knowing it does not bear on God’s existence.

It also means that God may exist even if I possess incorrect information about God. The relative correctness of my information does not affect God’s actual existence or actual nature, only my understanding of God.

Finally, it’s important to note that if God exists, there may be evidence of God’s existence. God may or may not have intentionally conveyed information to humanity about himself (or herself, or itself). Even if there isn’t evidence we can perceive, that doesn’t affect whether God exists, only that our knowledge about God doesn’t have evidence. On the other hand, we might be able to perceive at least some or all of the evidence for God’s existence.

(There are some important implications for the answer to these questions, and a person who concludes that God exists or doesn’t exist has some more work to do in accounting for the way the world works, or for explaining God more thoroughly. That set of questions is beyond this series, but are on my agenda to address down the road.)

My First Conclusion: God either exists or does not exist. The arguments and evidence must point me to which one of these statements is true, even if I don’t attain 100% certainty.

In my next post, I will address an important aspect of God’s existence. Most human conceptions of deities suggest that there exists a realm or dimension beyond the physical realm. If this realm is nonmaterial, it is one in which nonmaterial beings or deities could exist. Is there evidence that the non-material realm or reality exists in which a being like God could exist?

Next Post: Let’s Get Real(ity).

[1] An irrational person is someone who ignores the evidence and information and then follows a path unlikely to end with her goal being achieved, or that she just wanted to follow despite the evidence. So it would be irrational of me to use materialist methods to study nonmaterial things, because the method would not reasonably be expected to provide evidence about the subject.

[2] All of this begs the question, “How can a mere collection of neurons, blood vessels and electrical impulses actually do this and have any confidence in the result?” Late in my process I discovered the so-called “Argument from Reason,” which I’ll discuss later. I believe this provides a compelling argument for an intelligent, creative, reason-based being behind everything. But at first I just intuitively believed that I had the capacity to reason to a true conclusion.

[3] OED Online. Oxford University Press, accessed February 20, 2014.

[4] Again, this raises the question of how a mere collection of neurons, etc., determine whether a statement is true or false and then trust themselves that they have come up with the right answer.

[5] Thanks especially to a couple of computer programming courses back in the 1980s, and to Dr. Valli Koubi who took the time to walk our International Conflict class systematically through the logic of Expected Utility Theory when I was at the University of Georgia.

[6] See, for example, Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian (Genealogical Publishing Company, 1997).

[7] See, for example, Gujarti, Basic Econometrics (McGraw-Hill, 2003); an accessible introduction is Cuzzort and Vrettos, The Elementary Forms of Statistical Reason (St. Martin’s, 1996).

[8] This is calculated with a statistic called the coefficient of determination, which is the proportion of the variation in the probability—technically the logged odds—of voting explained by the variables.

[9] Horn, Laurence R., “Contradiction”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Accessed at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/contradiction/ August 29, 2014

[10] Sagan, Carl (writer/host) (December 14, 1980). “Encyclopaedia Galactica”. Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Episode 12. 01:24 minutes in. PBS. Cited in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Sagan#cite_note-74, Accessed 2 November 2014.

[11] Sagan, Carl, Cosmos (New York: Random House, 1980), 4.

[12] See the excellent discussion of this claim by Rob Lundberg, “Responding to the ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidences’ Objection,” at http://roblundberg.blogspot.com/2014/01/responding-to-extraordinary-claims.html.

 

Why I am Convinced God Exists: Introduction

Michael Angelo's Creation of Adam (Source: Wikimedia.org)

Michael Angelo’s Creation of Adam (Source: Wikimedia.org)

In the spring of 2013, I set out on an intellectual journey. I realized that I hadn’t ever really engaged with the question of God’s existence for myself. Oh, I had learned a few arguments about God’s existence, but I hadn’t wrestled with the question on my own terms, to see if it really is rational and reasonable for me to believe it.

I had to bring my own mind to bear on the problem for a couple of reasons. First, as a reasonably intelligent person and a trained social scientist, I believed that I possessed a mind capable of addressing the question. Second, as a Christian who takes the Bible text seriously, I had to be obedient to key principles contained in scripture. One was Jesus’ own words, paraphrasing the ancient Hebrew pillars of The Law:

And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27, NAS; see also Matthew 22:37 and Mark 12:30)

I knew that Jesus had added “all your mind” to the Hebrew text (compare, for example, Deuteronomy 6:5, 10:12, and 13:3), so I reasoned that by saying love God with my mind he probably meant something like, “Apply the intellectual processes and capabilities of your mind for the purpose of loving God.” And while I had long been a student of The Book (that is, The Holy Bible), this wasn’t a topic on which I had focused. Another principal is embodied in the verse,

sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense [an argument or explanation] to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence (1 Peter 3:15)

The context for this instruction is the Christian’s likelihood of having to endure suffering and intimidation for the sake of the gospel. As a Christian, then, I had to have arguments and explanations at hand that would enable me to take a stand and defend my own beliefs. Moreover, I’m instructed to do this with gentleness and reverence. I don’t know about you, but I am least likely to be gentle when I feel the least confident in my own abilities and information; when I am simply regurgitating other people’s beliefs and opinions that I agree with, and I get a serious challenge, I tend to react out of frustration and with sarcasm. So I found that I had to get to a place intellectually where I personally owned the argument for myself, and could communicate it to others with a good attitude. Even if some discussion partners would resort to intimidation, my conscience had to be clear (1 Peter 3:13-16).

Now, eighteen months later, I can confidently give an answer to the question of God’s existence that reflects my own careful thinking and evaluation of different perspectives. I’ve looked at Christian, atheist, Buddhist and Hindu (among others) answers to difficult questions, and used some basic logic and my professional training in research methods and causal logic. I make no grand claims to be a physicist, logician, molecular biologist, geologist, philosopher, or theologian. I’m just a reasonably intelligent guy thinking systematically about one of the most important questions with which humanity has to deal.

I acknowledge that the way I tend to approach the questions had to have been influenced by some of the apologetics to which I had already been exposed prior to this journey, and so I already know that there are critiques of every argument and line of reasoning that make sense to me, and I’m okay with that. But here’s the thing: No one person has sufficient knowledge and expertise about every field and subfield that are relevant to this conversation. We all have knowledge and explanatory gaps in which we defer to trusted experts, and I’m no different.

How much information is enough?

As a political science professor I study people’s voting decisions—that is, why they prefer one candidate over another and why they do (or do not) vote. While I might think people ought to gather complete and perfect information about candidates, policy differences and their impacts, I now know empirically that no one does this. People simply acquire enough information to make a choice: sometimes it is given to them, sometimes they happen upon it accidentally, and sometimes they intentionally seek it out.[1] Importantly, almost no citizen does independent original research about candidates and policies. Almost everyone relies upon experts and other trustworthy compilers of information from which they obtain their needed information. Some people acquire pure propaganda, others try to find relatively “objective” sources, while others rely on heuristics (information shortcuts) that enable them to make a quick judgment that has a good chance of being accurate.[2]

My process, therefore, was not to develop my own professional expertise, research agenda, or even a deep familiarity with the original professional academic research in any of these areas. Rather, I did my best to evaluate other people’s work while also thinking systematically through my own ideas and considering in broad strokes the alternatives. And that has to be enough. (Even if I wanted to acquire professional expertise in some of these fascinating areas, I already have a full-time job and my lovely bride has said she is not going to put me through graduate school again!)

Why Even Bother?

Finally, what did I actually hope to accomplish in this process? First, for myself, I wanted to think systematically about whether God exists, because that piece of information has consequences for many other areas of my life—especially how I treat other people. Second, I wanted to be able to evaluate whether a rational, thinking person can come to a reasonable, logical and coherent conclusion that conforms with reality as we know it. To put it another way, can an intelligent, thoughtful person come to an informed coherent conclusion about whether God exists and answer “Yes”?

If, after thinking intelligently and critically I could come to the conclusion that God exists (or least probably exists), then I no longer have to feel insecure or threatened by skeptics who say theists are stupid, ignorant, and irrational. (The list of highly intelligent people who believed in the God of Christianity is long and impressive, and includes Galileo, Thomas More, Isaac Newton, Louis Pasteur, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, George Washington Carver, C.S. Lewis, Chuck Colson, and Francis Collins.) Finally, I wanted to be able to lay out a reasonable case for my conclusions that will hopefully make sense to someone who believes that God doesn’t exist or that is wondering if it’s even rational to do so.

In short, my goal is to describe my journey–what arguments and evidence make the most sense to me. I hope you’ll join me, and find my reasoning…well…reasonable. If you are a current believer in the God of the Bible, I hope you are challenged to undertake this exercise on your own. If you are a current non-believer in God, I hope you will at least find my conclusions reasonable, even if you don’t end up agreeing with me.

The Question I Should Have Been Able to Answer

In 2013 I had a Facebook conversation with an atheist in which I was challenged with a question that, as a long-time Christian, I should have been able to answer. But I couldn’t put together a quick response—that is, I was not prepared to give a defense for the hope that is in me. The simple question was, “What has convinced you that God exists?”

What is Faith?

It was hard to answer because I have always believed that God exists. Even in the years when I rejected the Christian faith, I knew in my heart that God existed. I rejected Christianity in that season of my life not out of rationality but simply out of a desire to live my life as if He didn’t. So I had some homework to do, because I knew enough that if I answered, “I just have always known,” or “by faith,” my answer would be unsatisfactory even to me because faith is not really about how we know things. Rather, faith is the result of experiences and information that give us confidence regarding things for which we don’t have experiences and information. Let me give you a couple of examples.

I have faith in my wife’s marital fidelity, that she would not commit adultery. What does “have faith” mean? Does it mean that I just know in my heart that she will not commit adultery? How do I know she won’t? Well, I just know! Isn’t that goofy? I didn’t just meet her and decide she would be faithful to our marriage vows. No, I spent a lot of time getting to know her, watching her behavior, evaluating her character, and talking with her about what marriage means. I thus came to the conclusion that she would not commit adultery in future unknown situations because her character and behavior had given me credible information (from her past) that supported the conclusion.

I will be getting on an airplane to travel to New Orleans this January. I have faith that the plane will get me there. What does that mean? Do I just know that 200,000 pounds of metal will successfully levitate to 30,000 feet above the earth and descend safely a couple of hours later? On what basis would any reasonable person think such a thing? Here is how: I understand that there is a law of gravity and that with an aerodynamic design and a sufficient amount of forward motion, even a 200,000 hunk of metal can be held aloft in a controlled way. I don’t personally understand all of the physics of the thing, but I know that other people do and have designed airplanes to leverage those physical laws in order to make planes work reliably. Moreover, I know a lot of people who have flown on planes, and they testify that it works. Even better, I have personal experience flying; in fact I have flown the Chicago to New Orleans route a couple of times, and made it! Thus I have faith—that is, I trust that even though I don’t understand it all, the physics of flying has a successful track record and works reliably—that the plane I board in Chicago next January will successfully fly me to New Orleans, even though I haven’t taken the flight yet.

To return to the point, saying that I believe that God exists by faith doesn’t mean I just know He exists without or despite any corroborating reasons or evidence. Faith means, as it does in every other situation in which people use the word, a reliance on past evidence, arguments, testimony and experiences that leads me to a conclusion that I can leverage for future situations about which I don’t have information, until I gain better understanding or get to the future. (From a Christian perspective, this is what the meaning of faith is in Hebrews chapter 11.) I develop trust with regard to the unknown future based on the known past; if the known past gives me enough information to trust in the future, it also could give me confidence that explanations exist for things I don’t understand no matter when they occurred.

Obviously, this means that I disagree with the new atheist definition of faith as “belief without proof” or “pretending to know things I don’t know.”[3] I don’t know how planes work and I’m not a psychic, but I know they have worked pretty reliably in the past. I don’t know for sure that every plane will always fly safely, but, on balance, I have faith that in the future planes will generally work as designed. Thus, even though I don’t know a lot else about the future, my belief in future planes working is based on the past evidence, or proof, that planes can and do work.

How would I know?

With all that said, for my own curiosity’s sake I wanted to be really specific and thoughtful and carefully evaluate the evidence, arguments and experiences that lead me to conclude God exists. And, to be completely honest, I simply had never done any real mental work to really understand why I really believed that God really exists. I had even memorized and taught some basic apologetic arguments for God’s existence, but I had never really wrestled with the problem itself, for myself.

As a political scientist, before I collect or analyze data I have to think about the appropriate research methods that are appropriate for finding an answer to a question. For example, if I want to understand presidential decision making in foreign policy, I wouldn’t use a survey of the American public, I would interview the small number of people who have actually observed presidents working through foreign policy decisions.

Thus, regarding the question of God’s existence I had to ask: What evidence or arguments (or both) are even appropriate to address the question of whether God exists? This got me thinking about the standards of evidence that people normally use for making decisions, and that scientists normally use for drawing conclusions about whether a statement or hypothesis has support. The next part of my analysis thus briefly discusses these standards, much of which are familiar to most people.

Then I address different questions that seem to me to be central to the question of how I would know whether God exists. First, what are the possible answers to the question Does God Exist? Second, in what possible kind of reality could God exist? Is it likely that such a kind of reality does exist? Third, what about things I know exist—where did everything come from? Where did I (as a member of humanity) come from? This is the question of origins. Fourth, what about the problem of evil—why do I (along with most humans and cultures) have a nagging feeling—an intuition—that evil is real? And if evil is real, how do I know? And where did it come from? And why do humans have such an overwhelming sense that it matters?

My Conclusion: God Exists

Here is the basic outline of my conclusions. I will share my more detailed thinking on each point as we move forward. Let me say that these statements might sound a bit weird to my Christian friends; the statements might even sound like I’m hedging my bets. But this is how I’m getting to my conclusion without starting with the assumption that God exists.

  1. A force or being or entity that I will call “God” either exists or doesn’t exist, so there is only one true answer to the question.
  2. Logic and evidence lead me to conclude that an immaterial/ spiritual realm almost certainly exists apart from material reality. Additionally, the two realms probably interact with each other. Thus, there is almost certainly a realm in which an immaterial God could exist, and an immaterial God could interact with material reality.
  3. Evidence and logic lead me to conclude that the material realm almost certainly had an originating point in time and a source external to itself. Additionally, there is no evidence that life could have originated from non-living matter alone. The force that produced material reality and life must be greater than material reality and the living beings within it. It must be powerful enough to bring every material thing into existence and to impart life into nonliving matter.
  4. Evidence and logic lead me to conclude that Evil is real; therefore Good is real. The intuition of good and evil, and the concepts themselves must have a source. It’s quite plausible (though I’m not sure that it’s necessary) that the source exists outside the people or cultures that make nearly universal moral judgments about certain actions or events.

All told, I conclude that it is entirely plausible, if not highly probable, that God exists. In fact, because either God exists or doesn’t exist, the preponderance of the evidence points to God existing rather than not existing. Thus, based on the evidence and logic, I conclude that God exists. This doesn’t quite get me to the God of The Bible, but at least I conclude that God is a highly reasonable and intelligent being, external to the material world, powerful enough to create material reality and life itself, and imbue mankind with an inherent sense of good and evil.

In the next section I will lay out my underlying assumptions in pursuing answers to my questions, as well as addressing the question of the standards of proof for or against God’s existence.

Next: How Could I Know Whether God Exists? My Assumptions

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[1] See, for example, Anthony Downs, An Economic Theory of Democracy (Addison-Wesley-Longman, 1957); Samuel Popkin, The Reasoning Voter (University of Chicago Press, 1991); Herbert Simon, “A Behavioral Model of Rational Choice,” in Models of Man, Social and Rational: Mathematical Essays on Rational Human Behavior in a Social Setting (Wiley, 1957).

[2] Party identification is such a heuristic. A Republican who knows only that one candidate is Republican and the other is a Democrat can make a pretty accurate prediction that on most issues, on balance, the Republican candidate will agree with her, and the Democrat will disagree with her. And she will be right.

[3] Boghossian, Peter. 2013. A Manual for Creating Atheists, chapter 2.