There’s an argument that I have seen pop up a lot over the last few years from my fellow atheists and sceptics. It’s an argument that I think needs to be addressed, for several reasons. Among these reasons are that it shows bad epistemology, bad reasoning, and bad logic. The argument also shows bad scepticism. Something that I would hope that most sceptics would want to avoid. So, what is the argument?
That argument is that something does not exist until evidence is provided to show that it exists. Now, the argument can be seen in a few different ways. There are stronger and weaker readings of this argument. And as we’ll see as we go along, it is used in both the stronger and weaker ways by atheists and sceptics. However, there are faults in all of the readings that can be taken from the argument. Which is also something that I’m hoping to show as we go along. This is not to say that there is nothing good that can be taken from the argument. With a little tweaking the argument can be put into a much stronger from. Something I will also be discussing in this video. Let’s begin with the weaker reading of the argument.
The Weaker Reading
The weaker reading is a prima facie reading. In other words, it is a reading without any expansion, or without any added nuance. It is a reading based solely on what the argument says. Which is, essentially, how those unfamiliar with the supporting arguments will take the argument. Taken on the face of it, the argument seems to be one about ontology, not one about epistemology. The reason for this reading is that there is nothing in the argument that declares that it is about belief and credence. There is nothing that talks about what we should believe. Instead, the argument makes an existential claim in this form.
It makes the claim that something does not exist until it is proven to exist. As can be seen the claim, or argument, is that unless something’s existence has been proven, then that something does not exist. Any reasonable sceptic or critical thinker will immediately see the problem with this claim or argument of course.
Let’s begin our tackling of this weaker reading with a reduction to an example that some might find absurd. However, this reduction will hopefully make clear the problem with the weaker reading. If we consider the word evidence, what do we mean by it? Most dictionaries list it as meaning something like the body of facts that indicate whether a proposition is true. And while there is nuance to be had when discussing what constitutes evidence, most will discuss it in a sense that means evidence is something evaluable. The same can be said of proof. Proof is something evaluable. With both evidence and proof being evaluable this means there must be some kind of mind involved. As there needs to be a mind to do that evaluation.
Now, let’s think back to a time before life evolved on our planet. During this time there would be no such thing as evidence or proof. After all, not only does it take a mind to evaluate evidence and proof, but it also needs a mind to put it together. It takes a mind to create a model that intends to prove something, as well as to put together evidence that supports it. So, no mind, no evidence and no proof. If, as the weaker reading of this argument seems to suggest, that something does not exist until it’s proven to exist, then our planet did not exist. Neither did the Moon, the stars, or the universe, as none of those things were proven to exist, and could not be proven to exist at the time.
This alone should be enough to show that making this kind of existential claim is not only false, but a bad claim and argument. However, let’s look at a less absurd example to hammer the point home a little. For this, we’ll use a popular and well-known fallacy – The Black Swan fallacy. Consider the idea that all that people had experienced was white swans. There was no evidence or proof of black swans at the time to those people. Eventually, though, those same people did come across a black swan. Thus, proving that black swans did exist. The question here then is, did those black swans exist before they were discovered?
The answer to this seems pretty simple, and entirely obvious. Yes, of course they existed. If they didn’t exist prior to being discovered, then they would never have been discovered. Something that does not exist can never be discovered. That something does not exist after all. So, when considering both the more absurd example, and the more realistic example, the weaker reading, or existential claim reading, does not seem to hold.
Now, we could argue here that this is evidence that when people make this argument they are not using the weaker version, or existential version, of the argument. The fact that this claim seems so obviously wrong, and so obviously absurd, is evidence that they are using it in the sense of the stronger version, or epistemological version. However, that would be jumping the gun. While I wish it was the case that all people using this argument were using the stronger version, some are not.
Existentially and Philosophically Incorrect
Unfortunately, there are those that do put this forward in the sense of the weaker reading. After putting forward the black swan example to someone, I was told that the claim that black swans existed before we discovered them was both existentially and philosophically incorrect. It also wasn’t the only time that I have had people tell me that it is false that something exists before we discover their existence. However, often when pushed the same people that use the weaker claim, will move over to the stronger reading.
When pushed, the same person that claimed that something doesn’t actually exist until it’s proven to exist, shifted from the existential claim to the epistemological claim. Shifting the claim from one about actual existence, to whether or not we know it exists. They also, unsurprisingly, accused me of being a theist. Something that atheists really should stop doing. Not everyone that challenges the argument of an atheist is a theist, or motivated by protecting belief in God. That’s an aside for a different discussion, however.
One problem with this shift from the existential claim to the epistemological claim is that there was still an attempt to protect the existential claim. In response to the question of whether something existed before we knew it was there, the answer was ‘possibly’ and ‘more than likely’. Unless this is some form of radical scepticism like Russell’s 5 Minute Hypothesis, then this is an example of scepticism gone wrong. From other responses in the discussion though, this person was not promoting Russell’s 5 Minute Hypothesis. Instead, it was just an attempt to protect the existential claim.
If we consider the idea that for us to be able to discover something that thing must exist, then the answer to whether it existed before we discovered should be a simple yes. Everything we understand about the universe should tell us that this answer is a simple yes. If the universe didn’t exist before we did, then the Earth could not have come about. If the Earth did not exist before we did, then we could not have come about. This seems good reason to agree that these things existed before we did. Just as our discovery of something gives us good reason to believe that it existed before we discovered it.
So, unless someone wants to argue the truth of Russell’s 5 Minute Hypothesis, argue against planet formation, and evolution, then sceptics and atheists should drop the existential form of this argument and claim. Not only is it clearly and obviously wrong, but it will be in tension with, and contradictory to, many of the other claims. There simply is no good reason, as the average sceptic or average atheist, to make this argument. It is much better to endorse the stronger form of this argument. So, what is the stronger form of this argument?
The Stronger Version
The stronger version of this claim or argument could be considered the epistemological version. Meaning that it is not a claim about whether that thing actually exists, but about what we should believe. The claim ‘something doesn’t exist until it’s proven to exist’ is saying, in a shorthand kind of way, that until something is proven to exist then we should believe it doesn’t. There can be some added nuance here from some as well, in that by ‘it doesn’t exist’ what is meant is that it is not part of their worldview.
This seems like a reasonable claim. If you do not believe that God exists, then God is not a part of your worldview. You also behave in way that exemplifies the fact that you do not believe God exists. People who do not believe God exists do not pray to God on a regular basis, or go to Church for the express purpose of being closer to God or worshipping God, they do not hold to Biblical morality, and that kind of thing. We can immediately see that this is a much stronger version of this argument, and does not obviously fail as does the weaker version. Meaning that this is clearly the version of the claim or argument ought to adopt. Does this mean that there are no problems with this stronger version of argument though?
Of course not. One obvious problem with the argument is the ambiguity of the argument. As can be seen from the weaker and stronger reading, it is not made clear exactly which of the two is being presented from the wording alone. It is prima facie unclear which version of the argument is being used by the one making the argument. The wording alone appears to be supporting the weaker reading, rather than the stronger reading. A simple rewording of the argument to ‘Until something is demonstrated to exist, we should believe it doesn’t exist’ further strengthens the argument. This rewording also makes clear that it is the stronger reading being put forward, as it makes explicit that it is the epistemological version being used.
So, thinking carefully about how we word the argument makes it stronger. Of course, that only really matters if you care about the strength of the argument, and care about putting forward the strongest argument. Though I would argue that as sceptics and atheists we ought to care about putting forward the strongest argument.
Another problem with phrasing the stronger argument in the original form akin to ‘something doesn’t exist until it’s proven to exist’ is that it does not actually represent what the person believes. If you are making that claim, but using to promote the idea that we should not believe something exists until it is proven to exist, then there is a mismatch between your position and your argument. This can be seen by people who say, ‘when I say doesn’t exist, I mean it is not part of my worldview’ or ‘when I say doesn’t exist, I mean we should believe it doesn’t exist’. There is an explicit recognition that what they are saying is not representative of what they mean.
One could argue here that when discussing things on Twitter there is a limited number of characters, and therefore this shortening is necessary. However, the length of this argument comes nowhere near the character limit of a tweet. There are also examples of people making the argument, and then expanding on what they mean in by ‘does not exist’. Meaning that there was ample space to simply word it in a way that that more accurately represented what the person was arguing. It seems to me that there is no good reason to make the argument in such an ambiguous way. Especially if someone is interested in making a strong argument.
There are some other ideas and arguments associated with this argument that I have seen, so I will go through a few of them too.
I have seen people argue that this is representative of agnosticism. When it comes to agnosticism, there is no one single definition or usage of the term. There is the kind agnosticism that Huxley put forward, which was the idea that we should not claim to know or believe something without sufficient evidence. And there is the psychological state form of agnosticism, which describes the attitude of reserving judgement about a claim. Looking at this tweet it seems to represent the Huxleyan form of agnosticism. That we should not claim to know or believe something without sufficient evidence.
So, the first part of this tweet is accurate. The problem comes with the claim ‘Until then, it doesn’t exist’. This is not what agnosticism argues. According to agnosticism in the sense being argued here, one would need to provide sufficient evidence for the claim ‘it doesn’t exist’ before they should conclude that it doesn’t. And one would need sufficient evidence for the claim in order to justify belief that it doesn’t exist.
Meaning that the first part of the tweet is correct, but the second half is incorrect. Unless one considers that a lack of evidence of something sufficient evidence for the claim that something does not exist. Is that really sufficient evidence though?
The Default Position
The beginning of the article discussed some ideas surrounding whether or not having no evidence is sufficient for believing something does not exist. We will return to that later, but for now we will go through a few related claims. As these claims can also help to expound on the idea that it is not sufficient to make the claim it does not exist. One such claim is that the default position is that there is no god or gods until evidence to the contrary is provided. Is this the default position though?
The first question to ask here is what exactly is meant by the default position? The default position according to what, and according to who? The default position would be one that would depend on the epistemological stance that a person takes. If one takes scepticism as their grounding for where they should place their beliefs, then it seems to me that the default position is not that there is no god or gods. There is no god or gods is a claim just as there is a god or gods is a claim.
Scepticism, at least in the popular sense used in the on-line sceptic community, is about proportioning our beliefs. It is the idea that we should proportion our beliefs according to the evidence. If we accept the claim that there is no god or gods, then this is us believing the claim that there is no god or gods. The question, as with the previous section, then is whether or not there being no evidence for something’s existence is evidence for the opposite claim? It seems from the argument at the beginning of this video that it is not evidence for the opposite claim. There being no evidence that there were no black swans at one did not seem to be sufficient evidence to show that there were no black swans.
There being no evidence for something seems to justify withholding our belief in that something, rather than believing the opposite claim. It takes further evidence to justify the opposite claim. So, at best, in the paradigm of the scepticism that is popular in the sceptic community, the default position is to withhold belief. The default position is not believing the opposite claim.
Evidence for the Opposite Claim
There is some nuance to be had with the idea that there being no evidence is not evidence for the opposite claim of course. If one was to make the claim that there is a horse in my back garden, and yet that horse is not visible, then that lack of evidence is good evidence for the opposite claim. Same with a claim like ‘there are two suns in the sky’. The fact that there is no evidence there is a second sun in the sky is good evidence that there is not a second sun in the sky.
So, it is not necessarily the case that there being no evidence for something is not evidence that thing does not exist. It certainly can be depending on the context of the claim. In a more general sense though, the idea that there isn’t sufficient evidence to believe something is not evidence that thing does not exist. If we think about the arguments made at the beginning of the video, such as there being no evidence for the universe, the moon, and the Earth, before humans existed did not mean that there was no universe, no moon, and no Earth.
These arguments alone seem to provide good reason to think the existential claim is false. There being no evidence for something’s existence is not evidence it does not exist, except where certain specific claims appear. The idea that it is only evidence where certain specific claims appear also shows us that it takes additional evidence and arguments to support the claim that it does not exist.
The discussion about agnosticism and the default position earlier in the article also shows us that even in the epistemological sense, this argument or claim is not justified. As the claim that something does not exist is a claim in and of itself, both scepticism and agnosticism argue that we should withhold belief in the opposite claim until presented with sufficient evidence. The argument ‘until evidence is provided that something exists, we should not believe it does’ applies equally to the argument ‘until evidence is provided that something exists, we should not believe it does not’. Both are born of, and express, good scepticism. Which is the idea that we should proportion our beliefs according to the evidence. As there being insufficient evidence for something does not necessarily mean it does not exist, we should not believe it does not exist based on that alone.
A popular saying among the sceptic community is ‘I want to believe as many true things as possible, and as few false things as possible’. It’s a saying we often hear some like Matt Dillahunty espouse. If that is one of the goals of good scepticism, then the argument ‘until evidence is provided for something’s existence, it does not exist’ is not an argument we as sceptics should be adopting, accepting, or following. As can be seen with the black swan example, it can lead us to false beliefs. An argument similar to ‘Until evidence is provided for something’s existence, there is no reason to believe it does’ is one that is much more compatible with good scepticism. It is also the argument that has been most commonly promoted within the sceptic and atheist community for quite a long time.
So, as we can see, the argument that something does not exist until it is proven to exist is a false claim. Not only is it a false claim, but it is an easily dismissible and debunkable claim. Both in the existential and the epistemological sense. There is also no support for the claim that it is the default position. Neither scepticism, nor agnosticism, support this claim of it being the default position. If one wants to argue for a default position from within the paradigm of scepticism, then the default position is to simply withhold belief or judgement until sufficient evidence is provided.
As discussed earlier in the article though, there is one form of this argument that does hold up. That is the idea that until provided with sufficient evidence, then something does not exist as part of the worldview of an individual. Although that idea is not expressed by the argument ‘until something is proven to exist, it does not exist’. If one wants to argue in the sense of a worldview, then the argument should be more explicit that it is being used in that way.
It would be much better to use the worldview argument, or to use an argument akin to ‘until evidence is provided something exists, there is no good reason to believe it does’. This argument is not only more accurate, but is also both stronger and more in line with the common scepticism promote by the average sceptic and atheist in the community. It is also more in line with the idea of wanting to believe as many true things as possible and as few false things as possible often promoted by people like Matt Dillahunty.
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