Evidentialist Answers to Some Existential Questions

Our local atheist group, the KU Society of Open-Minded Atheists & Agnostics (SOMA) was recently contacted by a student doing a project for a senior Apologetics class. For his project, he asked various existential questions from people with various worldviews, including secular worldviews. Since I felt I could answer his questions fairly quickly, I volunteered to answer.

I thought my answers might be useful to other people, so I am posting them here. These existential questions clearly come from a Christian worldview and I addressed this in my answers, where appropriate.

To begin, I personally am an Evidentialist. This means that I believe that beliefs are justified in proportion to the amount of evidence we have for them. If we don’t have evidence for a belief, we are not justified to believe it. The reason I am an a-theist (“not theist”) is because I have not seen enough evidence for God to believe in one. If sufficient evidence were presented, I would gladly believe.

Most atheists I have talked to appear to also base their beliefs on evidence-based reasoning, so I think most atheists would probably agree with most of the answers I will give.

What is the origin of the universe and man?

Based on the physical evidence we have from genetics and geographical species distribution (and, to a lesser extent, fossils), the origin of human beings and all other species appears to be evolution.

Based on the physical evidence of, among other things, the expansion of the universe and cosmic background radiation, the origin of the universe appears to be the big bang.

As for the origin of the big bang, as far as I know, there is no physical evidence available to make that assessment. Therefore, I don’t know and I don’t think anyone else does either. Without physical evidence, no justified beliefs can be formed. So my conclusion is that we just need to keep investigating.

One hypothesis that we have some evidence for is that the big bang spontaneously generated from nothing, as explained by Lawrence Krauss.

What is the purpose of mankind?

This is a loaded question. It assumes that something greater than human beings specifically created human beings with an overarching purpose in mind. I have seen no compelling evidence for this assumption.

What is satisfaction and how do I obtain it? How can I be happy?

I think this is a question that we are still gathering evidence for and that we haven’t developed a comprehensive answer to. I think many people think they know the answer because they have experienced happiness before and have had some success in producing their own happiness. But, overall, I think we still have a lot to learn.

I think we have strong evidence that the state of the brain and body are central to the experience of happiness. One book that I think gives some of the most effective, tested advice we currently have for living happily is the book The Depression Cure by Steve Ilardi (a psychology professor at KU).

What has gone wrong with the world? Why is there evil in the world?

These are loaded questions. To say that something has “gone wrong” with the world assumes that there was some predetermined purpose for the world. I have seen no compelling evidence for this assumption. To say there is “evil in the world” assumes that we have a shared understanding of what you mean by “evil”. To answer your question, I would need to know what you personally mean by “evil” and whether I would agree that it is “in the world”.

Why do bad things happen to good people?

By “good people”, I assume you mean people who help others and don’t intentionally cause harm. By “bad things”, I assume you mean emotional and physical harm.

We live in a world that is largely out of our control. There are many sources of harm in the world. It can be physically dangerous. And other people can harm us unintentionally. Or we can be harmed because limited resources are being used by other people. Or other people can harm us out of desperation because of limited resources. Or other people can harm us because they are psychopathic. Unfortunately, while helping others can bring us some protection, some dangers and harms simply can’t be avoided.

What is the solution to the problems we face?

We face many complex, shared challenges. I think the solution depends on the challenge. Some general solutions that have a strong history of evidence of effectiveness are cooperation, hard work, and science.

What happens when I fail, and how do I make things right?

It depends on what you feel you have failed at. Sometimes you should keep trying. Sometimes you should focus on a different goal. The evidence seems to indicate a variety of effective responses depending on the situation.

What is right and wrong? Is moral truth absolute or relative?

“right” and “wrong” are labels that we typically use for behavior we believe to be helpful and harmful, respectively. I don’t think the term “moral truth” is valid for the same reason I don’t think the term “taste truth” is valid. I think that morality, like taste, is a set of preferences that we have evolved to help us survive. And just as we prefer sweet and salty tastes, so too do we prefer that ourselves and other humans are happy and not harmed.

Like our preference for certain tastes, I think our preference for maximized happiness in society has helped us survive and that is why this preference exists.

Given the assumed goals of maximizing happiness and minimizing suffering, some of the best ideas for realizing these goals appear to come from science, as argued by Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape.

Is there a universal moral law? Does everyone know the difference between right and wrong?

I don’t think so. As I said before, we appear to have certain shared preferences. Since we have evolved in the same species with similar brain structure and social experiences, we tend to have many of the same preferences. I think this gives the illusion that there is an overarching moral law. And our shared brain structure and social experiences definitely make it easier for us to agree on shared human laws. But if we were not human, I think we may have different ideas about what is “moral”.

What happens at death? Where are we going when we die? How do we know, and what does it look like? If it is heaven, how do we get there?

We have no evidence for anything happening at death other than the cessation of brain and body function. The positive impact we bring to the world and the positive experience we have seems to be limited to our lives and the effects of our lives on others who live on after we die.

What does your worldview do with the person of Jesus?

There is some evidence for the existence of Jesus, though some strong arguments have been made that this evidence is insufficient to establish his historical existence. If Jesus existed, there appears to be little independent evidence to verify his true identity, let alone the supernatural events and claims attributed to him in the Bible.

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19 comments on “Evidentialist Answers to Some Existential Questions

  1. Well done! says:

    You say, “If sufficient evidence were presented, I would gladly believe [in god].” No you wouldn’t, silly! You’d “know”. No belief would be required. :D

    Thanks so much for posting this; the succinctness with which you present your responses in this post is truly brilliant. I’ve been paying special attention to my habit of over-writing things and this post is a great inspiration. Oh yeah, and your answers are fundamentally excellent too, like that’s not what I should have mentioned first of all!

    Keep up the good work!

    • T-money says:

      “Sufficient evidence” is necessary for justified BELIEF, but since none has been deemed “sufficient”, it remains unjustified belief.

      Besides, belief that a proposition is true is a necessary condition for knowledge, though not sufficient by itself… One cannot disbelieve a true statement and claim they have knowledge.

  2. Markus says:

    I think these are great responses to the questions given. I would add one example to the “right and wrong” question:

    Right and wrong is highly subjective and varies with the individual, community, and organization. Consider two options, proselytizing and medical care, which are commonly provided to communities in need. For some religious donators, sending bibles instead of medical supplies is justified since more “souls” are saved even though less lives are saved. Science has found no evidence for the existence of a soul, which makes this allocation of resources for religious texts instead of medicine abhorrent.

    Not quite a subtle slap, but one that might spark some interesting conversations.

  3. Purpose of Mankind? says:

    Regarding the question, “What is the purpose of mankind”, my own short and sweet answer is: Does anyone ask, “What is the purpose of deerkind, or fishkind?” As you already stated, it’s a loaded question that hinges on the assumption that “something greater than human beings specifically created human beings with an overarching purpose in mind.”

    One of the things I like about my response to such a question is that it nudges people to look at the idea that we are separate from other animals, and the idea that we alone have attributes like souls, afterlives, and overarching purpose. For Christians the division between man and other animals is huge, but even non-theists frequently view us as separate from the rest of the animal kingdom and might appreciate the cognitive nudge–either generally or specifically pertaining to the idea of purpose. Folks in the “spiritual but not religious” camp might also appreciate such a nudge to think about why we don’t ask this question of any other animal. They may decide to give the attribute of purpose to other animals as well in order to hold on to the idea of purpose, but like Markus said above, it’s still good to spark interesting conversations.

  4. Tom Horwat says:

    Excellent replies. The person asking the questions just needs to sit down and think rationally, look at the evidence for god ( or lack of). It’s what has brought atheists to the conclusion there is probably no god. There is, as far as I can tell, absolutely no evidence for Jesus’s supernatural claims ( on which Christianity is wholly based). I’m told there were eye witness accounts, but how reliable are those accounts? Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If all my friends claimed they’d seen me fly, would that be deemed as evidence?. I can easily see how, in bronze age times, miraculous stories passed on as fact would be believed. They lacked the knowledge we have slowly obtained over thousands of years.

  5. truckcompany says:

    “Most atheists I have talked to appear to also base their beliefs on evidence-based reasoning, so I think most atheists would probably agree with most of the answers I will give.”

    (Before reading, when I refer to atheist beliefs, I usually mean, ‘lack of beliefs’)

    It is true that I’m sure there are some atheists out there that would disagree with some or all of your answers, so the most honest answer you could of given, is to do use words such as “probably”, “most” or “appear”.

    But the good thing about atheists is that we seem to be on the same page with regards to the many answers you have given, I think this is awesome and is something we can be proud of. This is in complete contrast with the complete lack of agreement amongst theists claims. I hear from theists from time to time (such as Ray Comfort) the misunderstanding that our humbleness to admit the possibility that some atheists may share different beliefs is a sign for them that atheist lack agreement about what we believe.

    What I think could be done to emphasize and promote the unity of our beliefs to a theist audience (as this seems to be the case) is to maybe instead of using words such as ‘probably’, ‘appear’ or ‘most’, we could use phrases such as, “Every atheist I know..” or “Almost every atheist out there would agree that…” etc

    Thanks, otherwise, it would appear that I probably liked most of what you have said. :D

  6. Terry Cochran says:

    Check out Dr. Duncan MacDougall’s theory on “soul has weight” I’m curious to know what everybody thinks about it.

    • evid3nc3 says:

      I will give you my honest opinion. This is in no way a judgement of you. It is a judgement of Dr. MacDougall’s hypothesis (not theory), which I think you are better than.

      The results have never been reproduced. He only weighed 6 people. The average mass was 21 grams (about the mass of an empty soda can). All of this evidence combined makes the claim insignificant.

      A single person’s claim, never reproduced. Worth not much more than a UFO story and worth significantly less than the worst scientific studies.

      Finally, even if his result had been reproduced (it hasn’t), there is no unique evidence tying the small amount of weight loss to a supernatural soul rather than a biological process.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duncan_MacDougall_(doctor)

      http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=21+grams

  7. T-money says:

    Correct E-dog… and judgment has only one “e”… If Terry wants to discuss the “soul”, first let’s define what this term means. Is the soul an object or a concept? If it is an object, then it must have dimension and location, otherwise it cannot exist…. If the soul is a concept, then what are the objects it is relating to? (by the way, concepts do not exist, they are relationships between two or more objects, and do not have length/width/height or location in space).

    Once we are able to define our terms we can then move on to a more constructive (or in this case, destructive) analysis and explanation.

    • evid3nc3 says:

      It is actually the British spelling of the word. It is extremely rare that you will see me type something that can’t make it past a spellchecker. Agreed on all *other* points ;)

      http://public.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/judgement.html

    • evid3nc3 says:

      However, I will add the caveat that, if somehow evidence could be provided that something could comprehensibly be said to exist without dimension/location, I would accept it.

      It is important to remember that our current logical requirements for existence are derived from intuitions abstracted from our own human experience of macro-level physics (rather than quantum physics, for example).

      That doesn’t give supernaturalists a free lunch. They still must demonstrate their claims with evidence. In the same way that someone claiming the existence of UFOs, leprechauns, or the Matrix must. But it effectively moves their claims from “dismissible as impossible” to “possible but completely undemonstrated”.

  8. T-money says:

    I guess the term “existence” would have to be defined as well… Granted, our macro-level perception of the world heavily influences our definitions, but as long as the definitions lack ambiguity and are consistent, I see no problem with applying them to scientific explanations.

    Considering our senses are the most direct means of postulating an hypothesis, theory and conclusion, as well as determining the weight of justified belief, would evidence for micro-level physics be just as strong?

    I think I’m having a hard time grasping a 0D object existing (having shape and location) or thinking a concept can “exist” independent from minds.

    Correction noted re: spelling

  9. Terry Cochran says:

    Alright good answers ..well I guess digging for the Truth is harder than I thought. Thanks for the inputs we all have different opinions …jus gotta respect and help one another out …thanks again yall take care.

    • evid3nc3 says:

      I agree that we always need to respect and help each other out, Terry. I wish you well in your dig for Truth as I continue my own. I hope my series will be among the the set of useful resources for your dig as I continue extending it.

  10. Tanner Wilson says:

    Hi Evid3nc3 – I’m a big fan of your YouTube channel particularly the deconversion series as it reflects my own deconversion. The other day I shared that playlist with a Christian friend of mine and he responded in a way I’m sure how to respond back to but would like to if you could possibly give me some points on where he’s criticized you incorrectly or misrepresented you. I’ve changed all the pronouns from ‘he’ to ‘you’. My friend says:

    “I’ve taken the time to watch ALL of the videos you posted, i understand the evidentialist stance that you took, and taken into consideration the significantly short amount of time taken to come to these beliefs and understandings coupled with your field of study(NOT philosophy), I think i know why you holds these ‘evidentialist’ views. However with such a limited understanding of evidentialism, you have ignored the rest of the thousands of years of epistemology which has been done and would probably suggest you read and research ALOT more before adopting your highly polished marketed version of evidentialism. The true fact of the matter is that Evidentialism is a weak epistemological argument for atheism and your referral to it just weakened your argument as a whole. In video 3.4.1 (1) (http://youtu.be/g9x_oa–KAc) 2.18 – 4.36 is a prime example. You base your ‘evidence’ on presuppositions. You should have just stuck to a non-philosophical version to avoid future confusion, complication and eventual reversion to skepticism to hold onto your atheistic claims.

    I have come to the conclusion that you need to do more research. You are trying to understand the supernatural with logic and human understanding when it may be completely out of our ability to understand using ‘evidence’. It’s like a 2d square attempting to comprehend a soccer ball when all it’s ever seen are 4 sided flat objects like itself, let alone a sphere with hexagons on it!.
    The understanding that you have taken is one where just because of the undermining of your belief in the validity of the bible, followed by ‘every’ other (over simplified) factor of your christian life, you throw out the baby with the bath water and completely changes his world view. Your understanding of evidentialism is limited, your understanding of science is limited, and unfortunately your specialization in mathematics (and the logic which comes with mathematics) only allows for you to understand things which are knowable in the physical world.

    If you take this ‘evidentialist’ stance, especially in the format which you presents it, prepare to be frustrated with the limits it places on what you can classify as ‘knowledge’, and even expect to start questioning whether ‘knowledge’ itself is attainable.

    In summary, you’ve made a broad judgement and outlining of your own beliefs, attempting to back them up with limited evidence, outlining your epistemological position and then refused to acknowledge the limits your new understanding places on your ability to reason. You also uses the no true scotsman logical fallacy to justify your beliefs.”

    I was just wondering how I should/might respond to him “on your behalf”? I understood where you were coming from in your videos so easily but this seems to have not been the case with my friend. Is there anything in particular that stands out to you as “not being the case”?
    Thank you for reading if you managed this far down :)

  11. I will start with probly the easiest one to answer or so I would think….When I get an answer I will ask a
    other and so fourrh….What di a it mean where it refers Eve as help MEAT how is she meat….Break it down as cut and dry as you csn like for a person that has no idea

  12. Gulliver says:

    Your video essay was fascinating — thank you! I do have a comment however. I have been reading about set theory and name-worshipers (monks who recite the Jesus prayer repetitively). Both of these practices created controversy. Apparently both controversies are about what is (and is not) real. The Russian school of mathematicians developed descriptive set theory, a theory that names subsets of the continuum. The controversy was over the reality of things given names. Does a name have power in itself? Or must it only be a linguistic convention describing a more concrete entity? Both name-worshiping and descriptive set theory were declared heretical by the orthodox church and the Russian government. As an evidentalist, do you reject descriptive set theory (or, for that matter, the theological foundation for the recitation of the Jesus prayer?) This is a way of asking if Platonic numbers are as real as Aristotelian numbers.

    As an aside, I began this study when I read the some fundamentalists did not teach set theory to their children: it is apparently still heretical in parts of the world.

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