I love this popular little mantra: the absence of evidence isn’t the evidence of absence, also known as the fallacy of the argument from ignorance. If you’re not already familiar with it, it claims the opposite of my title. In short, it means that just because you don’t have any evidence for a thing happening doesn’t mean it didn’t actually happen. It could have happened but the evidence hasn’t survived, or maybe we just haven’t found it yet. Maybe we wouldn’t know it if we saw it because our understanding of the situation is off.
There are lots of possible explanations for why we 1) don’t have any evidence for X but yet 2) can still hold out that X might have happened or exists. And if we don’t have any evidence whatsoever, no evidence either for or against, then a thing is only as likely as its prior probability.
Well, except in some cases…
In some cases an absence of evidence can be damning. If we don’t have any evidence for a thing happening or existing we can sometimes use that very fact, that very absence of evidence, as evidence itself. Let me give you two examples.
The Master Thief
To introduce the idea, take the case of the master thief. You’re a detective and were just called to a crime scene, a museum. You arrive and find out that the such-n-such jewels were stolen! This tells you nothing of who did it, of course, except that it was someone skillful enough to steal them and get away from the scene. But there are hundreds, even thousands, of people like that. So you look for further evidence to pin it down on one person over the others.
So you begin the search for evidence. You look for finger and footprints, DNA, ask the guards if they saw anything, check the cameras, and search for any sign of a tell-tale style or habit which some thieves have. You interrogate various criminal elements to see if any word has been drifting around. You even sift through the traffic and security cameras for a 15 block radius. But you find nothing. Not a scrap.
You have found no evidence that will allow you to separate the wheat from the chaff and determine which thief it is from the hundreds of possible ones.
But wait! There are only a small handful of thieves who could possibly have the skills to pull off such a spotless heist! The very fact that no evidence whatsoever was left behind is itself a clue to who actually did it. Or, at very least, you can now rule out the lower and middle rungs on the criminal ladder who don’t have anything approaching this kind of skill.
This ‘evidence’ isn’t 100% absolutely, perfectly conclusive. No evidence ever is. And “lack of evidence” wouldn’t hold up in court. But, given what you know about the thieves who could have committed such a crime, 95% of them would have made some small mistake along the way and left some scrap of evidence. So sometimes lack of evidence can in fact narrow your options.
The God with a Plan
The most conspicuous example of all of this is the God of Abraham. The fallacy of the argument from ignorance is often invoked after dismantling some argument, i.e. evidence, for God’s existence. Basically, just because the argument fails and God doesn’t provide any other evidence does not mean that you can now assert “God doesn’t exist.” Even if all Christian arguments fail in the end, it is certainly possible, so it is claimed, that God may still be somewhere out there.
If God were like most things, this would be true. But it turns out that God is more like the master thief. In the master thief example, an absence of evidence is evidence for presence. This is because we expect only master thieves to leave no evidence. For God, it is the reverse. An absence of evidence is instead evidence for absence. This is because, contrary to the thief, we expect God to leave evidence.
Why? Well, it’s important to note that I’m not talking about all Gods. Some possible Gods maybe just want to trick silly humans and so they cover their tracks to make it look like they were never there. But for the Abrahamic God, or any other omnipotent God who wants us to know Him, they would leave evidence for us. First, a God who wants us to know Him would try to make it more likely that we would come to know Him. In other words, He’d give us evidence. Second, being omnipotent, He can guarantee such evidence exists and will cross our paths.
In addition, St Paul spells it all out for us in Romans 1:18-20.
18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
A ‘Hidden’ God?
However, maybe we should expect Abraham’s God to ‘hide’ himself, as some like William Lane Craig argue? I’m sure a few Christians at this point are exclaiming to themselves the importance of faith. Unfortunately, this patchwork doesn’t work out for a few reasons – in addition to the fact it contradicts passages like the one above. I’ll be brief.
First, if there are multiple Hidden Gods, and why not, then how do you decide which one to follow? It’s an extremely pragmatic question. Who do I put my faith in? You have the hidden Allah in one corner and the hidden Yahweh in another (and the hidden Brahma in another and…). Unless you just pick at random or stay with what you inherited, you need some impartial evidence. But by ‘hidden’ people Craig have already defined such deities as not having any evidence for them. There is, by definition, no way to decide between such hidden gods.
Second, Craig and others may simply reply ‘you must have faith!’ God will somehow guide your evidence-less decision if you’re pure of heart, genuinely searching, or whatever else. Matthew 7:7, “seek and ye shall find” is pretty clear. However, this implies that those that follow other religions do not have a pure heart and aren’t genuinely searching. If they really sought, then would have found Jesus. So since they didn’t find Jesus, as Matt 7:7 implies, they didn’t really seek.
Now we’re back to looking for empirical evidence! Do pure-hearted genuine-searchers, i.e. real seekers, all converge on the same God? The uncontroversial answer for anyone with a bit of diversity in their pool of friends is a resounding “no”. There are open and searching Christians, certainly. But, as I’ve seen time and again, there are also open, honest, and searching Muslims, Hindus, Humanists, and so on.
Paul Chiariello (Managing Editor, Rutgers & Yale University) Paul Chiariello graduated from Rutgers in 2009 after studying Philosophy and Anthropology. Currently he is on the Board of Directors of the Rutgers Humanist Community, Co-founder of the Yale Humanist Community, and Director of the Humanism & Philo Curriculum for Camp Quest. Paul has a MSc in Sociology of Edu from Oxford, completing his field research in Bosnia on religious identity conflict. He also spent a year studying philosophy of ethics and religion at Yale on a PhD fellowship. He has worked with research organizations and schools DC, the UN, Uganda, Kenya, India, Indonesia and Germany.