Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Invisible Unicorn

I was sitting in the middle of the class hoping not to be noticed. Professor John Whitehead, philosophy, Portland State University, was about to deliver the coup de grĂ¢ce in his argument against the existence of God, and I didn't want to be his target.

   I was a Christian and had been for seven or eight years, pretty young still, and this was my first experience of an attack on my faith.

   Prof. Whitehead's opening argument was that a statement of fact that could not be falsified could not be proved; they were merely unfounded statements of faith. He then told as an example the invisible unicorn story.

(For those who aren't acquainted with science or philosophy, "falsifiability" is the belief that any scientific hypothesis must be disprovable if it is to be accepted as more than a guess or prediction or an empty faith. Falsifiability )

   The story went this way. "There is an invisible unicorn in my office. Every time I get to the office in the morning something is disturbed, and it is the unicorn that is doing it." He fancied up the story some, but that was the gist of it.

   "Can you prove me wrong?" Dr. Whitehead asked.

   We all sat silent, of course. We knew that there was no such thing as an invisible unicorn, but we couldn't prove it. We could not falsify my Prof's claim. And we all knew what Dr. Whitehead's point was: You can't prove God.

   What we did not know was that Dr. Whitehead had set us up. He knew that he had misused the falsifiability test that Karl Popper in the 1930s had  articulated as the test for the truth of a scientific hypothesis by applying it to a philosophical proposition (an invisible unicorn is beyond the scope of scientific analysis). He knew also that not even all scientific hypotheses can be tested scientifically, so the test had limited usefulness.

   Most interesting, he knew that if the puzzle were probed a bit further the invisible unicorn in his office could at least have been shown to be to a high probability false. 

   But he knew that the students in his class did not know any of this. He had us.

   I walked away from the class troubled. My conviction that God not only existed but was the creator of the universe and the God who revealed himself through a Abraham's family and then by means of the Bible to me was shaken. Is God not provable? And if he is not provable, does he not exist?

   I pondered the puzzle that Dr. Whitehead had presented to us. But after some thought, I realized there was something that would falsify God  It was Israel. But before I explain, I want to go back to the details and assumption in Dr. Whitehead's challenge.

   One detail was the claim of evidence, the spilled coffee. If we had investigated the claims of evidence that Dr. Whitehead made for the invisible unicorn we could have come to a high probability conclusion that the particular invisible unicorn either did or did not exist.

   Dr. Whitehead gave as evidence for his "faith" in the invisible unicorn the spilled cups of coffee he occasionally found in his office. He said that there were days when he arrived at his office to find the half-filled coffee cups from the day before turned over and the coffee spilled. Since his office had been closed from the time he left it the evening before to the time he arrived the next morning, what else could have tipped over the coffee?

   Okay. That was spooky. Maybe there was an invisible unicorn cavorting around the office?

   But the fact was, his claim could be investigated. We didn't have to accept it as a fact without examination of the evidence. We could have a student stay the night in the office. Or we could check to see if the janitor came in during the night to clean. In other words we could check the factuality of Dr. Whitehead's presupposition of an invisible unicorn.

   With deeper investigation we might have found that there were other clues. We might have found that papers were being moved around on Dr. Whitehead's desk. We might have found that his files were being unexplainably organized. If no obvious answer for the spilled coffee was found and if further surprises surfaced, then Dr. Whitehead's claim gained ground.

   But if the problem of the spilled coffee was solved by finding that the janitor did move things around as he cleaned, the claim could reasonably be dismissed. It would be falsified.

   Then too, we could have investigated the claim of spilled coffee. Had the coffee actually spilled during the night as Dr. Whitehead hurried to leave for the night?  He had spilled the coffee earlier and failed to remember accurately?  Or was it a fiction altogether?

   Those are the things Sherlock Holmes would have done. But we didn't think to do that.

   Investigation is the way to go if we want to explore the claim that an invisible unicorn exists. It is also the way to go to explore the claim of existence of God. We can explore any evidence found and weigh the reasoning that infers the evidence is sufficient to conclude God exists. The claim is not merely that God exists, after all, but that he does things - like the spilled coffee - and if he does things, those can be investigated.

   There was one more thing, however. Not only could the claim be investigated but the assumptions could be challenged.  The assumption was that God is not falsifiable, and if not falsifiable, then not real.

   The assumption, however, assumed too much. On the totally silly end, if I am standing with a rock in my hand and am asked to provide a falsifiable claim that the rock exists, I need not. It is self-evident that the rock exists. I feel it. I see it. And I can throw it through your window if you don't believe me. Belief in the existence of the rock, though unfalsifiable, was yet true. Only a blind man would deny it. Belief in the existence of God for many is in that category. It is self-evident.

    On the other end, the assumption that the test would provide definitive evidence for the non-existence of the invisible unicorn was also assuming too much. It is very difficult to prove a negative. Even if evidence could not be found that prove the claim, there is always the Raven Paradox. That is the logical weakness in inductive reasoning. If you say on the basis of your observations  that no ravens are white, you make a statement that can be shown to be false with further observation. The fact is, there are albino ravens that are white or partially white. One white raven falsifies the claim that no ravens are white.  Inductive arguments, which are the basis of science and logic are never absolute.

   Related to the existence of God, if we say there is no evidence for the existence of God and, therefore, God does not exist, we run head on into that Raven Paradox.

   But is there evidence? Yes. Without hesitation we can say that. There is the evidence of what God has done.

   I've written about the evidence for a creator we find in the universe, The fine-tuning of the universe for life. That evidence, though not absolutely conclusive, is persuasive.

   But there is also the evidence of Israel. If this God was the God of Israel and if he made promises to Israel, then the failure of those promises would falsify the existence of this God. If on the other hand, those promises were fulfilled to Israel, especially if after a long time and many tests, then the probability of this God's existence is great.

   One such promise was made to Abraham almost 4000 years ago. We read it in Genesis 12. It is this:

The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you.
I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. 
I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.”
   Now, consider. Abraham was childless when God made this promise to him, so the promise was made to one man and one woman. In the intervening 4000 years, Abraham's family grew to become a nation of people. But during those years of growth, this family and nation could well have disappeared from history.

   Several generations after Abraham his family -  by that time they numbered only 70 - traveled to Egypt where they found refuge from a regional famine. They might easily have been absorbed into the Egyptian culture and people. But they emerged from Egypt several hundred years later a distinct people and more numerous and stronger and migrated back to Canaan.

   There in Canaan they grew into a nation with kings and armies; they built cities and planted crops.  Then 300 years later the nation was attacked by the Assyrians and three quarters of the people were killed, deported and dispersed among the peoples of the Assyrian Empire. These people were lost to history. (No matter how much credence is given to the earlier history, from this point on the history of Israel is confirmed by Assyrian and Babylonian sources.)

   One hundred and fifty years later Israel was again attacked and conquered, this time by the Babylonian Empire. Most of its people were killed and its leaders were carried away to Babylon where again they were dispersed across the Babylonian Empire and then the Persian Empire. Fifty years later by decree Cyrus the Great returned Israel, now known as Jews, to the land of Israel. Still their numbers were small. They struggled against local opposition to rebuild their cities and the temple, but had the protection of Persia and persevered.

   Four hundred years later the Jewish nation, now subject to Rome, rebelled and was again nearly demolished by the Roman armies. They rebuilt again, but in 135 A.D the Jews rebelled again, and Rome totally removed the Jews from Judea. But by this time there were Jewish communities scattered around the Roman Empire and far beyond. Though they had no homeland, they continued as an ethnic entity.  What people has ever experienced such adversity and survived? But it was not over.

   During the next 1800 years the Jews were attacked by other enemies, both Christian and Islamic. They were driven out of one land after another. They were isolated in ghettos in Russia and across Europe. They were persecuted. They were further scattered. Yet they did not disappear. They were not absorbed. In fact, the hatred they endured caused them to more firmly hold onto their ethnic heritage.

   In our era, the Jews were attacked again by a powerful enemy, the Nazis. Over 6 million were killed in the holocaust. That is approximately two thirds of the Jewish population of Europe in 1935 and two fifths of the world Jewish population.

   Yet 70 years later the world Jewish population is again 16 million, and the Jews have returned to their homeland as a nation. Who has heard of such a thing? God's promise to them holds true. They persist as a people.

   The second part of God's promise also holds true. The Jews, in an extremely disproportionate number relative to their numbers, have benefited blessed) the world culturally and scientifically.
Although Jews constitute only about two-tenths of one percent of the world’s population, Jews won 29 percent of the Nobel Prizes in literature, medicine, physics and chemistry in the second half of the 20th century. Jewish Magazine
   The percentage is even larger in this century.

   Americans are well acquainted with the names of Jews in the arts and sciences:  Mel Blanc, Itzhak Perlman, Bob Dylan, Bette Midler, Paul Simon, Kirk Douglas, Albert Einstein, Gerald Schroeder, and many, many others. Google "Jewish writers" or "Jewish scientists" or "Jews in medicine."

   Jews have enriched (blessed) the world in every way. And Jews have become famous, the third part of the promise, beyond what anyone could ever have imagined 2000 years ago, not to speak of 4000 years ago.

   Consider famous. There is no other name so well known in all the world and in all of history as Jesus. And Jesus is a Jew.

   Is there any doubt that God has fulfilled his promise to Abraham? No. Israel is proof of the God of Israel.

   And if all of that had not occurred? If Israel had disappeared or been absorbed into the peoples of the world - and there were plenty of times when that seemed about to happen - that would have been adequate proof that the God of Israel and the God of Christians did not exist. We would be sitting here with an ancient book of fables in our laps, the book of Israel's crushed aspirations. Instead we have in our hands a book of Israel's history and of God's protection and blessing of a family and people, as he promised. Amazing.

   Israel is the tested evidence. Israel proves God exists.