What evidence is there that God exists?

It’s common to think of “evidence” as something that can be analyzed using scientific means, like DNA evidence found at a crime scene.  In a broader sense, however, evidence is simply whatever observations are used to demonstrate that something is true.

Some of the arguments that have been circulated for God’s existence have struck me as weak (but your mileage may vary).  For example, some derive evidence for God’s existence from methods of philosophy, such as in the ontological argument.  Philosophy is couched in a technical language of sophistication and logic.  To the extent this encourages careful reasoning, that’s fine, but many philosophical conclusions rely on arbitrary assumptions, pulled out of thin air.  The same can be said of various philosophical arguments against God’s existence.

Others have attempted to demonstrate God’s existence on scientific grounds.  The fine-tuning of the universe has led some to reference physical constants to argue for God’s existence. Others argue for intelligent design on biological grounds.  Some of these arguments appear well-reasoned, and it would be unfair to lump them all together with provably false ideas such as a “young earth” or “flat earth”.  However, I do not have the specialized expertise to evaluate the claims on their merits, and would defer to the current consensus of the scientific community, which thus far has rejected all claims of “scientific” evidence for God’s existence. Of course, it would be equally incorrect to say that science has disproven the existence of God.  Rather, it seems the “scientific” evidence being offered in favor of God’s existence is not really scientific at all (that is, experimentally verifiable).

I felt it was important to put aside the kinds of arguments I find weak, if only to make the point that rejecting one argument in favor of God’s existence does not imply that there is no God.  One needs to consider all the arguments and all the evidence to make a decision.

Personally, I find strong evidence for God’s existence in five places.  One doesn’t need an advanced degree in philosophy or a scientific discipline to understand them.

First, consider the fact that the universe exists at all.  Leaving aside the details on “fine-tuning”, just that anything at all exists seems to require a Creator of some sort, a “first cause” to set everything in motion.  In this view, all of creation points to the Creator.  There is an important objection to this argument (who created God?), which I discuss further here. Admittedly, this argument provides only a very vague description of God, as Creator.

Second, consider the fact that you are conscious, sentient, or self-aware (however you want to phrase it) as you read these words.  You can observe it right now – look at yourself from the inside, your thoughts and feelings. Where did your consciousness, or “soul”, come from?  It is implausible to say that it evolved “naturally”, in the same manner that evolutionary biology shows that our bodies and brains evolved.  If there is a physical explanation to be found for the soul, where would science find it?  To paraphrase Leibniz, suppose we had extremely powerful technology and could magnify the brain 1 billion times and walk around inside of it, observing all of its electrical plumbing and tissues.  Which “part” would explain consciousness?  Sure, science can identify specific brain regions associated with different things.  But when an impulse travels, for example, from an arm or leg, via a nerve, to a specific point in the brain, where does the “pleasure” or “pain” physically exist?  What can be found at the end of that nerve to account for the awareness that each of us observes directly, but which we assume physical “intelligences” like computers lack? The problem is not only beyond the reach of current science, but beyond the reach of science itself.  It’s euphemistically called the “hard problem of consciousness“.

The “argument from consciousness” then follows that if there is no physical explanation possible, the only credible alternative is God.  From there, we can start to infer that God is “personal”.  That, is if our soul does not come from the nature, then whatever supernatural source provided it is best understood as resembling it in some fashion.  In other words, if consciousness needs to be bestowed upon physical matter by an outside agent, it seems likely that that agent is itself conscious, probably to an even higher degree (perhaps in an analogous sense to how Shakespeare, who gave life to Hamlet, is “more alive” than his creation).

I’m assuming of course that you can relate to this basic, everyday human experience. I cannot prove that you do. For example, you could be a zombie of some sort, without the gray skin and creepy makeup. A zombie in the sense that you look human, and have all the human behaviors, the same chemical makeup as a human, even the ability to use logic and tools …. but there is “nobody home” between the ears or in the heart.  Just a computer taking inputs from the world and outputting behaviors.

I am not suggesting you (dear reader) are likely to be zombie, but I would say that science can have no way of determining whether or not you are, because science deals with what can be measured and observed, that is, your physical self. The idea of such a “zombie” may sound far-fetched, because you are so familiar with your own soul and reasonably assume others are in the same boat. However, if you start from an evolutionary model, it is clear that the “zombie” (acting just like a human, but with “nobody home” upstairs) has the same advantages as the human in the “survival of the fittest” (since only actual behaviors matter in that contest), but is a lot simpler to “evolve” than a zombie that also has this extraordinary thing we call a “soul”. In short, evolution has no need for a “soul”, nor can it provide any explanation (identification of a specific moving part, for example) that would explain it.

You may be tempted to dismiss both of the above arguments as a kind of “God of the gaps” argument. I discuss this potential objection more fully here, but to sum it up briefly I would concede that they are indeed inferences of that sort, but without the usual corollary. In a typical “gaps” argument, God is found to be in retreat, falling back as the frontiers of knowledge push forward. For example, one might say that God used to explain comets, and earthquakes, and the origin of the human species.  Then astronomers explained comets, and seismologists explained earthquakes, leaving the origin of species, which Darwin then explained. If what’s left over today were only some scraps, like the precise details of how migratory birds navigate, or even larger questions about the nature of “dark matter” or the quest to find a unified model of gravitation and quantum mechanics, it would be fair to see God as “in retreat” and to expect His domain to be further narrowed in the future.

However, if the “gaps” in question are no less than the existence of a soul and the creation of the universe itself, there are two key things to note. First, these are not problems that appear amenable to scientific explanation at all, whereas the aforementioned problems, while unsolved at present, are all conceivably open to conquest via the ordinary application of the scientific method. Second, while “gaps” present a small and fuzzy picture of God (as a byword for our inability to explain), a God who is the Creator of the universe and Father of our souls is not only a very big God but also very much how God has been viewed for centuries, since long before the dawn of the scientific method.  It is interesting to note that the best evidence for God’s existence, the soul, is essentially the thing that (in monotheism) He’s been most concerned about all along.

The third piece of evidence for God is morality. The best explanation for this I have seen is eloquently put forth in C.S. Lewis’s classic Mere Christianity (scanned text is available here, but I highly recommend picking up a copy). Because there is a field of scientific study called the evolution of morality, I find that the argument from morality has trouble standing on its own. Taken together with the argument from consciousness, however, I think the combined impact is extremely strong.

In other words, moral behavior feels like a stretch to explain inside an evolutionary model (which for the most part embodies ruthless self-interest), but given how flexible that model is, naturalistic explanations of morality are not completely implausible. I can readily believe that the lesser forms of altruism, such as parents sacrificing for children, or people establishing their fairness or trustworthiness in a conspicuous way, have naturalistic origins. Geneticist J. B. S. Haldane famously joked, “Would I lay down my life to save my brother? No, but I would to save two brothers or eight cousins.”  But what does one make of a morality that says things like “greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends“, or “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you“, or “be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them“?  Whatever recognizes these ideas as true is almost certainly not “instinct”, but something different, what we might call “conscience”.

If you think my distinction between “instinct” (which I’ve admitted can lead to altruistic behavior) and “conscience” is arbitrary, consider this.  How do you react when you identify an instinct that is interfering with your larger goals and self-interest?  Suppose, for example, your instincts tell you to have one more cookie, after you’ve already had four.  Wouldn’t you try to fight that instinct, or better yet, find some way to trick it into submission (with a sugar substitute or some kind of diet strategy)?  Almost everyone is fighting some kind of battle against instincts.  How about conscience though?  Conscience – if you are really paying attention – is often asking you to do things against your self-interest.  But it feels very different from the inside to the strong instinct to consume a cookie, or take a nap, or any other kind of easy route; on the contrary, conscience is a weaker power – a “still small voice“.  Yet unlike instincts that go against self-interest, conscience – however weak – is for most people protected from attacks by reasoned self-interest.  How often do people intentionally decide to train themselves not to have a conscience, to purposely go after whatever inside themselves is pushing them to do good.  Most people, rightly I think, see that still, small voice as sacred, as off-limits from the kinds of games we all play in manipulating mere instincts that get in our way.  To me, that points to a supernatural original of that voice.

Putting the pieces together, I think the God we can derive from evidence, in addition to being a Creator and being “personal” in the sense of being conscious in some way analogous to (or higher than) ours, is also “good”, and the source of our deepest moral sentiments.

The fourth piece of evidence is even more personal than the others.  It is whatever “direct” evidence we have that God exists.  That is, any innate sense that there is a God, or any personal religious experiences that corroborate belief in God.  I recognize this argument carries no weight for some readers.  For me, it doesn’t carry as much as it might for others who sense God’s presence more palpably, but I do have some “basic” belief in God, as do millions of others.  I can testify that it grows stronger over time as one studies and worships and prays.  This counts as evidence to me.  Admittedly, not particularly strong evidence on its own, but for me it adds incrementally to the case made above.  Your own mileage may vary.

Finally, we can draw evidence of God’s existence as a feedback from the arguments for Christianity.  This part is somewhat circular at first glance.  That is, the existence of God is a starting point for making any sense of Christianity.  Christianity claims certain things, such as the miracles of Jesus, which in turn point to the existence of God.  It is not totally circular, however. I believe the existence of God is pretty clear from the first four pieces of evidence (especially consciousness) that I have described above.  This is enough by itself to move on to investigating Christianity.  It just so happens that the arguments we make in that context (i.e., seeing the Gospels as true stories) turn around and reinforce the argument for God’s existence further.

I recognize, of course, that none of the “evidence” presented above rises to the standard necessary to call it proof (that is, something that convinces all reasonable people).  For His own reasons, God chooses not to “prove” His existence to all people.  (I speculate that it’s to preserve our ability to choose to love Him or not.)  But lack of proof should not be confused with lack of evidence.  Belief in God is not a matter of “blind” or unreasonable faith.