20121127

When the absence of evidence becomes evidence of absence

There is a traditional axiom that states: “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. But this statement is simply false, which is quite easy to understand. Irving Copi, an American philosopher and logician, said: 
"In some circumstances it can be safely assumed that if a certain event had occurred, evidence of it could be discovered by qualified investigators. In such circumstances it is perfectly reasonable to take the absence of proof of its occurrence as positive proof of its non-occurrence."
So when does the absence of evidence become evidence of absence? As an example I'm going to use the awesomest creatures of all time - unicorns (if you don't like unicorns you are a terrible, terrible person and I hope a herd of space unicorns runs over you with their hoofs of fiery doom). We almost certainly know that unicorns do not exist. There is a minor possibility that they do, perhaps. There are still some places on Earth we haven't explored, or they may be really good at hiding. Perhaps they live on trees so we don't see them from all the leaves (also, who would even think of looking at trees while searching for unicorns?). But surely someone would have collected at least one piece of evidence for their existence by now if they really existed, right? Yet there is no evidence. None. Zero. We can't prove with complete certainty that there are no unicorns. We can't really create an experiment which shows that there are absolutely no unicorns somewhere on Earth, except for sending a billion search parties to simultaneously comb the entire planet. Yet the absence of evidence clearly speaks for itself, thus becoming the evidence of absence. Sorry to disappoint you, but there are no unicorns. (I myself am very saddened by this).
Well, shit.
Okay, now simply replace ‘unicorns’ with ‘god’ and the argument starts to take shape. God is supposed to be this all-powerful super-being who mingles with lives of ordinary people on a daily basis. This means the evidence should be more than abundant. Yet there has still been no scientific proof whatsoever for the existence of god or his ‘miracles’.

First off, what is a ‘miracle’, anyway? By definition, it should be an extraordinary event, something that’s statistically so unlikely to happen that, for all practical reasons, we can regard it as impossible. However, language is a tricky business so we oftenly use a word ‘miracle’ to describe ordinary, but beneficial or simply ‘very nice’ things, like a birth or a victory over a disease. To be clear, I do not consider this a miracle, nor does any sane person confuse this kind of ‘miracle’ with an ‘actual’, out-of-this-world-force induced miracle. So, what would we consider a real miracle? One situation I can think of is if someone who lost a leg grew one over the night, or over a month, or over a year. Yet, somehow, this has never happened, as far as we know, in the whole history of mankind (except if you are part human part starfish - then it might have happened, which is awesome, and I want to be your friend). There are probably a few stories and anecdotes, but recorded evidence from reliable sources is missing. So we can assume this kind of miracle doesn’t happen. Another miracle would be if the Sun suddenly disappeared from the sky. If we don’t count eclipses, since in the case of an eclipse the Sun remains where it always is, this kind of thing never happens. And thank goodness it doesn’t, because that would be one very stupid and counter-productive miracle. So we have no real evidence of miracles. Occasionally, the media reports a supposed miracle, which somehow always crumples to dust when confronted with a team of objective researchers. For example, weeping madonnas are surprisingly easy to fake. Then there is the case of Audrey Santo. There are also all kinds of reflections on windows which happen to be chemical instabilities in the glass, or supposed faces in tree-bark, bread, stones, whatever you want, which can be easily dismissed as cases of pareidolia. Lots of 'miracles', less than zero evidence.
Holy crap it's a rainbow vaguely resembling a veiled woman!
So what we do have is a bunch of old stories, anecdotes and hearsay of a supposed miracles that either cannot be proven, were scientifically debunked, or are simply misinterpreted events that are not likely to happen, but with a significant statistical chance to happen after all (a person waking up from coma, surviving cancer, or winning a game of Arkham Horror). Surely by now we should have at least one solid piece of evidence for one of these alleged miracles which 'prove that god exists'? Yet there is none! And no evidence in such a long time, with so many chances of being recorded, scrutinized and shown to be true, leads to only two possible solutions - either your god is terribly shy and at least as good as unicorns at hiding, or he does not exist. And Occam's razor states that the simpler hypothesis is true, so I think we can all guess which one of these two possibilities is an actual case.

Also, don't forget: if you can't explain something, that doesn't make it a miracle. Similarly, just because science doesn't have an explanation of a certain occurrence, it doesn't mean it never will, or that it's a miracle. Sorry.

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