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June 1, 2008

Where's the evidence? (Or What is evidence?)


Are scientists who say they are agnostic about the existence of God simply being polite? Are they afraid to admit in public that they are atheists? 

Paul Bloom (second from right), a Yale psychologist who studies the biological basis for religiosity, raised the question yesterday at a discussion on science and faith. As you may have guessed, Bloom is an atheist. Bloom's question may have been directed at a fellow panelist -- William Phillips (right), a Nobel Prize winning physicist who calls himself a "serious scientist who seriously believes in God."

To Phillips, the more important question was whether Bloom's atheism was really based on evidence. His own view was that it was not.

Phillips then made the point that science was not divorced from faith, which he defined as "belief based not only on evidence." In fact, he said, there would be very little progress made in science if scientists did not accept -- on faith -- findings of experiments done by the researchers who came before them. "I don't do every experiment I've heard about, even though I could," he said.

Phillips, Bloom and the two other speakers -- Lorenzo Albacete (second from left), a Catholic priest and physicist, and cognitive psychologist Nina Azari (center) -- spent some time discussing what counts as evidence. Was personal experience not verifiable by others automatically disqualified? Or was it appropriate -- even necessary -- for scientists to expand their understanding of evidence?

"Evidence is an undeniable presence of something that you are not manufacturing," Albacete said in arguing for the inclusion of experience in the scientific evidentiary realm. The reasoning we use to make sense of the world, he said, needs to be "as expansive as possible." - Yudhijit Bhattacharjee