Can there be evidence for God?

Two days ago at Pharyngula, P. Z. Myers asserted that there was no evidence that could ever convince him that a God exists. (He was commenting on an earlier piece by Steve Zara at the Dawkins website that argued the same thing.)  P.Z. sez:

The nature of this god is always vague and undefined and most annoyingly, plastic — suggest a test and it is always redefined safely away from the risk. Furthermore, any evidence of a deity will be natural, repeatable, measurable, and even observable…properties which god is exempted from by the believers’ own definitions, so there can be no evidence for it. And any being who did suddenly manifest in some way — a 900 foot tall Jesus, for instance — would not fit any existing theology, so such a creature would not fit the claims of any religion, but the existence of any phenomenon that science cannot explain would not discomfit science at all, since we know there is much we don’t understand already, and adding one more mystery to the multitude will not faze us in the slightest.

So yes, I agree. There is no valid god hypothesis, so there can be no god evidence, so let’s stop pretending the believers have a shot at persuading us.

I’m not “pretending,” and I’m not really on board with P.Z. on this issue.  Both Greta Christina and I have written about what sort of evidence would convince us of the existence of a divine celestial being.  But maybe P.Z. is a tougher nut to crack.  So here’s a challenge to him:

Suppose that you, P.Z., were present at the following events, and they were also witnessed by lots of other skeptical eyewitnesses and, importantly, documented on film:  A bright light appears in the heavens and, supported by wingéd angels, a being clad in white robe and sandals descends onto the UMM quad from the sky, accompanied by a pack of apostles with the same names given in the Bible.  Loud heavenly music is heard everywhere, with the blaring of trumps.  The being, who describes himself as Jesus, puts his hand atop your head, P.Z., and suddenly your arms are turned into tentacles.  As you flail about with your new appendages, Jesus asks, “Now do you believe in me?” Another touch on the head and the tentacles disappear and your arms return.  Jesus and his pack then repair to the Mayo clinic and, also on film, heal a bunch of amputees (who remain permanently arméd and leggéd after Jesus’s departure).  After a while Jesus and his minions, supported by angels, ascend back into the sky with another chorus of music.  The heavens swiftly darken, there is thunder, and a single  lightning bolt strikes P.Z.’s front yard. Then, just as suddenly, the heavens clear.

Now you can say that this is just a big magic stunt, but there’s a lot of documentation—all those healed amputees, for instance.  Even using Hume’s criterion, isn’t it more parsimonious to say that there’s a God (and a Christian one, given the presence of Jesus!) rather than to assert that it was all an elaborate, hard-to-fathom magic trick or the concatenation of many enigmatic natural forces?

And your evidence-based conversion to God need not be permanent, either.  Since scientific truth is provisional, why not this “scientific” truth about God as well? Why not say that, until we find evidence that what just happened was a natural phenomenon, or a gigantic ruse, we provisionally accept the presence of a God?

This scenario is jocular, of course, but the point is serious—is there no evidence of any sort or variety that would convince you that God exists?

UPDATE: I knew the stuff about aliens would surface, but let’s be a bit more constructive here.  If there’s any evidence that would convince you of God, please describe it.  If there’s none, and you could never be convinced by anything that there’s a powerful supernatural being, or anything that’s reasonably God-like, do say so.

250 Comments

  1. Posted October 13, 2010 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    Well, up until PZ replied to the challenge, I was thinking PZ was wrong, and Jerry was right. But PZ has it now.

    I believe there is no god.

    http://furtherthoughtsfortheday.blogspot.com/2010/10/i-believe-there-is-no-god.html

  2. puzzledponderer
    Posted October 14, 2010 at 4:09 am | Permalink

    “I knew the stuff about aliens would surface, but let’s be a bit more constructive here. ”

    Sorry, but it is more likely than “provisionally accepting” some sort of God-hypothesis. You can’t just dismiss extraterrestrials (or even other humans) messing with our silly creation myths as unconstructive. I’d much rather provisionally accept aliens as something much less far-fetched than a nebulous “God-like” thing (that you in your scenario quite obviously based on a very specific “God-like” thing). Strange, inexpliccable things happening that remind us of the bible do not dismiss the fact that we know the bible is a thrown-together, messed-with account, copied, edited, recombined by kings, theocrats and half-illiterate scribes that some tribes invented because the world was just too difficult for them to comprehend.

    Seeing a giant Jesus has about the same effect on the reality of the bible as finding a whole band of hobbits talking about the one ring that will bind them has on the reality of The Lord of The Rings.

  3. Jack Lewis
    Posted October 14, 2010 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    The same sort of “argument” can be used to make anyone believe in Superman, Harry Potter… and yet no one asks what sort of proof is required for belief in them.

    It doesn’t have much convincing power.

  4. BenJSM
    Posted October 14, 2010 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    Nothing would convince me God exists, or any religion true. Religious proponents — those charged with documenting this stuff — have totally fucked it all up with their endless dishonesty and intellectual incompetence. They’ve had tens of thousands of years — perhaps 100,000 years if you take into consideration ritualised burials — to get their act together, to get their story straight, to provide reasonable evidence; and they’ve produced nothing! The diseased fruits of their labour have been precisely the things we would never have wanted.

    So, fuck those assholes — the moderates (cherry pickers) & fundamentalists (truly faithful) alike. It really is beyond logic to play “theology” with them. Why should we aid in perpetuating this outrageous insanity by pretending they have something worthwhile to talk about?

  5. Bob
    Posted October 14, 2010 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps I’d believe in the godhood of a being that could demonstrate omnipotence and omniscience, but I’d have a hard time understanding why such a being would care about my belief. It could, after all, cause my belief any time it so chose.

  6. IanW
    Posted October 15, 2010 at 4:31 am | Permalink

    PZ has a response to this at pharyngula which is sad coming from someone of his perspicacity. The way he ducks and weaves would make a creationist proud. Indeed, if a creationist had posted a response of this nature, PZ would have ably shredded it.

  7. Grisha
    Posted October 17, 2010 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Since the only relatively coherent definition of god is first mover-sustainer, the only necessary but not comprehensive prove would be for god to stop moving-sustaining. Too bad nobody would be there to verify.

  8. JohnJay
    Posted October 17, 2010 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    Remember the Vorlons from B5? Same scenario of advanced aliens being perceived in the past as gods.

    As for what proof it would take for me… its stated quite clearly in this great YouTube vid (careful… language very NSFW):

  9. Posted October 20, 2010 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    A godlike being might be given reality by the demonstrations you present. There is always the possibility of perception problems given our primitive brains that try to assimilate new information by comparing it to old information. Whether the being presented actually is one the Christian community worships or not would need absolute verification. Whereas the possibility of a god-like being can never be eliminated I think any of the “Gods” mankind has invented, can.

    • Scott Bergquist
      Posted October 20, 2010 at 11:18 am | Permalink

      “primitive brains”? Really? 100 TRILLION connections? The most complicated device in the universe? One neuron contains 40,000 enzymes, the function of which is largely unknown. A simple roundworm has about 300 neurons. A fruit fly has 300,000 and an octopus 30 million. A human being has 100 BILLION neurons. This the whole point. Our brains are IMPOSSIBLY NOT ‘primitive’. Calcium ions do ALL the signaling, memory building, etc between the 100 Billion neurons, and those TRILLIONS of calcium ions go nowhere when you die. No afterlife, no gods, etc.

      • Posted October 20, 2010 at 11:26 am | Permalink

        However advanced our upper level mind it is still ruled by primitive drives. Until such time as reason trumps desire our minds will remain in a primitive state.

        • Scott Bergquist
          Posted October 20, 2010 at 11:59 am | Permalink

          Drenn,
          “still ruled”? You make this sound like a definition for gravity, as if it is obvious. You are taking anecdotal information, entirely unsupportable, and declaring it “true”. It’s analogous to declaring a Ferrari sports car “primitive as a rock” because it is not moving at the moment, neither is this nearby rock. Humans do not have “primitive minds”, and I base my assertion of the millions of man-hours spent attempting to explain how the mind/brain works, with almost zero resulting explanations available to show the overall mechanism by which our minds/brains work. You cannot explain, for instance, how the signal from your optic nerve is memorized sufficiently for you to answer what you just read in the last sentence. You cannot explain it, and neither can anyone else!

          • Posted October 20, 2010 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

            Our simple minds do not exist separate from our brain. Our brain is a product of millions of years of evolution. Primitive segments of the mind, the reptillian segment, was not dismissed, it was built on. We still have primitive drives which continually vex our Cortex. Unless of course, you are god.
            Despite the millions of neurons, the millions of connections, it is still poorly organized. Memory leaks, and fades away. Simply recalling information is difficult.
            Just because some things are not explained today, does not mean they never will be.
            For some reason you must have the idea I am a theist. I am an atheist. I agree, when we die, that’s it. No nothing!

            • Posted October 20, 2010 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

              I agree with your general point, but I’m really struggling to keep my inner pedant in its box when you use the term ‘reptilian segment’.

              It’s like saying that dark energy causes the universe to expand faster than the speed of light – it works as a sort of summary, but it’s not quite right… And for some reason, that makes my eyes twitch.

              Oy…

            • Scott Bergquist
              Posted October 20, 2010 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

              Drenn, you make all these assumptions, as if you have superior knowledge far above neuroscientists, who have dedicated their entire lives to studying the mechanisms of the brain. To wit: the brain is “poorly organized..” compared to …WHAT???!!! “simple minds..” compared to WHAT???!!” And you are off by a factor of TENS of THOUSANDS…not “millions” but 100 BILLION neurons.
              Your whole supposition is kind of like looking at the Earth from the Moon and declaring, “It’s a big blue marble, but not much happening there…pretty simple planet, really.”
              I really am not going to spend time beyond this comment, except to say you ought to read up A LOT regarding neuroscience.

            • Posted October 21, 2010 at 6:37 am | Permalink

              You look at the brain with it’s “billions” of neurons, it’s “billions” of connections and tell me how complex it is. You think I am simplistic, and I think you are seeing more than is there.

  10. martha
    Posted November 8, 2010 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    I am late the the party I know.

    The whole exercise is backwards. You don’t start with a hypothesis that has no evidence. That is a waste of time. You start with facts and then make a hypothesis based on those facts and see if the hypothesis holds up as you gather more evidence.

    God is the cart before the horse.

    • Scott Bergquist
      Posted November 8, 2010 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      martha, I am of the opinion that you are positing this philosophy of “starting with the facts” in the wrong timeline.

      In the beginning, there was only religion to explain all phenomena we experienced, and no science. The “facts” of things such as lightning, rain, sunlight, darkness, …mega-phenomena.. and micro-phenomena (birth, death, disease) could not be reproduced at will by humans , so people attributed them to unseen, but human-like entities (“gods”) with superhuman powers. “Gods” have evolved in response to sophisticated mental ponderings, and evolved much before science came into place as a recognized methodology for explaining the world. So “God” is definitely the horse ahead of the cart (“science”).

      In my opinion. all arguments should begin with the question, “Does belief in a God matter?” Well, if there is no afterlife, it doesn’t matter. It is obvious that even if “gods” existed, their effect on humans is of no consequence in this life, so what about the afterlife? Since our memories are proving to be very real but exceeding complex electrochemical processes (and not some “spirit” or some non-physical phenomena) we know that when humans die, their memories cease to exist, go nowhere. When you die, that which defines you (your memory) dies too. You as a human, become, in all respects regarding personal memory, at the same place as you were in 1802, in 1879: simply a non-entity. So the issue re the existence of gods is as irrelevant as asking the questions, “Will there be redwood furniture in heaven? Will there be airplanes in heaven?” or especially, “What would it take to make you believe in the supernatural?”

  11. Paul W.
    Posted November 8, 2010 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, I think that you’re making the scenario way too complicated. Bringing in the specifically Christian stuff would make me way more skeptical. The Christian story is so profoundly messed up in so many ways that I’d immediately suspect a setup by superpowerful aliens with a very sick sense of humor. (Or that I’d simply had a psychotic break and all bets were off.)

    Here’s a kind not-very-anthropomorphic “God” that I could see calling “God” if there was good evidence that it actually existed: The Force from Star Wars.

    It’s pretty much like Karen Armstrong’s concept of God—it’s important, cosmically pervasive, and something resembling omniscient, even if it’s impersonal and indifferent. You can get in touch with it, with something like supernatural mystical intuition, and just know important high-level things that it, by its very nature, just knows. It’s somehow low-level, but still supremely sensitive to high-level properties like truth and skill vs. falsity and mistakes, Good and Evil, etc.

    (That’s how you know it’s supernatural and the kind of thing you could have a religion about, without needing to be told. It’s spooky.)

    In a universe with The Force, you could even make sense of the kind of crap Karen Armstrong says, about how religions all have a kernel of important truth—mystics in all cultures have actually accessed The Force, even if most of them have misunderstood it and told naive, wildly anthropomorphized stories about it. God real, but not really like the goofy Bible stories.

    Something like The Force would be a huge challenge for naturalism, because it would undermine the basic reductionist, causal paradigm. It would require that low-level things somehow be sensitive to their future high-level consequences. It would have the ability to see through the butterfly effect, somehow predicting high-level things—like what will turn out to be a good move, all things considered, including you and your particular situation and goals, and all the chaotic stuff that will influence your situation by the time it matters—with its spooky low-level, mindless, impersonal essence.

    So far as I know, something like The Force is not actually incoherent, and is very, very remotely possible. I can even tell a naturalistic story about how it might in principle come to exist, involving aliens that constructed our universe in an extraordinarily peculiar way. (A Matrix-like scenario involving an astonishing amount of quantum computation.)

    That naturalistic story is so utterly farfetched, though, that if The Force actually existed, I’d have to doubt that was the right explanation. I’d at least have to suspect that naturalism was simply wrong, and that the Universe contained irreducibly spooky stuff—essences of mind-like properties with no causal, material, reductionist explanation at all.

    Since I’m pretty sure supernaturalism is just wrong, that would freak me right out.

  12. Topaca
    Posted November 9, 2010 at 6:03 am | Permalink

    Simple comment: if somebody cured amputees with his touch, i would rather think that i witnessed advanced medicine thansupernatural miracle

  13. charles
    Posted November 12, 2010 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    if there is a god that created everything, that includes evil. how could god’s perfect creation choose evil? if there were a benevolent, omnipotent god the world could not be the way it is.


12 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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  3. [...] Coyne took him to task, proposing a particular, outlandishly implausible example of an event that would make a reasonable person conclude there might be something to this God [...]

  4. [...] illustrate these issues, take the disagreement among atheists expressed here, and here. I’ll address Myers’ points, interpreting him as an igtheist. I won’t address [...]

  5. [...] at Why Evolution is True, Professor Jerry Coyne has been busy at work. He has not only outlined a scenario that would convince him of God’s existence, but he has written an article entitled On P. Z. [...]

  6. [...] there evidence for God? What’s adequate evidence for God in principle? Coyne: Can there be evidence for God? PZ M-brane: It’s like he was reading my mind and Underwhelmed is putting it mildly and There [...]

  7. [...] some conversation in the atheist community triggered I think largely by comments from PZ Meyers and Jerry Coyne around whether or not there is such a thing as evidence that could be presented to them that would [...]

  8. [...] part of the blogosphere has been busy recently discussing whether they could be convinced, and how, or why not, that a god indeed exists.This was all started by Steve Zara in an article on [...]

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  12. Is there any evidence that would make you believe in a god?…

    I’d say that this is not possible. If e.g. the following (from Jerry Coyne [1]) would happen to me (instead of PZ[2]): > The being, who describes himself as Jesus, puts his hand atop your head, P.Z., and suddenly your arms are turned into tentacles. A…

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