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. Uncle Bob
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    I think PZ’s argument was more of an ontological argument. You need to make a coherent claim before it can even be investigated.

    Your example….why couldn’t it be aliens?

    • Posted October 11, 2010 at 7:41 am | Permalink

      That’s how I read PZ’s post too. How can there be coherent evidence for the existense of something that isn’t coherently defined?

    • JDStackpole
      Posted October 11, 2010 at 7:55 am | Permalink

      Didn’t Arthur Clarke write an S-F novel (“Childhood’s End” — ?) where the aliens showed up (via proper space-ships, of course) and they all looked like classical devils — horns, red skin, cloven hoofs, forked tails, and all the rest?

      Sunds like the same proposition.

      • Posted October 11, 2010 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

        That’s the one. It postulated that they had been here aeons before and left memories that had morphed into the devils we know and love. (Actually, devils are rather figures of fun, having morphed from satyrs.)

        • DaveG
          Posted October 14, 2010 at 9:22 am | Permalink

          Actually, the Overlords had black skin (don’t know why ACC switched it from red), and, weirdly, humanity’s terror of them was a “memory” from the future – of what would happen, not what had happened.

    • Posted October 11, 2010 at 8:19 am | Permalink

      Exactly.

      Dune.

      Or Stargate.

      How do we know that aliens didnt plant our religious myths ‘just in case’ one of theirs got stranded on our planet? And then they could say ‘Oh, look! I can do X/Y/Z! So I must be your god and you should take care of me, YAY!’

      Or time travel.

      If we went back in time with a basic first aid kit and a computer, people would think we were magic.

      Hell, go back in time and show the 5 year-old me an iPhone, and I would have thought you were magic.

  2. Posted October 11, 2010 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    But would this Jesus be a supernatural being, or is it just some formerly unknown natural being?

    • Becca Stareyes
      Posted October 11, 2010 at 7:50 am | Permalink

      At that point, I’d think we’d need to re-evaluate the definitions of supernatural and natural. Especially if this becomes a regular occurrence.

  3. Posted October 11, 2010 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    I fall somewhere between you and PZ on this one. Your scenario is a good one — but I’ve gotta tell ya, I would still have nagging doubts that it was some kind of sneaky aliens engaged in a ruse to enslave us. (OTOH, if their technology was that superior, why bother with the ruse? Why not just crush us?)

    I agree that there would come a point when the most parsimonious explanation would be theistic in nature — but note that it would not be supernatural, it would just mean that a lot of things we used to call supernatural were actually natural.

    I guess what I’m getting at is… theistic claims or so prima facie illogical and implausible, that the threshold of evidence would be tremendous.

    If I heard of a well-designed RCT that showed a statistically significant benefit to homeopathy, I would remain highly skeptical, far more skeptical than if I heard of a well-designed RCT showing a statistically significant benefit to, say, a proposed anti-angiogenic cancer treatment.

    By the same token, whereas if Jerry Coyne knocked on my door right now, while that would be extremely unlikely, I could rapidly be convinced it was Jerry. If Jesus knocked on my door… not so convinced. I’d probably call the police. :D

    • Posted October 11, 2010 at 7:45 am | Permalink

      (OTOH, if their technology was that superior, why bother with the ruse? Why not just crush us?)

      And pass on the opportunity to have all those willing followers that will worship you and obey you? Why would humans be the only one to dream up stories of people installing themselves as a God among some primitive tribe?

    • Posted October 12, 2010 at 7:09 am | Permalink

      I want to respond here to Jerry’s update, since I was one of the first to bring up the “aliens” gambit. I do think it’s productive to talk about that, because for the majority of scenarios in which we would be forced to consider a theistic explanation, the “superior aliens” hypothesis would be one of the only other serious alternatives. In fact, for many of us, Jerry’s question could almost be paraphrased as “What evidence would convince you that a prospective deity was not just someone with advanced technology performing a ruse?”

      It’s the converse of Clarke’s Third Law: Magic is indistinguishable from a sufficiently advanced technology. ;D

      • KG
        Posted October 15, 2010 at 5:09 am | Permalink

        As Jerry has said, the acceptance of the existence of the supernatural could itself be provisional. Of course we couldn’t rule out the possibility that it’s just technologically advanced aliens, but so what? The “aliens” hypothesis has the disadvantage that it is completely unfalsifiable – it can account for anything whatever, which a specific supernatural hypothesis need not be.

  4. SteveC
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    I also think it’s easy to grant the theists the notion that there should be some convincing evidence. And it prevents them from saying, or from saying so easily, that you’re “closed minded.”

    For me, all the believer’s supposed god has to do is inform the believer of what number I’m thinking of. That’s it.

    So far, no believer has come even close to guessing my number, so, their gods either don’t exist, or really suck at this number guessing game, despite their often supposed omniscience.

    • Posted October 11, 2010 at 8:09 am | Permalink

      14?

      • Rieux
        Posted October 11, 2010 at 9:38 am | Permalink

        That’s the spirit!

      • richard
        Posted October 11, 2010 at 9:44 am | Permalink

        Damn!

    • randy
      Posted October 11, 2010 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

      Since a believer can always claim that God doesn’t wish to engage in trivial game playing, they can claim that his not giving them the number is not evidence of anything. God, by their reckoning, is under no obligaion to indulge your demand for proof. So their inability to guess your number is neither proof that God does not exist nor is it proof that God sucks at number guessing. Don’t get me wrong here. I am not defending christians nor belief. I am no believer. But your threshhold for evidence does not seem to me to offer any convincing argument one way or the other.

      • scaryreasoner
        Posted October 13, 2010 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

        Of course not. All it does is deny the believer the chance to accuse me of being closed minded because no evidence would convince me, since, there is possible evidence which would convince me, and it’s evidence which should be trivially easy for any real god to produce.

  5. Posted October 11, 2010 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    I think there are two separate issues in this scenario:
    1) Do the events in the scenario actually happen?
    2) What do the events tell us about their source?

    Let’s stipulate #1 for the sake of argument. Someone claiming to be Jesus swoops down with what appear to be angels, does some Bible-style healing, and swoops away again. We have no question that it happened, we accept it as we accept the existence of other people who we meet and interact with. We’ll skip the madness and hallucination explanations, because they don’t matter.

    So we’ve got a bunch of healings by people from the sky. So what? It doesn’t prove the Bible stories, or the existence of the Christian deity, or anything else of the sort. It could be aliens. It could be the actual Jesus and crew from the Bible, but none of the rest of the Bible is true. I don’t think it is unfair to say that an event that resembles something out of the Bible wouldn’t serve to prove all of it to be true.

    Would you see Space Jesus heal an amputee, and suddenly believe that the universe is 6000 years old and was created in a week of 24-hour days?

    • Dominic
      Posted October 11, 2010 at 9:39 am | Permalink

      Then is Domesday come – “when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day” – now if this Jesus chap could do that…! As if…

  6. Posted October 11, 2010 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    I’d be inclined to believe, in such scenario, that I have gone totally crazy. And that would still be much more likely than a biblical god.

  7. Christopher Gray
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    I thought the same kind of thing as well, but I think Zara’s point (and PZ’s interpretation) is a bit more subtle.

    The point is that this event would simply be recorded as ‘some one-off event that happened’, and there would be no indication that the being that appeared would actually be God or Jesus. This is because any number of other religions – and even those within the Christian denominations – might not accept the being as ‘God’ because it doesn’t fit with their own particular descriptive criteria. There is no reliable description of God which He can live up to.

    Every day we hear that someone is sure that god has manifested himself in this incarnation or that incarnation, without any one of them being more distinguishable than any of the others in terms of which was ‘genuine’. Therefore, even if the miraculous tentaculation and healing did occur, it would make no more sense to call its cause ‘God’ than it would to put it down to Leprechauns disguising themselves as God, or Zeus appearing to us in the shape we’ve come to associate with the Abrahamic God, just for lulz – these arguments are no more evasive than those used to ‘prove’ God’s existence.

    Sure, the healed would remain a mystery, but because it was a one-off, it wouldn’t be open to rational classification.

    It’s an ontological problem, really: we classify instances as belonging to classes based upon their shared characteristics, and God seems to have infinite characteristics, depending on whom you ask. If any subset of those characteristics presents itself, it could fit any number of other classes.

    Now if the event kept on happening, and God started regularly to intervene in the world, then that would surely change things…

    • Posted October 11, 2010 at 7:59 am | Permalink

      I thought Zara’s point was that the God hypotheses were all nonsensical, and no evidence could confirm a nonsensical hypothesis. That’s probably true, but it doesn’t rule out the possibility that there might be some God hypotheses (perhaps yet to come) that make sense.

  8. qnx
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    Why would a performance like that prove anything about any “gods” (all-knowing, omnipotent, always perfectly good creatures). It could have been a stunt performed by aliens who are way more capable than the humanity currently is, with technology to grow back limbs etc. That wouldn’t make them gods, not even demigods, just an advanced alien race with twisted sense of humor. So which option is more probable, a stunt by such creatures, or a god (logically impossible contradiction)?

    Smile, you’re in cosmic candid camera! First you were screwed by superstitious religions and then by alien pranksters.

    • Rieux
      Posted October 11, 2010 at 9:44 am | Permalink

      Smile, you’re in cosmic candid camera! First you were screwed by superstitious religions and then by alien pranksters.

      Get with the times! These days, that experience is called being “Punk’d.”

      You need to denounce the ways of the Father of Lies, Allen Funt, and come home to your Lord and Savior Ashton Kutcher.

  9. Christopher Gray
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    Also, I don’t think that parsimoniousness is enough to secure any theory very well. And if this God did appear, it would surely beg far more questions than it addressed, so it wouldn’t look quite as parsimonious as we first thought.

    To make an analogy, it seems as if completing a jigsaw might be decreasing entropy, but when you consider all the other energy run-downs inherent in the entire system, such as those in your brain and body, it’s always going to be a net increase.

  10. FlorianM
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    As far as I understand it, the Zara-Meyers argument works like this:

    1. if there is evidence for god it has to be observable, natural, repeatable (etc.)
    2. since the properties in 1 are not properties of god, there can be no evidence for god

    I’m not sure, but part 2 seems to rest on the supposition that god can have certain properties, which seems to rely on the assumption that god exists in the first place.

    • Notagod
      Posted October 11, 2010 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      I notice that your god-idea didn’t hold a baby tiger just out of your reach during this calamity. “tentacles disappear and your arms return”, indeed! At least your god is inline with all the other christian gods, they truly would be ghastly terrible creatures if they did exist.

      Just speculating that this disgusting god of yours did exist, or does exist. Notice the state that it leaves its creations in when it clearly could do so much better. It would seem that it must be a property of a christian god to minimize the powers accessible to its creations because, well, if every creature gets the same superpowers the god thingy really isn’t so cool after all – thus the christian god is really a self indulged twit.

      It is easy, even fascinating to have an understanding of nature and natural processes, and the amazing interactions. However, if it is all attributable to some creature or force – that creature or force isn’t something that I would worship or call a god, it would be at best a pest.

      Yes, I could probably think of something unnatural enough to convince me of a lowly-higher-power but that would in no way convince me that It was something I would want to respect. Doesn’t really matter if It exists or not because if It exists, what it has done is unacceptable in the light of Its special features.

      • Notagod
        Posted October 11, 2010 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

        Oh, damned christian god made me do it! Shouldn’t have posted under FlorianM.

  11. JDStackpole
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    I would think PZ would be terribly disappointed if his brand new tentacles were turned back into arms. He would probably immediately revert back to a non-faith position (and be his old lovable self again).

  12. SmilingAtheist
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    Yes I think most people would agree something spectacular like that happening would have some level of justification for a belief in a god. However that scenario is highly unlikely which is why we’re always battling with the fluff that accommodationist are constantly throwing at us.

    A desist god is probably the only likely candidate at the moment for any type of god and even then that’s a long stretch. Which is why I and you and others are atheists.

    • Melissa
      Posted October 25, 2010 at 6:03 am | Permalink

      So, even if PZ, after a long and happy life, ends up in Hell after a quiet natural passing away, he can say “I don’t believe this is happening to me. It must be a bad drug interaction. I will come out of it soon
      ….YEARS pass, but PZ says “It just seems like its forever, I will come out of this soon. The doctors will adjust the medication”

      The years continue to pass…

  13. Dr. I. Needtob Athe
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    That wouldn’t be evidence that God exists, it would be evidence that you had gone insane.

    • Becca Stareyes
      Posted October 11, 2010 at 7:55 am | Permalink

      But at least the presence of a bunch of people who lacked arms and legs and now had them would be a verifiable fact. And possibly the appearance on Doppler radar of storm clouds out of unfavorable conditions. thought that could be hackers.

      Most of the rest could be put down to theatrics, a scam or a mass hallucination, but it would be hard to fake a mass healing of amputations. Especially ones admitted into a hospital, rather than just ‘I used to be missing an arm’.

      Granted, I’d think this would be incredibly unlikely, but it would at least be a lot harder to fake than the normal miracle.

      • Posted October 11, 2010 at 8:00 am | Permalink

        Video recordings of the event from several different angles and idnependent sources would also be nice.

      • martha
        Posted November 7, 2010 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

        Healing of amputees would be very interesting. With that fact you would start to work on a theory. You might do various tests to try to puzzle it out. If nothing else happened and the tests gave you no answer you would be amazed but unable to say what was the cause of the healing. “God” remains speculative.

        • Posted November 7, 2010 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

          What if the amputees only ever had their limbs regenerated as a result of some specific religion denomination. I pick on Catholics too much – let’s say Islamic prayers and only Islamic prayers are shown to heal amputee limbs. In laboratory-controlled conditions, repeatedly, on film, with magicians involved in the review process as an additional check against foul play (thanks, James Randi!).

          It could be aliens fucking with us.

          But all the same, the more provisionally correct response would still seem to me that the prayers were causing the healing because they were working.

          To put it another way, I don’t assume that when I put my arm against the desk, it is prevented from falling through the wood because invisible fairies in the material are holding my arm up. I’d say it was the wood, because that’s just how wood is works.

          Similar to the prayers – that’s just how prayers allegedly work.

          Is it possible I was having my head messed with? Yeah, sure.

          But I’d be provisional in my acceptance of the Islamic-god hypothesis. Note that this isn’t to say that I’d bow down and worship the misogynistic fucker. But I’d be willing to provisionally take on board the notion of his existence. Tentatively at first, pending additional evidence – but I’d take it on all the same.

    • Dominic
      Posted October 11, 2010 at 9:48 am | Permalink

      Which begs the question, what is sanity?

  14. Pete Carlton
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    If beings existed with powerful enough technology to do all this, and you wanted to call them gods, then it would be hard to argue against that. But it wouldn’t be evidence for the supernatural – for miracles. Hume’s criterion really is powerful, especially considering how much we’ve learned about the universe.

    If you’re arguing from parsimony, then think about it this way: in which situation (powerful aliens versus supernatural deity) would we have to be systematically mistaken about fewer things?

    However, I think I come up with one piece of evidence that could convince me there was a real capital-D Deity: for the Deity to turn me into another Deity.

  15. Posted October 11, 2010 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    I think I would still try to look behind the curtain, but if space Jesus were really healing amputees and sick people, hey, I don’t really care that much if he’s just an alien or Bill Gates having some fun with us rubes. I’d be all pro-Jesus again.

    The problem would come if space Jesus told us to start killing the gehs or doing some other destructive crap that many think is consistent with religious “truth”. We’d have to tell him, “Thanks for the new limbs, but you can f*ck off to wherever you came from.”

  16. Thomas Cochrane
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    Seems to depend on what the evidence is supposed to show.

    The Jesus-PZ-tentacles miracle of 2010 might go to show that there is a heretofore unknown entity with powers beyond our ken. But would this being deserve our respect, our worship, our love? I say not, and I daresay that if this being isn’t praiseworthy, then it’s not what people are picturing when they imagine “God.”

  17. Jim T
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    I guess I misread the article. I thought it was making a point that since no one has seen any miracles or supernatural effects, that chances are so low that we will that we should stop talking about it.

  18. NewEnglandBob
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    I invoke Arthur C. Clarke’s third law of prediction here:

    “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

    Maybe the Jesus and crew are aliens with good tech and a sense of humor.

    • Rieux
      Posted October 11, 2010 at 9:34 am | Permalink

      I think that’s a perfectly serious and reasonable objection to Jerry/Greta’s argument here.

      Given that no occurrence, no matter how amazing, could disprove the hypothesis that it is the result of limited, finite entities wielding “sufficiently advanced technology,” I think that’s the ballgame; P.Z. wins and Jerry/Greta lose.

      There simply cannot be sufficient evidence of an all-powerful and all-knowing being when any evidence imaginable would support the more parsimonious hypothesis that it was the work of a merely very-powerful and/or very-knowledgeable being(s).

      All this presumes, of course, that “God” is not just another name for “very-powerful and/or very-knowledgeable extraterrestrial being(s).” And, in fact, I think that is what garden-variety theism amounts to. The omni-nonsense is just empty (and totally unsubstantiatable) verbiage.

      The monotheist God, as he is actually conceived of by ordinary believers, is just a superpowerful alien. He’s God-Man.

      • Rieux
        Posted October 11, 2010 at 9:47 am | Permalink

        Reading further on this thread, it appears to me that a bunch of other people are making this point as well, and most of them in comments that precede mine. Nonetheless I claim primacy.

      • KG
        Posted October 15, 2010 at 5:16 am | Permalink

        “Given that no occurrence, no matter how amazing, could disprove the hypothesis that it is the result of limited, finite entities wielding “sufficiently advanced technology,” I think that’s the ballgame; P.Z. wins and Jerry/Greta lose.”

        Actually, you’ve identified precisely the reason why Jerry and Greta are right. A (logically contingent) hypothesis which no evidence whatever can possibly refute is utterly worthless in rational terms.

      • martha
        Posted November 7, 2010 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

        I think that you can’t say alien causes are more parsimonious than a god explanation. The magic is so far out there that neither explanation could be described as parsimonious.

        • Posted November 7, 2010 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

          The problem lies in that the claims made about gods’ abilities are such that are beyond our capability to inspect. In effect, at that level there is no way for us to discern whether something is a ‘godlike’ attribute (a concept that remains vague) or an attribute of a powerful non-god entity “faking it”.

          This is similar to the question that theists squirm away from regarding personal experience: “How do you know your personal experience X is by God, and not the Devil pretending to be God, when you claim that the Devil is powerful enough to fool you, and your God cannot interfere without impeding your free will?”

  19. Posted October 11, 2010 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    This would all depend on the sandals. Keens or Tevas?

  20. Tom
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    If that happened to you (Jerry), would you admit that the world was only 6000 years old and created in 6 days?

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted October 11, 2010 at 8:03 am | Permalink

      No, of course not, as there’s too much evidence against a young earth. And I’m not saying that if I saw something like my scenario happen, I would suddenly believe in the literal truth of the Bible, or all the subsequent emendations by religion (e.g. the assumption of Mary into heaven). But I would suddenly start thinking that there might be a celestial being of some sort, and maybe Jesus is his henchman.

      • Posted October 11, 2010 at 8:08 am | Permalink

        Unless “Jesus” comes up with a good reason why it only *looks* old. We might well have a trickster god on our hands.

      • Posted October 11, 2010 at 8:50 am | Permalink

        But would you really start thinking that said entity was supernatural, or just extremely advanced and natural? How would anyone demonstrate, through objective evidence, the existence of something supernatural anyhow?

        We’re left with Jesus as a space alien and no evidence of anything beyond it.

        • Bryan
          Posted October 13, 2010 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

          “How would anyone demonstrate, through objective evidence, the existence of something supernatural anyhow?”

          It is logically impossible. In order for a being to leave behind evidence of the kind that Jerry seems to be (hypothetically) looking for (that is, physical evidence), that being would have to interact with the natural world in some way. If a being that “interacts with the natural world” is not “natural”, then what does the word “natural” mean? I don’t see how the word “natural” can mean anything that is relevant (that is, that distinguishes the “natural” world from… something else) to us as natural beings. “Natural” is what we are. If the “supernatural” exists, then it is definitionally irrelevant to us. That is why PZ is right on this one – there is no “natural” evidence that could convince me of the existence of the “supernatural” (whatever that might mean). The supernatural is not necessarily non-existent, but it is necessarily inchoherent and irrelevant.

          • KG
            Posted October 15, 2010 at 5:21 am | Permalink

            “If a being that “interacts with the natural world” is not “natural”, then what does the word “natural” mean?”

            One that exists independently of the physical world. The basic “supernatural hypothesis” is that mind or intentionality can exist independent of the physical world, and is indeed primary – the physical world depends on it and could not exist without it. The basic naturalistic hypothesis is that it is not – that mind and intentionality are secondary phenomena, emerging out of physical interactions.

            • Bryan
              Posted October 15, 2010 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

              While not granting that this definition of “supernatural” is coherent, could such a supernatural being interact with the natural world to create physical evidence (of the kind Jerry is looking for) while continuing to “exist independently” of the natural world?

      • Chayanov
        Posted October 11, 2010 at 9:23 am | Permalink

        But as long as we’re crafting ridiculously elaborate hypotheticals, suppose Jesus pops over to the AMNH and tells everyone he put all those fossils in the ground 6000 years ago. It’s no less absurd than Jesus suddenly appearing and healing amputees. Like the theologians, you’re just making up stuff for Jesus to do in order to keep belief alive. Instead, I’d rather focus on the evidence we have, which suggests it’s all a bunch of hooey and always will be.

        • KG
          Posted October 15, 2010 at 5:28 am | Permalink

          Nobody here, that I’ve seen, is arguing that there is any such evidence, but your accusation is completely unjustified. do you really think Jerry is trying to “keep belief alive”?

    • Posted October 11, 2010 at 8:21 am | Permalink

      It has been my opinion for a while that the ever-increasing scope of godly powers is that make him unbelievable, because there really is no way for me, a human, to distinguish a really powerful being from an infinitely powerful one. It requires far far less power to create the above scenario, or any of the others often given by atheists as plausible proof, than supernatural omnipotence requires.

      In effect, the only actual way for such a being to prove the scope of its existence is to widen our own observational powers, and even then it is still possible that this is a lesser than divine being capable of manipulating my mind to make me believe that these things are true.

      At best, this scenario will make me concede that an entity named Jesus does exist, but that its most extreme attributes will still remain beyond my understanding.

  21. Posted October 11, 2010 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    Loud heavenly music is heard everywhere, with the blaring of trumps.

    That part, observers would just attribute to the annoying cemetery carillon down the road, against which PZ has inveighed more than once (I’ve heard it: it’s annoying).

  22. Jack van Beverningk
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    “with the blaring of trumps”

    The Donald would be there too? Blaring and all? That would SOOOO spoil it for me!

    Anyway, even if some extremely unlikely event would make me willing to consider or even accept the existence of one or more gods, then I would STILL not feel inclined to sink to my knees and start wore-shipping him, her or it.

    On the contrary .. I would be PISSED and would demand some explanations .. and apologies!

    • Dominic
      Posted October 11, 2010 at 9:53 am | Permalink

      Maybe Jesus could explain Donald Trump’s hair – that WOULD be miraculous!

  23. Posted October 11, 2010 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    Did anyone see “The Second Coming”? It’s a UK miniseries in which an ordinary British guy named Steve (played by Christopher Eccleston) realises he’s “the son of God”. The thing is, he really is, and he demonstrates it by performing a miracle, in full view of the world, that just cannot be explained away.

    Pretty much the same issues that we’re discussing had to be dealt with. I won’t spoil the ending, but let’s just say that it’s up to us humans what to do about these pesky gods if they ever show up.

  24. Posted October 11, 2010 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    P.Z. is falling into the same trap that has ensnared William Lane Craig. Let’s not forget Craig’s famous statement:

    Should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter, not vice versa“. [Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, (Revised edition, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994), p. 36.] This is a statement of staggering wilful blindess – a true show stopper. It is literally no different than me saying: “I know there are fairies in my garden and nothing you can say or show me will ever change my mind”.”

    • Posted October 11, 2010 at 9:30 am | Permalink

      It is literally no different than me saying: “I know there are fairies in my garden and nothing you can say or show me will ever change my mind”

      Actually, PZ’s statement appears to me to be more similar to saying “There are no incoherently defined entities in my yard and no evidence can convince me there are.” If evidence of previously unknown entities in my yard would ever surface, it would be evidence for specific entities, not for unspecific entities. We could possibly accept evidence for small humanoid winged creatures. We could possibly accept evidence for a hugely powerful entity that could manipulate matter and energy in miraculous ways. But we would still have trouble accepting evidence for some ill-defined, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving, all-free, all-just, all-forgiving deity.

      • Posted October 11, 2010 at 9:52 am | Permalink

        Another thing, one shouldn’t accept staged photos as evidence of fairies, either.

        I liked your explanation. Your last point brings to mind the fact that no one could truthfully say that a god is “all” powerful or “all” anything, even if one were in a position to observe said god, because one couldn’t test every possible case. Intellectual dishonesty or sloppy use of language seems start at the very core of these god beliefs.

        • Posted October 11, 2010 at 10:35 am | Permalink

          “…sloppy use of language seems TO start at…” And apparently it’s contagious!

          But seriously, Deen, I see you made much the same point below about the finite number of people available for Jesus/God to heal/mutate in showcasing his powers.

        • Posted October 11, 2010 at 10:58 am | Permalink

          The all-powerful God is not so much sloppy language, as simple one-up-manship:
          “My God is more powerful than your God!”
          “Nuh-uh, my God is even more powerfuller than yours!”
          “But my God is all-powerful, so there!”
          And so it was written.

          • Posted October 11, 2010 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

            Elijah reportedly did a controlled experiment (I Kings 18 23-40) and proved that his god was more powerful, but it has never successfully been replicated. (He also killed his opponents for losing – a sore winner?) In retrospect he may be accused of tampering with the conditions by pouring water over the firewood (what if it was not water but a petroleum product?)

  25. Posted October 11, 2010 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    Jerry,

    Please permit me to put to you a challenge that I’ve yet to have anybody seriously address:

    Define the term, “god.” What, exactly, is a god? What makes one entity a god and another not a god? How does one identify a god?

    And, if I may preempt a certain category of popular response: please exclude idols, such as emperors (who were undoubtedly real, undoubtedly worshipped as gods, and undoubtedly mere mortals), emotions, financial instruments, hyperintelligent shades of the color blue, and the like.

    Until and unless somebody can present to me a coherent definition of the term that doesn’t necessarily entail a logical contradiction (or an uninteresting banality), I’ll continue to assert that the term itself is meaningless and that whatever it is that people think they mean by the term is as nonexistent as the set of all sets or as boring as toilet paper.

    In your specific example, I would conclude I was the victim of an elaborate hoax of some kind. If I was one of the witnesses, I would assume I was experiencing some sort of break with reality.

    The vast body of human knowledge, especially including specifics known about first century Judea, so overwhelmingly rule out the possibility of anything in the Gospels as actually having happened and so equally overwhelmingly indicate that it’s all just another example of religious fiction that…well, let’s just say that I’m far more certain that the Gospels are bullshit than I am that humans and squid share a common ancestor. And there isn’t any practical doubt in my mind that humans and squid do, indeed, share a common ancestor.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Posted October 11, 2010 at 9:26 am | Permalink

      I love how Daniel Dennett does this. He works with the theologian to try and get a less fuzzy definition of God, and once it is sufficiently coherent, he says, “Yeah, I might believe in that.” The problem for the theologian is that by the time the definition is coherent, God is little more than a feeling like perfection or beauty or a shared motivation or, as you mentioned, an uninteresting banality but nothing like the God of the Bible or the gods of any other religion.

      • Posted October 11, 2010 at 9:34 am | Permalink

        At which point you wonder why you’d want to call it “God”. The only answer is that this gives your beliefs an automatic veneer of respectability. But it usually takes a lot more effort to get a theologian to admit this.

      • Posted October 11, 2010 at 9:50 am | Permalink

        In my similar attempts on the ‘Net, I find that that’s the exception.

        Deists and / or Pantheists have done nothing but turned the entire universe into an idol, and they generally bristle when you point that out.

        True Believers who propose the Deist God are trying to get you to agree to something that they think you’ll swallow so that they can triumphantly call out, “Therefore Jesus!” I think that’s what Dennett generally runs into.

        But most True Believers retreat into the insanity of “Jesus is beyond logic.” It’s simultaneously possible and impossible for him to lift and not lift the rock. The only sane response to them is to tell them that their embrace of illogic is insane and worthy of scorn, pity and contempt.

        Cheers,

        b&

    • KG
      Posted October 15, 2010 at 5:53 am | Permalink

      “Define the term, “god.””

      Most terms in natural language do not have precise definitions – that’s just not how language works. And of course if such a term is defined, the challenger can (and generally will) demand definitions for the terms used to define it. If you really don’t understand the term well enough for the purposes of discussion, you clearly can’t answer the question “Is there a god?” with “No”, as an atheist would do.

  26. Baron Scarpis
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    My response would be to ask what would differentiate the alleged God from a sufficiently advanced alien race.

    The point here is that the aliens would be beings occupying space and time (we’ve seen examples of such beings, we’ve seen no examples of beings outside space and time), and they would be following natural laws. True, these laws would be ones we haven’t yet uncovered, but since we know that some laws do exist, this is more likely than someone coming along and breaking them.

    Really it comes down to this – natural processes are always more likely than miracles. And even if a miracle did happen, we could never know, for we could never test for it, by definition. The only way to work out it was a miracle would be to disprove every other natural explanation that could ever be proposed for it.

  27. Tim
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    How did he heal the amputee? Where did the mass for the new limb come from? Did he re-structure the atoms of the surrounding air around the stump of the arm or leg? If so, there should be a measurble volume of air in the room missing. What process did he use? Does he have to be present and standing over the person to do it? Then he’s not omnipotent. PZ, after witnessing this supposed miracle, might well ask why Jesus doesn’t just snap his fingers and heal all amputees all over the world. But then there’s still eye injuries, burn victims, brain trauma, etc.

    • Posted October 11, 2010 at 9:18 am | Permalink

      But even if Jesus would snap his fingers, and all injuries are gone, this still only prove that Jesus was raelly powerful, not that he’s omnipotent. After all, there are only a finite number of people, with a finite number of injuries, so finite powers are sufficient to heal these. Impressive powers, I’ll admit, but finite nonetheless.

      • Heber
        Posted October 11, 2010 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

        Then I suppose my question for you would be: What would, in your eyes, prove to be sufficient evidence of omniscience?

        • Posted October 12, 2010 at 4:33 am | Permalink

          Technically, you can’t prove a being is omniscient either. You can disprove omniscience by finding only a single fact that the supposedly omniscient being doesn’t know about. But to prove omniscience, you need to rule out that no such fact exists. It therefore requires you to prove a negative. Only an exhaustive search of all possible facts can give you the answer, and that’s clearly not feasible.

          The best you can do is to say “This being has given us correct answers to everything we’ve asked it so far“. You might say that it is not an unreasonable extrapolation to think it will keep giving correct answers, so for all practical purposes, we might regard this creature as all-knowing. I’d be somewhat sympathetic to that reasoning, as it is not all that dissimilar to the reasoning I use to conclude it’s likely that unknown phenomena will be found to be naturally caused.

          But fact remains it would still be an extrapolation. We can’t ever be sure if a being is really omniscient, or if it has a finite knowledge, that simply is a little ahead of what we are currently able to verify.

          And that’s even without going into the philosophical discussion whether it’s even logically possible to be omniscient in the first place. Or whether omniscience would be compatible with being a free agent.

  28. stvs
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    This is an actual scene from a Hieronymus Bosch painting hanging in the Art Institute.

    I’d suggest instead tentacled rabbits in the Precambrian, but then we’d still have Hume’s criticisms of design to answer to.

    How about, per Carl Sagan, the discovery of the entire Qu’ran, written in classical Arabic, in a decimal expansion of π?

    Oh wait, π is almost certainly a normal number, so the Qu’ran is guaranteed to be found in π, as are all translations of the Bible, god is Not Great, and whatever it was that Sagan used in his crappy novel.

    I’ll hold out for m-theory strings that all spell out “Jesus Loves You” with little hearts.

    • Posted October 13, 2010 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      How about we discover that pi is not normal, but that the only string not in its decimal expansion is the Qu’ran?

      • skeptical scientist
        Posted October 13, 2010 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

        I’m confused – does that mean that the creator is Allah, or that the creator is decidedly not Allah, and, moreover, emphatically dislikes him?

        • Posted October 13, 2010 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

          Actually, that one really is impossible.

          There is, literally, an infinite number of numeric symbols that we may choose to assemble an alphabet from.

          If PI did turn out to be not-normal, there *must* be some kind of encoding that, if it were carefully crafted, would result in interpreting a string of PI as a version of the Qu’ran (which Qu’ran?).

          Trying to think of the most efficient way to do this, and I’m having trouble off the top of my head. Would be an interesting problem in a graduate Computer Science paper, methinks.

          • TreeRooster
            Posted October 17, 2010 at 7:36 am | Permalink

            The question of the possiblity of such a transcendental number is more interesting than I thought!

            The question is whether the number exists: forgetting pi for a moment, we let p be a non-normal transcendental, and specify a string which it does not contain in a certain base. (Or alternately does not contain with equal likelihood to all other strings of that same length.)

            Then are we guaranteed that there exists some other base in which that string is encoded?

            For instance, say p does not contain “hello world” in base 10 coding. Does there have to be another base for which it does contain that message?

            If we had the requirement that p contains all other base 10 strings except for “hello world”, then there might be an argument.

            Does there exist a transcendental number which does not contain the string “hello world” translated into any base?

            • Posted October 17, 2010 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

              Firstly – if you specify the base encoding, then yes – you make things a lot more improbable.

              The point I was trying to make is that we don’t have to limit our symbol sets in this kind of limited way.

              There’s two examples that spring to mind.

              The first is variable-length encoding. I came across this from a lecturer while I was at university.

              (Note: This is not an argument from credentials. I only have a BSc in CompSci, not even honors. Even then I focused on programming rather than math and information theory. So I make no claim to expertise.)

              One form of variable-length encoding can be found here:

              http://tcode.auckland.ac.nz/~mark/T-codes:%20Intro.html

              Another form that I find interesting in this context would be the dictionary-construction method used in LZW.

              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lempel%E2%80%93Ziv%E2%80%93Welch

              So it’s not enough to discuss whether something is translated into any particular base.

              In addition to all of this, we have the simple fact that most algorithms out there that exist are designed to be as efficient. If we cast efficiency to the wind, and let there be three different strings that may represent the letter ‘L’ – suddenly we have increased out chances of catching our ‘Hello World’ string.

              It’s interesting, though. Now that I really sit down and think about it, I’m no longer so confident in my original cocksure comment.

              Call it an armchair conjecture, then: That for any transcendental number N, there must exist some method of encoding E such that applying E to a given sub-set of N must result in message X, for any X.

              In that form it sounds a lot less likely than when I first thought about it… But off the top of my head, I can’t think of how to prove it, either way.

              Again: Not an information theory nerd. I’m not even a math nerd. I code. That makes me an oompa-loompa in the Computer Science factory. Not much one for thinking up chocolate waterfalls, but then again, I gets the work done.

              I’d love for someone more math savvy than me to come along and confirm or reject that conjecture. It’d be interesting.

            • Posted October 18, 2010 at 11:42 am | Permalink

              It might be that your conjecture is too easy, i.e. trivially true. The messages will be written in some finite alphabet. Thus there are countably infinitely many messages X. All we need to find them all encoded in a decimal expansion is to choose an ordering of messages (1-1 assignment of the counting numbers to messages). Then assign the nth message to the code given by the first n digits in the decimal expansion.

              3 = a
              3.1 = b
              3.14 = aa
              3.141 = ab
              3.1415 = bb
              3.14159 = aaa

              and so on, for a two element alphabet with no space character.

              Of course this is not very efficient; we may end up saying “hello world” with a billion digits.

              So to make the conjecture tighter, we’d have to restrict the encoding scheme somehow. Maybe in a general way, e.g. by saying that the coding must be for alphabet characters, not words.

              Or you could generalize that, by conjecturing that given an alphabet size m, then allowing strings of digits up to length p(m) to code for messages of length q(m) guarantees that all messages are found.

            • Posted October 18, 2010 at 11:55 am | Permalink

              Ah, but what about the original transcendental number? One of the first was the the number whose nth digit after the decimal point is 1 if n is a factorial and 0 otherwise.

              Thus the strings of zeroes get longer and longer, and that might ruin our chances of finding long messages using any limited length coding scheme.

              So the interesting question is: if all messages for which “hello world” is not a submessage do show up in a limted length coding scheme– is that enough to guarantee that “hello world” shows up too?

              How about in base 2?

  29. Posted October 11, 2010 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    He made my tentacles disappear? That’s not Jesus, that’s Satan.

    • Jack van Beverningk
      Posted October 11, 2010 at 10:46 am | Permalink

      Or, more likely, it’s the wearing off of the ‘acid’ that someone put in your coffee!

      • Douglas E
        Posted October 14, 2010 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

        I think that this hits at the heart of Coyne’s proposal – if his scenario did happen, an obvious explanation is that it is the work of Satan, the deceiver. After all, that’s what he is well known for, and if we are to accept the YEC’s version of the “apparent age” of the universe, their god is also a deceiver.

  30. Posted October 11, 2010 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    what if a deity-type of character appeared in the sky and said that, henceforth, π would equal 3…. and it did?

    • Posted October 11, 2010 at 8:53 am | Permalink

      Now we’re getting closer…but I would still think that assuming that we’re in a Matrix-style simulation and that the programmers of the simulation are tweaking our noses.

      But let’s take it a step further. What, specifically, do you mean by pi?

      Are you suggesting that every time we measured the circumference of a circle and divided by the diameter, we’d get 3? In that case, I’d assume that the geometry of spacetime had changed and think, “the programmers of the simulation,” with “somebody/thing warping local space-time” a distant second.

      Are you instead suggesting that one could replace pi with 3 in Euler’s identity and still have both sides balance? I’ll admit, if that were to be the case, I would conclude I was insane. At that point, I’d simply hope I enjoyed the ride.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Posted October 11, 2010 at 8:56 am | Permalink

        yes, i was thinking that we measured a circle and it actually came out pi — or that well-established laws in our present experience were somehow changed, consistently.

        yes, that would point to a matrix-type creator/controller.

        • Posted October 11, 2010 at 9:43 am | Permalink

          You tossed out a word there that’s actually far more important than any of the rest of us have given credit to:

          “Consistently.”

          At the heart of all our assumptions is the one of constancy. Drop something and it will fall, in a profoundly predictable manner. Put a Geiger counter near a radioactive source, and the counter will ping in a perfectly unpredictable manner that will have perfectly predictable statistical properties if measured for a long enough period of time.

          If you were to drop a ball one single time and observe it do something other than fall at an accelerating rate of about ten meters per second per second, you would assume that there was a fluke in your measurement. Maybe some joker had filled the ball with helium or hidden a fan somewhere to blow the ball off course. If that were the only time you ever observed the abnormality, you would soon forget about it. If ti were to happen with some sort of repeatability, you might get excited, think you had discovered something new about the universe, and do everything you could to figure it out.

          Jerry’s visitation from Space Jesus is a ball that falls upward. If it’s a one-off, it’ll soon be forgotten. If Space Jesus takes up residence, he’ll be investigated as thoroughly as he lets us. And, I daresay, it wouldn’t be long before researchers began to understand Space Jesus and figure out how he healed those amputees. PZ, I’m sure, would drop everything else in what I’m sure would ultimately be a successful attempt to regain his tentacles.

          It’d be really cool. But it wouldn’t be divine, as should be apparent by now.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Posted October 11, 2010 at 9:45 am | Permalink

            but i did use the word ‘consistently’.

            i said, that something would change, and it would be consistent.

          • Dominic
            Posted October 11, 2010 at 10:23 am | Permalink

            “PZ, I’m sure, would drop everything else” – yes – if his tentacles were gone!

    • stvs
      Posted October 11, 2010 at 9:43 am | Permalink

      C/D == 3 at exactly 30 degrees:

      http://m.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=Sin%5BPi/180*(90-x)%5D/(Pi/180*(90-x)) == 3/Pi

      But Moses split the Red Sea at 30 degrees latitude!

      We’re through the looking glass here, people.

  31. Posted October 11, 2010 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    “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?”

    Speaking personally, that scenario would certainly go some way to convincing me of the existence of God. Even if we were to move away from the realm of comedy, we could say that there may, possibly, somehow, be evidence that we are as yet unable to comprehend, that would categorically prove the existence of God.

    But is it really going to happen? We can only comment on the evidence we have to hand, and the evidence we do have… inevitably shows a deity to be unnecessary to any theory of our existence. Even if the universe has been created by some giant magic man, there’s absolutely no reason to suppose he requires us to keep Saturdays free, or refrain from eating pork.

    I’m with PZ on this. No need to accommodate religious theories at all.

  32. Rafael Andrade
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” – Arthur C. Clark

  33. rumple
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    This miracle would convince me of a specific God, and I feel it should convince anyone. It would take an all powerful God to do it, and no conceivable space alien could do it; that is any space alien that was in any way different from God:

    If some person claimed to be a prophet of the lord and told us that starting exactly at the 100 billionth digit of pi was encoded in ASCII the King James version of the Gospel of John, and it was found to be so. Note that we already have this calculation, the miracle consists of not only the text in ASCII at that starting point, but also in the fact that when it is now calculated the digits are found to be different from previous calculations and are the ASCII text as claimed.

    Rumple

  34. bigjohn756
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    I suppose that some convincing evidence could someday show up. However, since all gods are man made to suit the group that invented them, I would be shocked, no stunned, if this ever happened.

  35. Posted October 11, 2010 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    I think the answer is simple: Gods violate natural order. Scenarios like the one you posit do that, too. Accepting an observation is not the same as explaining an observation, and once you start trying to explain such an observation as the one you posit, you are left with two choices: 1) There is a physical explanation, or 2) Natural order has been violated meaning there is no natural order or natural order is arbitrary somehow. If 1, there is no reason to call the thing a god. If 2, there is no reason for trying to find an explanation.

    That’s why the leprechaun fable-God myth comparison of yours was perfect! If the supernatural exists, anything can happen. Throw logic out the window. Throw it all out–all of science is pretty much worthless at that point if we, and the observable universe, are indeed existing at the whim of some deity.

    • Posted October 11, 2010 at 8:59 am | Permalink

      This is precisely what I was going for with my response to toomanytribbles.

      Every experience I’ve ever had overwhelmingly demands that the universe must be fundamentally logical.

      All the definitions of gods, and there mere concept of the supernatural…that’s all profoundly illogical.

      To embrace religion is to discard logic and spit in the face of observation. It is the very definition of insanity.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Posted October 11, 2010 at 9:21 am | Permalink

        Yes. Supernatural order is a funny thing to contemplate, a realm where square circles roll and clunk simultaneously and burritos heated too hot for an omnipotent god to eat are possible. A far better explanation for Professor Coyne’s scenario would be mass spectator insanity, kind of like a Heaven’s Gate meeting.

    • Bryan
      Posted October 13, 2010 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

      “…you are left with two choices: 1) There is a physical explanation, or 2) Natural order has been violated meaning there is no natural order or natural order is arbitrary somehow. If 1, there is no reason to call the thing a god. If 2, there is no reason for trying to find an explanation.”

      This is similar to what I was trying to say in my rambling post above. Does Dr. Coyne really not see the logic here?

  36. Thanny
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    What are the odds that a super-advanced alien race would drop by and put on such a show?

    Slim to none, which is pretty much infinitely more likely than the odds that an all-powerful deity that can’t logically exist was responsible.

    No matter how fantastic the display, the god explanation will never be the parsimonious one. If something blatantly impossible appears to happen, then all that’s required is the ability to simulate reality, as in “The Matrix” – very far-fetched, but still infinitely more likely than that what appears to be happening actually is happening, and is caused by an all-powerful deity.

    So what would convince me to accept theism? Nothing. A show such as that described by Jerry is just that – a show. If you posit some super-advanced being capable of making me believe I’m seeing something that I’m not, that being could possibly make me believe it’s a deity, but that would no longer be me.

    The simple fact is, there’s no conceivable evidence for an all-powerful disembodied intelligence. Such a thing is just impossible, both logically and physically (omnipotence is internally inconsistent, and intelligence is manifestly a physical phenomenon).

    Does this make me close-minded? Not in the least. If it’s merely a failure of my imagination, then the sudden presence of convincing evidence would change my mind in an instant. But until something new comes along, I must consider a deity just as fundamentally unsupportable as the notion that I could pick the earth up in the palm of my hand and toss it into the sun (though the latter scenario is still more likely than a god).

    • Posted October 11, 2010 at 9:06 am | Permalink

      Since the Matrix analogy is now popping up so much, I feel compelled to observe: the same logic that Turing used to prove his famous Halting Problem also proves that we can never disprove the proposition that we are in a simulated universe of some sort.

      There’s no objective reason to think that we are in a simulated universe, and I personally don’t think it’s a very likely explanation. But it’s logically impossible to prove that what we see is not a simulation.

      It would, of course, be possible for those running a simulation to prove to those inside that they’re in a simulation…but then those inside would just know that the universe was a bit bigger than they had previously thought. And there’s still no way for the programmers to know that they themselves aren’t being simulated in a Super-Matrix.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Posted October 11, 2010 at 9:13 am | Permalink

        I find Matrix comparisons by theists interesting, since, at least in many theologies it is eerily similar. The material world we know is nothing but a reflection of the ‘real’ spiritual world, and everything that matters (basically feelings, emotions, life etc.) are poor imitations of the things that exist in the spiritual realm, and the religions play the role of Morpheus, giving you the red pill (or whichever one gets you out of the matrix) where you can begin ‘really’ living.

        • Posted October 11, 2010 at 9:28 am | Permalink

          Well, the Matrix trilogy is an unabashed, undisguised allegory of Gnostic Christianity, so I’m hardly surprised that you noticed the parallels between the movie and the religion. I wasn’t referring so much to the movies themselves as to the basic proposition that there is a computer capable of creating a virtual reality indistinguishable from “real” reality, and that what we perceive as real is actually virtual — that we are inside a computer simulation.

          And, of course, it doesn’t have to be an electronic computer such as what we’re familiar with doing the computation. It may be that the “real” world has laws of physics so different from ours as to be incomprehensible to us. It’s also not necessary that the “computer” be the construct of intelligent beings; there have been some highly-speculative theories put forth that suggest that a collapsing black hole may well have physical processes going on that are logically indistinguishable from what we make our computers do — only on a far vaster scale.

          Coming back to the movies, one thing I found particularly interesting is that the “real” world that Neo found himself in was even more fanciful and improbable than the Matrix and that Neo still had superpowers in that “real” world. That tells me that Zion is best understood as simply another “map” of the Matrix that Neo was exploring. Neo went to all that trouble to escape the simulation…only to find himself still in it. Only this time, he was convinced he had escaped.

          Terry Gilliam’s Brazil also comes to mind…and, of course, Lau Tzu’s butterfly, Carroll’s Red King….

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Dominic
            Posted October 11, 2010 at 10:27 am | Permalink

            eXistenZ?

        • Zoe
          Posted October 11, 2010 at 9:30 am | Permalink

          Surely, any evidence showing that we are in a simulation would show that the simulation was not perfect. A perfect simulation would be seamless. In the same way, a perfect creation would have all errors corrected. Any miracle would be an error. After all, why have amputees in the first place? Why not simply give people the capacity to regrow lost limbs and organs? The rational explanation is that this capacity was not selected for at some, early stage in our evolution. Other attempts at explanation, such as ‘original sin’ tend to run up against the wall of the universe being more like an obstacle course than a smoothly running machine. Could it be that God is a World of Warcraft addict and we are just millions of noobs getting pwned?

          • Posted October 11, 2010 at 10:07 am | Permalink

            Read anything in the Watchtower and the inevitable conclusion is that Jehovah is one seriously fucked-up asshole. What I can’t figure out is why the Witlesses who believe it’s all true don’t come to the conclusion that this is an enemy to be fought to the bitter end, not some kind master whose boots you should lick.

            If you’re not familiar with the Halting Problem, take a moment to read up on it and you’ll soon understand its applicability to computer simulations.

            Cheers,

            b&

  37. Neil
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    How about if god waved his arm over the earth and commanded “ye shall all believe” and, mirabile dictu, there were no longer doubters and atheists?

    • Posted October 11, 2010 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      I touched on that earlier. All that proves is that the “god” is capable of influencing our minds. That would make him powerful, but not in the realm of supernatural-creator-of-the-universe powerful.

      Heck, even now skeptics have their own pet absurdities that they believe in spite of the evidence (*coughBillMahercough). It does not take a divine entity to accomplish what is a in essence a change in brain chemistry.

      • Neil
        Posted October 11, 2010 at 9:26 am | Permalink

        If I woke up one morning and thought “OMG, I’ve been wrong all these years, there is a God”, and checked this forum and saw the same old, same old, then if there was a skeptical part left in my brain I’d think “Oh no, I’ve had a Collins-type chemical change in my brain and I didn’t even go hiking.”

        But what if I checked this forum and Jerry was recanting and withdrawing WEIT from circulation and everyone here was rejoicing having discovered God? I’d have to conclude I had gone nuts and imagining it all or that, by god, there is a God.

        When I was a kid in sunday school, I used to think “this stuff cannot be true.” But *everyone* around me seemed to think it was true, and was very solemn about it, so I abandoned my doubts until I was a teenager. But it raises the question, what if you were the only atheist left in the world?

  38. Tacroy
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    Nothing that happens in the future can change the millenia of neglect in the past. If what the holy books said about God were true, your scenario would be a weekly occurrence. Indeed, the fact that something like this happened now would make it even worse – the Jesus in your story could have healed those amputees at any time, but instead decided to wait for some reason.

    What you’re saying, Jerry, is basically this: “If the father who abandoned you when you were a child comes back and takes you out to dinner as an independent adult, does that mean that he was always there with you like your crazy mother maintains?”

    The answer is, of course, no. There is literally nothing that would convince you that he’s actually spent time with you in the past, because you already know he didn’t. There are no actions that can be taken in the future to can change the raw facts of the past.

    In much the same way, if the God of the Bible or Koran or whatever did exist, then our history would be significantly different; since our history is as godless as our present day, no events that happen in the future could prove God’s existence in the past.

    Therefore, if your Jesus did show up, in the present day, I would have to wonder who, exactly, is trying to set themselves up as a God-King – because clearly they were not present throughout all of history up until now.

    • Chayanov
      Posted October 11, 2010 at 10:05 am | Permalink

      Exactly. Apparently, thousands of years ago, gods roamed the earth, doing all kinds of things that not one of them does anymore. Now why is that, I wonder?

  39. Zoe
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    An amputee’s missing limb growing back spontaneously is not impossible, only highly improbable. It is even possible to suggest a mechanism; some animals have a capacity for cellular reintegration. If human beings have the gene for this lost ability, it could spontaneously become active in random individuals. Given the size and age of the universe and the assumption that intelligent life is not rare, it’s bound to happen sooner or later in one form or another. So when incredibly rare things happen some people are bound to believe that they are miracles. This does not rule out unscrupulous aliens from using an advanced technology to pull the stunt just to fool people into worshipping them. In fact, I would say that if anything like that did happen, only the extremely gullible would fall for it. Oddly enough, this is just what evangelical Christians say – only they speak of ‘demons’ and ‘magic’ rather than ‘aliens’ and ‘advanced technology’ (as per Clarke’s First Law.) So where does this leave us? There cannot be any evidence for the existence of God and anything that looks like evidence is more likely to be either a coincidence or if statistically significant, it should be assumed to be malignant.

  40. Dominic
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    I have not had a chance to read all the comments yet but I would be more inclined to think it was Mel Gibson making a sequel…

    No JC, if that did happen that would not make that being a god – it might BE Jesus or whoever, but that would not mean divinity. These could just be beings (seraphim etc) that we did not know about before – in the parlance, ‘new to science’. Is god constrained by the ‘laws’ of physics or not? I wouldn’t want to just see a tentacle but to dissect it (sorry PZM!) then see this Jesus fellow heal it.

    I suppose I would have to find someting convincing but not that scenario.

    PS I like ‘wingéd’ – nice touch! You should have had PZM as ‘tentacléd’!

  41. Posted October 11, 2010 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    If there’s any evidence that would convince you of God, please describe it.
    My definition of a god would have to include a god that knew what evidence would convince me, even if I didnt know what that evidence was until the point at which that evidence was presented.

    • John Phillips, FCD
      Posted October 11, 2010 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

      Yep, I agree. As I have been thinking up more and more implausible things to see if they convinced me and each time I come back to Arthur C. Clarke’s nostrum. But, as you say, according to his claims to fame the xian god should know what would convince me, even if I don’t.

    • Wowbagger
      Posted October 11, 2010 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

      I agree. If God existed, He’d a) want me to believe in him (since we’re told he does), and b) would know a way to make me believe that wouldn’t contradict His allowing us free will.

      Either that or he’s the asshole god of the Calvinists and just doesn’t like me.

  42. Mirik
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    …But that would be quite awesome though!

    I agree with the proposition that the arguments [i]for[/i] god provide no basis for ever postulating evidence [i]of[/i] God.

    And about the event, while again pretty awesome, is a pointless thought exercise as well. Speculating about what apparent magic would convince us, doesn’t make it actually happen.

    Not to mention that it’s possible that this supposed ‘physical’ evidence of God is a supernatural phenomenon that no one will ever notice on some obscure quantum scale (and maybe only once) by that logic.

    Also making it quite irrelevant is it’s possible to miss this physical evidence of something unexplained and we are none the wiser. An earthworm disappeared *poof* while munching some dirt, a flee talked in English while dancing the macarena, but not loud enough to be heard and in an area no one could see him etc. A rock changed it’s color slightly in the spectrum, by no measurable chemical of physical process.

    Let us know what you think, Jerry!

  43. Sven DiMilo
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    More changing of limbs into tentacles in the original would have been much cooler.

  44. Ken Browning
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    If we tweaked Jerry’s ‘god’ so that it is not tied directly to any faith tradition and posited that said ‘god’ continued over a prolonged period of time to interact with humanity — answering questions, explaining the nature of the place he ‘abides’, heals, leads humanity into peace, etc., etc., — then there is probably a point at which I say I believe he is who he says he is. The alien/matrix arguments loses power over extended interaction. We would come to accept the ‘truth’ about ‘god’ the same way we accept the the ‘truth’ about Uncle Harry.

    But the interesting thing is that all along humanity would be adjusting theology. ‘God’ would cease to be supernatural as presupposed. And, he would be providing new ways of thinking about his relationship to previous theological categories. So even if he exists, the definition would radically change.

    Finally, I think this thought experiment shows just how very, very difficult or unlikely or impossible it is to provide evidence for any interventionist god.

  45. Rhis
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    It seems like the dispute is a matter of different definitions.

    If the question is “What would it take to convince you of [a being with specific magic powers]” then you’re right, demonstrations of those magic powers should be enough.

    If the question is “What would it take to convince you of a [omnipotent, rather than merely super-potent being]” then the problem is more one of logic than evidence.

    • Posted October 11, 2010 at 10:18 am | Permalink

      That is the theists’ problem, not ours. Once they give up omnipotence, they don’t have much of a god left, do they? Any life form, or shall we say, thing, that is limited by the physical laws of nature cannot be a god (or at least, it wouldn’t be something I would call a god).

      • Tulse
        Posted October 11, 2010 at 10:59 am | Permalink

        Omnipotence is a very recent, and decidedly Christian, characteristic of a god. Zeus was not omnipotent. The Jewish god of the Torah is not omnipotent. The Hindu gods are not omnipotent. Thor, Ahura Mazda, Baal, Osiris, etc., none were omnipotent.

        Based on history I think it is inaccurate to demand evidence of omnipotence when talking of gods. However, one can argue that any being that is not omnipotent isn’t really worth calling a god. That is a different argument, however.

        • Posted October 11, 2010 at 11:24 am | Permalink

          Well, no, I think the whole argument is whether we atheists would call them gods or not. We aren’t taking a historical look at the different gods people have posited, we are being asked what would make us believe that there is such a thing as a god. And clearly, the only answer is “insanity”.

          Based on what we know collectively today, something resembling Thor, Zeus, Ahura Mazda, Baal, Osiris, etc., would not fall under the category “gods” but rather under the category “advanced ALFs” were any of them to be proven real, despite what people used to call them (even if many believers were to still refer to them as gods).

  46. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    If my deceased parents turned up alive and well on my doorstep I would have to acknowledge the likelihood of life after death and miracles. Although even this event does not necessarily require ‘a god’ I’d be pretty well disposed to the idea.

    And no, Jesus rising from the dead does not convince me. It is no more convincing to me than any other story.

  47. Darrell E
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    I could of course be wrong, but it seems pretty clear to me that PZ’s article was primarily about the lack of validity of any god hypothesis that has been dreamt of to date. He clearly states:

    “There is no valid god hypothesis, so there can be no god evidence, …”

    He is making a logical statement. If a hypothesis is shown to be invalid due to internal problems, then any evidence would not support it. I would guess that if PZ did indeed experience Jerry’s test scenario that he would devise a new hypothesis to explain the data instead of selecting one of the existing invalid god hypotheses.

    Jerry and PZ are talking about two different things. Many of the comments are about what is likely to be possible based on our experiences and understanding of reality, with respect to what god hypotheses claim. I am not sure that that is what Jerry was asking for. But, then again, I don’t think that Jerry’s question to PZ is directly relevant to what PZ wrote either.

    I would be surprised if anybody would seriously claim that there is no conceivable evidence that could be imagined that could convince them that something exists, which has not previously been documented by modern scientific standards, which could perform apparently magical feats, and that could conceivably have been the impetus for one or more of mankind’s god mythologies. I think that would be unreasonable. Admitting that it is possible says nothing about the probability that such evidence exists or would ever occur.

  48. Gareth Price
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    As far as I am concerned, a single dramatic event might disconcert me a little and give me pause for thought, but I doubt whether it would change my view and drive me back to religion.

    It is not because no conceivable event would change my mind; rather I think it would take – at least – a number of such events.

    I was raised in a Methodist church. I now realize that the reasons I was given for believing were bad; in addition, the world fits much better with the view that there is no god. It would take quite a lot for a religious view to be a better explanation of things.

    For me it is similar to how evolutionary biologist would view an experiment whose results seemed to be incompatible with evolution: they certainly wouldn’t say “Wow, evolution must be wrong”.

  49. Tyro
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    I realize I’m late to the game but here’s my 0.02

    Someone asked Jerry if, after seeing Space Jesus, he would reconsider a 6,000 year old earth and he said no because the evidence for evolution was too strong.

    So why then are we being open to the idea of an omnipotent, benevolent deity? If the Holocaust, Influenza, Malaria and centuries of famine, plague and war aren’t enough to count against this god then what is? If Space Jesus comes down then clearly we’ve got some re-thinking to do but I think it’s disingenuous to say that this cameo appearance should act as evidence for a god given the wealth of counter-evidence.

    At best some of the trickster gods like in the Greek or Roman pantheons would be back in play and they were certainly known for shape-shifting and games but even then the whole deity question has such clearly fallacious origins that I’ve got to wonder why we’d bother.

    Instead of taking conclusions we reached from wishful thinking and looking for data to fit (while ignoring data that does not), I think we should start from what we know and work forward. We would know that there’s something out there that’s much more powerful than we are today with the ability to heal, create interesting auditory effects (and maybe visual effects too). We’d know that they gave us names from a contemporary and politically powerful religion.

    I’m not convinced that we should jump from that to “omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent immaterial entity” as if any of that made sense and wasn’t already falsified.

  50. Patrick
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    Often when people say

    “there’s no evidence that could convince me”

    what they really mean is

    “given the knowledge I already have about the world, and my estimation of what sort of evidence you’ve got a snowball’s chance in heck of providing, nothing I think you’re remotely likely to do or say will help your cause.”

  51. Posted October 11, 2010 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    I could go along with the amputees being healed.

    Or, how about this: some holy person makes 20 specific, unlikely predictions for the year 2011 and all of them come true (e. g., there will be an earthquake of this magnitude at this location at this time GMT)

    Or: I get a “blessing” and then can start to, say, visualize things in 4 space or, say, win the Boston Marathon or start doing Fields Medal caliber mathematics.

  52. Posted October 11, 2010 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    I would certainly take the above Space Jesus scenario as evidence but not necessarily convincing evidence and certainly not conclusive evidence.

    To compare, looking at the Atlantic coastlines of South America and Africa and seeing how they could easily fit together is evidence of continental drift. In and of itself it would probably be considered good evidence but not necessary conclusive. For that, one would need to add geological comparisons, fossil continuity, the mid-Atlantic ridge and other things. Only with the accumulated evidence for continental drift can we take it as being true.

    In the Space Jesus scenario, I would take that as a piece of evidence for God, mostly because it fits the model as presented in Christianity, but it would only be a single data point. Many other questions would need to be answered. Can the alien practical joke scenario be discounted? Does this incident actually point to other tropes within the Bible narrative or is this merely a one-off? Is there any physical evidence that can be studied? Angel feathers? Fingerprints? Does that physical evidence have supernatural properties or do those properties merely change what we know about existent physical rules?

    Maybe if Space Jesus stuck around and started talking with scientists, explaining how all this stuff worked and opened the gates of Heaven so that they could mount expeditions with cameras and other equipment would we have a decent answer. With only a quick visit and a miracle or two, I doubt that the evidence would be in any way conclusive.

    Of course, Christianity would get a huge shot in the arm and be around for a few more millennia. Or, maybe not. Somehow having the entire point of Christ’s Second Coming be to dick around with an atheist biologist instead of initiating the Rapture would certainly mess with a lot of Christian assumptions.

  53. Posted October 11, 2010 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    You said “a divine being” and “a God” so that limits the claim somewhat. I point that out because one objection to the appearance etc is that the “God” is supposed to be bodiless – “spiritual” – so if it appears, embodied, it’s not that version of the “God.”

    So it might be that we could agree this was something new and very surprising without agreeing that this is the famous “God” we have been told so much about.

  54. Posted October 11, 2010 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    So it could be that the famous God is defined in such a way that it’s really not possible to think of any evidence that would convince outsiders of its existence.

    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.

    I’m not sure I can think of any evidence that would both convince and meet the traditional description of the famous trademarked God. A solid “god,” a testable god, a detectable god…just would be different from the traditional version. It’s a kind of impasse.

    Well no – maybe it would just have to be really melodramatic displays of weirdness in the real world – mountains melting away, oceans parting, volcanoes erupting flowers and raspberries, crowds of people raised into the air where they can lounge comfortably on nothing – that kind of thing.

    Yes, a display like that would turn my view of the world upside down. I don’t know if I would point and say “God!” but I would certainly conclude that I knew nothing at all about anything. I would eagerly await developments.

    • Posted October 11, 2010 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

      If a being who was seemingly divine showed up and actually started curing the world’s ills, I’d be willing to provisionally support it, at least for purely practical reasons. (Same for aliens — no woo-woo need apply)

      Would I worship it? I think I’d always be somewhat suspicious that it was eating people or committing some other horrors secretly. Gods and aliens can be sneaky, if fiction is any guide.

      Would a truly divine being expect the inane worship demanded by most religious traditions? It’s hard to imagine it. Such an immature and stupid attitude would count against its divinity. Basically I would expect it to be at least as good and wise as the best human beings I know.

      If respect and cooperation toward a common good is not enough for such a “god”, then it will have to count me out.

  55. TheBear
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    I’m with PZ if understood him correctly:

    Any viable god hypothesis have been falsified long ago, and in such a way that de-falsifications are highly improbable.

    Any “surviving” god hypothesis are not even wrong.

  56. Kevin
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    I have previously posted my 5 goalposts for god.

    The very first requires that all religions everywhere agree on the ontology of such a thing. That agreement will never come. Theists can’t even agree on its attributes, let alone its substance.

    Therefore, I agree with PZ that it is quite unlikely-to-impossible that I will be presented with evidence that will convince me such a thing exists.

    However, even if we focus only on the attributes of god and not its ontology, I think I can come up with better scenarios than the one you describe.

    Your particular scenario is either evidence of “a” god, “a” demon (anti-god) trying to trick us into believing it is god, or a very advanced race of aliens trying to trick us into believing it is god. My money at that point would be on “aliens” as being the most parsimonious solution. Because aliens would be natural.

    The evidence that would convince me of a god would be something like the following:

    * A simultaneous announcement everywhere around the world directly into the consciousness of all humans (without a communications vehicle) in the native language of all recipients of the following:

    From now on and henceforth, no weapon would be effective if the use would result in harm to a human. They would work fine otherwise, but if the intentional or unintentional result would be harm to a human, the weapon would malfunction. Guns would not fire, bombs would not explode, knives would rubberize, fists would turn pillow-soft.

    This would, to me, be beyond the capabilities of an alien race because it’s a demonstration of all four of the primary attributes of a god, omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and omnibenevolence. In particular, omniscience is the parlor trick that I don’t think aliens can recreate. Seeing in the future is, by my reckoning, pretty darned impossible for “real” creatures, no matter how advanced, but a requirement for a god — at least the god whose attributes we are told demands our worship.

    It also demonstrates omnipresence, which I doubt even the most-advanced race of aliens could accomplish. And if they could, we would not be able to discern a difference between that alien race and a god anyway. So functionally, it wouldn’t matter — whatever THAT creature wanted me to do, I’d darn well do it.

    Yes, instant regrowing of amputee limbs, instantaneous curing of all cancers and the like would be good tricks; but would not be a demonstration of either omniscience or omnipresence. So, is too limited.

    Another demonstration would be to announced that all genetic diseases are hereby cured and will no longer be seen in anyone anywhere.

    No more Tay-Sachs, cystic fibrosis, brca-1-related breast cancer, and all the rest. If god really has the ability to guide evolution (are you listening Dr. Collins?), let it guide evolution in this manner.

    But, I agree with PZ that the probability of any of that happening, or any other similar simultaneous demonstration of all four attributes of god (omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, omnibenevolence) is as likely as me finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

  57. J.J.E.
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    This is almost certainly going to get lost in the mess of other responses, but here goes.

    I think there are multiple concepts being conflated here, namely what a believer may believe at any given moment and the consensus of a large community (a community which may have a very robust tradition of apologetics). At any given moment, a believer has certain beliefs about their god, and I contend (in agreement with Jerry I suspect) that most of the time, many of those beliefs are amenable to challenge from science. However, whenever those ideas come into contact with challenges from science, they are modified. After sufficient contact with science, those ideas either: die (resulting in a lack of belief in god); retreat into untestability (deism, e.g.); result in delusion (YEC, for example).

    Since the end-points are measured vis-a-vis the believer, I think many believers balk at scientific ideas that they don’t fully understand and therefore believe that aren’t deluded but are merely ignorant. I think there are a lot of “ingorant deists” out there who believe that they have retreated sufficiently far that their beliefs aren’t amenable to science when they actually are. I also think there are many people who are outright deluded (in a socially acceptable way of course). These are the people that admit they would reject evidence before faith. And I believe that there are a much smaller number of people who have retreated far enough to be real deists.

    Anyway, this all just a long way of saying that “scientifically amenable belief” is an unstable state in a scientific world. It is forced to constantly retreat to either: deism, atheism, or delusion. It is this forced retreat (which in many cases is simply moving goal posts) that PZ is addressing I believe.

    However, this isn’t to say that adducing evidence challenging believers’ faith in god isn’t useful. It forces those goalposts to move. And sometimes (as in my case) those goalposts get ripped down and the holder of those beliefs becomes an atheist.

    • J.J.E.
      Posted October 11, 2010 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

      I forgot to elaborate the “community” relevance here. While I believe that most people (if not everyone) who is born into a religion believes in a very literal and material god early in their lives, those that have access to a strong apologetics community may be ushered past the atheist station to deism (or ignorant deism) as rapidly as possible.

  58. Posted October 11, 2010 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    First, why assume the winged creatures are angels? Why consider the music “heavenly?” The very description of events is loaded up with pre-conceived notions.
    Also, if you are the victim of an alien prank you haven’t been “punk’d,” you’ve experienced what is called a “buzzing.”

  59. Posted October 11, 2010 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    You know, it occurs to me.

    Everybody in this thread — starting with Jerry’s original post — has either (as I have) made the point that the mere notion of gods is so much illogical nonsense or has expressed demands for miracles on the same order of significance as those in the Bible, if not even bigger.

    So, on the one hand, we have theists being required to present their alleged thoughts in a logically-coherent manner — which would be quite the miracle, I should think — or we have out-and-out miracles of the blow-your-mind variety.

    I don’t think you’ll meet a (quasi-sane) theist who would even pretend that Space Jesus will, any time soon, give PZ a set of tentacles.

    So, wherever one stands on the matter of whether or not the question is even meaningful, it seems overwhelmingly clear that, as a practical matter, speculating about the nature of convincing evidence is at best on a par with speculating about a leprechaun’s favorite breakfast cereal.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Kevin
      Posted October 11, 2010 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

      Well, it’s only by miracles that you can discern between the supernatural and the natural.

      Without the burning bush, the story of the tablets loses all of its importance.

      Without walking on water, Jesus is just another creepy preacher.

      Without splitting the moon in half, Mohammed is just another bat-shit crazy dude in a cave.

      Miracles are the sine qua non of religion and theism. Without miracles, they got nothin’.

      • GrudgeDK
        Posted October 11, 2010 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

        “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” – Arthur C. Clarke

        “Miracles” are not a way to determine between natural and supernatural, particularly so when there is no evidence of claimed miracles. You think that splitting the moon in two, would have left testable evidence? The miracle isn’t splitting the moon in two, any sufficiently advanced nation can probably do that if they wanted too. The real trick is gluing it back together again so nobody can see it was once cracked in two. Likewise with all the other evidence. A burning bush isn’t a real miracle. Those happen all the time in South Australia and California. Lastly if you only have the word of your disciples to back you up on that whole walking on water thing, you’re doing it wrong.

        • Kevin
          Posted October 11, 2010 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

          Well, I completely disagree with your premise: Miracles are the ONLY way to distinguish between natural and supernatural.

          The rest of your post is spot on, however. There is no evidence of miracles, not now, not then, not ever.

          If there *were* evidence, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, would we? The debate would be over and we would be the losers.

          • Robert
            Posted October 11, 2010 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

            Where did it all come from, evolution or no evolution, God or no God?

            • Kevin
              Posted October 11, 2010 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

              Where it all came from is the Big Bang…we know with certainty what happened starting about 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000001 second after the BB happened. Before that, there are mathematical models.

              If you read Stephen Hawking’s new book, you would discover that the origins of the universe are perfectly compatible with an all-natural, no-god-needed process. If you read Victor Stenger (another physicist of note), you will discover that any conception of a god-directed and or initiated universe is NOT compatible with what we know.

              If you think you’re asking a “big question” that will cause us to smack ourselves in the forehead with wonder and then fall on our knees prostrate to worship the glory of god, you have come to precisely the wrong place.

              If you want to know what happened precisely before the 0.000000000000000000000000000000000000000001 second after the BB, the definitive answer to that question is, at present, “we don’t know and neither do you.”

              Please do not use that as permission to insert a magic act into the process. No kidding, it’s simple, silly, childish nonsense to do so.

              And if you continue to troll the site with the same sophistry, I will continue to provide you the same answer.

            • Posted October 11, 2010 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

              If you prefer visual aids, try this:

              A Universe from Nothing, by Lawrence Krauss.

            • articulett
              Posted October 11, 2010 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

              You do not need to know where things came from to understand that “an invisible magical being did it” is not an answer.

              If you really want to understand the answer, it’s probably best not to plug in supernatural explanations.

              It also helps if you haven’t been indoctrinated to imagine that your salvation depends on faith in an invisible magical being.

  60. Anonym
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    Sometimes you can find yourself ‘on a roll’, … and just roll right off.

  61. Posted October 11, 2010 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Alternate scenario;

    PZ has a late night vision of God, who gives him the power to heal. Including the power to cause limbs and other body parts to regenerate. Regrowing spleens for example.

    The ability to heal in full, given time and the physical resources needed for that healing.

  62. Microraptor
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    What would convince me that a being was truly omnipotent: if that being was able to take an object that had mass and accelerate it to the speed of light.

  63. chemicalscum
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    I posted my comments on what evidence would convince me of the existence of God as #17 on the Pharyngula thread.

    I am going to post an improved version of it (someone may be able to predict supernova’s on the basis of observational evidence).

    If God were to email a large number of physicists telling them that if they set up a standard double slit experiment, then on Thursday’s for the next few years at 15:00 UTC for one hour all the electrons will pass through the right hand slit then at 16:00 UTC all the electrons would pass through the left hand slit for another hour.

    The if the results obtained by a large number of participants confirm this and are satisfactorily peer reviewed, then I would regard this as strong evidence for the existence of God.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted October 11, 2010 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

      Yes, but if aliens can grow tentacles on P.Z.’s shoulders, why couldn’t they direct electrons through specific slits?

      • chemicalscum
        Posted October 11, 2010 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

        QM has been tested to such a level that we know that a positive result would suspend the laws of physics. A product of this physical universe (aliens) could not do this.

        Therefore the most probable hypothesis would be that “God dunnit”.

        However I doubt that there is going to be a hypothetical God requesting us to set up this experiment anytime soon or ever rot that matter.

        • chemicalscum
          Posted October 11, 2010 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

          By the way I insisted on a large number of researchers being involved with separate expiriments to prevent pranksters.

          About 25 years ago I attended a lecture at a fringe event by Prof. John Hasted an experimental physicist from Birkbeck College (University of London). I had been a grad student in the crystallography dept. there but I didn’t know him.

          He believed in psychokinesis. He told us that one morning he went into his locked office and found a small mesoamerican statue sitting on his desk. He was firmly convinced that someone had teleported it to him. For myself I suspect a grad student with a sense of humour and a Feynman like skills at cracking locks.

          Which hypothesis do you think is more probable Hasted’ or mine. He as you would expect had also been duped by Uri Geller.

        • Treppenwitz
          Posted October 13, 2010 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

          Even if no technology could ever exist to actually change the experiment’s results in that manner, all our sufficiently advanced alien friends really have to do is mess with our measurement/recording apparatus to make it look like they’d juked the experiment, which is surely a lower bar to clear.

  64. GrudgeDK
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    I’d be convinced if none of the following had ever happened: Crusades, Inquisition, Holocaust, Killing Fields.

    I would be convinced if every time a Catholic priest rapes a child, the priest would magically appear in Saint Peter’s Square, where god would manifest himself and do whatever it is Dr. Manhattan does to Rorschach at the end of The Watchmen.

    I would be convinced if he actually true could eradicate all evil, starting with religious hypocrites.

    Hell I would probably even be convinced if all Abrahamic religions had the same account of god – never mind that, I’d probably be convinced if the Tanakh, Bible or Quran, managed to get even one claim about the universe right. Not even right, if they just managed to get something not wrong, that would probably be enough. But when your God, whom you claim created the Earth, doesn’t even know that it’s spherical, you’ve failed hard, before you’ve even begun.

    Maybe I would even be convinced if people who believe with absolute certainty that “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” is true and that “Thou shalt not kill” is a divine commandment, would stop murdering people.

    You’re asking the entirely wrong question. The question isn’t “What would it take for atheists to believe in god?” which is kind of irrelevant, because we’re atheists. The more pressing question is “What would it take for the theists to believe in god?”. I don’t mean SAY they believe in god, I mean ACT LIKE they believe in god.

  65. The Swede
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    The scenario you painted here would utterly and probably permanently convince me of the inaccuracy of the bible and the wrongness of pretty much every cult of christ incarnation which has ever been documented. It would most certainly NOT be evidence for any god I have seen described anywhere but in this post of yours.

    So no, I’m with PZ here. Churches, sects and holy books refuse to pin god down enough that any event what so ever could ever be considered evidence they’re right. Especially not your fanciful scenario, which fits none of them, to my knowledge.

    • Kevin
      Posted October 11, 2010 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

      What if the scenes in Revelation started to come true, note-for-note?

      …”trump of god” and all that? That’s really the scenario that’s being depicted. Jesus and angels (on horses, no less) coming down from the heavens to establish his 1000-year Reich.

      If you want a helluva bad trip, drop acid and then read Revelation. (I actually do not advocate doing either, either sequentially or simultaneously).

  66. TK
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    Two real and separate questions are being addressed here, with two totally divergent answers.

    The first is Jerry’s: Can I conceive of a situation where I would be presented with compelling evidence of the existence of a being capable of accomplishing certain classes of tasks that have been associated in the past with entities that people have labeled as gods?

    The answer to this version is of course yes. The bar has been set pretty low- witness the cargo cults surrounding John Frume, with the populations of whole islands driven to ritual and supplication and prayer by the arrival of mid-20th century military logistics. Of course, for a god to be something distinct from a human, that bar has to rise above your present capabilities, and so for me as an inhabitant of the modern scientific age, the list of miracles from the mythological texts that would impress me has narrowed- stopping the sun in the sky, restoring genuine limbs with the wave of wands, reconstituting oneself from mere ashes, rearranging continents with a thought, and so forth. If an entity showed up, did some of those things, and said, “Yeah, I peeked around before, the locals called me a god, here I am,” I could be persuaded to accept that, provided of course certain standards were met to establish that these deeds were the result of profound capabilities and not simply a profound manipulation of my perceptions- stage magic, in other words.

    Such a being might even compel me to pray- if when I talked to it reverently my life filled with statistically relevant amounts of good things, and I was struck repeatedly by lightning when I didn’t- and the same went for everyone else.(This doesn’t do much of anything for the big historical claims- the evolution of stars and life and so on, or that Zeus was actively targeting thunderbolts in the modern day, of course…)

    Of course, no such evidence for any such entity is to be found in the slightest degree. The limited, literal, humanesque gods of Greek mythology et al. turned out to be a bust, and so theology beat a steady retreat to bigger and bigger and less verifiable scales. Finally, most faiths arrived at conceptions that are so logically incoherent they are not demonstrable even in principle.

    Atlas could move the world, an impressive feat earning him the title of a god-and then Archimedes pointed out he could move the world with a lever, given the right lever and a place to stand (problematic but not “impossible”) and so the subsequent crafters of faith (faithwrights?) pulled a my-dad’s-bigger/double-dog-dare and said “well, my God can move an INFINITY of weight…with an INFINITYLY SHORT lever,” and then left the playground and called Archimedes stupid for not getting how that works- when they don’t get it themselves.

    That’s where PZ’s question, and his response, come into play: Is there a body of evidence that would convince of the existence of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omnipresent entity in a world of suffering, a monolithic non-reproductive entity with a male gender, a being that is not-of-of-this-or-any-natural-world/universe but still interacts with it,something both invisible and pink? Of course not- because such a being doesn’t even make sense, lacking the internal consistency to be verifiable by any evidence of any kind.

    Jerry, you tossed aside the alien question, but its coming up for a reason- namely that science fiction regularly has to truck in beings of tremendous and mysterious power, who regularly exceed certain minimum human standards for inspiring a religion-but they have to deal with humans whose abilities and logical rigor have established new thresholds.

    For instance, Star Trek V is an otherwise subpar and cloying movie, but it does at a couple of points ask some rather pointed questions in this vein- if you ran into a creature that did everything tangible and physical that a deity in a holy text did, would it still be worth calling a god, and worshiping, even if you discovered it was in fact limited- given that modern, science-evading definitions of a god generally include “being limitless”? The being appears with a booming voice full of all the right platitudes, summons matter and energy from thin air in ways beyond their abilities or understanding, promises salvation, relieves anguish- and then asks for a ride. But, “what does God need with a starship?”

  67. Anonym
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    PS spells it out quite plainly: “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.”

    • Posted October 11, 2010 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

      What if we actually found a robed and bearded humanoid at the top of a mountain that could hurl lightning, change form, and answered to the name of Zeus?

      And what if we actually found him actually hanging out with a bunch of other Greek Gods?

      And what if Zeus could supply some actual testable information about the earliest phase of the universe not currently known to science, but that we could verify through empirical testing, as a means of verification that he was actually there when it happened?

      To the contrary. There are valid God hypothesese. It’s just that they’re consistently invalidated as soon as they come up.

  68. MadScientist
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    I guess we’ll just have to ask PZ. Does he really mean that nothing will convince him, or is he convinced that there will never be any evidence for the supernatural claims of all contemporary religions (which is something I agree with).

  69. Joe Weyers
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    What happens if a similar scenario happens and the deity is one whose religion and following were dead to contemporary knowledge? We talk as if the current religious pantheon is a fixed set. Maybe the snake cult of the Neanderthals nailed it! … and we’re sitting here going WTF just happened? and who the frack is Spiffereno the Slippery? Would that disprove Christianity or any other religion?
    Just way too many variables to be controlled for, you need to come up with something that dispels the Advanced Technology == Magic issue.

  70. Posted October 11, 2010 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Look – this is all really, really simple.

    Non-theologian believers will profess to believe testable claims about God – for example, that prayer to God will cure illness.

    Modern theologians don’t make these kinds of claims, because they know that there’s an entire population of highly educated non-believers out there that will spend time, effort, and energy finding evidence that stacks against them, just for shits and giggles at seeing them squirm.

    Now the theologians – and people like John Shook – tell us that the theologians should be the authoritave source on what believers should believe.

    If we accept this, then Steve’s post works very well. Theologians do take great pains to define God in ways that keep Him immune from evidence. As we noted above, this is for very good reason. There isn’t any evidence, and they know it.

    However, I’m not so sure that we should accept the theologian’s view of themselves, or the claims of non-theologians (Shook again) who take the theologians seriously. Yes – its worth a bit of time and energy to take down theologies. But at the same time, it is equally worth time and effort to let the non-theologian believers speak for themselves about what they believe.

    When we consider what the majority actually profess to believe, then we’re left with many kinds of testable claim. The tests always come up negative, of course. And that doesn’t bother the believers, of course. But the testable claims are still made and can be validated or invalidated through rigorous experiment.

    Theologians tell us that they are the authorities that we should be taking seriously. But of course, they would, wouldn’t they?

  71. Robert
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    Where did it all come from, evolution or no evolution, God or no God? Did it have a beginning, or like those who claim God, was it always there?

  72. Thomas B.
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    This aliens explanation is really just “fighting the hypo.”

    So suppose the tentacles scenario happens, and Myers says, “Oh, you’re just an alien with powerful technology.” Jesus sighs and says, ok, let’s do a survey of every planet in the universe. I’ll pause time while we take this trip. Jesus helps you explore every planet in the universe, focusing on all the varieties of life and their technologies.

    Now at this point, you can push the goalposts back and insist that Jesus is an alien manipulating your mind.

    You could always even insist that you are just a brain in a vat, and no aliens or jesus exist, just the cruel scientists trying to manipulate your beliefs.

    But there’s an easier explanation, and it’s that this is really just Jesus.

    In fact, we always have those other options, and we commonly reject them. All of us except David Icke.

    We don’t follow Icke because there’s a clear gap between the plausible and the true. (Sure, it gets fuzzier when really strange things occur). Our best heuristic for staying on the “true” side of this gap, and not just believing anything that sounds good at the time, is to prefer more direct explanations, simpler ones.

    So if a guy comes down, looks basically like Jesus, wants to be called Jesus, and can do some Jesusy things, sure, whatever.

    If we pull the curtain back later and it’s really reanimated Hitler with technology from the future, ok, that’s what we’ll go with once we have the new evidence.

    • Posted October 12, 2010 at 4:46 am | Permalink

      Indeed. But as soon as you can see it, talk to it, and poke at it, can it still be considered a supernatural being?

      • Bryan
        Posted October 13, 2010 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

        No.

  73. Scott B
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    Two discourses:
    Isn’t the idea of “God” something like the South Pole? There is no physical “pole” sticking out of the ice, yet you can visit the spot, walk through the defined “polar point”, and make many observations regarding the characteristics of its place on Earth (e.g. six months of darkness, etc). It is a one hundred percent human concoction that didn’t exist prior to the invention of the geographic philosophy that required its existence. And much like the track record of any “major religion” God, the South Pole won’t answer your prayers, save you from death in battle, seed the earth with innumerable species…and thus is unworthy of worship in any way. So arguing about or accepting “existence” is moot.
    Second discourse: If the appearance of a supernatural being, with independently verifiable “supernatural acts” occurs, by definition, we no longer exist in a “natural world”. If those healings of amputations occurred, it would take some time to examine all phenomena to make certain OTHER healings, restorations, tenacles, were also not occurring anywhere/somewhere in the “new” supernatural world, which by definition had replaced our known natural world. You may be “John Greed” in the natural world, but, in a shift to the supernatural world, you may be “Hussein MonaGee”. Who would know? Some had changed? All had changed?
    The Natural World and any and all Supernatural World(s) are like soap bubbles floating through the air…if they collide and survive, there is only one bubble. By their definition they cannot exist as joined entities.

    • Posted October 12, 2010 at 4:51 am | Permalink

      What do you mean, we would “by definition” be in a supernatural world? How do you know we didn’t discover a previously unknown class of natural beings, that uses previously unknown natural effects to manipulate the world?

  74. Posted October 11, 2010 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Here is another one: Sarah Palin winning the Republican nomination for President in 2012.

    • Hawk
      Posted October 13, 2010 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

      Call me cynical, but that I could see happening. Sarah Palin *winning* the Presidential election…would just be evidence of mass stupidity, not a god.

  75. Sam
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    Sorry if someone’s already mentioned it, I’m too lazy to read all the comments, but this Steve Zara raised Dawkins’ point about God being so infinitely complex that it is infinitely improbable for him to just spontaneously exist. The point is that God’s complexity makes ‘literally any explanation better than God’ (Zara’s words). Ergo, the principle of parsimony will favor the super-advanced-alien hypothesis over God.

  76. Strider
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    Get back to me when this happens and we’ll talk, Dr. Coyne…

  77. poke
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    I think PZ is flirting with the idea that God is an incoherent concept. Even if events transpired as described, the fact remains that something supernatural couldn’t coherently be said to interact with the natural world, so you still couldn’t say God did it.

    Besides, PZ would just capture the angel and take it back to his lab so he could discover the secret to its tentical-giving powers.

  78. elronxenu
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    I think PZ’s conclusion needs more justification. It smacks of dogmatism – or jumping to conclusions.

    I can discount the christian religion on the basis that it is logically inconsistent, a sort of theological version of 2+2=5.

    A 900ft Jesus, or in a less archaic system of measurement, 300m, would clearly be evidence for something pretty extraordinary. It isn’t proof for christianity, but if said Jesus started preaching something largely compatible with christianity yet without the logical inconsistencies, that would count as evidence in favour of christianity.

    I don’t think there’s no room for changing of opinion. To say so is to say that the godists have permanently moved the goalposts outside the realm of evidence and logic. Some have done so, but others continue to promote unsophisticated religious notions in which their god has visible effect upon the universe – notions which can be disproven using the scientific method.

    When we say to godists, “I reject your god because there’s no evidence for its existence” we want the godist to look for evidence and, not finding any, to reach the same conclusion. Telling them “I reject your god because there can be no possible favourable evidence” will not motivate anybody to look for it and is likely to result in “Yes, there’s no evidence, yet I believe”.

    • Tyro
      Posted October 11, 2010 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

      I have heard him speak on this subject and he defends the topic well, definitely not through dogmatism or anything.

      First, “god” is often incoherent and where it is not, it is falsified. As Jerry has said, no evidence would convince him that the world is 6,000 years old, not because he’s dogmatic but because the existing evidence is so overwhelming that no set of observations could overturn that. I think it’s fair to say the same thing with gods.

      When you pull out a single conclusion without reading the whole argument it can look bad but when I read the whole thing I’m finding myself increasingly persuaded. I think that the answers we’ve seen here are actually persuading me more – the best answers point to some weirdness but absolutely none of them have dealt with the problem of suffering/evil, psychology and how much easier it is for our minds to change than for omnipotence to manifest. And that doesn’t even touch on the problem of coherence.

  79. Posted October 11, 2010 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    I’ve had ideas along these lines before, though more from the scientific point of view. When you have people a scientific outlook (i.e. scientists), and evidence of ANY sort lands in front of them, what are they going to do with it? Just kneel down, start worshipping, and abandon the scientific method straight away? Hardly.

    Whatever it is – as long as it doesn’t kill everyone on the planet – it’s going to get probed, poked and prodded. If the evidence points toward something “godlike”, we’re still going to try to exploit it, somehow …

  80. Posted October 11, 2010 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    I think, as has been said, it’s very important to first define what is meant by “God”. Clearly the evidence against the god of Abraham is pretty much insurmountable, at this point. Given that we know the direct history of how said mythology was concocted, as well as the perfect explanation above regarding how this god’s absence over the last [insert figure here] number of years would not suddenly be undone by his sudden arrival today.

    However, if we simply want to find evidence of a “creator of OUR universe” that should not be too difficult. It doesn’t have to be the ultimate creator of all universes, right? It just has to be the being that created the thing we call the universe. Our understanding of our universe is fairly infantile. We’re largely confused on the topics of time, gravity, subatomic particles, etc etc etc. Don’t get me wrong, we’re making huge strides in gaining insight into these matters, but still… 200 years ago we knew just about nothing about them, and today we know a lot more… and yet… still almost nothing.

    So, given all that, and relying on well known pop culture references. If we found a huge burning slogan out in the farthest reaches of the universe, in English, stating “Sorry for the inconvenience” or if we discovered a symbol next to “God Corp™” on each strand of DNA when we developed technology precise enough to examine it up close, that would be fairly irrefutable evidence that there is SOME sentient force behind what we perceive as our universe. Anyone unable to accept these as fairly strong evidence for said force would be guilty of what we now accuse the religious fanatics of being. namely: fanatics.

    • Posted October 11, 2010 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

      I just had a fit of giggles at the thought of finding the words “Who’s your God NOW, bitches?” stapled on the end of each of our chromosomes.

      • Posted October 11, 2010 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

        If Chris Rock did a Fringe type spoof, this would definitely be the plot of the pilot episode.

  81. articulett
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    Any god worth the title would know exactly what was needed to make PZ a believer even if PZ did not know.

    • Posted October 11, 2010 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

      That’s cute, but again, there’s this preoccupation with god caring if we believe or not. One can easily imagine a god that doesn’t even realize that we exist, much less give a rat’s ass if we recognize its role in our universe. The question is valid though: if we discovered some incredibly compelling evidence that the universe is crafted in some “intentional” way, that would be that. The details of what the intention was or whose are kind of beside the point.

      • articulett
        Posted October 11, 2010 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

        Yes, but we’d need to be able to distinguish that entity from something that is like god but not god– Zeus, or Satan, or a group of sprites, a matrix illusion, or something else that people don’t think of when they are defining “god”.

        Whatever god is, it would have to include everybody’s definition for what “god” is and it must be distinguishable from “not god”.

        As Jerry pointed out, in order to know you are right, you have to know what “wrong” is like. Right now, believers see things they can’t explain and to them that’s proof of the god they were indoctrinated to believe in.

        But don’t get me wrong, I think your “proofs” would work for me. But even if they wouldn’t work for some atheists– any god who was worth caring about or believing in would KNOW what would work and has chosen not to provide such a thing.

        • Posted October 12, 2010 at 12:42 am | Permalink

          Ok, but again, what people *want god to be is not at all relevant to what god might turn out to be (assuming we’re still playing with the notion of what would prove said entity’s existence). I think the only absolute criteria is that it has to be the creator of what we perceive as the universe. That’s God’s only universally identifiable claim to fame.
          I realize this is all quite goofy, but the idea here is that in this scenario god turns out to be a non supernatural phenomenon, and the people that are evaluating its authenticity are currently atheistic skeptics. That necessarily means that they will accept WHATEVER they find and not dismiss it because it doesn’t conform to standardized religious dogma. To me (and you) these myths are not benchmarks for god-hood. An entity that is described by the author of the post is actually much LESS likely to be regarded by me as “god”. Impersonating Jesus (and a 300 foot tall one, at that! Why such ostentation? Jesus, as described, sounds pretty magical, even at 5’8″), would actually make me HIGHLY suspicious. Why would god be pandering to Christians? Where’s the 300 foot tall Shiva? (and would it fight Godzilla?).
          No. I want a very scientificky looking entity that can be measured in standard scientific ways, and so, I suspect, do the other hard-core skeptics.

      • Posted October 12, 2010 at 4:55 am | Permalink

        not. One can easily imagine a god that doesn’t even realize that we exist, much less give a rat’s ass if we recognize its role in our universe.

        Which makes this god not all-knowing, nor all-loving.

        The details of what the intention was or whose are kind of beside the point.

        How could you detect intent if you can’t detect what the intention was?

  82. Posted October 11, 2010 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    Articulett, amean and indeed!

  83. sasqwatch
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    I am distressed to tears at what I have been seeing in this thread — and fearful that this huge rift of opinion could seriously damage the Gnu atheist movement. I also fear what violence will erupt in the likely event that PZ and Jerry bump into each other. Really people… can’t we all just get along?

    Perhaps it would be a good idea to find someone who can bash out a compromise position and help us to moderate between these two extremes. Any takers? Mooney? Kirschenbaum?

  84. Posted October 11, 2010 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    We ignostics find that all arguments with intent- teleological,cosmological and others fail, the atelic or teleonomic one being all by itself doing that!
    Without intent and having incoherent,contradictory attributes, He cannot exist, so how could anyone provide evidence for Him.
    Assume otherwise, one can only make an argument from ignorance for such a possibility!
    No need for us naturalists to search the heavens or have omniscience for that but just this kind of analysis suffices. It is the sufficient reason against His existence!
    After eons and much use of trees, no evidnece is forthcoming so that we can dismiss Him as patent officers reject the perpetual motion macine! And here where mountains of evidence should exist, the absence of evidence is indeed evidence of absence,and no argument from ignorance. Charles Moore’s autoepistemic rule then applies.

  85. Posted October 11, 2010 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    Sorry for the typos.

  86. Carrie Jez
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

    Hello. I just read your article in USA TODAY regarding science and religion. For me, the evidence of God is The Bible and the many blessings in my life even amidst adversity (recent job loss). It really is a “peace that surpasses all understanding (as written about by St. Paul)!” I have great respect for, and interest in, science. However, science cannot provide that “peace.” I also believe that religion and science can walk hand-in-hand! I believe that God provides doctors, medical healers and medicine for good and improved health! I believe that while God did create the universe at the very beginning but because of His deep love for His creations, he provided them with the innate ability to adapt to their surroundings. So, I guess you could say that I’m one of those people who believe in creationism and evolution! By the way, Charles Darwin was an ordained minister! Perhaps, he felt the same way I do about the creation and evolution of the universe! Science is not an evil thing! It is actually a necessity. Faith (not religion), for many people, is also a necessity just for understanding and surviving in the world day by day! I hope that somehow, in a window of wonder within science, you will find your “peace that surpasses all understanding!” Warmly, Carrie Jez

    • Posted October 11, 2010 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

      Oh Carrie.

      What have you done?

      *hangs head*

      • sasqwatch
        Posted October 11, 2010 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

        You’ve got to admit, though. She does have a way with exclamation points. However, I think I can do it one better — watch:

        Carrie, your reasoning is flawed!!

        • Margaret
          Posted October 15, 2010 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

          How many exclamation points does it take to bring a rant up to underpants-on-head quality? Carrie’s effort probably doesn’t deserve more than an honorable mention in that category.

          • Posted October 17, 2010 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

            It takes lots!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!111111111111111111eleven

    • Martin
      Posted October 11, 2010 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

      Oh look, a live one!

      For me, the evidence of God is The Bible and the many blessings in my life even amidst adversity (recent job loss). It really is a “peace that surpasses all understanding (as written about by St. Paul)!”

      Carrie, how is what you just said different to “the evidence of Dumbledore is Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone”?

    • Anonym
      Posted October 11, 2010 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

      Darwin was NOT an ordained minister. Though enrolled for the course, in his second year he decided he could not complete the ‘orders’ for ordination.

    • Posted October 12, 2010 at 5:20 am | Permalink

      It really is a “peace that surpasses all understanding (as written about by St. Paul)!”

      I’m told certain narcotics also have that effect. Does that mean it’s good to use them?

      Faith (not religion), for many people, is also a necessity just for understanding and surviving in the world day by day!

      And other people need narcotics to get through the day.

      For understanding and surviving the world, I’d say science has a much better track record.

      I hope one day you will realize that you don’t need faith to feel good about yourself.

    • Posted October 17, 2010 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

      “I also believe that religion and science can walk hand-in-hand!”

      Where is your evidence for that belief?

  87. GAZZA
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    [quote]
    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?[/quote]

    Erm – no, no it isn’t. On the one hand, we have a natural world with forces that we have various degrees of comprehension of, and the certain knowledge that there are parts of it we understand incompletely, plus the distinct possibility of parts we don’t even suspect.

    On the other we have “goddidit”.

    The latter is not an explanation – we would still have to account for the same unknown natural forces that allowed this entity to do what it did. Either way, the god hypothesis must be rejected by Occam’s Razor, as it can never add any explanatory power.

  88. Posted October 11, 2010 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    Carrie please reaad my last post above about the arguments for Him-that square circle,ma’am!
    I get many blessings and I find no way for Him to exist!
    That anthology contradicts reality and-itself. No stay in Egypt and no Exodus occurred!
    The Pastafarians and the Rastafraians both can attest that their religion would provide for that more abundant life whilst I find reality does that!

  89. Loren
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

    No evidence will convince you? That’s a very dogmatically religious statement. Doesn’t sound like a scientist to me. You sound more like a religious fanatic. EVIDENCE is all a scientist has. Your mind appears to be made up regardless of what facts may be discovered. That’s just ludicrous.

    • Posted October 12, 2010 at 5:38 am | Permalink

      You’ve not been reading carefully enough. There is no evidence, because there logically can be no evidence for anything that is defined to have no evidence. The same for anything that has an incoherent definition. This is not dogma, it’s a problem with the definitions given for God (especially those dreamt up by “modern theologians”).

    • Tyro
      Posted October 12, 2010 at 8:02 am | Permalink

      What evidence would convince you that the world was 6,000 years old or that the force of gravity was proportional to the cube (not square) of the distance between masses?

      When the existing evidence is overwhelming, it’s not dogmatism to say that no single or set of observations can convince you it’s false. I think you’re so keen to act all open-minded that bits are falling out.

    • Dan L.
      Posted October 12, 2010 at 10:18 am | Permalink

      1. Apparently you didn’t read the OP. Coyne is saying that there is evidence that would convince him. He’s objecting to Steve Zara and PZ Myers saying otherwise.

      2. I think both you and Coyne are missing the point. Sure, evidence could convince me of the existence of something godlike — if Superman existed there would quite likely be evidence of such a thing and I would probably believe it if there was. But what could possibly constitute evidence of omniscience? Omnipotence? Omnibenevolence (assuming that the appearance of suffering in the world is simple due to our imperfect comprehension of God’s “plan”)? God transcends the laws of logic — how can I comprehend something that need not abide by the laws of logic? God transcends time — how can I even conceive of action, desires, or decisions without reference to the asymmetry of our apprehension of time?

      And if God is truly incomprehensible (or ineffable: a softer, fuzzier form of incomprehensibility), then how does anyone attain positive knowledge of any aspect of God? That He is a person, or makes decisions, or has a plan, or cares about what we do? Or, for that matter, how does anyone know that God is truly incomprehensible? It’s like the claim that “knowledge is impossible.” If it were true, how would you know?

  90. Michael
    Posted October 12, 2010 at 1:53 am | Permalink

    Anyone who comes within tentacle length of the god of the Bible and doesn’t rip its head off is a traitor to the Universe.

  91. qnx
    Posted October 12, 2010 at 3:33 am | Permalink

    “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.”

    By definition a god must be all-knowing, all-seeing, omnipotent and perfectly good. That kind of construct is logically impossible, would prevent the free will, would cause logical problems such as can the omnipotent being create a stone so heavy s/he can’t lift it etc. And of course, the world itself is a proof that no good god is watching over – only evil demon with sub-god powers could theoretically exist and such thing wouldn’t be a god, just an alien life form. To demonstrate that s/he is a GOD that being would have to demonstrate the attributes of a real god, e.g. s/he would have to be able to demonstrate his/her omnipotence by creating a stone too big for her/himself to lift and then s/he would have to demonstrate her/his omnipotence to overcome that limit, and then again and again and again.. Maybe watching that loop for an eternity might convince me that s/he really is a god. But there wouldn’t be any point in that sort of god then, would there?

  92. Ghyl Tarvoke
    Posted October 12, 2010 at 4:12 am | Permalink

    Good evidence for me would involve some private and predictive element as well as the grand gesture. So:

    If I silently prayed to “God” that a number of specific amputees would have their limbs grow back. And that then happened the next day, I would be convinced. This reduces the chances of “playful powerful aliens” to a minimum and would convince me.

    • GAZZA
      Posted October 12, 2010 at 4:18 am | Permalink

      How is that in any way inconsistent with “playful powerful aliens”? Surely it’s exactly the sort of thing PPAs would do.

      • Ghyl Tarvoke
        Posted October 12, 2010 at 5:07 am | Permalink

        It is still possible, but a pseudo-predictive element reduces the chances. A Jesus appearing out of the blue looks pretty suspicious. Answering specific, silent, personal prayers with “miracles” has a lower (but not zero) probability. I think!

        • GAZZA
          Posted October 12, 2010 at 5:31 am | Permalink

          I do not agree that it is possible to assign meaningful probabilities to such events. You are in essence asserting that spontaneous regrowth of limbs + mind reading is less probable than a giant Jesus appearing – when to the best of our knowledge the probability of each is zero.

          • Ghyl Tarvoke
            Posted October 12, 2010 at 7:08 am | Permalink

            I do agree we are talking entirely hypothetically and you can never exclude the PPAs. I was just trying to think of something that might change my own behaviour from acting as if god does not exist (and therefore no afterlife etc) to acting as if god might exist – ie trying another round of “prayers”. It would still only be a might and it would leave a whole slew of problems (suffering for starters!) unanswered but it would be enough for me to change how I behave to some extent, even if I did remain sceptical. You might have different criteria! Interesting general discussion anyway.

  93. qnx
    Posted October 12, 2010 at 5:01 am | Permalink

    “Maybe watching that loop for an eternity might convince me that s/he really is a god. But there wouldn’t be any point in that sort of god then, would there?”

    I could add that if I couldn’t watch that loop going on for an eternity, I could say that the probability that the creature is a god (doesn’t run out of energy after a few more loops) increases all the time. So when I’ve watched her/him doing that for a long period of time, I could say I’m 0.999 sure s/he is a god, then 0.999999, then 0.999999999 sure etc. I could never reach full certainty though, I could only grant her/him de facto god status after arbitrary long time in that loop, but I could never be 100% sure, so it’s reasonable to say that no evidence could really fully prove the existence of a true god, only powerful aliens.

  94. Posted October 12, 2010 at 5:27 am | Permalink

    update: 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.

    I think most of us are going to assume that there is some naturalistic explanation behind any and everything, even if we don’t have any idea what that explanation is.

    Superpowerful aliens or whatever perhaps could read or control our minds and seemingly create whatever “miracle” we might imagine – but by natural means. We wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell the difference, and so the naturalists among us would assume that naturalism still applies.

    Heck, maybe the original Jesus (if there was one) was an alien with a lot of miracle-looking technology. This seems a lot less likely than alternate ideas like the gospels are just made-up (or at least wildly exaggerated) stories, but it still much likely than actual miracles.

    • Posted October 12, 2010 at 5:30 am | Permalink

      “much more likely” on the last sentence.

  95. Posted October 12, 2010 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    Jerry’s scenario might well *convince* the atheists present. But it wouldn’t count as *evidence*. It might only prove that even the most staunchly skeptical atheist can be frightened into embracing religion and surrender her intellect, given the appropriate psychological pressure (however difficult to engineer).

    Just as Hitchens, Myers does not seem to rule out the possibility of being converted, but only the possibility of being converted AND remaining his sane self.

  96. jay
    Posted October 12, 2010 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    The valid evidence for God would be the same as valid evidence for the reality of some person on the internet, a real God, smart enough to make the universe and so involved with my life that he’s worried about with whom I choose to mate, should certainly be able to hold an intelligent conversation. He would be willing to explain answers to things I don’t understand, would provide answers that are plain and unambiguous, and directly address my issues.

    And a real, hyper intelligent God would not hide behind the ‘my ways are higher than your ways excuse’. If he’s so smart, he can explain the core principles in such a way to convince me of their rightness.

  97. jay
    Posted October 12, 2010 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    follow up:

    I don’t have to know ahead of time what would convince me… if he’s really God, he’d know exactly what my mind is looking for.

  98. Dan L.
    Posted October 12, 2010 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    I think Zara’s making a slightly more subtle point, and I think it’s a pretty good one.

    Atheists could accept the existence of a powerful but limited god bound by the limits of logic, etc. etc. if there was any evidence for such a thing, but it really wouldn’t be a god so much as a different understanding of the laws of nature. That would be the “caricature” of religion for which we’re scorned for scorning.

    That is, if there is a god that is comprehensible, we would simply apprehend it as another part of our universe. But the God of the theologians isn’t even comprehensible. The ideas of omniscience and omnipotence seem to me rather incoherent, but assuming that a being with such qualities is possible, it’s clear we could never know or verify such a thing as human beings.

    I think most atheists are willing to admit that there may be things we simply cannot understand because of the way our minds work. But we would never call such a thing “God” or ascribe any of the three omnis to it or anything else commensurate with religious claims, and the reason is simple: we’re not capable of positive knowledge of anything which is, by definition, incomprehensible. To insist that the part of our universe to which we have no direct access has a personality, a plan, and a personal interest in the well-being of every bipedal ape on the planet is simply unsupportable.

    One can have evidence for a very powerful entity, but that evidence would be constituted by a specific and limited demonstration of great power. One can have evidence for a very knowledgeable entity, but that evidence would be constituted by a specific and limited demonstration of knowledge. Omniscience and omnipotence cannot, by definition, be demonstrated. There is no evidence that could possibly ever indicate omniscience or omnipotence; no one constrained by the evidence could ever make such an inference. And so what the theologians call God cannot admit any evidence, and any god whose existence could be inferred from evidence would not, to Christian theologians, really be God.

    I am a little curious what the theologians would say if we did find a bunch of evidence for a very powerful and knowledgeable but ultimately limited sort of entity. They’d probably go along with the atheists in inferring that an advanced alien civilization was pranking the human race.

  99. Launcher
    Posted October 12, 2010 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    Dr Coyne recently wrote: “I can think of dozens of potential observations, for instance — one is a billion-year-old ape fossil — that would convince me that evolution didn’t happen.”

    But I have to ask: WOULD a super-ancient ape fossil really provide such weighty evidence that our blogging professor would reject evolution outright? After all, there’s a million-fold amount of evidence in support of evolution.

    I would counter that the new fossil is either supernatural or of some extraterrestrial nature. The same could be said, say, of a single object that defies gravity. It’s nifty and magical in its own unique way, but a real outlier when the principles of physics as currently understood are considered. A valid hypothesis could be made that every object dropped EXCEPT this special object would be subject to earth’s gravitation field.

  100. efrique
    Posted October 13, 2010 at 12:46 am | Permalink

    If Jerry’s scenario occurred, I would certainly regard it as several pieces of evidence that something extraordinary had happened, and I would include some kinds of god-hypothesis among the explanations that could account for it – but there would still be several other explanations I’d want to rule out with further tests before I abandoned my skepticism to a fairly solid belief in a *particular* god-hypothesis.

    Indeed, before I went so far, I would have to start formulating hypotheses – with predictions – that I could then refute, relating to the nature of the explanation. This is something we don’t currently have and I think relates to PZ’s point.

    If I could not rule out some alternatives (sufficiently advanced alien technology, for example), I would have to keep them as distinct possibilities as well.

    So I would call that evidence (and I do call it evidence) solidly suggestive and a starting point for some hypotheses that we could then start trying to find the evidence to choose between.

    After some additional testing that would choose between properly formulated hypotheses, *then* I could be convinced enough to be a particular kind of theist.

    Having “experienced” ghosts on several occasions many years ago, I understand extremely well how easy it is to fool oneself with a seemingly highly unusual event and a sufficiently “prepared” mind.

  101. 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

  102. 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.

  103. 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.

  104. 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?

  105. 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.

  106. 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.

  107. 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.

  108. 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):

  109. 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.

  110. 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?”

  111. 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.

  112. 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

  113. 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

  1. [...] Coyne has a moment of unreason? Over at “Why Evolution is True”, Jerry Coyne challenges PZ Meyers about making an argument that would convince him of [...]

  2. [...] the existence of God to him.  It then moved over to Why Evolution Is True and Jerry Coyne’s response criticizing that statement.  Now PZ has fired a salvo back explaining his original statement, [...]

  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 [...]

  9. [...] PZ Myers. The question under debate is, “Can atheism be proven wrong?” On the one hand, Jerry Coyne has argued that his atheism is, and should be, capable of being defeated by evidence. On the other hand, PZ [...]

  10. [...] convincing evidence for a god that has been going on for a while on various blogs (Pharyngula, WEIT and Greta Christina, to name just a few). We even have our own little thread on the subject right [...]

  11. [...] may remember our duelling posts on this topic (they are, in chronological order, here, here, here, here, and here).  I believe the internet consensus among atheists sided with Zara and P.Z., and [...]

  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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