In late February, during Oxford Think week, biologist Richard Dawkins and philosopher Anthony Grayling discussed a topic dear to my heart: “What would it take to convince us of the existence of the supernatural?” (the link goes to the 69-minute podcast).
According to Dawkins, the controversy about this issue was begun by Steve Zara and the man described as “P. Zed Myers” (LOL!)—both of whom rejected the possibility that any evidence would be convincing—and me, who took the opposite stance. Readers may remember our dueling 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 with P. Zed’s assessment that “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.”
The Oxford discussion is an informal and unmoderated conversation, 35 minutes long, with questions from the floor occupying the remaining half hour. The strange thing about it is that in the end neither Dawkins nor Grayling seemed to give a definite answer to the question, nor described what sort of evidence might convince them of the existence of a god. (I may have missed some subtle philosophical positioning here, so I’ll be glad to entertain corrections from readers who have listened to the piece.)
As one might expect with Grayling on the dais, there was lots of philosophical throat clearing: what is “proof”?, what do we mean by the “supernatural?” and so on. This is of course necessary preamble. And there was discussion about what specific god would be supported by evidence: if a 900-foot celestial figure appeared to all of us, and was documented on film, would that count as evidence for god if the figure wasn’t clearly associated with a known human faith? And how do we know that a supposed god-appearance wasn’t a conjurer’s trick, or the work of aliens? Hell, even a 900-foot Jesus with a rough face, sky-blue eyes and a booming voice could merely be the work of aliens who had learned about human religion and were playing a monstrous joke on us.
Grayling and Dawkins’s debate thus seemed to me curiously inconclusive. I think they sort of agree with me, but not in an obvious way. But their lack of specificity doesn’t mean the debate isn’t worth hearing, for they made a lot of good points along the way. Dawkins is becoming more and more eloquent in his public appearances and unscripted talks, and Grayling shows his ability to turn listeners’ questions, even uninformed ones, into wonderfully lucid answers.
One striking point that Anthony made was that the vast majority of people hold religious beliefs not because of evidence, but simply because they were taught them. (He calls the emotional and didactic reasons for belief “nonrational” rather than “irrational”.) Because of that, he said, “The discussion we’ve been having, about proof, about evidence, about how we would change our minds, and so on, is really rather marginal about people having a faith or not.” Another good point was that deism is not a scientifically testable proposition—at least those forms of deism that by definition preclude the existence of evidence. Grayling notes Popper’s dictum that a theory that is consistent with any possible observation is not a scientific theory at all.
Maybe I’m foolish or credulous, but I continue to claim that there is some evidence that would provisionally—and I emphasize that last word—make me believe in a god. (One can always retract one’s belief if the god evidence proves to be the work of aliens, or of Penn and Teller). I agree, of course, that alternative explanations have to be ruled out in a case like this, but remember that many scientists have accepted hypotheses as provisionally true without having absolutely dismissed every single alternative hypothesis. If a violation of the laws of physics is observed, that would be telling, for neither aliens nor human magicians can circumvent those laws.
The statements by P.Z. and Zara seem to me more akin to prejudices than to fully reasoned positions. They are also, of course, bad for atheists, since they make us look close-minded, but I would never argue that we should hide what we really think because it makes it harder to persuade our opponents. On the positive side, a discussion like this one is really good for sharpening the mind.
I will contact Grayling and Dawkins and ask for clarification. Watch this space.