The evidence for god: an exchange with Anthony Grayling

I promised to solicit responses from both Anthony Grayling and Richard Dawkins about their recent debate on the possibility of evidence for God.  As you recall, their conversation had left me a bit unclear about their positions, and I asked these gentlemen for clarification.   Richard has not yet responded, though he posted my analysis on his website, where it’s stimulated a fair amount of discussion.  But Anthony did respond, and I want to record our email exchange here:

Before I do, let me summarize what I see as the three main positions advanced by atheist readers on the nature of evidence for god:

  1. The whole question is incoherent because one cannot construct a valid hypothesis to test.  This is the position of Steve Zara and P. Z. Myers, with Myers asserting 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.”  I believe this is the consensus of readers who have posted both here and on Pharyngula. This is, of course, telling the faithful, “Forget about giving us evidence for god: there’s nothing you can do to make us believe in him.”
  2. There could be evidence for god, but what has been offered so far is pathetic—not even remotely convincing. Thus there is no basis for believing in a celestial deity.  Nevertheless, it is possible (though the possibility is almost zero) that some evidence might arise that we would find convincing.  This is my position and, I believe, the position that Richard took in The God Delusion, where he put himself as a 6.9 on a 7-point scale ranging from 1 (“I know that God exists”) to 7 (“I know there is no God”).
  3. There could have been evidence for God, but none has ever surfaced.  Therefore we can reject the god hypothesis and need not consider further evidence.  This is, I think, the position that Grayling takes, and is laid out in his email response to me (all emails published with permission, and put in chronological order, separated by lines):

__________

Jerry – oh dear, obviously what I said sounded too much like throat-clearing when actually it was, or was intended to be, genuine spitting. The point I made (and I here reprise a passage from my ‘To Set Prometheus Free’ on Russell and ‘we cannot prove that there is not a god’) is that when you  understand what proof is in the non-deductive, contingent sphere of reasoning, you see that you can prove there are no supernatural entities. And  both Richard and I were pretty clear that putative proofs FOR supernatural entities would, if they genuinely were proofs, prove that supernatural  entities are natural, not super. – Note that your position, if you seriously mean that you think it might be conceivable or possible that there could be evidence for a deity, is agnostic, not atheist; and the following remarks are directly relevant to you therefore, because agnosticism is incoherent. The relevant passage follows:

Russell felt bound by logic to admit that he would be at a loss to find arguments to disprove the existence of (for example) the Olympian deities.  His position in this respect merits challenge. As a logician he should have distinguished between proof in a formal deductive system (demonstrative  proof) and proof in the empirical setting (scientific proof). The former consists in deriving a conclusion from premises by rules, and are literally  explications in the sense that all the information constituting the conclusion already exists in the premises, so a derivation is in fact a rearrangement.  There is no logical novelty in the conclusion, though often enough there is psychological novelty, in the sense that the conclusion can seem unobvious or even surprising if the information constituting it was highly dispersed among the premises.

Demonstrative proof is watertight and conclusive. It is a mechanical matter; computers do it best. Change the rules or axioms of a formal system,  and you change the results. Such proof is only to be found in mathematics and logic.

Proof in all other spheres of reasoning, and paradigmatically in science, consists in adducing evidence of the kind and in the quantity that makes it irrational, absurd, irresponsible or even a mark of insanity to reject the conclusion thus being supported. The definitive illustration of what this  means, not least for the use that theists would like to make of the myth that ‘you cannot prove a negative’, is Carl Sagan’s dragon-in-the-garage  story. On this basis someone who on the basis of evidence and reasoning  concludes that it is irrational, absurd, irresponsible or even lunatic to believe that there is such a thing as deity, might further ask whether it is  nevertheless none of these things to believe that there might be such a thing as deity.

Consider an analogy. Suppose someone thinks: ‘My belief that  rain will wet me if I do not use an umbrella is (only?) inductively justified; therefore I am entitled to believe that it is possible that rain might not wet me next time I do not use an umbrella when it rains.’ Is the belief that ‘rain might not wet me next time’ less irrational or absurd than the belief that rain does not wet at all? Obviously not. For this reason Russell’s use of ‘agnostic’ as functionally equivalent to ‘atheist’ but with the reservation of a  quibble about proof is seen to turn on an assimilation of proof concerning matters of fact to proof of the demonstrative kind – and it is a quibble that  does not, pace our man with the umbrella, hold water.

Pointing this out matters because misapprehensions about the nature of proof continue to support the apparent plausibility of agnosticism. But  agnosticism, as the position that entertains the possibility that there might be or could be one or more supernatural agencies of some sort, is an irrational position, for precisely the same reason as holding that there might be or could be fairies or goblins or the Olympian deities or the Norse gods.

There is another consideration. The claim that there are supernatural entities/states of affairs is not exactly the same as that there are gods or a god. The supernatural embraces ghosts, fairies, goblins, and the like. The question, as the foregoing passage shows, is about the rationality of believing  such things. But particularly as regards a god: on the standard definition of an infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent etc being – on inspection  such a concept collapses into contradiction and absurdity; as omnipotent, god can eat himself for breakfast…as omniscient it knows the world it  created will cause immense suffering through tsunamis and earthquakes, and therefore has willed that suffering, which contradicts the benevolence claim…etc etc…to say nothing of local suspension of the laws of nature for arbitrary reasons e.g. in answer to personal prayer, which makes a nonsense of the idea that the world or the deity is rationally comprehensible: and if either or both are non-rational then there is nothing to talk about anyway.

_____________________

In response to this, I wrote Anthony:

Hi Anthony,

Thanks; I understand your position better.  I think you didn’t express this in the conversation with Dawkins as clearly as you did here.  Do I have your permission to post all this?  I basically agree with you, but will have a bit more response when I digest it and post it. And I do agree that the “you can never prove a negative” stuff is stupid.

So—and let me get this straight—you do think that the possibility of a “supernatural” god (I do quarrel with how “supernatural” is used, since any god who interacts with the world is doing something natural by definition) is sufficiently low that THERE IS NO LONGER ANY EVIDENCE OR EVENTS that could ever convince you that a god exists?

cheers,
Jerry

______________

Anthony responded:

Jerry – post it by all means. And you are right: there is no evidence that would convince me that there are goblins or fairies or Norse gods or a  Christian one. To my earlier remarks I should add that when one reflects (a) on the meaning of ‘rational’ from ratio = proportion to the evidence, and (b) the requirement of overall fit between a given claim, e.g. ‘fairies exist’, with  the understood, widely experienced and examined nature of the  world, and particularly in the fairy case of the fit between fairy-talk and zoology, and (c) when one understands where fairy talk comes from (childrens’ stories, folklore, superstitious explanations of phenomena like fainting spells or losing one’s shoelaces) one sees what an evaluation of the  claim involves. Now think of claims about deities, and apply the same tests and considerations. They are exactly parallel. This is the point of talking about the rationality (ratio-nality) of beliefs and their credibility. – Anthony (post this too if it adds)

___________________

And I responded to Anthony this morning:

Hi Anthony,

I’ll post our exchange of emails, including this one, this morning.  I did want to respond briefly to your comments.  I see three atheist positions on God-evidence: P.Z. and Zara’s, which is that the whole hypothesis is incoherent and not worth considering (i.e. there can never be no good evidence for God); the idea that there could be evidence, but there hasn’t been any and so we can act as though God doesn’t exist with near, but not complete, certainty (the position of Richard and me); and the idea that there has been ample opportunity to get evidence for God, but since none has ever surfaced we can abandon the idea, and completely refuse to consider further evidence.  This last one appears to be your position.

Our disagreement boils down, then, to the difference between positions 2 and 3.   But I’m not sure why you say that at one time (perhaps 50 AD?) you would have considered evidence for God, but for you the case is now closed completely.  This position seems manifestly unscientific for several reasons.  A god, for example, might not have chosen to show himself until now.  Granted, that seems dumb, but who knows?

More important, it seems unscientific to say that “the case has been fully and irrevocably decided at point X—no more evidence could ever count.”  That is not the way scientists treat scientific hypotheses.  Take Darwinism, for instance.   I think all of us—certainly Richard and myself—accept the truth of evolution with as much tenacity as we accept the idea that there is no god.  There has been a ton of evidence in favor of evolution, and no convincing evidence for creationism.  And there is a ton of evidence in favor of “no god,” and no convincing evidence to the contrary.

And yet you won’t find an evolutionist who says, “Okay, there’s now enough evidence for evolution that we can regard it as an absolute truth.  We needn’t consider any further evidence that purports to overturn it.”  For there’s always the possibility, however remote, that such evidence could appear.  Haldane, of course, cited the fossil of a rabbit in the Precambrian.  I have a list of other things that could overturn evolution, such as the pervasive finding of adaptations in some species that only benefit members of other species.

Indeed, I regard the evidence for evolution as so strong that I would consider anybody who rejects it to be, as you say, “irrational, absurd, and irresponsible,” though I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say “insane.”  And the same is true of the evidence against God.  As Victor Stenger has emphasized, you can indeed prove a negative if the evidence could have been there but isn’t. That is the situation with the god hypothesis, and with creationism.

Would you then call Richard and me “agnostic” on not only the God question, as you do, but also on the evolution question?  That seems unfair.  We are evolutionists in the same way we are atheists: we tentatively (but firmly) accept evolution and the absence of a God, for there is no absolute truth in science.  Do note that in Sagan’s essay, which you cite, he says that “the only sensible approach is to tentatively reject the dragon hypothesis, to be open to future physical data, and to wonder what the cause might be that so many apparently sane and sober people share the same strange delusion.”  The key bits here are “tentative” and “be open to future physical data”.  Sagan, then, is on our side, not yours.

Richard and I, then, are atheists in precisely the same way we are Darwinists. If you choose to call us “agnostics” on both issues, that is your choice, but I find that characterization misleading.   Would you tell a creationist that Dawkins and Coyne are “agnostic on evolution”?  When I say I am an atheist, I mean that I am 99% sure that there is no god, and I don ‘t see any evidence on the god side.

You say that that this position is “agnostic”, because it leaves room for the possibility that there is a god.  I’m not sure why you’re so worried about that, unless you think that somehow it gives fodder to the faithful—perhaps by implying that if we can’t disprove god, one must somehow exist.

If the question of god is not a logical one but a scientific/empirical one, as we both think it is, then we should behave according to the dictates of science, which is to always regard “truth” as provisional, even if it seems almost impossible that that truth could be overturned.   That holds for both evolution and atheism.  It grants no credibility to creationism to hold evolution as a firm but tentative truth, and it grants no credibility to religion to consider God’s existence in the same light.

Cheers,
Jerry

______________

We’ll now leave this issue behind—at least for a while—but I do think that although few have changed their minds, the volume of comments shows that it’s been a stimulating topic.

UPDATE:  Anthony has written back that I misunderstood him—that he aligns with P.Z. and Zara all along.  His email:

Hi Jerry

No, I don’t think that every effort has been made to look for evidence and none has turned up: I don’t know how you got that out of my remarks! You and Richard think it’s an empirical matter whether there are deities (or fairies? goblins? consider why you think the latter are zoological non-starters) and I think  it’s a matter of coherence of the concept (so I’m with PZ and Zara) because of a variety of considerations that apply: the contradictions in the concept, the mistaken notions of proof in play, the requirement that enquiry about it be rational, our understanding of what work the concept did historically (as a substitute for explanation in the ignorant past of mankind, e.g.), and the psychological motivations for belief in it. The point is that ‘god’ is not like ‘ether’ – it is not amenable to empirical investigation, and does not occupy a slot in some systematic framework of thinking about the world that might be improved on in the light of better theory or observation. It does no work because it purportedly does all work; like a contradiction it entails anything whatever; it is consistent with all evidence and none. These considerations constitute the proof that it is an empty concept. – If you treat the word ‘god’ as a name for a putative entity that might or might not exist and such that something might count as evidence for or against its existence, as you do, then you are  committed to agnosticism about everything that can be given an apparent name. But ‘god’ is not like ‘yeti’ (which might – so to say: yet? – be found romping about the Himalayas), it is like ‘square circle’. Trying to explain to someone who thinks that ‘god’ is like ‘yeti’ (namely, you) let alone to someone who thinks ‘god’ is like ‘Barack Obama’ (names an actual being, as Christians and Muslims do) that it is actually not like ‘yeti’ but  like ‘square circle’ and that nothing can count as evidence for square circles, is harder work for ‘god’ than ‘square circle’ only because religious folk have been squaring the circle for so long!

Anthony

I reject Anthony’s assertion that God is not amenable to empirical investigation, since one can empirically investigate claims about how God interacts with the world.  The efficacy of prayer is one of these.  I believe Grayling is referring here to a deistic god, since theistic gods need not be “consistent with all evidence.”  The existence of earthquakes, for example, is not consistent with a benevolent theistic god.  I still maintain that if one claims that a god interacts with the world in certain ways, then those claims can be investigated empirically.  To me the existence of a deity is not a matter that can be ruled out by philosophy or logic from the get-go; it’s a matter for empirical observation and testing.

 

263 Comments

  1. Bryan
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 6:31 am | Permalink

    Jerry, I’m still confused as to what the word “god” means to you in this context. If god is not “supernatural”, which I grant is certainly a problematic concept, then is god simply “a natural being capable of performing tricks that we can’t currently explain”? If so, giving examples of the evidence that would convince me of such a god’s existence is trivially easy – ALL and/or ANY ONE of the examples that have been put forth (900 foot jesus, floating monoliths, messages spelled out in exploding stars, etc) will do the trick. If, on the other hand, one insists on defining god as something that is logically impossible (to use Grayling’s example, that is capable of eating itself for breakfast), then I really can’t imagine any evidence that would convince me of such a god’s existence. Am I missing something? Is there a middle ground between “trivially easy” and “logically impossible”?

    • H.H.
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 11:08 am | Permalink

      Is there a middle ground between “trivially easy” and “logically impossible”?

      A god defined as an eternal mind that exists independent of a physical body who can disrupt the laws of physics by an exertion of will is not logically impossible. It is impossible given everything we know about how reality works, but to make that argument you need to discuss the evidence science has already amassed on the subjects.

      • Bryan
        Posted March 15, 2011 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

        I’m tempted to categorize “an eternal mind that exists independent of a physical body” on the “logically impossible” side of things, but instead I’ll just say that I can’t personally imagine any evidence that would convince of such a mind’s existence – not that no evidence ever could, but that I don’t know what it would be.

          • Bryan
            Posted March 15, 2011 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

            My concession that the concept may not be incoherent was more for the sake of argument – my point was that no one here (900 foot jesus, etc) has suggested anything that would come close to convincing me that an “eternal immaterial intelligence” exists.

            • H.H.
              Posted March 15, 2011 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

              Yes, Hypothetical 90-foot Jesuses aren’t the only sort of evidence that can be offered for consideration. For example, do you find the fact that every mind we know of is dependent on an organic brain to be relevant? I do. Looking at the evidence means considering everything we know and using it to evaluate the god hypothesis.

              • Bryan
                Posted March 15, 2011 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

                Right – there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that no such thing as an immaterial eternal intelligence exists, but can you think of any hypothetical evidence that would suggest that one does exist?

  2. TrineBM
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    It is always a pleasure to eavesdrop on a discussion between intelligent people talking about an important subject.
    Thank you to A.C. Grayling for letting us all read in on this – and to Prof. Coyne for putting it all up here. I’ve enjoyed these discussions.

    • Dominic
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 6:52 am | Permalink

      Yes! A well articulated discussion. I can almost hear ACG’s “Oh Dear”! :)

  3. Brian
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    Do Myers et al. believe any evidence could make them less likely to believe they are totally insane? If so, absence of that evidence means they ought to be at least slightly more likely to believe they are insane.

    If they have coherent reasons that the idea of god is incoherent, just as they have reasons for the impossibility of there being a largest prime, shouldn’t such conclusions be somewhat suspect if the mind that sketches them out is suspect of total mental breakdown?

    To the extent I can reason at all, the idea is incoherent, but I don’t preclude the notion I am totally nuts and unable to reason just as I wouldn’t want certain demented, heavily medicated, partially lobotomized mental patients to assume they are lucid. Some such people do exist, I have reasons to believe I am not among them, but they are defeasible and probabilistic reasons. My belief in my own sanity is not an axiom, it is based on evidence. Any belief reached through evidence is in theory vulnerable to reversal of that evidence and counter evidence.

    Assuming I’m sane, there’s no possible evidence for incoherent dualism, including god concepts. If against all present evidence I’m not sane, then who am I to say?

    • Dominic
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 6:57 am | Permalink

      Sanity is not a fixed thing though, is it? For example, an hour ago I did a mouse impersonation to my colleagues, quite randomly. Was I insane then but sane now I am sitting quietly?!

      • Brian
        Posted March 15, 2011 at 7:07 am | Permalink

        Doing (anthropomorphic?) impersonations of animals (or cursor manipulators?) is obviously not insanity in the sense I am referring to here.

        • Dominic
          Posted March 15, 2011 at 8:05 am | Permalink

          …I would write more but there is a cat stalking me…

  4. Dominic
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    Thanks for posting all this to both of you.

    “Richard and I, then, are atheists in precisely the same way we are Darwinists.” What that means is that you are Scientists whereas ACG is a Philosopher & is not as taken with having to be open to changes in views according to material evidence?

    His view – that “proof in a formal deductive system (demonstrative proof) and proof in the empirical setting (scientific proof)” is new to me – I only thought that there was one proof, one truth, but then I know little of deductive reasoning.

    God then exists but ONLY AS AN IDEA; or god exists but ONLY AS A POSSIBLE IDEA?

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 7:27 am | Permalink

      Dominic, you got right to the heart of the discussion and it involves positioning or “world views”. There are very different motivations for Scientists and Philosophers (and we could add many other items to that list).

      I do prefer Jerry’s positioning in the final letter to Grayling posted here. But that is MY world view.

  5. Posted March 15, 2011 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    Jerry Quoting PZ:

    “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.”

    That’s almost my position, but not quite. I’m still willing to listen to believers who think they can offer a coherent definition or hypothesis. But they have to do this first, before we can talk evidence.

    • Kevin
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 7:21 am | Permalink

      That’s the first of my 5 goalposts for proving god exists.

      1. Describe what it IS. Not what it DOES. What is it made of? How do you know? Is it coherent? If so, of what substance/nature is it? Can it interact with the natural world? If so, how? What energy signature would such a being have? And why then haven’t we detected it?

      It’s all about the ontology. Once people begin to see that they have no concept whatsoever of what dog is (other than assigning various attributes to it), they begin to see how illogical it is to assign attributes to it.

      • H.H.
        Posted March 15, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

        But isn’t that getting ahead of ourselves? First we need to establish that something is interacting with the natural world. We only need to worry about what it is once that much has been established. If we can look at the evidence and determine that there *is no* phenomena here, then all of your questions become superfluous.

        That, I think, is why Jerry is suggesting to look at the evidence first. By doing so, we can avoid ever having to consider such things.

        • Posted March 17, 2011 at 8:50 am | Permalink

          You mean that we should go back to the stage before proposing a hypothesis? That is, first wait for observations that don’t fit our current framework? And only then start thinking about how we can explain it? That would be fine with me. But then you can’t even talk about “supernatural” or “god” yet either, let alone about evidence for them.

          • Posted March 17, 2011 at 10:12 am | Permalink

            This.

            Why indeed should we even consider what might constitute evidence for “god” before anyone has shown us something for which “god” is a reasonable hypothesis?

  6. Posted March 15, 2011 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    This is, of course, telling the faithful, “Forget about giving us evidence for god: there’s nothing you can do to make us believe in him.”

    Permit me to pick out the 1% of what you and AC wrote that I disagree with.

    I believe your characterization of the argument I advance is unjust.

    My position isn’t, “Lalalalala I can’t hear you,” (directed towards theists) but rather, “I’ve yet to hear you say anything that makes sense.”

    If theism were all about praising “the largest prime number” and “round triangular two-dimensional cubes,” would we be having a discussion about what evidence we might consider that would be sufficient to accept the truth of religious claims? I should hope not. Would we find convincing equivocations such as “the largest prime number (that can be counted using the grains of sand on a beach)” or “here’s a sketch of a cube with rounded corners and triangles with smiley faces on its sides”? I should hope not.

    A rationalist would, of course, grant the possibility of all sorts of prime numbers with really interesting properties and of manifolds in mind-bending geometries — just as we grant the possibility of super-advanced space aliens or computer simulation operators. But such discussion is completely orthogonal to the matter at hand — namely, whether or not there’s any reason to pretend there might be truth to such obvious fantasies.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Brian
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 10:33 am | Permalink

      I consider the nullification of an argument that X is impossible an argument “for X”.

      The largest prime number is a great example. Once upon a time, I wasn’t sure there wasn’t a largest prime number. Evidence swayed me. It’s possible to persuade me that evidence swaying *me* is no reason to believe something is true. Convincing me that I am incapable of reason at all should make me open to believing in a largest prime or a god. It would also make it wrong for me to believe any arguments that a largest prime or god exists per se. But at least it would remove it from the realm of the impossible.

      But any evidence that isn’t about me can’t be evidence for a largest prime or god.

      • Circe
        Posted March 15, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

        The (non)existence of the “Largest prime number” is not a matter of evidence, it is a matter of axioms. The way “prime” and “larger” are defined, there simply is no largest prime number. It is not like the “evidence” for the bending of light around masses, for example.

        I believe that is the point Ben Goren is trying to make. Religions often impute properties to god which by their own definitions are “contradictory” in the same sense as “largest” and “prime” are contradictory.

        • Brian
          Posted March 15, 2011 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

          It really is a matter of evidence, as I am using the term, as people normally use it, and as the dictionary defines it.

          If you once didn’t believe it impossible for their to be a largest prime, and now you do, the causal bit between those times was evidence to you, something tending to prove something, grounds for belief, a sign.

          Unless a religion literally says P=-P, your belief that there is a contradiction is based on your trust in your own reason.

          I know many people who can’t perform modus tollens, and I don’t just mean according to certain formalities and with the widely used conventions. What makes you think that you are using it properly? We know that people frequently fail at reasoning, even though the science fiction horror stories that even our puny minds can conceive of don’t apply.

          Any answer other than “I assume it” is a matter of evidence.

          • Circe
            Posted March 16, 2011 at 11:40 am | Permalink

            Thank for explaining your sense of “evidence”. Correct me of I am wrong, but you are using in a “personal” sense.

            However, if you excuse me for saying so, this:

            Unless a religion literally says P=-P, your belief that there is a contradiction is based on your trust in your own reason.

            I know many people who can’t perform modus tollens, and I don’t just mean according to certain formalities and with the widely used conventions. What makes you think that you are using it properly? We know that people frequently fail at reasoning, even though the science fiction horror stories that even our puny minds can conceive of don’t apply.

            Any answer other than “I assume it” is a matter of evidence.

            …seems to be exactly the kind of sophistry Sokal et all have been rallying against.

            • Brian
              Posted March 16, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

              I am using it in a Bayesian sense. I have no idea what either personal or impersonal evidence would be exactly.

              • Circe
                Posted March 16, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

                The “Bayesian” sense of evidence clearly does not imply to the non-existence of the largest prime, unless you bring in an actor(such as a human being) who assigns probabilties to the truth of statements, which is what I meant by “personal”.

                Applying this notion to the non-existence of the largest primes is a bit dicey because as I have been trying to point out, non existence of a largest prime is a “fact” very different from the “fact” of say general relativity. Its truth is independent of how much faith I have in mine or yours ability to do Modus Ponens/Tollens.

        • Brian
          Posted March 16, 2011 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

          I do not know exactly what “imply to” means here.

          “…an actor…who assigns probabilties…”

          Yes. In the deterministic world, there is not a chance a flipped coin is heads or tails. It simply is one or the other. Probability is in the mind.

          “Its truth is independent of how much faith I have in mine or yours ability to do Modus Ponens/Tollens.”

          I hope you don’t feel lessened by this but the realities of not only general relativity but all of physics are also independent of your faith in our ability, just like math is. You’re important, but not that important ;).

          • Circe
            Posted March 17, 2011 at 3:54 am | Permalink

            No I do not feel insulted :) I just felt a bit uneasy about it because once you reject that assumption, any thing that follows is suspect. How do we deduce from “If Circe cannot do modus ponens, then Circe’s abilities of reasoning are suspect” and “Circe might not be able to modus mpones” to “Circe’s reasoning abilities might be suspect”, without using some form of modus ponens :)

            Of course, the reality of physics independent of what I or you think. What I am claiming is that in the case of the non-existence of the largest prime, there is no
            “reality” to compare it with. Given Peano’s axioms, it is, strictly speaking, a mechanical matter to deduce it.

            That is not the case with physical theories. It might be a mechanical matter to deduce the consequences of the axioms of relativity, but in this case, it is not game does not end at deducing things from axioms. We need to compare the deductions with the real world, and then decide if the axioms hold in the real world.

            • Brian
              Posted March 17, 2011 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

              “How do we deduce from [P1 and P2 to C], without using some form of modus ponens?”

              I think the inability to do that is only an apparent difficulty.

              To the extent that by using our reason we prove that our reason can prove things, we show it works.

              It would be wrong to say “To the extent that by using our reason we prove that our reason cannot prove things, we show it cannot prove things,” because to do so would be to use our reason.

              We can still say “To the extent that by using our reason we prove that our reason cannot prove things, we show…” (blue screen of death). When (BSOD) displaces “it works” as an outcome of checking to see if reasoning is consistent, this is a straightforward replacement of “it works” as an outcome, though less emphatic of one than if we could plug in “cannot prove things” directly (you are correct when you say we cannot that).

              I also think it is just as well for my argument to repackage a claim about prime numbers into a claim about a computer running a program that tests integers for primeness and relative size. I could then replace the claims I have made about a largest prime with claims about what that computer would have as an output. A computer program that tests all integers up to X for primeness and tests Y for primeness where Y is equal to all found primes including X multiplied together plus one, and halts when Y is not prime, and upon finding Y prime labels it X and tests all preceding integers for primeness, won’t halt unless it runs out of memory etc.

  7. Posted March 15, 2011 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    Evidence for a deity, unlike evidence for evolution, lacks any cumulative structure because no evidence can ever be initially established. It is impossible to consider that which would disprove something that cannot be consistently defined to begin with.

  8. Posted March 15, 2011 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    Jerry, isn’t the point that there can be no further evidence, that evidence would turn god into a part of nature? That’s where I have the problem with your position. It might in the year 50 have been reasonable to suppose that there might have been evidence, since the question of sorting out naturalistic from supernaturalistic realms had not yet been made. However, once it is determined that god is firmly placed in the set of supernatural entities — and we think that set is an empty one — then the question of evidence no longer arises. For once evidence is provided, it must point to something within the natural realm, and would this be a god?

    And that’s why things like 900 foot tall Jesuses just won’t work. They’re things that you can see and touch. In what way would such a thing provide evidence for a supernatural being — that is, an entirely different kind of thing existing in an entirely different realm?

    • Posted March 15, 2011 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      That’s my view of the matter. I can easily agree that there could be new evidence; I have a hard time seeing how “evidence” could be external to nature.

    • Kevin
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 10:04 am | Permalink

      …and, of course, the math is wrong. A 900-foot-high Jesus couldn’t hold the whole Earth in his hands (as was claimed).

      To be proportional with holding a basketball in one’s hands, the super Jesus would have to be roughly 59,760 miles high.

      That’s one whopping big Jesus.

      • Brian
        Posted March 15, 2011 at 10:22 am | Permalink

        Handstand!

    • Tulse
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 10:18 am | Permalink

      Indeed, I think that the three presented position miss a fourth that several folks, including me, have advocated, which is that there can be no finite empirical evidence for an infinite being — any evidence one can muster can always be accounted for by some non-omnipotent, natural being.

      Furthermore, I think the options presented miss a key question, which is: What is more likely: that the natural universe doesn’t operate precisely in the way we cognitive-limited beings think it does, or that that there is something else in addition to the natural universe? In other words, is any evidence of phenomena outside of our current understanding ever sufficient to make the radical move to give up naturalism?

      • Sigmund
        Posted March 15, 2011 at 10:34 am | Permalink

        That’s pretty close to my position as well, with the proviso that such evidence, if provided, will not be meaningless. It won’t count for nothing. In other words it will at least count as ‘possible’ proof of God albeit not definite proof (I think it will definitely count as ‘proof of God or advanced alien’).
        I don’t think this is simply an example of extreme Hume-ian skepticism, more a realization of the current technological limitations of our species.

      • JS1685
        Posted March 15, 2011 at 11:23 am | Permalink

        Isn’t that basically the first position Jerry describes?

        • Sigmund
          Posted March 15, 2011 at 11:53 am | Permalink

          No. I don’t think that ‘God’ is necessarily incoherent. I’m quite prepared to say Jesus coming down from the sky with a host of angels and curing all the illness in the world is a coherent idea. I also don’t discount any evidence as being possible for me to change my mind. I just think that since an advanced alien could just as easily appear to show the characteristics of such a god we can only be partly sure that the evidence is sufficient. In other words the evidence could only convince me 50%.

          • jibalt
            Posted March 17, 2011 at 2:52 am | Permalink

            It only seems coherent because you pay no attention to the fact that you have provided no basis for the assertion that the things coming down from the sky *are* Jesus and angels. It’s like saying that God coming down from the sky would be evidence that God exists — its purely circular reasoning that does nothing to support the claim that “God” is a coherent concept.

        • Tulse
          Posted March 15, 2011 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

          As I understand the first position, it says the very concept of god is incoherent. The position I describe says instead that, regardless of the coherence of the definition, there can be no finite evidence for an infinite being. In other words, even if there were a god like the Christians postulate, no evidence for such a being is possible that cannot also fit a more limited being.

          • phil
            Posted March 15, 2011 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

            Not sure if this fits with your definition of an “infinite being”, but the set of prime numbers is demonstrably infinite by a pretty finite proof. I suggest this on the interpretation that the important words are “infinite” and “finite”, not “being”.

            • Posted March 16, 2011 at 3:52 am | Permalink

              Yes, but let me modify the same analogy to make a point: the set of prime numbers you can construct writing it out by hand (or even by computer) in your lifetime is finite. Even if you could use the lifetime of humanity as a whole, you could only produce a finite number of primes. From that fact alone, we would not be able to conclude that there are infinitely many primes.

              Similarly, in our lifetimes we would only be able to see god perform a finite number of miracles. From that fact alone, we won’t be able to conclude that God is infinitely powerful, just that he is at least as powerful as needed to perform the miracles we’ve seen so far.

            • Tulse
              Posted March 16, 2011 at 7:31 am | Permalink

              phil, I should have been more explicit: there can be no finite empirical evidence for an infinite being.

          • jibalt
            Posted March 17, 2011 at 3:05 am | Permalink

            I think it’s fair to say that, if nothing can count as evidence of a sort of thing, then the notion of the existence of that sort of thing is incoherent. Notably, the first position is consistent with it being impossible to have evidence of God and the other two positions are not compatible with it, so it pragmatically equivalent to the first position even if it isn’t logically equivalent (but I think it is).

    • H.H.
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 11:31 am | Permalink

      I’m not sure why this “natural” vs. “supernatural” distinction is such a stumbling block for some people, since I can’t really see why it matters. It’s purely semantics. A human distinction.

      Consider for an instance a world where Genesis was literally true (just hypothetically). Adam and Even see god in the Garden of Eden. He is as real to them as the trees and animals which surround him. But he is different from any other thing there as well. The laws of time and space which govern the Garden and its inhabitants do not apply to him. When god walks with them, he leaves footprints. But when he departs, he vanishes out of spacetime completely.

      How would we classify such an entity? We could potentially find evidence in nature of his existence left during the times god interacted with the natural world, but would it be correct to define god himself a natural entity? And even supposing we do, if god is the only entity capable of acting in this “natural” way, shouldn’t some term be used to distinguish him from everything else in existence which lack these abilities? And if so, why is supernatural such a problematic term? Would these problems go away if we substituted another?

      • jibalt
        Posted March 17, 2011 at 3:15 am | Permalink

        God isn’t just some dude with weird physical properties — there’s a whole set of claims about God which, taken together, add up to incoherence. For instance there was mention of God’s ability to eat himself for breakfast. I think that “God enters and leaves spacetime” is also incoherent — e.g., how can we establish that is a single entity rather than one entity ceasing to exist and then other coming into existence? I also think that the notion of God creating the world is incoherent — our concept of “create” entails lawful causality, but there is none in that scenario. How can we establish that the world didn’t just pop into existence and God claimed credit for it?

  9. Sigmund
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    I’m willing to say that evidence might, hypothetically be produced that ‘might’ be proof of a God (defined as an entity that can control and change the laws of physics). The trouble with this is that we currently have only a limited knowledge of the full laws of physics. This means that, although we are far better qualified than say, Archimedes or Newton, to understand that what we are seeing is evidence of something controlling the laws of physics, we still have limitations. These limitations mean that no evidence for God is going to be conclusive. It might just be little green men who are operating within the laws of physics (albeit laws that they understand far better than we do).
    What this means, in effect, is that the standard of evidence for God will be different for each of a bronze age tribesman, a modern individual or a human in the technologically advanced far future.

    • Posted March 15, 2011 at 7:57 am | Permalink

      But would even that constitute proof of a supernatural entity?

      We know that spacetime is quite malleable, if you have enough mass / energy to apply to the job. Tell Euclid that you could draw a triangle with angles that sum to something other than 180° and he’d call you a god if you could prove it, but we know that it’s merely a difficult problem, not an impossible one.

      Similarly, if we were to encounter an entity capable of faster-than-light travel or even reversing entropy, the obvious — nay, inevitable — conclusion is that the geometry of the universe is different from what we currently understand it to be.

      Falling back on “goddidit” in such a situation is exactly as counter-productive as it always has been. The proper response is not to fall on your knees and pray, but to pull out all the observational gear and make sure the folks at CERN get copies of everything you record.

      After all, knowing humans, observing real FTL travel would be all we’d need to solve the problem for ourselves.

      Cheers,

      b&

    • Tulse
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 10:20 am | Permalink

      The trouble with this is that we currently have only a limited knowledge of the full laws of physics.

      Yes, and how are we to know that we ever have “full” knowledge of the laws of physics? The notion that something falls outside of the laws of physics presumes such complete knowledge, and we can never know we have such complete knowledge.

  10. hazur
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    Jerry Quoting PZ: “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.”
    As pointed above that is not how I see it, but rather: “think again about what you are saying (about god), all the premises everybody has come up for it are just incoherent”

    About Jerry’s question to Grayling about at what X time he could say we had enough evidence to affirm that there are no gods I would reply in the same way we know when we have a new species, in retrospective (this idea I think I had it from Richard or Jerry himself). You can’t point to an X time when that happened, but is there.

    Back to position 1, although I share that view, I wouldn’t trust it without something along Grayling’s argumentation.

  11. locutus7
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    Jerry, if I read you correctly, you assess our position as: the case is closed that there is no god, so no evidence wil be considered.

    In reality, my (and some other Gnu’s) position is: there is no god, case closed, but if someone presents new evidence to the contrary we will evaluate it.

    Water is wet. Cased closed. But if someone has evidence that water is dry, I will evaluate it. Even though I can’t at present see how water could be dry. But I’ll look at the evidence nonetheless.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 8:06 am | Permalink

      No, I assess that position as GRAYLING’S. And “case closed” usually means that no further evidence WILL be considered. I wouldn’t characterize evolution, for example, as “case closed.” But that’s just semantics. The issue is whether one would consider NEW evidence. Grayling says he wouldn’t.

      • Posted March 15, 2011 at 8:17 am | Permalink

        I think Grayling’s position is more subtle and far more defensible than merely that he wouldn’t consider new evidence.

        At least for me, the first question would be, “evidence of what“?

        For something to be evidence of a god, we have to know what it means to be a god. For that, we’re left with either logical absurdities that don’t make any sense and “really, really, really, really super extra-impressive.” The former can’t be considered any more than flurhmping gleeblefarbs, and the latter makes us gods to Neandertals.

        So, I repeat. We discover some sort of ultra-impressive evidence. We know the evidence isn’t of flurhmping gleeblefarbs. So where on the continuum between H. neanderthalensis, Penn & Teller, aliens from a Dyson sphere, Matrix programmers, and LSD dealers would you draw the line between divine and profane?

        Cheers,

        b&

      • Bryan
        Posted March 15, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

        Grayling does not say that he would not consider new evidence if it was presented. He says that the existence of new evidence is logically impossible.

        • jibalt
          Posted March 17, 2011 at 3:37 am | Permalink

          Aye, a distinction that Jerry seems unable to comprehend. So, what happens if, despite Grayling’s assertion that new evidence is logically impossible, he is presented with what even he accepts is new evidence? Easy — he revises his position. But the mere revisability of a position that X is logically impossible does not by itself make X logically possible.

      • jibalt
        Posted March 17, 2011 at 3:32 am | Permalink

        ‘And “case closed” usually means that no further evidence WILL be considered. ‘ Someone just told you that they will consider further evidence and you come back with “usually”? That’s intellectually dishonest. Consider someone who says they have an argument that there is a greatest prime. The case is closed, but I will consider their argument, with the full expectation of finding a flaw. Telling me that people “usually” don’t do that is ridiculous — I will do it, and that isn’t even uncommon. Now, suppose that the “greatest prime” argument shows that there’s some incredibly subtle flaw in Euclid’s argument — that sort of thing has happened before — bingo, case reopened. The moral is that you have a naive epistemology. Those with a more sophisticated one recognize that even one is completely confident of their position that is backed up by watertight logic, it’s still worthwhile to consider counterarguments for various reasons, including that even formal deductive proofs can turn out not to be proofs after all. But it would be foolish to take your approach to epistemology, that if it’s *possible* for a proof to turn out not to be a proof that we aren’t entitled to call it a proof. It that were the case, we would have to either never call anything a proof or pigheadedly refuse to look at counterarguments as you say people “usually” do (but no rational person does that).

  12. Heber Gurrola
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    Jerry, just as a reminder, you have yet to adduce some hypothetical evidence that would make it, in your eyes, reasonable to believe in God. (Assuming, of course, that you were being facetious when bringing up the 50 ft tall limb-restoring Jesus, as such fanciful character would only constitute evidence for a 50 ft tall limb-restoring jesuslike ..thing)

    If, on the contrary, you were being serious, then you have defined God as simply an extremely bizarre and cumbersome illusionist.

    In other words, if you didn’t know that David Coperfield is an illusionist, would you consider him a God?

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 8:12 am | Permalink

      Yes, I would consider the limb-restoring Jesus as evidence for God. But remember that I set out specifications for determining that it is NOT an illusion, but that the limb restoration was real.

      Please don’t distort or wrongly characterize my position here. If Copperfield (two “p”s) was a purported God, careful scientific investigation would show that it was an illusion and not a miracle–he could NOT restore limbs. Note that in my challenge to P.Z., I carefully added things about verification.

      • Posted March 15, 2011 at 8:20 am | Permalink

        Surely you’re aware that we’re not that far away from lab-grown organs as well as realistic prosthetics. In less than a century, barring a global catastrophe, I’m sure limb restoration will be commonplace.

        Will those surgical teams therefore be divine?

        b&

      • Posted March 15, 2011 at 8:25 am | Permalink

        And, perhaps more importantly, there’s still the “so what?” question.

        Is your response, “Hmm, a novel technique for limb restoration. I wonder how that works?” Or is it “Kyrie eléison, Christe eléison?”

        b&

      • Tulse
        Posted March 15, 2011 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

        I would consider the limb-restoring Jesus as evidence for God.

        And in the 1100s, images on a window of a bearded person moving and speaking would have seemed a miraculous communication from The Lord, but you presumably don’t think that showing a video of Dumbledore to a 12th century peasant is good reason for that peasant to believe god exists.

      • Felix
        Posted March 15, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

        Jerry,

        I am surprised that you say you would accept that as evidence for God.

        It would be so easy to fake for an alien species who has managed to journey through the stars to Earth; and having arrived here and read our holy books they may have decided that this would be a useful ruse.

        As Arthur C Clarke said,”Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

        I think that Eric MacDonald has put it nicely above “once evidence is provided, it must point to something within the natural realm, and would this be a god?”

        If the universe as we know it was a computer simulation and in the computer room the alien intelligences were sitting around drinking tea and occasionally making limbs grow back or flaming crosses the size of planets appear in the sky, then we could either say “God/Bob did it” or examine it scientifically ans say “we have evidence here of the spontaneous generation of matter and energy under and our best explanation is that intelligent agents external to our known universe are causing this to happen by unknown means.”

        Would you classify these tea drinking aliens as God?

      • jibalt
        Posted March 17, 2011 at 3:49 am | Permalink

        You’ve got a mighty constricted notion of “God” if mere limb restoration would be sufficient to count as evidence for you. There’s no substance to your disagreement with Myers and Grayling if you’re willing to call something “God” even if it doesn’t have the *problematic* attributes that are the reason they call the notion incoherent in the first place.

  13. Posted March 15, 2011 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    You know, there’s a bit of an elephant in the room.

    Let’s <waves hands /> say that some sort of incontrovertible evidence is discovered that some sort of a god is present.

    Then what?

    Do you devote your life to worshipping said god, or do you devote your life to figuring out what makes the god tick so you can publish a full report in Science?

    If you pick the second route…then is it really a god that you’ve discovered after all?

    It seems to me that it’s not just beauty that’s in the eye of the beer-holder.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • locutus7
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 11:06 am | Permalink

      Now you get to the heart of it. Some people seem to NEED to worship supreme beings and others lack such a need.

      I speculate that those people whose brains are so wired as to need to worship are the ones who have trouble discarding religious belief.

      Religion is ideal in allowing those who need to submit themselves, to worship a superior being, to do so.

    • TrineBM
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

      That is a crucial point. I think the really interesting thing is, that IF something truly divine should occur, would you then believe it … as in a belief. Or would you skeptically look at it and begin investigating.
      I truly think, that nothing EVER could make me a believer. Faced with limbgrowing , majickal zuperpowered overlord – I really think my first reaction would be “Whoa – how in H*** did that get here? Must find out”

    • Posted March 15, 2011 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

      So, it’s only a “God” if a believer believes it is?

      I’d say study it and make in a non-god.

      • TrineBM
        Posted March 15, 2011 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

        I’m not really sure about that :-D I’m only saying that belief is something crucial to many religious people. The fact that you believe without proof. I can’t see what coul make mé a believer.

  14. David
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    How can you have evidence for something that you haven’t even defined? Isn’t that like saying you can’t disprove(inset random nonsensical word here), therefore we should consider it a possibility?

    I think you left out one of the main problems people have with the god hypothesis. Which is…What do you mean by “god”?

    • Posted March 15, 2011 at 8:30 am | Permalink

      +++++++1111!!!!!!111!!!!!

      b&

    • Dominic
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 8:50 am | Permalink

      I think this discussion on defining god/ess came up last year & if I recall correctly there was no agreed definition, in which case you can see where ACG is coming from.

    • locutus7
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 11:09 am | Permalink

      When I use that same arguemnt against christians (define god!), they merely reply: the christian god of the bible. As if that is a coherent defintion.

      • Newish Gnu
        Posted March 15, 2011 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

        To which I reply: Which xian god of which bible? There are multiple versions of the xian bible and lots and lots of xian notions of god. Just a few of the major divisions amongst xians themselves:

        1. xians who believe Jesus was always god
        2. xians who believe Jesus wasn’t always god but then become god
        3. xians who believe Jesus was never god
        4. xians who believe Jesus never existed

        etc.

  15. JS1685
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    I must have missed where Grayling concedes that actual proof might’ve been possible in the past, but that now, time’s up – it’s just been too long.

    Certainly, the “time’s up” argument is a decent bolt in the atheist’s quiver, but I don’t think that’s what Grayling said in the podcast, nor wrote in the email.

    I come away with the impression that Grayling falls squarely into Jerry’s first category. The point Grayling (and Dawkins, in his opening salvo) makes about humans of the past interpreting certain phenomena as proof of the supernatural was only (it seems to me) meant to say that the “gaps” in the past were larger. This is part of the argument in that first category.

  16. Simon
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    How much evidence is enough to reject an hypothesis? One can show that applying probability theory leads to a coherent, consistent (and practically unique, monotonic) logic for induction – combining evidence and assessing ‘belief’. Even though different people need different levels of evidence to change their minds, and (even when arguing consistently) may assign different ‘prior’ probabilities to the hypotheses under consideration. (This is ‘Bayesian’ reasoning.)
    If we’re sufficiently clear about our hypotheses, and our evidence, and wish to be consistent in our reasoning then probability theory gives us all we need… in principle. Now some problems, like the ‘god hypothesis’, are tricky to put into probability language. I see it two big reasons for this (but there might be more). The first is with the assessment of evidence: the hypotheses (for there are many) are rarely specific enough to test well. When they are really specific they are usually quite easy to reject. But often they are vague or multiple (cf. the ‘no true Scotsman’ fallacy). It’s the invisible, intangible dragon again.
    Second, those people who ‘believe’ in and argue for the existence of a God – rather than simply entertaining the notion for purposed of group solidarity etc. – have simply stacked their ‘prior’ for its existence so heavily in its favour that no amount of evidence will turn them. But as Jerry says, good scientists should always try to leave open the possibility that our ideas – even our most cherished ones – could be superseded when unexpected data arrive. (At first we’re conservative and assume the data is faulty… so we try new and different tests and may eventually change our assessment of our hypotheses.) To do this means never stacking our ‘priors’ so heavily against an idea that no amount of evidence can overturn our (provisional but strong) rejection of it. Paradigm shifts do happen.
    So I don’t think it is rational to support AG’s statement “there is no evidence that would convince me that there are goblins”. If we’re specific enough about the definition of a goblin then surely finding something that fits this bill (maybe on another planet?) would be good evidence. I don’t get what the difference is between ‘no goblins’ and ‘no black swans’ prior to the discovery of either, except that now we have explored more places we can be have some confidence in assigning a small probability to the future discovery some large, new species (like goblins), at least on Earth. But not strictly zero probability – that should be reserved for events that are impossible – i.e. their truth implies a contradiction.

    • Posted March 15, 2011 at 8:58 am | Permalink

      But not strictly zero probability – that should be reserved for events that are impossible – i.e. their truth implies a contradiction.

      That’s the problem with gods. When we do get solid definitions, they are their own self-contained contradiction. An omnipotent god cannot commit suicide and therefore isn’t omnipotent. Even omniscience isn’t sufficient to solve the Halting Problem, or the equivalent problem I’m fond of describing whereby Jesus tests Satan by putting him in a simulation. If evil exists — and all religions with an omnibenevolent god agree that evil exists — then the gods are either powerless to prevent evil or complicit in furthering it. And gods that fall short of the omni-properties are logically no different from a space alien’s equivalent of Penn & Teller.

      So, yeah. According to your own criteria, “strictly zero probability.”

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Simon
        Posted March 15, 2011 at 9:05 am | Permalink

        Is there a false dichotomy here? You’re asking us to choose between (i) ‘gods’ that are by definition omnipotent, and therefore self-contradictory, and (ii) a being/beings that are exceedingly powerful but not omnipotent and therefore don’t fit the narrow definition of ‘gods’.

        What’s wrong with considering a ‘god’ that is a being capable of all that is logically possible? – including creation of whole universes, modifying laws of physics, etc.

        Maybe one of these created our universe and wishes to communicate with us. I don’t see this as implying a logical contradiction (therefore not impossible –> non-zero prior probability). And presumably it is testable – since it’s supposed communication attempts mean the world should be different if it does/does not exist.

        • Posted March 15, 2011 at 9:23 am | Permalink

          What’s wrong with considering a ‘god’ that is a being capable of all that is logically possible?

          Because once you limit the unlimited, you’re left with nothing special at all.

          An omnipotent god is still omnipotent despite being incapable of drawing square triangles (and please spare me the non-Euclidean “gotchas,” the same way I’d hope you’d spare me a “gotcha” of redefining “line” to include curves). Its inability in this area isn’t considered against its omnipotence. Therefore, unless you’re a fan of special pleading, my inability to draw square triangles can’t count against my own claim of omnipotence.

          An omnipotent god also couldn’t violate the speed of light, at least not without changing the geometry of the universe in a trick logically equivalent to drawing a “square” triangle on a sphere. Then again, neither can I.

          And such an omnipotent god also couldn’t violate the conservation of mass and energy, yet it still remains omnipotent. I can’t do that either, yet I still remain omnipotent according to all the tests so far.

          You know why I can’t leap tall buildings with a single bound? That pesky conservation of mass and energy. But that’s okay. It’d be a logical impossibility for me to perform the requisite violation of mass and energy to make the leap, so I’m off the hook for that, too.

          As it turns out, according to your definition, I’m omnipotent. I can do everything that’s logically possible and no more and no less. Because, when it comes right down to it, there’s nothing that’s logically possible yet physically impossible or vice-versa. Any apparent such instances are clearly cases where, as with the square triangle, you’re just conveniently leaving out an essential part of the equation.

          You can fall back on, “really super extra-duper powerful,” but then we’re right back to space aliens and the programmers of the Matrix being gods…and, once again, so what? Ergo “In nomine Patris et fillii et Spiritus Sancti”?

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Simon
            Posted March 15, 2011 at 9:44 am | Permalink

            I think you’re confusing ‘logically possible’ with ‘physically possible’. Conversation of mass-energy is a rule that we think applies pretty universally (but can actually breakdown on small and large enough scales). But to break this ‘rule’ does not imply a contradiction. The sudden appearance of a 10^30 kg sign saying “We apologies for the inconvenience” in the outer edges of the solar system implies no logical contradiction, it simply breaks what we thought of as a law of physics.

            (The programmer who wrote a ‘world simulation’ could mess with the laws of physics in the simulated world, without defying the internal logic of the world. Ditto for the real world – with or without a ‘programmer.’)

            ‘Physically possible’ is a subset of ‘logically possible’. Ch 5 of Dennett’s “Darwin’s Dangerous Ideas” discusses this distinction a little.

            • Simon
              Posted March 15, 2011 at 9:47 am | Permalink

              ooops. For ‘conversation’ read ‘conversion’, ‘apologies’ –> ‘apologise’ etc. Typed too quickly.

            • Posted March 15, 2011 at 9:53 am | Permalink

              I think you’re confusing ‘logically possible’ with ‘physically possible’.

              Again, I’m not. My point is that there’s no possible meaningful difference between the two.

              Is it a physical or logical impossibility that prevents you from drawing, on a flat piece of paper on a tabletop, a triangle with three right angles?

              Is it physics or logic that permits you to draw such a triangle on a sphere?

              That I can’t leap tall buildings in a single bound is due entirely to the fact that I lack enough energy in a suitable form to accelerate my mass in a manner that would do the trick. You can posit all sorts of “gotchas” that would permit a so-called god to do the trick, from jetpacks to a metabolism based on unobtanium to a Matrix programmer. Fine, fantastic.

              Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to prove my divinity by stretching this here sheet of paper over a globe and drawing a square triangle on it. Oh, and hand me Jesus’s antigravity belt so I can follow it up with a Superman act, will you?

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Simon
                Posted March 15, 2011 at 10:17 am | Permalink

                I say again: it is logically possible to break energy conservation even if this breaks a known ‘law’ of physics. Physics is not just a branch of logic.
                If you think it is logically inconsistent to break a conservation law please provide proof. The physics community would like to see it.

                Logical impossibility should imply physical impossibility, but not vice versa. What is physically impossible need not be logically impossible.

              • Posted March 15, 2011 at 10:42 am | Permalink

                And I write again: your example, of violating conservation, would be no different from picking up the sheet of paper, warping it around a globe, and then drawing a “square” triangle.

                That a hypothetical hyperintelligent shade of the color blue might have the technology to violate conservation whereas I don’t is no more impressive than the fact that Roger Bannister ran a four-minute mile and I can’t.

                It’s logically impossible for me to run a four-minute mile (without body-sculpting technology that’s yet to be invented) because I don’t have enough “oomph” to accelerate my body fast enough long enough — just as a rocket with insufficient fuel lacks the Δvs to reach a different orbit.

                Change the rules of the game — let me pick the paper up off the table and stretch it ’round the globe, give me the non-existent surgical enhancements, strap on a bigger fuel tank, wave a magic anti-conservation wand — and it suddenly becomes logically possible.

                If I haven’t convinced you, do me a flavor: explain whether it’s physically or logically impossible to draw a square triangle on a flat sheet of paper, and compare your answer with whether it’s physically or logically impossible for a rocket with the Space Shuttle’s specifications to leave the gravitational influence of the sun.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Simon
                Posted March 15, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

                Definition of triangle and square (in Euclid’s geometry) are distinct. Logically impossible to draw a square triangle – an object that meets all the defining criteria of the two. By definition alone. Kant would call this an analytic statement.

                Conservation if energy is (let’s say) a rule about the way our actual world works. An empirical matter.

                If physics (and hence all science) is just logic (rather than restricted to a subset of the logical) then why bother with all these pesky experiments?

              • Alex SL
                Posted March 15, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

                Simon,

                thanks for this. I think you have put your finger onto a major issue in Ben’s position.

              • Posted March 15, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

                Simon, you still haven’t addressed my question.

                Is the impossibility of drawing a triangle with three right angles on a flat sheet of paper a physical one or a logical one?

                If it’s a logical impossibility, why should any other impossibilities based on the geometry of the universe be considered physical and not logical?

                If it’s a physical impossibility, why should being able to do the trick by warping the paper around a globe be any less impressive than doing the equally-physically-impossible task of altering the geometry of spacetime — and why should a violation of causality such as faster-than-light travel be viewed as anything other than an alteration of the geometry of spacetime?

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Simon
                Posted March 15, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

                In case anyone is still following this, here are some references on the distinction between logical and physical possibility (there’s also biological and historical possibility that Dennett gets to in his book DDI).

                – “The Philosopher’s Toolkit: A Compendium of Philosophical Concepts and Methods”, by Julian Baggini and Peter S. Fosl. Ch 7, pt 6 about different “possibilities”. A good book to have handy.

                – “Unsanctifying human life: essays on ethics” by
                Peter Singer and Helga Kuhse. p202+

                – “Logical forms: an introduction to philosophical logic” by Richard Mark Sainsbury, Ch 1, pt 3.

                – “Philosophical problems and arguments: an introduction”
                by James W. Cornman; Keith Lehrer; George Sotiros Pappa; Ch 5, p236. (Some discussion of the concept of an omnipotent being also here.)

              • jibalt
                Posted March 17, 2011 at 4:25 am | Permalink

                “Is it a physical or logical impossibility that prevents you from drawing, on a flat piece of paper on a tabletop, a triangle with three right angles?” Logic.

                “Is it physics or logic that permits you to draw such a triangle on a sphere?” Logic.

                Anyway, these cases don’t make your claim. There are numerous things that are logically possible but not physically possible, such as horses that run 1000 miles/hour.

              • Posted March 17, 2011 at 5:04 am | Permalink

                “Is it a physical or logical impossibility that prevents you from drawing, on a flat piece of paper on a tabletop, a triangle with three right angles?” Logic. Geometrical.
                ;-)

              • Posted March 17, 2011 at 5:05 am | Permalink

                (Hmm… “Logic.” there was supposed to be struck through… Stupid HTML.)

          • jibalt
            Posted March 17, 2011 at 4:19 am | Permalink

            “nothing that’s logically possible yet physically impossible or vice-versa” That is simply mistaken.

        • jibalt
          Posted March 17, 2011 at 4:09 am | Permalink

          “What’s wrong with considering a ‘god’ that is a being capable of all that is logically possible?” What constitutes such a capability? By what mechanism would such a being operate? The fact is that all of logical possibility is far to broad for any “being” to be “capable of” — your description is itself not coherent. For instance, since by your hypothesis it is logically possible for this being to exist, it is capable of making itself exist — neat trick. It is also capable of making itself not exist, and then exist again. If you try, you can come up with all sorts of paradoxes.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      Grayling’s point about goblins is not that they’re impossible, it’s that they’re fictional. Subtitute “Gollum” for “goblin” to see if that makes it any clearer. Sure, there could in principle be Gollum-like creatures on some distant planet, but by definition none of them would be the “real” Gollum, because the “real” Gollum is wholly imaginary.

      This is (as I understand him) Grayling’s position on God as well. Historically, the concept of God arises out of myth and superstition, and is therefore by definition not the sort of thing you look for in the natural world. There could be creatures with what seem to us to be god-like powers (including restoring lost limbs, if you insist), but they would not be the God of the Bible, because that God is a fictional character, just as Gollum is, so it’s meaningless to talk about evidence for his actual existence.

      • jibalt
        Posted March 17, 2011 at 4:31 am | Permalink

        Well put. As Wikipedia says, goblins “are attributed with various (sometimes conflicting) abilities” and “are often are said to possess various magical abilities”. REAL goblins are like that; anything is a fraud that is just being CALLED a goblin. But only the fraudulent ones can exist — the real ones can’t, because their descriptions are incoherent.

    • Simon
      Posted March 16, 2011 at 5:38 am | Permalink

      The update and clarification from AG does, I think, help clarify the differences of opinion here.

      We’re back to what I tell my students: if you want to perform a (statistical) test you need to start with explicitly and well-defined hypotheses (even if they are ‘complex’ with many free parameters, blah blah…)

      When considering the issue of whether the ‘god hypothesis’ is testable (even in principle) one needs to be careful to define that hypothesis. RD did this quite explicitly in TGD. I get the impression Jerry is considering a similar hypothesis. PZ, AG, etc. seem to be working with a different hypothesis in mind – hence the disagreement.

      If your stated hypothesis is internally inconsistent then the test is a bit silly – but in some cases still can be useful. As George Box said ‘all models are wrong, but some models are useful’. Sometimes it’s worth working with a model even when you know it cannot be fully realized (due to its incoherence) because it may capture aspects of the data not captured by the other (more coherent) models you have (currently) available.

      However, if you don’t state your hypothesis (and assumptions) properly then you can’t conduct a good test. There’s nothing to stop you changing the hypothesis when the data don’t fit (see ‘no true Scotsman’). This seems to be a popular trick for theists.

      In the worst case the hypothesis is so vague that nothing can be said about it. This is the vaguest kind of diesm. But as, as Simon Blackburn points out, one can then apply Wittgenstein’s argument “a nothing will do just as well as a something, of which nothing can be said”. You’re back to ‘de facto atheism’.

      So when we try to answer the question ‘is the G hypothesis testable?’ we all need to be quite specific about what ‘G’ it is we’re talking about. I think that should help clear up a lot of this cross-talk.

      • jibalt
        Posted March 17, 2011 at 4:33 am | Permalink

        “If your stated hypothesis is internally inconsistent then the test is a bit silly” It isn’t AG and PZ;s hypothesis, it’s religion’s.

    • jibalt
      Posted March 17, 2011 at 4:16 am | Permalink

      “If we’re specific enough about the definition of a goblin then surely finding something that fits this bill” — A fine mastery of question begging there. Here’s the thing: AG is not saying that there can’t be evidence of some newly defined thing that you happen to call “goblin”, he’s saying the the concept *as it already exists* is incoherent. To say that “surely” the contrary is true is to assert your conclusion. Let’s look at what Wikipedia says about goblins:
      “They are attributed with various (–>sometimes conflicting<–) abilities". Oops.

  17. Chet
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    The argument, I think, is pretty simple – the historic lack of evidence for God is a compelling point against the existence of God. And by definition, subsequent evidence can’t overturn this lack of historical evidence – subsequent evidence can only be new evidence, and the argument here is that there’s a lack of old evidence.

    One of the characteristics of the putative God is timelessness, and a sudden discontinuity in the evidence for God – used to be none, now there’s some – would be evidence against that timelessness and reason to doubt the veracity of the current evidence.

    I find it pretty compelling. If we suddenly have all this evidence for God – well, ok, but where’s he been the last 6000 years? Isn’t that a bit suspicious? Shouldn’t a real God have been there the whole time? And obviously there’s no way that new evidence could stand in for old evidence, unless the evidence we discovered actually was really old evidence, hidden in history (an archeological discovery, for instance.)

    The lack of historical evidence for God is a point against the existence of God, and that’s not something that new evidence could be deployed against.

    • Sigmund
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 8:59 am | Permalink

      You are making an argument, not against ‘God’, but against the God of a current religion, such as Christianity.
      For instance we might, in future, find a set of Godly instructions written on the side of every Higgs Boson. Perhaps all the previous religions were myths but there IS a God, but one who wants us to be technologically developed enough to be able to accept his or her word, hence the evidence only becomes visible to advanced societies.
      To me, its still not definite proof, but it would be ‘possible’ proof.

      • Posted March 15, 2011 at 9:58 am | Permalink

        Quite so, but how do we know whether the issue is that “God” or the other one?

      • Helen Wise
        Posted March 16, 2011 at 7:17 am | Permalink

        Shouldn’t we find the Higgs Boson first?

  18. Physicalist
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    I’m with you Jerry. We can certainly imagine evidence that should convince us that fairies or the Norse gods exist. That evidence is simply lacking. And the same can be said for the the Judeo-Christian god.

    We can quibble about how to define “nature,” but if we’re going to use the term at all it should not become simply synonymous with “reality.” I have no problem conceiving of supernatural ghosts or demons, and I can also conceive of evidence that would convince me (a) that they exist, and (b) that they are supernatural.

    • Sigmund
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 9:02 am | Permalink

      The only “definitive” evidence for God I can come up with is “something I could not dream or hallucinate”.

      • Physicalist
        Posted March 15, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink

        Convincing evidence should be available to everyone in a reliable way. This would rule out hallucinations.

        Of course, we could be completely mistaken about all of reality — we might be living in a Matrix illusion.

        But this sort of worry just produces general philosophical skepticism. It says nothing about evidence about gods as such, it just makes the point that we can never be absolutely certain of anything.

    • Posted March 15, 2011 at 11:12 am | Permalink

      I have no problem conceiving of supernatural ghosts or demons, and I can also conceive of evidence that would convince me (a) that they exist, and (b) that they are supernatural.

      Show us. I believe you can do (a), but I don’t believe you can do (b).

      • Bryan
        Posted March 15, 2011 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

        Exactly what I was going to post. (b) is what I don’t find to be logically possible.

    • jibalt
      Posted March 17, 2011 at 4:36 am | Permalink

      “We can certainly imagine evidence that should convince us that fairies or the Norse gods exist” — Not if we actually understand what that proposition asserts.

    • jibalt
      Posted March 17, 2011 at 4:39 am | Permalink

      “if we’re going to use the term at all it should not become simply synonymous with “reality.”” — Yeah, and if that thief leaping over the fence turns out to be my uncle, I suppose you would have me either not call him a thief or not call him my uncle.

      The criterion for whether we equate two things should be whether they are the same. “nature” and “reality” are the same.

    • jibalt
      Posted March 17, 2011 at 4:41 am | Permalink

      “I have no problem conceiving of supernatural ghosts or demons, and I can also conceive of evidence that would convince me (a) that they exist, and (b) that they are supernatural.”

      And yet you call yourself “physicalist”. You apparently don’t understand what the term means, because you have just asserted that you aren’t one.

  19. Grania Spingies
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    This extended conversation has some brilliant and insightful answers, it’s been a fascinating read. But, my problem is that the whole question itself is a fraud, and even worse, a fraud with an agenda.

    It’s perfectly true to say that in terms of science the truth is always tentative and therefore dismissing or endorsing anything without reservation is unscientific. No arguments from me on that one.

    But to get back to the original issue & my problem with it – the fraud; this should not be treated as a serious question. Which of us (well, those of us older than 6) spends any time at all seriously contemplating what evidence we think might convince us that the Easter Bunny, Bringer of Chocolate Eggs is real?

    This question only gets contemplated because theists ask us the question or because we are recovering from religious indoctrination ourselves. And even theists, no matter how they may carefully phrase their question to sound neutral, are looking for evidence for their particular personal version of god(s) and amusingly atheists obediently comply by trying to suggest scenarios for a Abrahamic Father. So few ever posit a hypothetical Aphrodite sighting. Nevermind that even if these outlandish scenarios came to pass the proposed deity still would not be “proved”, it could still be a devious plot by some fiendish Klingons to make Human Atheists feel panicked.

    But more importantly, the theist is not even particularly interested in the tortuous answers that atheists try to return. They can’t lose for the winning: either they can dismiss the atheist who refuses to supply a scenario as “closed-minded & dogmatic as a fundamentalist”; or they can get what they came for – confirmation that even atheists believe that there could be a god.

    It’s a silly game and it deserves to be called by its real name: Making Godbotherers Feel Secure in their Beliefs.

    • Posted March 15, 2011 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      Yup.

      Did I mention? The Bible opens with a story about a magic garden with talking animals and an angry giant. It features a talking plant that gives magic wand lessons to the reluctant hero. It ends with a bizarre zombie snuff porn fantasy, complete with the zombie king commanding his thralls to fondle his intestines through his gaping chest wound.

      At least, I think I might have mentioned that once or twice before, somewhere….

      b&

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      Well, I think it’s only fair, since I ask believers all the time to tell me what evidence would make them REJECT their god, to be ready to answer the reciprocal question. To ask them but not answer them would be churlish, n’est-ce pas?

      • Grania Spingies
        Posted March 15, 2011 at 9:51 am | Permalink

        Well, yes. But at least be creative about your hypothetical goddess!

        I just want people to be aware of the mind-set of the person who usually asks this sort of question. They are expecting you to provide them with some sort of tacit endorsement of their own version of god. If you are going to answer the question, don’t fall into the trap of positing Jesus complete with blonde tresses, water-walking abilities and SuperSekrit Healing Powers.

      • Posted March 15, 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink

        Jerry:

        “Well, I think it’s only fair, since I ask believers all the time to tell me what evidence would make them REJECT their god, to be ready to answer the reciprocal question. To ask them but not answer them would be churlish, n’est-ce pas?”

        Right. The basic question is whether naturalism is falsifiable or revisable: are there any conceivable grounds that might lead us to conclude that nature is *not* all there is? To say that there are no such grounds, and cannot be, is a very strong claim indeed. To admit there might be is simply to acknowledge that we aren’t omniscient, that the evidential and conceptual landscape might change in ways we can’t anticipate. This is perfectly consistent with being a firmly committed, but non-dogmatic metaphysical naturalist. Naturalism is an empirically plausible conjecture about reality, but it isn’t necessarily, a priori true, http://www.naturalism.org/Close_encounters.htm

        • Posted March 15, 2011 at 10:18 am | Permalink

          Would this obdurate anomaly, which we’re imagining in this thought experiment to be robustly and reliably observable by everyone, including the scientific community, count as something supernatural?

          It seems to me the answer is at least a provisional yes, in that our ordinary concept of the supernatural includes the idea that it isn’t explicable in terms of natural laws and other empirically-derived explanatory relationships.

          So it would be observable but not explicable or predictable.

          But if it really is “robustly and reliably observable by everyone, including the scientific community,” then it is predictable to that extent.

          This is my stumbling block. Once it’s observable by everyone, it seems to be part of nature. It seems like a kind of sleight of hand to say it’s not.

          • Posted March 15, 2011 at 10:44 am | Permalink

            In the article you quote, I suggest the supernatural, as opposed to the natural, is defined by three commonsense characteristics: not being describable by natural laws, having causal priority over the natural (the supernatural lords it over the natural) and being beyond our ken in some deep respect. Seems to me all these can apply to an observable phenomenon.

            But I go on to suggest that were we to understand the supernatural and see its relation to the natural, then we would be strongly tempted to place it *within* nature, since nature is just that captured by our unified understanding of the world.

            • Posted March 15, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

              “having causal priority over the natural (the supernatural lords it over the natural)”

              But isn’t that question-begging? The issue is whether it is natural or not, so it seems circular to say it lords it over the natural.

              • Posted March 15, 2011 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

                A commonly ascribed characteristic of the supernatural is that it influences or controls the natural, but is not itself subject to reciprocal control. So if we came across a phenomenon that exerts one way control over what we already define as natural, then seems to me that would count as (provisional) evidence that it’s supernatural.

                Of course, if we came to fully understand the modes of operation of the (purportedly) supernatural and the mechanisms of its one way control, we’d be strongly tempted to say that the natural world simply has two levels or types of phenomena, one of which is causally preeminent.

              • Posted March 15, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

                I’m not sure this will go in the right place; I’m replying to Tom at 12:34.

                Exactly, and we would know of that potential even if we couldn’t fully understand the modes of operation of the (purportedly) supernatural, so that potential would make it reasonable to be minimalist about what the evidence meant.

                It would be hard to rule out the “we just don’t understand the mechanism yet” possibility. That’s not just obstinacy or churlishness or refusing to admit we’ve lost a battle; it’s genuine due diligence; it’s trying to figure things out.

              • Posted March 15, 2011 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

                Ophelia at 2:07:

                “It would be hard to rule out the ‘we just don’t understand the mechanism yet’ possibility. That’s not just obstinacy or churlishness or refusing to admit we’ve lost a battle; it’s genuine due diligence; it’s trying to figure things out.”

                Quite right, which is why a supernaturalist hypothesis, should a serious one ever come to light, will never be immune to doubt.

              • Posted March 15, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

                The replies go in the right place after all, excellent.

                And we agree. :- )

              • Explict Atheist
                Posted March 15, 2011 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

                Ophelia Benson wrote:

                “And we agree. :- )”

                Maybe we can all agree that there is no immunity to doubt? That applies both ways here. This is not about the possibility of doubt, its about the weight of the evidence. We should be philosphical naturalists, with some doubt, in the world as we are actually experiencing it. If we experience an alternative, science fiction or fantasy type of world, where the evidence just kept favoring supernaturalism, then we should be philosophical supernaturalists, with some doubt.

              • jibalt
                Posted March 17, 2011 at 5:21 am | Permalink

                “a supernaturalist hypothesis, should a serious one ever come to light, will never be immune to doubt” — it will never be immune to doubt because naturalism is a priori true. No claim that something is “supernatural” can ever be conclusive because it’s just a place-holder for “it’s natural but we haven’t figured it out”.

              • Posted March 17, 2011 at 5:51 am | Permalink

                ++

            • jibalt
              Posted March 17, 2011 at 5:15 am | Permalink

              “not being describable by natural laws … Seems to me all these can apply to an observable phenomenon.” — Either a) you don’t quite grasp what it means to be “an observable phenomenon” or b) you don’t quite grasp what it means to be lawfully describable or c) your word “natural” is some sort of question-begging — that is, you’re positing an observable phenomenon that would be describable by laws but, for some unstated reason these laws wouldn’t be “natural”.

              “the supernatural lords it over the natural” — so I guess physics is supernatural relative to biology.

              “being beyond our ken in some deep respect” — if it were, how could we know that? And why isn’t this just a statement about the limits of human cognitive abilities, rather than about metaphysics?

              Every time you make this argument, Tom, I become more confident in my own rejection of it and my view that naturalism is a priori true.

        • H.H.
          Posted March 15, 2011 at 11:37 am | Permalink

          Naturalism is an empirically plausible conjecture about reality, but it isn’t necessarily, a priori true.

          I think this is exactly right.

        • jibalt
          Posted March 17, 2011 at 4:53 am | Permalink

          “Naturalism is an empirically plausible conjecture about reality, but it isn’t necessarily, a priori true” — I strongly disagree. I believe that naturalism is a priori true, and if I didn’t think so I wouldn’t call myself a naturalist. Empirical conjectures are the everyday stuff of science and don’t warrant being called isms. Naturalism is an ontological stance, a position on what does and can exist and what it means for something to exist; empirical evidence can give us insight into what ontological views might be sustainable, but it can’t answer the actual question, which goes to the meaning of terms — a priori truths.

        • jibalt
          Posted March 17, 2011 at 4:59 am | Permalink

          “But naturalists should remain cognitively humble given the possibility of someday being proven wrong by their own standards of evidence.” Of course naturalists should remain cognitively humble, but not just about evidence, but about *logic*. For instance, I *could* be wrong that Euclid’s proof establishes that there’s no greatest prime and that Wiles’s proof establishes that the FTL isn’t a theorem after all. But this cognitive humility is no reason not to call these things proofs — if we were to take *that* view about cognitive humility, then we would have no warrant to use words at all. No, we have every right to assert certainty, while always being *aware* that even certainty isn’t certain.

      • David
        Posted March 15, 2011 at 10:24 am | Permalink

        I actually have an answer to what would make me believe it. If something fundamental about the universe was discovered or even something fundamental about ourselves was found such as..

        The bible encoded into our DNA in a way that would preclude it from being interpreted as anything else.

        Messages directed specifically at us encoded into things like the background radiation of the universe or Pi. That not only answer unsolved mysteries of the universe but accurately predict the future in specific detail with no random noise mixed in.

        While I can come up with scenarios that could explain these things. I would have a hard time not believing in some type of god.

        • Posted March 15, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

          “some type of god” – ah but that’s just it. Are we talking about some magical-seeming agent? Or a god? And what makes the difference, and how do we know, and how do we know we all agree?

          It’s like nailing jello to the wall.

          • David
            Posted March 15, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

            “magical-seeming agent” see this is where it gets weird and where I think everyone is just arguing over words without meaning.

            I mean “magic” and “supernatural” don’t really have definitions outside of fiction, do they? when we talk about magicians we are talking trickery and illusion. If we are talking about witchcraft and spells we are talking wishful thinking and fantasy.

            Are we talking card tricks or violating the laws of physics?

            When I consider “god” my only conception of it was something that created the universe, and was sentient. For all I know it could be some geek game programmer living in a world just like ours with no superpowers at all.

            I think I might be rambling now…

            • Posted March 15, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

              Or the mice.

            • jibalt
              Posted March 17, 2011 at 5:27 am | Permalink

              “I mean “magic” and “supernatural” don’t really have definitions outside of fiction, do they?” — No, which is exactly why some of us say that the notion of supernatural things *actually existing* is incoherent, and I say that naturalism is a priori true.

              “something that created the universe” — What’s the difference between “God created the universe” and “The universe popped into existence and God took credit for it”? I think this illustrates that the notion of God creating the universe is incoherent, because our word “create” is wrapped up in natural causal processes.

        • Tulse
          Posted March 15, 2011 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

          Craig Venter put messages into the DNA of a synthetic organism. While Venter apparently has a reputation for an ego as big as God, I don’t think that makes him one.

          • David
            Posted March 15, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

            Ahh yes, aliens could have done that to us I suppose, but if they did, I would have no problem calling them gods as well as evil practical jokers.

            Since the word “god” has no definition we can assign it to whatever we wish.

            • Tulse
              Posted March 15, 2011 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

              I’m just guessing here, but I bet if you asked most Christians, they would say their god is not an alien.

              Honestly, if the label “god” applies to “very powerful but natural being”, then it’s lost all meaning.

            • Posted March 16, 2011 at 4:29 am | Permalink

              Since the word “god” has no definition we can assign it to whatever we wish.

              Perhaps – although you could say that “god” at least refers to a fictional character from an old series of books.

              But even if you could redefine “god” at will, why would we (and especially as atheists) use the word “god”? A word that is bound to cause confusion? Why not call them “The DNA graffiti artists” or something otherwise descriptive? Something that leaves open the possible identity of the writers?

            • jibalt
              Posted March 17, 2011 at 5:29 am | Permalink

              “I would have no problem calling them gods” — As Abe Lincoln noted, even if you call a dog’s tail a leg it still has only four legs.

      • jibalt
        Posted March 17, 2011 at 5:04 am | Permalink

        “Well, I think it’s only fair, since I ask believers all the time to tell me what evidence would make them REJECT their god, to be ready to answer the reciprocal question.” — You’re asking them the wrong question — evidence doesn’t disprove God, it only establishes that their beliefs aren’t based on evidence. They need *other* reasons to proceed to reject belief.

    • Posted March 16, 2011 at 4:22 am | Permalink

      Nevermind that even if these outlandish scenarios came to pass the proposed deity still would not be “proved”, it could still be a devious plot by some fiendish Klingons to make Human Atheists feel panicked.

      Or a plot by believers. There have been plenty of cases of hoaxed weeping statues. Imagine what such believers could do with holodeck technology.

  20. J.J.E.
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    This topic is incredibly difficult to actually address if we grant the religious the opportunity to hide behind incoherence and obfuscation. In principle, I agree with Jerry, but it comes with lots of caveats, and the “gods” I agree that are still testable don’t sound like any gods I’ve ever heard of. For starters, they definitely aren’t involved god. They likely aren’t creator unless we go with the “simulation” analogy. They certainly are not simultaneously omnipotent, omniscient, and even moderately benevolent. They don’t grant wishes. They don’t leave physical traces. The list goes on. We have explored the part parameter space that encompasses any coherent notion of god, and god ain’t there.

    However, my biggest problem isn’t where I fall in Jerry’s trichotomy. I think it is premature to engage in discussing an entity so incoherently defined by its proponents. Most gods are self-contradictory, internally inconsistent, contrary to observed evidence, hiddent, etc. The concepts really don’t hang together as a coherent proposition. So, when it gets down to brass tacks, I just tell the religious that they haven’t earned the right to play.

    • Posted March 15, 2011 at 10:05 am | Permalink

      Precisely. Which God?

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted March 15, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

        It seems to me the only God worth talking about is the Prime Mover, the Uncaused Cause, without which nothing could exist. That’s the one that theologians insist we can’t do without. But I fail to see how any empirical test could convince me I’d met the real deal and not merely a super-powerful impostor.

        • Posted March 15, 2011 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

          Not to mention one that was in fact Caused, thus putting a big spoke in the works.

  21. Posted March 15, 2011 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    It seems to me it’s fairly easy to think of possible evidence for a god like the Greek ones – a bigger person, with magic powers, but very person-like and willing to pay visits now and then.

    It’s way less easy to think of possible evidence for the monotheistic “God” – for one thing, which one? The chatty one of Genesis, or the distant one of the NT? And either way, what exactly are that God’s properties? It’s not as if they’re spelled out. Theologians did some spelling out later – but that just adds another “God.” Mohammed added more specifications. What evidence could be evidence for all those versions of “God” at once?

    I don’t see how anything could be.

    • Brian
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      “I don’t see how anything could be.”

      I consider the nullification of an argument that X is impossible an argument “for X”.

      If you began to experience life as if on LSD in a Kafka or Nabokov novel, and every text you read changed as you read it and was different every time you tried to reread it, and you were unable to predict how many apples would be in a fruit basket when there were two in there and you added one, yet everyone else was able to function perfectly well, and everyone else asked why you were deluding yourself into believing you were a scientist from a thousand years ago, and you learned cruel teenagers could beam any thought they wished into your mind with a gizmo…etc., if your world were totally melting down, how could you trust your conclusion that something is impossible?

      How would evidence you couldn’t trust your own thoughts not be evidence for all that which you think is impossible?

      • Posted March 16, 2011 at 4:32 am | Permalink

        Even if you couldn’t distinguish the possible from the impossible anymore, that doesn’t make a particular claim suddenly possible. It just means you can’t know whether it is anymore. In such a situation it is no more rational to think anything is possible than to think nothing is possible.

        • Brian
          Posted March 16, 2011 at 10:07 am | Permalink

          Moving from a state of confidence that thing X is impossible to no confidence that thing X is impossible is to think it now more likely that X is true than one did previously.

          • jibalt
            Posted March 17, 2011 at 5:34 am | Permalink

            No, it moves you to a state of less reliability. Increased variance of the accuracy of your beliefs does not make any of your beliefs more plausible.

            • Brian
              Posted March 17, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

              Increased variance of the accuracy of your beliefs makes your beliefs less plausible, specifically your belief that a certain thing is impossible, more specifically your belief that a god would be impossible.

              • Posted March 18, 2011 at 2:20 am | Permalink

                Increased variance of the accuracy of your beliefs makes your beliefs less plausible…

                including your belief that a god may be possible.

        • Brian
          Posted March 18, 2011 at 7:38 am | Permalink

          But we’re currently at a position where we think it impossible. A bit of discounting the idea it may be possible is small potatoes next to *any* discounting of the first idea, that the god hypothesis is incoherent and therefore impossible. So long as that takes a hit, the position of the god hypothesis is improved.

    • Dominic
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      Yes – & the personified god/ess is probably exactly how/what most people historically would have considered their deity to be. Even the distant god of the NT had to get personified by cult followers in that Jesus chap. Then their god was mutated back into the spirit being of theologians, attempting to be more sophisticated.

  22. Chinahand
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    I think I do have issues with Prof Grayling when he writes the following – which I understand to be the nub of his argument as why we should be atheist and not agnostic:

    “Proof … paradigmatically in science, consists in adducing evidence of the kind and in the quantity that makes it irrational, absurd, irresponsible or even a mark of insanity to reject the conclusion thus being supported … On this basis someone who on the basis of evidence and reasoning concludes that it is irrational, absurd, irresponsible or even lunatic to believe that there is such a thing as deity, might further ask whether it is nevertheless none of these things to believe that there might be such a thing as deity.”

    I feel he has made an error when he says “someone … on the basis of evidence and reasoning concludes that it is irrational, absurd, irresponsible or even lunatic to believe that there is such a thing as a deity.”

    I believe that when attempting to prove a negative all you can say is: it is irrational, absurd, irresponsible or even lunatic to say that the available evidence supports the existence of a deity.

    This small difference then makes a large difference when Prof Grayling then asks “whether it is nevertheless none of these things to believe that there might be such a thing as deity.”

    He believes this is incoherent.

    I respectfully disagree – it is not incoherent to say that the currently available evidence makes it irrational &cetera to believe in a deity, but to then admit that it is possible in the future this could change.

    The biggest issue is trying to define what a deity could be, and what would constitute evidence for one.

    I agree that is currently unknown, but again I do not think it is incoherent to admit that may change in the future.

    Prof Grayling seems to be saying that to be a de facto atheist, but ultimately agnostic is a muddle. I disagree – the currently available evidence is vastly insufficient to make it reasonable for me to believe in a deity, but I cannot be so certain as to say no such evidence will ever be provided – how could I possibly know this. This therefore makes me ultimately agnostic, but atheist to any attempts to define a deity based on what theists current provide as evidence.

    • Tulse
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 10:40 am | Permalink

      I cannot be so certain as to say no such evidence will ever be provided – how could I possibly know this.

      Could there ever be any empirical evidence that there are an infinite number of primes?

      If not, how could there ever be any empirical evidence of an infinitely powerful being?

      • Posted March 15, 2011 at 10:48 am | Permalink

        Conversely, is empirical evidence necessary to conclude that there are an infinite number of primes? If not, why is empirical evidence necessary to conclude that there aren’t any entities that are capable of doing the impossible?

        b&

    • jibalt
      Posted March 17, 2011 at 5:37 am | Permalink

      “I believe that when attempting to prove a negative all you can say is: it is irrational, absurd, irresponsible or even lunatic to say that the available evidence supports the existence of a deity.” — Uh, no, only a lunatic fails to disbelieve in the reality of Alice in Wonderland.

  23. Kirth Gersen
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    Maybe it’s because I’m a field scientist, rather than a lab scientist (and hence biased towards practical applications vs. theoretical considerations), but I have to agree with Jerry on this one. “Natural” and “supernatural” are ill-defined semantic distinctions, so I ignore them. What I’m left with is a “walk like a duck” scenario — show me evidence of an entity that exhibits full and uncontrovertable godlike powers, who demands that we act in certain ways, and who uses those godlike powers to enfore those actions on a universe-wide scale in a manner which allows no exceptions and no appeal — at that point, I don’t care if it’s a supernatural deva or a natural super-alien; in either case, provisionally, it more or less has to be treated as a god.

    Thus far I’ve seen no evidence for any such entity — god, alien, or fairy.

    • Dominic
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      Or rather walk like a penguin? See next page…

    • Posted March 15, 2011 at 11:06 am | Permalink

      and who uses those godlike powers to enfore those actions on a universe-wide scale in a manner which allows no exceptions and no appeal

      How could there possibly be evidence of that kind for humans? Any more than there could be evidence for us that “God” is eternal or omnipotent? We have no way of testing such things.

      • Kirth Gersen
        Posted March 15, 2011 at 11:59 am | Permalink

        @ Ophelia — as in most things, we’d be looking at preponderance of evidence, not a slam-dunk. I’m not saying that this god/alien/fairy/whatever needs to actually BE omnipotent — it just needs to seem that way in comparison to us.

        Say the said entity has declared “Thou Shalt Not Wear Blue,” and we find that every person who wears blue dies of unknown causes exactly 1 minute after getting dressed. (Even if they change the ambient light so that the reflected wavelengths make the garment appear dark green instead, they still die!)

        Now, there’s likely some natural, comprehensible means that this entity is using to enforce this edict, but given the standpoint of our inability to get a grasp on it, much less counteract it, we can treat it as “godlike” for all intents and purposes.

        Of course, if we later develop a means to wear blue safely, that could be taken as evidence that either (a) the godlike being isn’t so godlike after all; or (b) we’re becoming godlike ourselves. But that’s a half-full/half-empty distinction, rather than a particularly useful one. In other words, I’m open to evidence for a God of the Gaps; closing those gaps and retaining the “god” part would require still more evidence after that.

        • Posted March 15, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

          But how would we know that? We wouldn’t have any way of knowing that every person who wears blue dies of unknown causes exactly 1 minute after getting dressed.

          And what would a preponderance of evidence that a putative god is immortal be? And how would we know?

          • Posted March 15, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

            I cannot imagine answers to those questions, but I do not rule out as a matter of principle that there might be answers to those questions that none of us can imagine.

            Prior to the Michelson-Morley experiments, nobody sat down and said, “Well lookie here, what if the speed of light were constant relative to all observers, and we take that as a truism, and see whether that might explain the precession of Mercury.” Why? Because that’s a really counter-intuitive way of approaching the problem. Whodathunk?

            I am pretty sure the mathematical techniques were there, that if somebody a hundred years before Einstein had decided to take the constancy of the speed of light as a given, and really devote themselves to that hypothesis, there were a handful of great thinkers capable of working out the whole Theory of Relativity. But that little piece of data was so freakin’ non-obvious… So counter-intuitive, in fact, that a big part of Einstein’s greatness is that he was willing to accept that data as fact rather than seeking to explain it away.

            On similar grounds, I must admit that, at least in principle, there could be evidence that would be sufficient to answer all of the questions you pose here. I haven’t heard anyone even give a convincing outline of what that evidence would be, let alone offer any of it, but I feel that I must admit that at least in principle it might exist and I am just too dense to think of it.

            • Tulse
              Posted March 15, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

              I cannot imagine answers to those questions, but I do not rule out as a matter of principle that there might be answers to those questions that none of us can imagine.

              And how would we ever demonstrate that there in principle isn’t a naturalistic explanation for any of those phenomena? The issue of deciding things “as a matter of principle” cuts both ways.

              • Kirth Gersen
                Posted March 15, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

                Tulse,
                That’s where my caveat comes in –I suggest we disregard “natural” vs. “supernatural” entirely and instead deal with “godlike compared to us, as near as we can tell, regardless of the exact methods used.”

            • jibalt
              Posted March 17, 2011 at 5:45 am | Permalink

              “I cannot imagine answers to those questions, but I do not rule out as a matter of principle that there might be answers to those questions that none of us can imagine.” — You might as well not rule out the possibility that 1+1 = 3 or that modus ponens is invalid. This level of “cognitive humility” is intellectual masturbation.

            • jibalt
              Posted March 17, 2011 at 5:47 am | Permalink

              “Prior to the Michelson-Morley experiments, nobody sat down and said” — Um, Einstein wasn’t even aware of the Michelson-Morley outcome.

          • Kirth Gersen
            Posted March 15, 2011 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

            “We wouldn’t have any way of knowing that every person who wears blue dies of unknown causes exactly 1 minute after getting dressed.”

            If every person that we actually observe who dresses in blue does die 1 minute later, and if, in none of those cases, can we determine a cause of death — to my mind that would count as evidence in favor. Preponderance is just that — sure, one exception would disprove it, but the set of “all observed instances” is reasonable grounds for provisional acceptance (vs. “all theoretical instances,” which, as you correctly point out, could never be determined).

            • Posted March 15, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

              Yes. I just wanted to make clear that the “every person” thing isn’t actually observable. I’m a churl.

              :- )

    • Screechy Monkey
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 11:16 am | Permalink

      I agree.

      If we were to be confronted with indisputable evidence of a not-necessarily-omnipotent-but-very-very-very powerful entity calling itself Jehovah, which had the ability to suspend what we know of as the laws of physics, had done so in the past here on Earth, hears prayers and sometimes grants them, demands belief and worship from humans, judges the dead and rewards or punishes them with an afterlife, etc., I would have to admit “I was wrong, and the Jews/Christians/Muslims were basically right.”

      Would they be entirely right? Of course not; it would be logically impossible for them all to be exactly right. But to fall back on quibbling like “well, this entity calling itself Jehovah could just be a really really powerful, technically advanced alien” would be pretty churlish. Certainly from a practical point of view, it would make little difference: either way, you’d have to decide whether to fall in line and praise and worship and obey, or rebel and face punishment.

      It would be akin to saying “Darwin was wrong” because he got some details incorrect. Sure, in a sense Darwin was wrong, but he was a lot less wrong than his creationist opponents.

      And are there really many people who claim to believe in the “supernatural” who agree to define “supernatural” in the sense being used here? I doubt it. Most believers in the supernatural seem to strain to frame their beliefs in scientific-sounding terms (e.g. ghosts are “energy” left behind by people).

      • Posted March 15, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

        But to fall back on quibbling like “well, this entity calling itself Jehovah could just be a really really powerful, technically advanced alien” would be pretty churlish.

        No it wouldn’t! It would be seriously trying to figure things out. We’re allowed to do that. I’m trying to think about what exactly this evidence would be like, what criteria it would have to fit, how we would know it was reliable, all sorts of things like that. It’s not churlish to try to think carefully about the whole thing.

        • Posted March 15, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

          Here are several reasons why I think the “hyper-advanced aliens trying to trick us” hypothesis should be taken seriously, and why it is not “churlish” to put it forward:

          1) If a being showed up after the Yahweh myth (for example) had been created, and decided to pose as Yahweh, most people would not call that being “God” even if it had all the powers imputed to Yahweh.

          2) An important part of many god myths (and again I’m going to focus on Yahweh or Jesus, because those are the ones I am most familiar with) is that you get resurrected, or at least that there is some kind of afterlife. We can easily imagine* a being who had sufficient technology and power to demonstrate all of the powers imputed to Yahweh in this life, but that afterlife was still a metaphysical impossibility.

          * For the record, I don’t think this is possible, because the laws of physics preclude it. But we can still imagine it with ease.

          3) Motives matter. For sake of argument, say that Jesus is some being from another realm who really did create this universe, and who is truly omnipotent and omnibenevolent, and that when He explains His plan to us, all of us who find the Evidential Problem of Evil to be overwhlemingly convincing do a major facepalm and say, “Oh, now I get it!” Call that Scenario A.

          Now let’s imagine that the New Testament was all bullshit, but the Old Testament had it just right (I recognize the New Testament has lots of nasty shit in it too, but just follow me here for a minute) and Yahweh is a megalomaniacal genocidal fuck who, true, managed to create the Earth (but exists inside the universe), but also hates gay people and punishes your great-great-grandchildren for your own sins. There’s no pretense of a reward in the afterlife, and He doesn’t promise to take care of you. Actually, He’s mostly interested in leading an army of Jews in conquest of the entire Earth. Call that Scenario B.

          A lot of people would call Scenario A “god”, and Scenario B “hyper-intelligent alien trying to trick us”.

          4) If you are advanced enough, maybe you can feign omnipotence? A given being might show up, descend from the sky riding on a sunbeam, walk on water for awhile, cure a bunch of amputees, communicate telepathically, inspire people to change their lives for the better by merely touching their forehead, etc. Might seem like God. Then we find out the reason He is here is because he’s been stranded in the solar system, and wants us to help him build a vessel to travel to a nearby star. “What would God need with a starship?”, as they say in Star Trek V. A being might initially seem to have all the powers of a god, but on further inspection it turns out it was faking it hardcore.

          I agree that it would be churlish to draw a distinction between “god” and “a hyper-advanced alien with 100% of the attributes of god”. But I don’t think that’s what’s being implied when people put forth the “hyper-advanced aliens” hypothesis. They might be merely feigning the appearance of the expected attributes of god(s). While you are right that we are still in the end faced with the decision to either fall in line and bow in obsequious worship vs. rebel against unjust (though possibly insurmountable) tyranny, there are lots of scenarios where a being might seem worthy of the label “god” at first, but upon further reflection, “hyper-advanced alien” turned out to be more appropriate.

          • Kirth Gersen
            Posted March 15, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

            To my mind, the distinction is unimportant. If it were a hyper-advanced alien, I’d be trying to figure out its methods so as to get out from under its thumb. Ditto for a supernatural god. I won’t willingly be the slave of any being — divine, alien, or fairy; mortal or immortal.

            • Posted March 15, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

              Really.

              Think of chimps and us.

              Why would anyone want there to be a god?

        • Screechy Monkey
          Posted March 15, 2011 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

          I mean it would be churlish to say that as a way of avoiding admitting that, based on the information now available, we were (mostly) wrong and the believers were (mostly) right. I’m not saying that we should refrain from thinking carefully or studying further.

          Saying that Darwin was (mostly) right is not equivalent to shutting down the field of evolutionary biology (nothing left to study, everyone!). And conversely, the fact that we don’t know everything about evolution yet doesn’t justify saying, “well, the jury’s still out on this Darwin fellow.” (P.S. To the editors of New Scientist: Or worse yet, DARWIN WAS WRONG.)

          • Posted March 15, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

            Right, but the implausibility of so many of the claims means that even before admitting that they were “(mostly) right”, there would be a whole lot of hypotheses we’d have to reject that involved us being bamboozled. I agree that, at least in principle, there could come a point where the most parsimonious explanation was “Ergo Jesus”. But I think “We’ve been had!” would remain more parsimonious through quite a bit of otherwise-convincing evidence.

            • Screechy Monkey
              Posted March 15, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

              Oh, that may well be. But that (how MUCH evidence would you require) is a separate issue from “would ANY amount of evidence suffice.”

              I find myself agreeing, in some form, with pretty much all the participants in this discussion.

              P.Z. and Steve Zara (and, it now appears, Grayling) are correct to point out that “god” is (often) such a hopelessly vague term that it doesn’t form a coherent hypothesis. Coyne and Dawkins are correct to note that at least some versions of “god” are sufficiently definite to be empirically provable in concept, which means there is at least the possibility, however remote, of sufficient evidence being produced someday. Grayling is correct to note that some hypotheses are so lacking in support, and faced with so much contrary evidence, that it becomes almost silly to quibble about the theoretical possibility of sufficient support materializing.

          • Posted March 15, 2011 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

            But if that happened it would still be the case that we were wrong but for right reasons while they were right but for wrong reasons.

            There wouldn’t really be anything to admit.

      • Tulse
        Posted March 15, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

        Maybe I’ve seen too much science fiction, or am too influenced by early exposure to Chariots of the Gods, but I don’t at all see why a very powerful being who historically did all things attributed to the biblical Yahweh would have to be a “god” in the supernatural sense. Hell, there were several Star Trek episodes (and one very bad movie) that took just this position.

        • moseszd
          Posted March 15, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

          Or as AC Clarke would put it: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted March 15, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

        Call me a churl, then, but the sudden appearance on Earth of a Jehovah-like cosmic tyrant would not convince me that believers were right and I was wrong. I willingly concede the possibility of cosmic tyrants, and it just seems like good sensible policy for them to manifest in a form compatible with local superstition. That doesn’t make the Bible true any more than Peter Jackson movies make The Lord of the Rings true.

    • jibalt
      Posted March 17, 2011 at 5:40 am | Permalink

      ““Natural” and “supernatural” are ill-defined semantic distinctions” — which is another way of saying that the notion of “supernatural” entities is incoherent.

  24. Egbert
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Are we seriously waiting for evidence for the geocentric theory? I’m pretty sure that theory has been dealt with and refuted. So why not the God theory, which does not even have any coherent hypothesis or evidence.

    I side with PZ Myers on this, it’s irrational and not worthy of serious consideration.

    • Physicalist
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 10:55 am | Permalink

      Haven’t you heard? The Catholics are reclaiming geocentrism. (Link)

    • Posted March 15, 2011 at 11:57 am | Permalink

      The geocentric theory illustrates pretty well what I am talking about below at #26. I do not think we can scientifically declare the geocentric theory as “absolutely false” — that’s just not how things work. But I, for one, cannot possibly even imagine what evidence would convince me of the truth of the geocentric theory. There are so many other data points that would have to be explained away.

      I think we shouldn’t say that there could never, even in principle, be evidence in support of the geocentric theory. But the fact that we can’t even imagine what that evidence would be puts it in a somewhat different category than, say, evolution for example. I think we can pretty confidently say evolution is true, but we can easily come up with things like “rabbits in the Precambrian”. Geocentrism and the god hypothesis are in a whole different category, where I’m not sure you can even enumerate good examples of what would be convincing.

      • jibalt
        Posted March 17, 2011 at 5:54 am | Permalink

        “I do not think we can scientifically declare the geocentric theory as “absolutely false” — that’s just not how things work. ” — Actually, it is. We can scientifically declare that the theory that the earth is flat and has four corners is absolutely false, and likewise for geocentrism. They are absolutely false — we can look and SEE that they are.

  25. Sigmund
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Wait a second, I think I’ve got it.
    Is the correct answer: “a frozen waterfall”?

    • Posted March 15, 2011 at 11:03 am | Permalink

      :- D

      • matt
        Posted March 15, 2011 at 11:14 am | Permalink

        hahaha.

        “god” is outside of nature yet, resides directly inside of it!

        oh, the huge manatee!

    • Grania Spingies
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 11:21 am | Permalink

      Heeheehee!

  26. Posted March 15, 2011 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    My position on this has always been that while I don’t think “supernatural” is a coherent concept, I think that at least in principle I could be convinced by some pretty extreme evidence that a being recognizable as the actual God of the Bible (for example) existed. I have a very hard time figuring out what that evidence would actually be, though, and I think Grayling does a good job of describing why this is the case.

    It’s not so much that there is enough evidence of the non-existence of god(s) to declare it an “absolute truth”, but rather that if we think of examples of the kind of evidence we might offer as proof of the existence of a God, in light of past evidence it seems like there’s always a better nontheistic explanation.

    I won’t go quite as far as Grayling and say that there could never anymore be evidence of a god, but I will say that in light of what we already know, sufficient evidence is pretty damn near unimaginable. I know Jerry is not a fan of the “hyper-intelligent aliens trying to trick us” scenario, but it deserves serious consideration. As far-fetched as that idea is, it would remain the more parsimonious hypothesis over “Ergo Jesus” in quite a few scenarios!

    • moseszd
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      I won’t go quite as far as Grayling and say that there could never anymore be evidence of a god, but I will say that in light of what we already know, sufficient evidence is pretty damn near unimaginable.

      This.

      And, for the record, I absolutely believe there is not, nor ever has been, a God or gods. Nor that there is any likelihood of any solid evidence (versus shoddy arguments) for the existence of a God or gods.

      But the question that started this, if I remember correctly, was ‘could there ever be any evidence that could convince you of the existence of God?”

      The answer is yes. There could be evidence. It’s never going to happen due to the nature of complete non-existence, but there is evidence that I’d accept.

      For example, God comes down and raises the 10,000, or so, dead in Japan’s earthquake. Or that the fundamental constants of the universe are changed in such manner to allow faster-than-light travel to be possible. Scores of amputees going to Lourdes and actually having their limbs grow back…

      I’m talking seriously big stuff that is not only against the laws of nature as we understand them, but are against the laws of nature if we perfectly understood them. A very, very high bar that is, for all practical purposes, insurmountable.

      And certainly not crap like this this.

      I don’t expect it. I just have enough imagination to imagine the otherwise impossible and I’m just saying if those types of clearly miraculous/impossible events occurred, then I could accept it.

      Unlike the kind of mentally rigid people that, but for not taking that wrong step, could be quite at home among the HIV deniers, global warming deniers, tobacco causes cancer deniers, etc…. That is, people who have solidified a position and can never be convinced, despite the overwhelming evidence contrary to their opinion.

      And that was really the question — could there be evidence. Not the likelihood of evidence. Not is there evidence. Not is it likely someone would get evidence.

      And it certainly was not is there any argument, lacking tangible proof, that you could accept. I didn’t read the question as the accepting mere argumentation, especially the same old shit we’ve heard for centuries.

      • Bryan
        Posted March 15, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

        “I’m talking seriously big stuff that is not only against the laws of nature as we understand them, but are against the laws of nature if we perfectly understood them.”

        Come again? How could we know for sure that something is against the laws of nature if we take as a premise that our understanding of the laws of nature is imperfect?

  27. Posted March 15, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Caveat: I’m not a scientist and have always had trouble with logic. Isn’t there a sort of initial consideration before one discusses whether there is proof of god–which is: what form of “god-belief” are we discussing?
    Since my relationship to anything called “god” is not even atheistic — it’s just a…not — I couldn’t even list what sort of beliefs, i.e., what is the character of this “god” have? would come into this discussion.
    But I’m curious.

  28. Alex SL
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    I really wish we could all leave the word “supernatural” completely out of the discussion, it just confuses things. Assuming all there is is nature, assuming that if gods existed they would simply be nature, just like we are – what would you conclude if you found yourself in a world where sickness could be cured by visibly casting out the demon responsible? Where spirits of the dead could be summoned to give reliable, testable information? Where every blasphemer gets incinerated by a lightning bold directly after committing their transgression? A world that is flat and does not have any detectable history before 6000 years ago? Look for the trick? And what if you have looked for 2000 years and still have not found it? Seems like “lalalala I can`t hear you” to me.

    • Bryan
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

      “Look for the trick?”

      In a strictly natural world where those things happened, there would be no trick. Curing sickness by casting out demons wouldn’t be a trick – it would just be. So what?

    • Posted March 17, 2011 at 12:49 am | Permalink

      No, you can’t leave the word “supernatural” out of the discussion, as it was invented to “explain” why we can’t detect demons and gods by natural means.

  29. Jason
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Jerry here – one thing that is puzzling about the thought experiments considered so far is that they are terminated too soon.

    You have a fifty foot tall limb-restoring Jesus. OK, that could be a magic trick or an advanced alien. But suppose “Jesus” then said the following:

    “I am what you humans have historically called God. In fact, I am not “infinite”, whatever that might mean, but you can understand me given your current technology as follows. I created your universe as a simulation on a computer and within your universe, I am in a sense omnipotent – I can make arbitrary manipulations of the data, I can save and load states and I can appear however I choose. I am also omniscient as far as it goes, insofar as I am monitoring everything going on in your simulation.”

    The creature could still be lying or deceiving us of course. But things don’t stop there. For the next 30 years, the creature agrees to answer all of our questions and try to demonstrate to the best of his ability the veracity of his claims. Indeed, we find that he does possess the ability to manipulate and change the laws of physics, and he can communicate telepathically with arbitrary numbers of people simultaneously

    Furthermore, he explains how his existence solves previously puzzling phenomena. He explains why the cosmological constant has the value it does, and this turns out to follow from a physical law in his external universe (perhaps a computational limitation makes it difficult to simulate universes with alternative cosmological constants). He demonstrates to us how viewing our universe as a simulation and knowing a few simple properties of his external universe (in which we are simulated) improves upon our current physical theories and generates more parsimonious theories with greater explanatory power.

    Now of course, all of this could still be a trick – perhaps a malevolent alien is just manipulating our brain to make us think that all of this makes sense, when in fact, the reasoning is completely fallacious.

    But I think that if everything I describe above occurred, and over a period of years everything we know about the world appeared consistent with the explanations offered by this being, then the best explanation is that he is who he says he is.

    Whether he is really “God” in the sense intended by theologians is a semantic question which will depend on the theologian you ask, but just about every modern believer in God would rightly consider themselves vindicated.

    • Grania Spingies
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      “but just about every modern believer in God would rightly consider themselves vindicated.”

      Maybe so, but that would be massively dishonest of them. What you described there is nothing at all like the dominant Abrahamic traditions describe their gods.

      • Jason
        Posted March 15, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

        True, but the vast majority of people who claim to believe in a God of the dominant Abrahamic tradition actually believe in nothing of the sort (at least among Christians and Jews in the US, perhaps Muslims hew more closely to the Koran). The typical believer in the US believes that “everything happens for a reason” that “someone up there is watching out for me” and perhaps that they will go to heaven after they die if they behave well, but not that those who work on the Sabbath should be put to death.

        We could also modify the above story to make it hew even more closely to the Abrahamic tradition. Perhaps the creature could explain that the events described in the Bible were largely true, and that he did indeed visit Earth 2,000 years ago (although not in his 50 foot tall form). This was part of an experiment he was conducting to see how injecting some information would impact this world (he did the same on thousands of other universes inaccessible to us). He could even further explain that the principles he shared for us were standards of ethics that his experiments show lead to flourishing societies, and even that those who behave well in this universe are recreated in their youth in a different universe with fewer antagonistic elements (“heaven”). The standards for good behavior are not exactly what was written down in the Bible (the transcribers sometimes got it wrong or made stuff up), but it gets the basic outlines right. Maybe he even brings back some dead relatives with their youth restored.

        It’s true that theologians in the major religions don’t characterize God in exactly this way (they use nonsense terms like supernatural), and few individual believers would characterize our universe as a simulation from a God who lacks omnipotence in his own reality, but it is close enough to the God believed in by the common person that they would not be at all dishonest if they believed themselves to be proven right and atheists to be proven wrong. Now if Alvin Platinga or William Lane Craig had the same attitude, that would be pushing it.

  30. Grania Spingies
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    Then of course comes the next question: suppose you’ve “proved” that there is real genuine honest to goodness goddess that you can’t not believe is The Really, Truly True Goddess.

    That doesn’t translate into: so now I worship & place all my trust in my Goddess and talk to her in my heart whenever I feel good / bad / poorly / bored.

    That is after all what this question is really all about. You can be a “believer” as in you accept irrefutable facts. That doesn’t mean anyone can infer that a special relationship will follow though.
    I rather doubt I will want to become a god-worshipper. It’s just not in my nature.

    Again: this question is a fraud with an agenda.

    • Alex SL
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

      No, that actually does not seem to be what the question is about. The title of this post contains “evidence for god”, but there is no mention of whether such a deity would merit worship or has a personal connection to us or whatever. One thing at a time.

      • Grania Spingies
        Posted March 16, 2011 at 7:42 am | Permalink

        Late to the conversation? I don’t blame you (entirely) for not reading all the replies to this thread, but I already had my say about evidence up somewhat earlier.

        My chief problem -again- with the evidence for god question is that the believer isn’t remotely interested in the evidence. They just want to get the atheist to give them a semantic free pass on their own beliefs; which has everything to do with their personal connection and nothing at all to do with putative evidence.

        • Posted March 16, 2011 at 8:25 am | Permalink

          I agree, to a degree.

          At best you can preface any answer, “If God were to exist…” – making it clear that you accept it as a conjectural, rather than actual, possibility.

          Otherwise, you’re damned (as a closet theist) if you do allow there could be evidence or damned (as closed minded) if you don’t.

          “… there may be evidence that would convince me that He exists, but I have no idea what that evidence might be (as I have no clear conception of what you mean by ‘God’).”

  31. Posted March 15, 2011 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    I don’t see why we can’t hold all three positions simultaneously as an arsenal of weapons against theism.

    Of course, the priority is to force theists to robustly define their god to make it as coherent a concept as possible and in the process watch them walk all over themselves with contradictions (good fun!), but we can also gibe them by pointing to science and historical knowledge that has utterly defeated their prior conceptions of their god and other people’s gods, and we can triply investigate the nature of any worthwhile evidence (no reason to chase after stuff that is outright fake or dubious on its face like the meteorite bacteria or grainy images of Nessie) they come up with that they claim supports the existence of their god without having to agree that it does.

    Anyway, I’ve really enjoyed your pushing of this debate and hope it continues!

  32. Posted March 15, 2011 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    Off topic:

    I don’t think this is possible, because the laws of physics preclude it. But we can still imagine it with ease.

    Isn’t that just amazing? That we can so easily imagine things that do not — indeed, cannot! — exist.

    • Dominic
      Posted March 16, 2011 at 3:54 am | Permalink

      If you follow Brian Green – he has a new book to sell – then if there vare an infinity of universes then all things will happen somewhere & somewhen. Hmmmm….
      http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/27/books/27book.html

      • Posted March 16, 2011 at 6:46 am | Permalink

        Brian Greene? Yes, I do.

        But what does “all things” mean? Each universe would still be naturalistic, so “all things” does not include “God”. (All universes have the same naturalistic origin, even if they turn out wildly different.)

        This question came up in the debate. Dawkins did a good job of differentiating the multiverse of M “theory” from the multiverse of the many-worlds interpretation of QT, but Didn’t address the question of whether one of these universes could include “God” and if that universe was ours, which is what the lady-in-the-other-room was asking.

  33. madamX
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    If tomorrow scientists record large clusters of galaxies coming together light years away to form “I am the Lord thy God” in Hebrew, my initial thought would be that galaxies are conscious and fucking with us.

    • Aqua Buddha
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

      I would guess (in the following order):

      1) I accidentally took a powerful hallucinogen
      2) Some magician is pulling a neat trick
      3) Aliens exist, have invented very impressive technology, and behave like Ashton Kutcher

      If I can rule all of those out somehow, I would say, okay here is a piece of evidence that some kind of a God exists.

      Did I just get demoted to agnostic?

      • Aqua Buddha
        Posted March 15, 2011 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

        Whoops, I guess my taking hallucinogens has no bearing on whether scientists are accurately recording such an event, so nevermind that first one. Or second one. Ashton Kutcher-like aliens it is.

  34. CJ
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    I think this debate should have focused more on God as the creator of the universe. Is that not the central theme to most if not all religions? Can that not be said to be a coherent definition of God? Is that not the hypothesis that religions keep coming back to for the problem of the big bang and abiogenesis? Is that not what religions keep saying that science will not answer.

    In that sense, i’m not sure i understand how anyone can say that there could be no evidence that could
    convince them that a creator exists. If an entity created and controlled a big bang right now, right in front of my colleagues and i, showed us a time-lapse of evolution, tweaked the natural laws of that universe and said “in you go”; i would believe. Sure, i might be out of my gourd, but i would believe.

    I’m with Jerry and Carl, and despite Anthony Grayling, i’m still an Atheist.

    All time subscriber, first time poster. Big fan.

    • severalspeciesof
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

      The creator part is only pushed as that would make god the most powerful, therefore most terrifying, therefore most useful to use as a tool for control. Without the power, terror and control, god is neutered, and pretty much useless.

      Grania is correct, the god question is actually an agenda for the theists…

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

      “Creator of the universe” is still too vague as it allows Matrix programmers and possibly even experimental physicists to claim that title whenever they fire up a simulation or implode a wormhole. To qualify as the real, authentic God, you have to prove that without you, nothing at all would exist, in any universe. And I don’t see how you can do that.

      • CJ
        Posted March 15, 2011 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

        I’ll work on it.

  35. jose
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know how you can argue that science and religion are philosophically incompatible and, at the same time, argue that there can be scientific evidence for religion.

    • Alex SL
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

      Well, religion is faith in things for which there is no evidence, thus incompatibility. But if a god existed, their existence could be just a discoverable fact about the universe, without any faith, and thus without any religion being involved.

    • Explict Atheist
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

      Geocentricism and science are incompatible and there can be scientific for geocentricism. Indeed, the fact that there could be supporting evidence, but the available accumulate evidence is all strongly against the hypothesis, is what makes belief in that hypothesis incompatible with science.

      • jose
        Posted March 16, 2011 at 4:16 am | Permalink

        Geocentrism and science are not incompatible.

        Geocentrism is simply a wrong answer. There is a difference between wrong and incompatible: Wrong things are evaluated by science and determined wrong. They could have been right, but they just wasn’t; Incompatible things on the other hand either can’t possibly be right (like an irrational number with a finite number of digits) or can’t be evaluated by science at all (like the afterlife).

        • Bryan
          Posted March 16, 2011 at 5:22 am | Permalink

          Is the afterlife really immune to scientific inquiry? Scientific discoveries about the brain/mind seem problematic for the concept of an afterlife, as does our understanding of entropy.

  36. Posted March 15, 2011 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    I do like Anthony’s example he used in the podcast of why the question is loaded. The concept of God has too much unexamined cultural baggage to be of use as an empirical proposition. By trying to make it empirical, it’s loading assumptions as to what God is – and thus theists are going to reject the argument out of rejecting the premise.

    Look at most of the arguments against Dawkins’ Ultimate 747, they are of this nature. God is not made up of “material” components (Craig), simplicity is intrinsic to God (Swinburne), god is the ultimate explanation so it doesn’t need to be accounted for (Plantinga), God is not a product of evolution (Hart), etc.

    Does the Ultimate 747 argument fail? I don’t think so, but because the argument relies on science, it makes it really easy to reject the argument out of hand as an attempt to naturalise God – where in fact the argument is one about the nature of designers. You don’t get top-down designers, as far as we know, without first having bottom-up design. To say God is a top-down designer yet not subject to what we know about top-down design is engaging in special pleading.

    Quite simply God can’t be put into the realm of science because God is too incoherent to be a scientific hypothesis. What we do when we make conditions of evidence is because we can think of transgressions of nature. But at what point could we consider it supernatural? I’m not even sure if supernatural is a coherent notion, so how could be we be sure we’ve found it?

  37. Explict Atheist
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    Jerry Coyne is correct, in the case of various supernatural hypothesis there can be favorable or unfavorable evidence. Anthony Grayling and P.Z. are mistaken to deny this. For those supernatural hypothesis that we can evaluate, the evidence is against, and therefore we are rationally compelled to provisionally deny supernaturalism. The “provisionally” qualification is also rationally compelled. We can’t properly hold our evidence justified beliefs non-provisionally because our beliefs are justified on the accumulated evidence and the accumulation of evidence is itself time dependent, non-static, and not predictable.

    • Posted March 15, 2011 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think it is such a terrible thing to drop the provisional part in some cases. Do you provisionally accept that credible evidence for a real Santa Claus could ever be presented to you that wouldn’t immediately reimplicate your parents or some other person conspiring? In other words, evidence that Santa Claus is real could never accumulate, isn’t that right?

      • Jason
        Posted March 16, 2011 at 9:39 am | Permalink

        No, that is not right. What I am saying – and what I suppose Jerry and others are saying as well – is that evidence for Santa Claus, God, fairies, goblins and everything else is logically possible and the best reason not to believe in them is precisely because no evidence exists.

        In the case of God, things are complicated because some definitions of God given by theologians are indeed incoherent or self-contradictory, but not all definitions of God are incoherent. In particular, the God believed in by the average believer – the God who loves you and watches over you and created our universe and ensures that everything happens for a reason is not self-contradictory. Only once we bring in the theologians’ baggage which insists that this God is in various ways infinite – omnibenevolent, omniscient and omnipotent (which are not really even well defined concepts on their own, let alone together) – do we run into problems of coherence.

        What could constitute evidence for Santa Claus? How about a man traveling through the night-sky on a sled borne by a bunch of flying reindeer who also demonstrates to us the capacity to travel through time and therefore visit every household while traveling at sub-luminal speeds in a single night? Of course this is extraodinarily unlikely given everything we know about the world, but it is not a logical contradiction.

        The point of such examples is not to apologize for God or for Santa Claus – the point is not to insist, well, even though I don’t believe in them, they *could* exist and therefore believers are not too crazy. No. The point is that precisely because positive evidence would suggest the existence of Santa Claus and God, the lack of positive evidence (and indeed the contravening evidence in the form of absent presents and devastating natural disasters) makes their existence even less likely. No one would point to the absence of evidence for a squared circle – it is simply irrelevant. While the God of the theologians might simply be incoherent, the God of the typical person is insufficiently well-specified to contradict itself (and not necessarily out of stupidity – most people would say they simply don’t know much about God beyond that he loves them and that things happen for a reason). It is the lack of evidence for such a God that makes its existence unlikely.

        • Teapot
          Posted March 16, 2011 at 10:32 am | Permalink

          Exactly.

        • SAWells
          Posted March 16, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

          … but the typical God is also insufficiently well-defined to be anything at all other than a vague feeling of “wow” or a sense of warm fuzzies, possibly with a beard.

          There’s still nothing to refute. The reason to ask for evidence is not because evidence could exist; it’s to make the theist confront what, if anything, they actually believe.

        • Posted March 17, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

          evidence for Santa Claus, God, fairies, goblins and everything else is logically possible

          This has nothing to do with the possibility that those things exist. Things like Santa Claus, fairies, goblins, and, yes, gods are established fiction and no logical statement will cause them to become real, physical things. It is a wall in nature that logic cannot overcome. Santa Claus could not exist, not ever, and neither could Zeus, so no evidence could ever be forthcoming for those imaginary things. Even the evidence you give does nothing to make Santa Claus real because it is established fiction, all that evidence would do is show that some things the fictional Santa Claus could do could be real. But flying reindeer? Faster than light travel? Please. These are all bits of a tale, not the least bit connected to the reality behind the myth of Santa Claus.

  38. Craig McGillivary
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    Its possible to create a simulated world in which there are conscious creatures and in which you are god. Its possible that the rules governing the simulation are basically understandable except for the rare occasions in which you intervene. As far as the people in this world are concerned you are all powerful. You still aren’t all good, but theists could settle for “extremely nice”. You don’t really know everything, but all the knowledge about this world is at your fingertips. You could make your existence known to the people in this world, but I guess you might not convince everybody.

    • Posted March 16, 2011 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

      No, you wouldn’t be all-powerful. You’d still be limited by the capabilities of the simulation hardware and software. You’d be limited by your own understanding of the simulation. You could only watch a small portion of the simulation in your life time. You could only make a finite number of modifications. And so on.

  39. Posted March 15, 2011 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

    Dear Anthony,

    Why are all gods like us? They are smart or “intelligent” and have emotion, and direction, and plans, and they respond to stimuli (prayers), and they are happy or mad and they are either omniscient or clueless (the Flood? Tower of Babel? What, didn’t see that coming?) and they did stuff in the past but not so much now.

    Gods are hims or hers but not its. Are gods indifferent? No, they are not.

    Hmmm, it seems that gods are a Whole Like Us ™ as if we invented them.

    That should be a Big Clue that we invented gods and not the other way around. And, the evidence of evolution supports this.

    Your move, theologian.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted March 15, 2011 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

      Huh? Grayling is not a theologian; he’s a philosopher and an atheist. Did you actually listen to the talk?

      • Posted March 16, 2011 at 6:29 am | Permalink

        Yeah, that was poorly written! I meant the onus was on the theologian, not that Anthony is a theologian.

        My error!

        Does my cat’s god look like a cat, or me? Does he chase mice and take naps?

  40. The Swede
    Posted March 16, 2011 at 12:08 am | Permalink

    The problem is that there actually *isn’t* any (known) way to empirically test for god. Testing the efficacy of prayer only tests the efficacy of prayer; it says nothing at all about any god or gods.

    I have never seen anyone propose a test which actually would provide evidence for or against an interventionist god approaching general abrahamic qualities. At best the tests will test qualities in people who believe fervently in a concept they can’t explain, but there’s no way to get “through” them to any actual god.

    • Jason
      Posted March 16, 2011 at 9:46 am | Permalink

      This is being unfair. There is no such thing as a direct test of all aspects of any general scientific theory (e.g. general relativity, evolution).

      All we can do is test whether the theory makes a prediction in a particular case which differs from that made by our best current theories, and whether the theory is consistent with the remaining evidence we have. So far, God is not looking good in either regard. But if prayer worked and it worked precisely in the way predicted by a particular religious tradition, that would be some evidence in favor of that conception of God. It wouldn’t prove everything else claimed about God, but it would make the theory as a whole more likely (at least to the extent that the theory was formulated in a coherent way, as some, but not all conceptions of God are). If there were further evidence in the form of Biblical prophecies occurring exactly as written with no ambiguity, all well-behaved Christians disappearing one day and a booming voice announcing that the rapture had occurred, and other such phenomena, then it would make it even more likely that that religious tradition were true.

      It is easy to deny that any one piece of evidence would be convincing but much harder to deny that a string of related but independent pieces of evidence could suggest that God exists.

      • The Swede
        Posted March 16, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

        So you’re arguing that because *some* aspects of scientific models can’t be directly tested, only supported by the parts which can be directly tested and by the coherence of the model, it’s *unfair* to demand a *single direct test*!?

        Do tell, which scientific models are accepted and used for explanation and prediction without a *single* direct test of the underlying premise?

        • Jason
          Posted March 16, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

          I think you misunderstood my use of the phrase “single direct test”. I’m not saying, “it’s unfair to demand at least one test” – my whole point is that we should demand evidence! I’m saying, it’s unfair to expect the existence of a single test which would confirm every aspect of God. Just as it would not confirm every feature of general relativity if it better explains the orbit of mercury than Newtonian gravity, likewise it would not confirm every feature of God if prayer were shown empirically to work. But it would be a start.

          • Jason
            Posted March 16, 2011 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

            (Also, apparently I never even used the phrase “single direct test” – only you did!)

          • The Swede
            Posted March 16, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

            And I reiterate; if prayer is shown to work, all it shows is that prayer works. It says nothing at all – not a single thing – about what mechanism it occurs by.

            And that’s the problem with ALL tests I have been shown thus far. Not a single one actually gets at god. Not one. They all get at other things which then in turn are explained by “oh, no, it’s not space elves or magicians, it’s god because I believe it is”.

            Show me one test which does not end up like that. Just one. I have never seen one. I am, at this point, convinced that NO TEST EXISTS which actually shows god. Any side of god at all. At best they show sides of what worshippers can accomplish, with no pointer to underlying mechanism.

            • Posted March 16, 2011 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

              +1

              • Jason
                Posted March 16, 2011 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

                You raise two distinct but related issues: 1) If we had a test of a “miracle” (An entity regrowing limbs, an entity answering prayers, an entity directly communicating telepathically with every human at once, what should we infer if we lack any naturalistic explanation as to how this was accomplished? And 2) Why should we reject alternative “naturalistic” explanations such as space elves? (which at least could have evolved!)

                Let’s accept the premise that all of the above “miracles” occurred. We ask the entity claiming to be God how he performed them. He explains to us a generalization of our current understanding of physical law and shows that even our past observations of the universe prior to his appearance are best explained by a law which takes into account the notion that the universe has behind it distinct purposes which he explains to us. He further demonstrates that these purposes can best be realized if in addition to the physical laws we know now, he exercises particular additional powers at certain times, and his explanation of why these powers are necessary for the purposes which can be independently discerned is airtight and can be expressed in formal mathematical language.

                I think you want to say, “A naturalistic explanation is always conceivable (“it is elves from another planet messing with our brains to make us think all of this is occurring”) and given that it is conceivable, it is always preferable to any alternative explanation.” But given the events hypothesized above this is no longer the case. The crucial point is that even the claim that naturalistic explanations are preferred is itself provisional – it is substantiated by an enormous amount of evidence to date, but it could be reasonable to revise it given the events described above in which a more coherent theory is suggested that better explains how the world works. I think you fail to recognize the essentially empirical nature of the presumption of naturalism: if we lived in a world where demon and witch based explanations had always had more predictive power than any alternative physical theory to explain the world, the insistence on naturalistic explanations would be laughable. We insist on naturalistic mechanisms because that has in the past and remains the best way to do science – not because we have an a priori commitment to naturalism which we refuse to give up under any circumstances.

              • Posted March 17, 2011 at 4:42 am | Permalink

                his explanation of why these powers are necessary for the purposes which can be independently discerned is airtight and can be expressed in formal mathematical language.

                How do we prove it is “airtight”? Not everything that can be expressed in formal mathematical language is “real”!

                if we lived in a world where demon and witch based explanations had always had more predictive power than any alternative physical theory to explain the world, the insistence on naturalistic explanations would be laughable

                No, because if that were the case, demons and witches would be perfectly natural too.

  41. SAWells
    Posted March 16, 2011 at 12:20 am | Permalink

    I think it’s obvious throughout this thread that the term “god” is simply not defined. Grayling is making arguments for the logical impossibility of the omnimax god; JC is arguing for the possibility of evidence for a much more limited god defined as, say, “whoever or whatever is doing these miraculous healings”. We should all take this as a lesson: if someone starts talking about evidence for god or the existence of god, the only useful response is to ask: which god? What god?

    Without a definition, we’re arguing about foozlesnarps.

    • Teapot
      Posted March 16, 2011 at 6:38 am | Permalink

      Agreed. We always need to be absolutely clear about which god, gods or type(s) of god(s) we are referring to. Otherwise it ends up as yet another argument where people argue past each other because they are using the same word to mean different things without realising.

      There are at least 3 distinct meanings of “god” being used above in different places:
      1) specific named gods, e.g. Yahweh, Wotan
      2) entities with supernatural (whatever that means) powers
      3) the creator of the universe

    • Posted March 16, 2011 at 7:01 am | Permalink

      The existence of a deistic God—one who doesn’t do anything tangible—is forever beyond the purview of both philosophy and science. And for a theistic God, philosophy alone won’t do. You need evidence, and by that I mean something more than revelation or intuition.

      — Jerry Coyne, “Whaddya got?” http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/08/16/whaddya-got/

      I agree with Jerry on this.

      I can imagine that there might be some evidence that would convince me that “God” (in some way clearly defined) exists, but I can’t imagine what that evidence might be (because that clear definition is lacking).

      Essentially, I think, “God” is too big to be confirmed by any one piece of evidence. At best, we can postulate evidence for certain claims about “God”, such as the success of intercessionary prayer. (& thus such claims are falsifiable.) But even if a long list of divine characteristics are shown to be true, is this an exhaustive description of “God”? Or something else?

      So, in the end, I tend towards agreeing with PZ, Zara & AC.

      • Jason
        Posted March 16, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

        I don’t understand how one could take this position. Granted, theologians sometimes define God in inconsistent ways, so I agree there is no possibility of testing that. Further, some particular traits are potentially internally inconsistent or not well-specified (anything like omniscience or omnipotence postulating a being which is “infinite” along some scale, or phrases like, “the ground of all being”).

        But we can certainly imagine a being which is something like what the typical believer has in mind. This being:

        1) Answers prayers

        2) Rewards good-behavior after you die by allowing your consciousness to continue somewhere else and punishes bad behavior

        3) Communicates telepathically with anyone inclined to listen to indicate what counts as good behavior and make you feel better when you’re not feeling so good.

        4) Has designed the universe with a purpose in mind, setting things up so that those who follow his dictums either:

        a) Live a successful and happy life or

        b) Suffer and die horribly, but are rewarded enough in the afterlife to compensate for this

        4) Communicates telepathically with those inclined to listen

        5) Appeared on earth 2000 years ago and performed most or all of the miracles recounted in the Bible

        Certainly, there are other important features I am forgetting. But if a being like this were shown to exist, I would have no qualms about calling such a being God and I don’t see why anyone else should either. And along each dimension, we can imagine various pieces of evidence which would be suggestive: if prayers were systematically answered, if a being claiming to be Jesus showed an ability to regenerate limbs and heal all other maladies as well as walking on water and suddenly made all believers disappear (claiming they were raptured to heaven), and if this being allowed each of us to accompany him to “heaven” for a short trip where we met our dead relatives and could confirm that it was in fact pretty awesome among others. We could never completely rule out skeptical hypotheses (“this is an advanced alien manipulating our brain”), but if all of these events happened, it would be much more parsimonious to take the creature at face value than to assume that some other creature for which we have no evidence is tricking us.

        At the end of the day, we still have to decide whether to call it God, but why not call it God if it shares all the (coherent) characteristics which believers attribute to God? What other characteristics would such a being need to possess to call it God?

        Or perhaps your contention is that the typical believers conception of God is so incoherent and internally contradictory that any internally consistent version of God will just be completely different from what they had in mind? That just seems false to me. Most believers just have no opinion about the theological details of God’s omnipotence (whatever that might mean). They believe that everything happens for a reason, that God is looking out for them, that they will continue to live after their physical body dies, that God will reward them in the afterlife, and in some cases, that God came to earth 2000 years ago.

        I agree that the God of the theologians is untestable by design (theologians prefer incoherence to falsification), but the God of most believers remains coherent enough to be falsified by evidence.

        • Posted March 16, 2011 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

          Oh, I agree “God” can be falsified, but that is not at all the same thing as proving “He” exists.

          Which of the characteristics you ascribe to “God” are amendable to proof (a) at all, and (b) such that there is no possible naturalistic explanation. If any one of the characteristics isn’t, you cannot prove that this postulated being is “God”.

          Oh, you forgot one:

          0) Created the universe. (Which is rather stronger than your (4).)

          I disagree, in any case, that “God” is the most parsimonious explanation. There is always the problem of the “uncaused cause,” which is profligate.

          I also think that “the God of most believers” is a red herring: That is the conception that is least like the ur-God that would, if ur-He existed, lie behind belief and theology.

          • Jason
            Posted March 16, 2011 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

            An entity comes down to earth and claims to be God. This entity demonstrates the ability to to walk on water, to communicate telepathically with large numbers of people at once, to regrow limbs and to bring people back from the dead. He claims that he also came to earth 2000 years ago, and shows us stone carvings that can be dated to that time which predict precise details about the future.

            Prayers to this entity for particular favors turn out in randomized experiments to yield results. The creature takes people on a personal tour of the afterlife where they can experience it for themselves and meet other dead relatives not brought back.

            Regarding the origins of the universe, this one is somewhat more difficult as I’m not sure the idea of a creator of the universe is one that can be made coherent (see Post #20 for one version that is coherent, but not what many would have in mind). But presuming it can be, I can imagine evidence: the creature points to its signature in the cosmic microwave background radiation, and shows us how the particular structure of the universe today can be rolled backward in time given a more complete understand of physical law than we currently possess to show that at a period infinitesimally later than the big bang, the constituent matter in the universe announced his presence.

            All of these would constitute evidence for the points laid out above. None of them can rule out various skeptical hypotheses (“an evil super-advanced alien is manipulating minds to make us think all of this is going on when really we are just brains in a vat”), but such hypotheses can never be ruled out as explanations for anything. A brain in the vat is far less parsimonious given the events described above than the conclusion that “Some creature with many of the properties that most people associate with God actually does exist.” Perhaps you want to say, “That doesn’t mean God exists!” But I don’t see how that makes any sense. God is nothing more or less than the aggregate of properties which are associated with that word. What I’ve described is not necessarily the God of the theologians (omnipotent? omniscient? omnibenevolent? What do those even mean?), but it is the God of the typical believer.

            I’m not actually sure the natural / supernatural distinction is relevant here, since I think the idea that God is supernatural in the sense of lying outside space and time is precisely the sort of idea that I am referring to as the work of theologians – an evasion developed to explain why God fails to be detectable, but not a part of most people’s conception of God in any meaningful sense (if asked if he is natural or supernatural, most people might say he is supernatural, but if asked to clarify what that means, people would not give a coherent response).

            I don’t understand what you’re talking about in the last paragraph about the “Ur-God” and why it is a “red-herring” to consider the God of most believers.

            • Posted March 17, 2011 at 3:51 am | Permalink

              Well, that’s a fine narrative, but it’s bogus to say, “All of these would constitute evidence for the points laid out above.”

              For example, if “the creature takes people on a personal tour of the afterlife where they can experience it for themselves and meet other dead relatives not brought back,” what exactly would the evidence for that look like?

              Even if you can ascertain reliable evidence, at best you can say, “Some creature with some of the properties that most people associate with God actually does exist.” I absolutely would say, “That doesn’t mean God exists!”

              Because of the “uncaused cause,” a creator “God” can never be the most parsimonious explanation. Thus the importance of (0).

              Finding, “Hello, world!” in all historic, present and future human languages (and those of other sentient beings, on Earth and elsewhere) encoded in the cosmic microwave background radiation might be evidence for that, but it is still more parsimonious to suspect a highly-advanced “prankster” tampering with our minds or our instruments.

              God is nothing more or less than the aggregate of properties which are associated with that word. … it is the God of the typical believer.

              If “God” is the aggregate of properties which are associated with that word, then it’s definitely inconsistent!

              I just don’t understand why you are so wedded to the idea of “God” that typical believers, um, believe. Do you really think that if “God” does exists, that typical believers’ beliefs provide accurate depiction of him? Especially as “typical” believers’ beliefs are themselves inconsistent. What grounds do you have for favoring “typical” believers’ conception(s) of “God” over others?

              If this being that you posit satisfied just those ideas, I’d be even more suspicious that it was a highly-advanced “prankster.”

              In fact, I’d be very suspicious of any being that resembled very closely any one tradition’s conception of “God.”

              The notion of an “ur-God” addresses precisely this: The real being that lies behind the stories in the sacred texts, theologians’ ruminations, and “typical” believers’ beliefs. This being is not the aggregate of all those (conflicting) ideas, but the core and essence of those, of which all those are distorted and embellished views – rather like a rhinoceros is (probably) an ur-unicorn.

              (For the sake of argument, as you seem to be doing, let’s just think about the Abrahamic “God”. Distilling the “ur-God” across these and other traditions, such as Hinduism, would leave us with something even less clear.)

              Some Jewish, Christian or Islamic tradition might come close to this “ur-God,” but we can’t know a priori which – if any: All of them could be equally distorted.

              By the way, I agree with you completely on the development of the idea of a supernatural “God”: Science has chased the ancient conception of “God” out of the natural world!

              • Posted March 17, 2011 at 4:53 am | Permalink

                Clarification: So, by naturalistic, I really mean “not divine” specifically, not “not supernatural” generally.

  42. Rex Ettienne
    Posted March 16, 2011 at 3:04 am | Permalink

    It all appears little more than sophistry- trying to define what a god is.A great deal of time and energy is wasted in this discussion.The question should be shelved,there is so much evidence that religions are man made that it puts the question on the same level as who is the better/faster/stronger pokemon.It’s all wank!Energy would be better spent dimantling the unearned position of religion in society and ensuring people are educated adequately to dismiss the allure of religious pap- Theologians have been trying to expose the shiny side of religion but it’s nothing more than a turd rolled glitter.

  43. Todd
    Posted March 16, 2011 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    Jerry, when you state, ” When I say I am an atheist, I mean that I am 99% sure that there is no god, and I don’t see any evidence on the god side”, why 99% sure? Why not 99.999% or 95% (if your going for publication)? How can you be 99% sure if you have, as you say, no evidence? That there might someday be empirical evidence is fine but it precludes making any statistical confidence inferences until that evidence presents itself. Until then, qualitatively your confidence level is no different than someone who claims they are 99% sure there is a god – you’re just quibbling over arbitrary percentages at that point.

    • Jason
      Posted March 16, 2011 at 9:50 am | Permalink

      Todd, I think you’re becoming confused by the fact that our intuitive assessments of the truth value of claims are often made in Bayesian terms even if most of our formal statistical testing in published journals is frequentist. For a non-zero prior of God’s existence (the only reasonable one if it can be defined coherently), prior + only observing evidence against God still leads to a non-zero probability of God’s existence. Whether such a prior is completely arbitrary is another question, but not a settled one (and I think not a question on which it is reasonable to have a strong opinion without greater familiarity with the centuries long debate on the issue).

  44. DaveG
    Posted March 16, 2011 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    Ugh. Imagine most of the commenters here are atheists / agnostics / skeptics. Believers will be thrilled to see all the words spilled on Reasons Why It Isn’t True, because they’ll perceive a crack in our armor. All for a BOOOOOOOOOORING book of lame morality tales written by bronze age shepherds.

  45. Fentex
    Posted March 16, 2011 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    “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 believe this is the consensus of readers who have posted both here and on Pharyngula. This is, of course, telling the faithful, “Forget about giving us evidence for god: there’s nothing you can do to make us believe in him.”

    You do not disprove Myers argument by restating it in terms that favour your view.

    To disprove his argument you merely need to provide a coherent god hypothesis thereby refuting his position that there is not one and conclusions that proceed from there.

    Until that happens the argument (so much as it relies on that predicate) stands.

    It is not disproven by efforts to restate it in other terms.

  46. Posted March 18, 2011 at 2:16 am | Permalink

    As I have written here, while I find this discussion interesting, I must admit that I don’t find it especially consequential. Even if the God concept can be made coherent, Jerry agrees that no remotely convincing evidence for the existence of a God has ever been offered, and there is no reason to expect it ever will. The God hypothesis is dead.

    Moreover: religious people seem to think that if God exists, then it’s obvious that we ought to obey his every command — but that doesn’t follow. Whether God is a yeti or a square circle, nothing can absolve us of the responsibility to think for ourselves, and to rationally decide how we ought to live our lives.

  47. Posted March 18, 2011 at 4:15 am | Permalink

    I reject Anthony’s assertion that God is not amenable to empirical investigation, since one can empirically investigate claims about how God interacts with the world.

    This would be true if we knew how God interacts with the world. The problem is, nobody knows. He works in mysterious ways, don’t you know.


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