Over at Pharyngula a week ago, P. Z. Myers, echoing an argument by Steve Zara, explained why there was no evidence that could convince him of a god’s existence. I responded, claiming that there was some evidence that could convince me—at least provisionally—that a divine being really existed. And I proposed an admittedly fanciful scenario that, I thought, might convince P.Z. as well.
But the old guy is truculent, and has responded with another post, “Eight reasons why you won’t persuade me to believe in a god.” I can’t disagree with his assertion that he’ll never believe in a god no matter what, but I do take issue with the reasons. He gives eight of them, and I’ll respond briefly below.
First, though, I find it curious that an atheist would assert, a priori, that nothing could make him believe in a god. While some atheists may assert simply that there is no god, most of us claim that we see no evidence for a god, and that’s why we don’t believe. But to make a statement like that presumes that there could be some evidence that would make you accept God’s existence. That’s why I think that Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, puts himself at between 6 and 7 on his belief scale that ranges from 1 (“I know there is a God”) to 7 (“I know there is no God”). (6 is “very low probability of God but short of zero.”) Unless Dawkins is stuck at 7, presumably there is some evidence that could convert that low probability into a high one.
Granted, I haven’t seen any evidence for God, and my own belief is close to 7. But the existence of God is still a theoretical probability, and it seems prudent to say that we don’t know for sure. That is, we don’t know “for sure” in the same sense that we don’t know for sure that infectious diseases are caused by microorganisms. It’s unscientific, I think, to assert that “there’s no evidence that will ever convince me otherwise,” because there’s always the remote, remote possibility that we’ll find out that we were wrong. Perhaps it’s not viruses that cause cold symptoms, but something else that just happens to be there along with viruses. I am almost certain that that isn’t the case, but I can’t say that there’s nothing that could show it.
This doesn’t mean that, for example, we can’t be pretty damn sure that it’s the HIV virus that causes AIDS, and base our research on that knowledge. But we should always at least be open at first to alternatives—even if we don’t take them seriously because they seem fanciful. Just as all truth in science is provisional, so too must be our rejection of theoretical possibilities like God. To me, the proper stance is, “I haven’t seen a smidgen of evidence for God, so I don’t think he exists. But I suppose it’s a theoretical possibility.” P.Z. doesn’t seem to accept God as even a theoretical possibility.
On to his eight arguments, which I address individually:
1) The question “Is there a god?” is a bad question. It’s incoherent and undefined; “god” is a perpetually plastic concept that promoters twist to evade evaluation. If the whole question is nebulous noise, how can any answer be acceptable? The only way to win is by not playing the game.
Yes, believers often twist and turn to avoid giving specifics about their god, or claim that we can’t know anything about him, but I think a reasonable and widely accepted concept of God is this: “A non-material being who is omnipotent, omniscient, and good. This god, who knows all our beliefs and intentions, can do anything he wants to on Earth.” If you wish, you can add to this the claim that God has from time to time affected things on Earth. I don’t think you can “win” by saying, “There simply cannot be a god of any sort.” You can “win” in the sense of stating the truth of what you think, but it’s not going to “win” in the sense of making atheism more palatable to fence-sitters. (Note that I’m not arguing that we should lie about what we think to make converts to atheism.)
2. There’s a certain unfairness in the evidence postulated for god. I used the example of a 900 foot tall Jesus appearing on earth; there is no religion (other than the addled hallucinations of Oral Roberts) that ever proposes such a thing, so such a being would not prove the existence of any prior concept of god, and will even contradict many religions. It’s rather like proposing a crocoduck as a test of evolution.
Evidence for an omnipotent and omniscient God need not correspond precisely to the characterizations of him given in human-composed scriptures. What I would require is simply evidence for an omnipotent and omniscient being (see below). If that evidence happens to conform to, say, Christian accounts of scripture, then I’d be more inclined to say that (despite prior evidence that the New Testament is not the word of God), the being corresponds to the Christian concept of a deity. I don’t see why evidence for the kind of god I defined above (weak though my definition may be) must correspond to some existing religion to be convincing.
3. Many of the evidences proposed rely for their power on their unexplainability by natural mechanisms. There isn’t much power there: the vast majority of the phenomena that exist are not completely explained by science. For instance, I don’t understand every detail of Hox gene regulation (no one does), and I don’t understand all of the nuclear reactions going on inside a star (maybe someone does), and pointing at an elegantly patterned embryo or at our Sun will get me to happily admit my ignorance, but my ignorance is not evidence for a god.
I fully agree that we shouldn’t go imputing God to everything we don’t understand. That’s the basis of the intelligent design movement. But there are some kinds of evidence that may be extremely unlikely to ever be explained by natural processes. To take Hume’s view, when the probability of that evidence adducing a god exceeds the probability that it’s either a trick or due to some unexplained natural process, then I think it’s okay to provisionally accept a god. And I do think that there are some circumstances when the balance of probabilities would fall this way. (I emphasize again that acceptance of God would be provisional, subject to revision if you later find a more mundane explanation.)
Here are two sorts of evidence. In one, a man appears on earth (let’s say he claims to be Jesus returning) who is able to perform all sorts of “miracles.” Let’s say, for instance, that he heals amputees and all manner of illnesses and mutilations, claiming that he’s channeling God’s power. These healings are fully documented by physicians. And the being can also do other stuff that doesn’t seem to have a natural explanation, like turning water into wine at long distance (this, of course, would be supervised not just by chemists, but by magicians). You could of course impute these results to space aliens, but even aliens have to work through understandable natural mechanisms. If they don’t, then they’re equivalent to gods.
Here’s another: a rigorous double-blind experiment provides strong evidence that prayer works. (That is, the people prayed for are almost always healed, while those who are not recover at control rates.) But it works only when praying to God and Jesus, not Allah or Vishnu or anyone else. Is that not evidence for an omniscient and omnipotent being? Granted, we know that prayer doesn’t work, but it could have.
Just because some unexplained stuff will eventually receive a natural explanation does not prove that all unexplained stuff will.
4. Often when people try to convince me that I’m wrong on this, they add increasingly elaborate, detailed intricacies to an invented scenario, piling up improbabilities until they’ve got an event so wildly unlikely to be as close to impossible as possible, and then, aha, I’m expected to admit that if that happened, I’d have to be convinced that the extremely unlikely explanation of a deity must be the best explanation. But I’m not arguing from probabilities at all; personally, I’m ridiculously improbable, being the product of random recombinations of complex strands of DNA and a personal history full of accidents and coincidence, but I’m not god, nor do I think any other peculiar set of accidents amount to a god.
It’s not clear to me why the personal improbability of P.Z. Myers has anything to do with evidence for God. That God-evidence would perforce appear improbable if we assume a natural explanation, but in a different way from the existence of P. Z. (After all, if P.Z.’s parents copulated, the probability that they’d have any child is high, and we know that it’s improbable that that child would have a combination of genes specified in advance.) But I am specifying in advance that anyone able to grow limbs, restore eyes, and cure all incurable cancers by uttering a few words is evidence for a god.
Besides, here P.Z. avers that there might be some evidence that would convince him of a god’s existence: “I’d have to be convinced that the extremely unlikely explanation of a deity must be the best explanation.” This is an admission that there might be some evidence that would convince him, improbable though it may be.
5. These elaborate proof-scenarios also have another problem: they haven’t happened, yet people believe in god anyway. We have millennia of history of devoted god-belief, but now you’re trying to tell me that loud voices from the heavens, flocks of angels, healed amputees, and personal messages direct from a manifested Jesus would be sufficient to convince me of a deity’s existence? Well, if that’s our standard of proof, then all existing religions have been disproven.
I don’t understand this at all. I don’t care whether people already believe in God based on flimsy evidence. That’s why I’m an atheist. What I’m saying is that there could be much stronger evidence for a god, even if we don’t have it. And yes, our standard of proof would be high, and would disqualify all existing religions. So what?
6. One other odd feature of the proposed evidence for god is that it is all so petty and superficial. Remember, this omnipotent god we’re talking about has been called “the ground state of all being” and is supposed to be omnipresent and essential to the maintenance of the universe, so I expect the evidence for god to be rather more fundamental. No one seems to think to invent a property of nature that is supernatural; even the terms are self-contradictory. But shouldn’t a god be as ubiquitous and consequential as bosons? Despite calling some particles “god particles”, though, the fact of existence makes them natural and immediately disqualifies them from godhood.
This goes to the distinction between “natural” and “supernatural,” a distinction that, as Russell Blackford has shown, is blurry at best. Any evidence that we have for a God would have to be natural: that is, it would have to manifest itself as occurrences in the real world. Every bit of evidence for a god that we could ever have would be natural. But those “natural” events could be caused by omnipotent and omniscient beings—”supernatural” beings, if you will.
And again, here P.Z. implies that there could be evidence for a god—it would just have to be, for him, “rather more fundamental” than the usual miracles adduced by the faithful.
7. The case for the non-existence of god is not simply a negative one, drawn from the absence of evidence, which can be corrected by throwing in evidence for a miracle. We are atheists because we have a scientific understanding of how the universe works, and the phenomena we observe do not seem to require divine intervention to function. So sure, show me a tap-dancing Jesus poofing loaves and fishes into existence with a snap of his fingers…and I’ll ask how his existence influences chemistry, how the silly bearded man matters in the last few billions of years of evolution, and why he isn’t publishing in the physics journals, where his omniscient insight into the machineries of the world might be better appreciated. Even there, though, I’d question whether adding tap-dancing Jesus to the long list of existent phenomena really helps us understand anything.
Although P.Z. says the “case for the non-existence of god” is not negative, the reason he gives is purely negative: we don’t need to invoke the intervention of supernatural beings to explain nature. And indeed, as Laplace claimed, “we have no need of that hypothesis.” That’s strong negative evidence for the nonexistence of at least an interventionist god, and a good reason not to believe in such a theistic deity.
And about that tap-dancing Jesus—well, if there were really strong evidence for a tap-dancing Jesus of the miraculous sort, that is evidence for a god, and that would be some sort of “understanding.”
8. There are always better explanations for unexplained phenomena than god: fraud and faulty sensory perception cover most of the bases, but mostly, if I see a Madonna appear in a field to bless me, the first thing I’d suspect is brain damage. We have clumsy, sputtering, inefficient brains that are better designed for spotting rutabagas and triggering rutting behavior at the sight of a curvy buttock than they are for doing math or interpreting the abstract nature of the universe. It is a struggle to be rational and objective, and failures are not evidence for an alternative reality. Heck, we can be fooled rather easily by mere stage magicians; we don’t need to invent something as elaborate as a god to explain apparent anomalies.
Fraud and “faulty sensory perception” can be addressed and controlled for. The “faulty sensory perception” business can be countered by multiple independent documentation of “miracles”—documentation far better than the Vatican uses when naming saints. I’m certain, for instance, that we can rule out whether the regrowing of limbs on amputees can be due to “faulty sensory perception”—or even “fraud.” For some types of evidence it’s bit harder to rule out fraud, but I’d assume that enlisting a legion of magicians would help. In the end, we could conceivably have a phenomenon for which fraud and faulty perception are less plausible than a god, and Hume’s criterion would be satisfied.
Now I’m under no illusion that I’ve responded fully to P.Z.’s claims, or even have provided the most obvious counterarguments. As Pigliucci points out incessantly, I’m not a trained philosopher. And I cannot claim that P.Z. is wrong—he may really be completely immune to any sort of evidence for a god. All I can say is that I am not, and that there are conceivable events that could convince me.
Let me hasten to add that I’ve never seen any good evidence for a god, nor do I anticipate that there will be any. I see no evidence in the world for an interventionist, theistic god (the only kind of god that can provide evidence), much less an omniscient and a good one. And it just seems so obvious that gods were constructed by humans. I fall close to 7 on Dawkins’s God Scale.
I’m writing this post simply to continue a conversation that I don’t think has yet run its course, and to make the point that being open to some kind of evidence is required if we’re a certain kind of atheist: the kind who says, “I don’t believe in gods because I see no evidence for them.” If you make a statement like that, then you must perforce admit that there is some type of evidence for gods that you’d accept.