Thursday, March 17, 2011

Evidence for gods

I’ve always maintained that I’m technically agnostic, although I identify as an atheist.  This is the position Richard Dawkins takes in The God Delusion: I’m entirely convinced that there are no gods, but if compelling evidence turned up, I’d spin on a dime.  This position is really a statement that evidence is important.  Play all the masturbatory logic games you want, but the only thing that could convince me of the existence of the supernatural is evidence.

The position is also about habit.  I think about disproving hypotheses as a matter of course in my work.  I expect the religious to have an inkling of what might disprove their hypothesis of god.  Shouldn’t I be aware of what would convince me that a god exists?

I’ve been thinking about this question – what would I count as evidence for god? – for a little while now.  This is infuriating because on two separate occasions recently some of the big guns of atheism have raised (and sometimes argued about) the same question, making it look as though I’m jumping on the bandwagon.  I’ll link to some of these posts later, but I’ll try to clarify my current position first.

I cannot think of a single thing that would make me believe in a god.

This is because the concept is too incoherent to form a hypothesis in the first place.  It’s too slippery to keep hold of and in any case everyone seems to have a different idea of what god is.  They have a different idea depending on the subject in hand or the time of day or what they’ve been eating or who they’re talking to.  The vicar in the pulpit will expound to her flock about Adam and Eve, virgin births, loaves and fishes and resurrections as though these are literal truths.  And then she’ll admit to other audiences that they are metaphors for how we should live our lives.  Not only is this hypocritical, it’s incoherent.  From where does the bible get its authority to tell us how to live our lives?  Why, from stuff like miracles being literally true, of course.  The fundies have it right in that respect: you can pick and choose which bits of the bible you want to believe in, but in doing so you surrender its authority as the word of god.

But in any case, I can’t imagine any evidence that would convince me that god – a supernatural creator and custodian of the universe – existed.  A fifty food Jesus wouldn’t do it.  A voice booming down from the sky announcing that the bible is true, simultaneously heard by everyone on Earth in their own language, wouldn’t do it.  It would be only marginally more convincing than the crazy person on the street who insists he’s the second coming of Jesus.  Clearly we’d be dealing with an entity powerful beyond our understanding, but would there be any reason to suppose it was god?  Let alone any particular variety of god?

Suppose a fifty foot Jesus appeared and handed me verifiable schematics about how to make a universe like this one in a blue folder.  Perhaps the folder also contains some highly advanced physical theory and predictions of the future, which all turn out to be correct. 

That wouldn’t do it for me either.  Clarke’s 3rd law works both ways. 

Now surely this would fit some people’s definition of god.  Surely some people would argue that even if the fifty foot Jesus was an imposter, a member of a highly advanced technological society, then he would still fit their criteria for god.  Well, OK, but the problem is that the conclusion was reached after the fact, like shooting an arrow into a barn wall and painting a target around it afterwards.  Nobody defined exactly what would and wouldn’t constitute proof of god and evaluated the contents of Jesus’ folder against that.  They didn’t do this because the notion is incoherent.  It’s deliberately incoherent because it means any difficulties with any conceptualisation of god can be explained away with a bit more magic.  God is eternal.  He’s outside nature.  He’s not bound by the laws of the universe.  He’s beyond understanding.  Whatever.

There’s a potential objection to this position.  It will certainly lead to charges of closed-mindedness.  I’ll be told that my position is dogmatic, inflexible and that I made up my mind before I started.  I’ll be told that I’ll twist my way out of accepting any evidence for god, no matter what it is.

I have two responses to this criticism.  The first is that in all honesty, I don’t care very much.  The second is a bit more helpful.    What is it that should compel me to take – say - a fifty foot Jesus as evidence of god rather than evidence of something else?  Suppose everyone’s prayers suddenly started being answered.  Why should I conclude that god is responsible rather than something else that I just don’t know about yet?  The best I can say is that it doesn’t contradict some particular conceptualisations of god.

As promised, here are some recent posts on this subject.

First, Ophelia Benson, who says the same thing with characteristic succinctness.

Next, PZ Myers, who also agrees with me and likens the theist approach to Calvinball.

And finally, Jerry Coyne has combined discussions between himself, AC Grayling, Richard Dawkins and (implicitly) PZ here.  Jerry’s view is different to mine.  He thinks there’s a possibility of some evidence that would convince him that god exists, although he doesn’t expect any to show up.  From reading The God Delusion and other works by Dawkins and hearing him speak about this kind of thing on several occasions, I gather that his position is similar to Jerry’s.  However, I get the impression that he’s being deliberately over-generous.

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