Leading Horses to Water

Ancient Greeks began the way of thinking originally known as natural philosophy but which we now call science.  Science emerged as we know it during the Renaissance, in an age dominated by fear, superstition, injustice, and brutality.  In other words, pretty much like the present.  These musings are aimed at explaining how science works, and how science can serve even nonscientists in their efforts to make sense of the world.  I can try to explain things but it’s up to you to decide whether or not you wish to drink from these waters.

#1 - What would it take to convince you?

American Heathen:  aired: 15 July 2011

Recent experience with both believers and atheists has led me to write this essay.  As a practicing scientist, I’m confronted on a routine basis with evidence for (or against) some hypothesis.  We’re humans, not gods, so we constantly have to struggle against our own prejudices and biases (and all of us have them – no human being is ever completely objective about anything!).  One of the tendencies we have is to accept with few, if any, questions any evidence that matches our own opinions regarding some hypothesis (especially our own), whereas we may have many tough questions when that evidence disputes our cherished notions.  This is an altogether human trait that good scientists must recognize in themselves and try to prevent from influencing their assessment of the evidence.  We must strive to maintain an open mind when it comes to evidence.

In my arguments with religious believers, I find that many of them have an absolutely impenetrable barrier against accepting any evidence contrary to their beliefs.  They’re simply impervious to any rational argument, preferring to maintain their beliefs even in the face of evidence – there is simply no rational argument that can sway their faith (where “faith” is belief in the absence of evidence ).  But believers say that it takes similar faith to believe in the non-existence of their deity.  And to a certain extent, I agree with them – I know of no compelling evidence that categorically excludes the logical possibility of the existence of their chosen deity.  Proving a negative is basically not possible by purely logical means, of course.  The burden of proof necessarily falls on the believer, not the one who doesn’t believe.  As a non-believer, I have no obligation to “prove” my non-belief in another’s beliefs.

But this raises an interesting question.  If no evidence could ever change the mind of true believers, by the same token, what evidence of the existence of the Abrahamic god would nonbelievers such as I accept?  Well, for one thing, the last “documented” miracles (the authenticity of which is dubious) occurred 2000 years ago and for reasons that remain “mysterious”, the Abrahamic deity has chosen not to provide us with regular samples of his “supernatural” power for the last 2000 years.  If I’m to begin to reconsider my lack of belief in this deity, I really need to see some authentic miracles (supernatural events).  Thus, for example, if said deity suddenly spoke to everyone on the Earth at the same time, announcing that in 15 min, it would stop the Earth’s rotation and then cause the Earth to rotate backward for 5 min before resuming its normal rotation – and then in precisely 15 min, this event actually happened – that would be a pretty decent demonstration that this entity actually exists and is what it claims to be.  It wouldn’t be absolute proof, of course – absolute proof simply doesn’t exist in science – but it would go a long way toward increasing my confidence that such an entity might indeed exist!  After that, we would ask for additional evidence and, after a while, the preponderance of such evidence might tilt my perception strongly toward the hypothesis that this entity exists!  Anything short of this proposed demonstration (or something similar) wouldn’t be very compelling.  Parlor tricks in front of a few ignorant witnesses just won’t do.

This offers at least a conceptual model of the kind of evidence that would be convincing to me, personally.  I challenge the Abrahamic deity to show me such a miracle!  Even if I were to lean toward accepting a deity hypothesis after this sort of demonstration, there would be many other questions I’d have for this entity.

I’ve proposed this particular demonstration because it would reveal that this entity had some pretty remarkable powers, assuming it could be shown convincingly that this wasn’t some sort of mass illusion (a “magic” trick).  In other words, evidence that it actually happened.  Having everyone on the planet know about it beforehand is an important part of the demonstration.  Although any entity capable of such “god-like” power might not truly be a perfect match for the Abrahamic deity – that is, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent – nevertheless, this entity would command some respect!

It’s been said that any sufficiently advanced technology looks like magic when shown to sufficiently backward witnesses.  Thus, this entity might be able to do fantastic things via technology well beyond what we can muster, but still be subject to some sort of overriding constraints.  That is, not an infinitely capable being, but simply one able to command considerable power in ways far, far beyond our existing human abilities.  Such a being might not be a “true god” (whatever that might mean), but it presumably would seem “god-like” to us humans at this point in our history.

In our fantasies, we’ve imagined creatures with all sorts of powers.  Not just gods, but “superbeings” in our fiction (movies, folklore, novels, comic books, etc.) who fall short of being a “true god” (however that might be defined) but nevertheless have some pretty interesting powers:  for example, Santa Claus, Batman, Superman, the Tooth Fairy, Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, the Easter Bunny, mutants like Wolverine with various capabilities, etc.  The difference is that most of us understand and acknowledge these characters are fictional, not real.  They’re human creations, clearly.  Further, many of us see the gods of “primitive” people (Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, Hittites, etc.) in a patronizing way, concluding their gods were also fictional, the creation of superstitious humans.

Yet many present-day believers accept as real the Abrahamic god that is the subject of their sacred texts as the one “true god”, unlike all its predecessor gods, accepting this without any hint of credible evidence.  I see their position in this regard as dogmatic, so I wanted to be able to make it clear that I’m not being dogmatic about my beliefs.  I have no absolute proof that their god doesn’t exist, nor am I under any obligation to do so, but nevertheless, I don’t believe that such a god does exist.  My confidence in that position isn’t absolute, but is pretty high, based on the logical issues with any infinite being and on the falsehoods and contradictions in the so-called “sacred” documents upon which Abrahamic religions are based.

If I were to assert, however, that I believe with 100 percent (absolute) confidence that their god doesn’t exist, I would be just as unable to “prove” such an assertion as believers are unable to “prove” that he exists, again in absolute terms.  Hence, I’m an agnostic type of atheist.  I remain open to the logical possibility that a being of some sort capable of “supernatural” acts might exist, but I consider it highly unlikely.  I consider it quite improbable that this deity will provide us with such a compelling demonstration of his power and existence as I’ve described.  Elsewhere, I’ve used the example of Isaac Newton’s Law of Gravity to suggest that in the scientific world, all understanding is provisional – subject to change with new evidence.  But I’m not about to deny the validity of the Law of Gravity to the point where I’d throw myself off a 100 m cliff just to show my contempt for the Law of Gravity!  Although the Law of Gravity is not proven as an absolute truth, it has survived a vast array of tests, both by experience and by direct scientific design.  My belief in the Law of Gravity is not at all faith-based, but rather is built on evidence that I can experience, and understand, and repeat (in many cases).  The same goes for my religious beliefs – barring the occurrence of some clearly “supernatural” act by some powerful being (a miracle), I have extremely high confidence in my provisional hypothesis of the non-existence of the Abrahamic deity.

I maintain that although the preponderance of evidence, which consists almost exclusively of the absence of evidence for this postulated infinite deity, leads me to my existing position, I’ve tried to keep an open mind.  There might be some very powerful being out there whose capabilities would seem “god-like” to me even if they’re finite.  If those capabilities are finite, there might be another level of being on an even higher capability level that a powerful, but finite entity might worship.  And so on, in an infinite regress.  I assert it’s a lot simpler just to deny the first level – an all-powerful being responsible for the creation of all that we know and who can do pretty much anything, including violating the rules of the physical universe (as we know them now).  Then there’s no infinite regress.

But if this entity chooses to announce in advance to all humans simultaneously that it will stop the Earth’s rotation, and cause it to rotate the other way for 5 min (without disastrous consequences for all life on Earth!), and then actually make that happen, that would be strong evidence for such a powerful being!  You likely wouldn’t want to piss him off!!  I’m just not going to hold my breath until the miracle happens, though!

Science is not a religion but rather a tool for those who wish to think for themselves about the natural world.  Its primary characteristic is its willingness to entertain questions from those who wish to obtain believable answers.