What would it take to convince you?


Chuck Doswell

Posted:  16 January 2012  Updated:  whenever: whatever

This is my personal opinion.  If you like, you can let me know what you think about this. But if you're not willing to have your comments posted on here, along with my response, don't bother me. For contact, use cdoswell_#_earthlink.net -- use the email hyperlink or cut and paste, replacing "_#_" with "@".


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 questions any evidence that matches our own opinions regarding some hypothesis (including 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.  Thus, I'm undertaking the effort to describe what it would take for believers to convince me of the existence of their hypothesized "god".

A simple demonstration for a deity

In my discussions with religious believers, I find that many of them have an absolutely impenetrable barrier against accepting any evidence of the nonexistence of their deity.  They're simply impervious to any rational argument, preferring to maintain their beliefs even in the face of contrary evidence - there's no rational argument that can sway their faith.  I take "faith" to mean "belief in the absence of evidence"

I exclude categorically the religious texts of the Abrahamic faiths as credible evidence of anything.  When I say "evidence" I mean something I can see and measure and verify independently, not ancient manuscripts, the credibility of which is highly questionable.  Believers say that it takes similar faith to believe in the nonexistence of their deity.  And to a very limited 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 of existence of this deity necessarily falls on the believer, not the one who doesn't believe.  As a nonbeliever, naturally, I have nothing to prove.  Disbelief requires no proof - only belief requires proof.  Keep in mind that ultimately, my confidence in the use of reason, logic, and especially evidence, is not based on faith, but on my experience using these tools. 

Nevertheless, this raises an interesting question.  If no evidence could ever result in a wavering of belief in "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 only based on those "sacred" texts) occurred nearly 2000 years ago and for reasons that remain mysterious, the Abrahamic deity has chosen not to provide us with any recent samples of his supernatural power during 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, clearly supernatural miracles!  So here's my proposed demonstration of the deity's existence:

If said deity suddenly spoke to everyone on the Earth at the same time in their own language, announcing that in 15 min, he would stop the Earth’s rotation and then cause it to rotate backward for 5 min before resuming its normal rotation - and then in 15 min, this event actually happened - that would be a pretty decent demonstration that this entity actually exists and is what he claims to be.  It wouldn't be absolute proof, but it would certainly go a long way toward increasing my confidence that this deity indeed exists and has some pretty powerful capabilities!  After that, we might ask for additional, confirmatory demonstrations and, after a while, the preponderance of such evidence would tilt my perception toward the hypothesis that this deity exists!  Anything short of this demonstration (or something similar) wouldn’t be very compelling.


NOTE:  If this actually happened, the sudden stops and reversals would create lots of problems for life on Earth.  I suppose I must assume the hypothesized deity could prevent these deleterious physical effects, presumably because he loves us so much!

In this way, I'm providing at least an example of the kind of evidence that would be convincing to me, personally.  I challenge the Abrahamic deity to show me the evidence!  Even if I were to lean toward accepting that hypothesis after just a single demonstration of this sort, there might be lots of other questions I might have for this entity, once he reveals himself.  I've proposed this particular demonstration because it would show convincingly that this entity had some pretty remarkable powers, assuming it could be shown the event wasn't some sort of mass illusion (a "magic" trick).  In other words, tangible persistent evidence that it actually happened.  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 considerable respect!

Just what is a "god"?

It's been said that any sufficiently advanced technology would look like magic when shown to sufficiently backward witnesses.  Thus, this entity might be able to do fantastic things, but still be subject to some sort of overriding constraints - that is, not infinitely powerful, but simply able to command considerable power in ways far, far beyond humanity's existing abilities.  Such a being might not be a "true god" (whatever that might mean), but it presumably would seem pretty "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 with diverse powers, etc.  The difference is that we all understand and acknowledge these characters are fictional!  They are human creations, clearly.  And we look backward at 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 believers accept as real the Abrahamic god that is the subject of their sacred texts as the one "true god", unlike all his predecessor gods, without any hint of credible evidence.  Their deity is given infinite capabilities, to include the ability to violate what we understand to be natural laws.  I see their position in this regard as dogmatic, so I want to make it clear that I'm not being dogmatic by stating just what sort of evidence I would require if I were to begin to reconsider my position of atheism.  Yes, I'm asking for a lot, but it should be trivial for this postulated god with infinite power.  All I'm asking for is a simple demonstration, after all. 

I have no absolute proof that the god of religious believers doesn't exist, but nevertheless, I don't believe that such a god does exist.  My confidence in that position isn't absolute, but is based on the absence of a shred of credible evidence for the existence of this entity.  I’m trying not to emulate believers who have an absolutely unshakable belief that their god exists, irrespective of any evidence to the contrary I might be able to muster (and it's considerable, I believe).  Of course, the nature of that evidence is necessarily of the sort that disavows any "testimony" within the Abrahamic sacred texts and the logic focuses on the logical conundrums associated with belief in an infinite deity.  And, of course, I admit that proving a negative logically is impossible …

Does disbelief require faith?

As already noted, some believers say that it takes the same sort of faith to believe that their god doesn't exist as it takes to believe their god does exist.  I disagree vehemently with that.  If their god existed and actually had the traits they claim for him, then there are many logical consequences that follow from those assumptions about the nature of their god.  From my point of view, those logical consequences comprise part of an argument that their god is almost certainly another fictional being invented by humans.  I won't repeat all the arguments I've already made elsewhere.  Moreover, there's no credible evidence that such things as prayer actually have any demonstrable effect.  There's no historical evidence to support the existence of a jewish prophet who was crucified and arose from the dead three days later.  There haven't been any credible supernatural miracles ever documented.   And so on.  The absence of evidence, when accumulated, seems to compel disbelief.  It seems very unlikely to me that an infinitely powerful being would behave the way they say the Abrahamic behaves - embracing contradictions, visiting eternal damnation on his own creations, influencing the creation of sacred texts that embrace misogyny, slavery, death to homosexuals, and so on.  This being demands worship but declines to provide any routine demonstrations of his existence, demanding instead that we believe in him without evidence!

Infinities are not something easily grasped by nonscientists and often misunderstood - they have logical consequences that are both inescapable and troubling, such as the problem of free will when the creator of humans knows everything and has infinite power.  He creates people knowing they will never embrace christianity, thereby dooming them to eternal torment.

If I were to assert, however, that I believe with 100 percent confidence that such a god does not exist, I indeed would be just as unable to "prove" that assertion in absolute terms as believers are unable to "prove" that he exists in absolute terms.  We are indeed on equal footing in this regard; that is, when absolute proof is necessary.  Hence, I'm an agnostic type of atheist.  I remain open to the logical possibility that a supernatural deity of that sort might exist, but I consider it highly unlikely.  I consider it quite improbable that this deity will provide us with such a compelling demonstration as I've described above as sufficient to cause me to question my beliefs - for the simple reason that I have high confidence that this entity doesn't exist!  Elsewhere, I've used the example of the Law of Gravity to suggest that in the scientific world, all understanding is provisional - subject to change with new evidence. 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 lack of respect for the Law of Gravity!  Would believers do so in the belief that their deity would save them?  Although the Law of Gravity hasn't yet been proven absolutely, it has survived a vast array of empirical tests, both by experience and by direct scientific design.  My belief in the Law of Gravity is not faith-based at all, but rather is built on evidence that I can experience, understand, and repeat (in many cases).

Can believers respond in kind?

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'm trying 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 be subservient to.  And so on, in an infinite regress-type situation.  Frankly, it's a lot simpler to deny the first level:  a 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).

But if this entity could perform my proposed demonstration, or something of that sort, then he would be quite god-like!  He probably would deserve considerable respect and you likely wouldn't want to piss him off!!  At that point, some serious reconsideration of my position might be warranted.

Since I've produced a statement of what it would take to change my position, I challenge believers to do likewise: tell me what sort of evidence would it take for you to change your position!  Although my sample demonstration is pretty fantastic, it should be duck soup for an omniscient, omnipotent entity who created the whole universe.  Are believers willing to submit to logic and evidence, should the evidence be compelling enough?  What sort of evidence would you need? Are you willing even to entertain the slightest doubt and to use that doubt to imagine some sort of plausible experiment that would cause you to rethink your belief?