What would it take to convince you?
Posted: 16 January 2012 Updated: whenever: whatever
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
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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"
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
my beliefs - for the simple reason that I have high confidence that
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?