Field of Science

What's adequate evidence for God in principle?

As an atheist, is there any evidence that I would persuade me to provisionally accept that God exists?

This questions has recently been dealt with by both PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne - who are both atheists and biologists, and usually agree on most things, as far as I can discern. This time they don't, however. PZ argues that nothing would persuade him, and Coyne explains how he could be persuaded (two other bloggers I follow, Massimo Pigliucci and John Wilkins - both philosophers with a heavy interest in biology, and both atheists, even though Wilkins doesn't know it, have indicated that they side with PZ on this one).

First off, the question as stated doesn't completely make sense. In order to refute a concept/hypothesis, it must be adequately defined. And quite frankly, those people who say they will not be persuaded by any evidence whatsoever, are exactly the ones who seem to me not to own up to this problem. If I just say 'God', then one can always refute positive evidence for the concept by saying that something else could explain it, by pushing further back what 'God' means. For example, if we define 'God' as that which caused a particular person with leprosy to be healed, then evidence that this particular person with leprosy was healed would be evidence of 'God'. Stupid definition, of course, but the problem is that all the definitions are stupid, in this sense. Events purported to be explained by some God-concept can all be explained in other ways, too. And this is exactly the problem, and the reason that tree quarters of people surveyed (see above) will say that no evidence is sufficient to persuade them.

Since we are people of science - people who believe that belief should be based solely on evidence - it seems a pretty big problem that there is something we just would not ever accept as true NO MATTER WHAT THE EVIDENCE. It is, quite frankly, a totally untenable position that we cannot afford to take, especially given that we are asking everyone else to accept the evidence we have for evolution.

Coyne gives an example that I think is pretty good. Take it away, Jerry:
Suppose that you, P.Z., were present at the following events, and they were also witnessed by lots of other skeptical eyewitnesses and, importantly, documented on film: A bright light appears in the heavens and, supported by wingéd angels, a being clad in white robe and sandals descends onto the UMM quad from the sky, accompanied by a pack of apostles with the same names given in the Bible. Loud heavenly music is heard everywhere, with the blaring of trumps. The being, who describes himself as Jesus, puts his hand atop your head, P.Z., and suddenly your arms are turned into tentacles. As you flail about with your new appendages, Jesus asks, “Now do you believe in me?” Another touch on the head and the tentacles disappear and your arms return. Jesus and his pack then repair to the Mayo clinic and, also on film, heal a bunch of amputees (who remain permanently arméd and leggéd after Jesus’s departure). After a while Jesus and his minions, supported by angels, ascend back into the sky with another chorus of music. The heavens swiftly darken, there is thunder, and a single lightning bolt strikes P.Z.’s front yard. Then, just as suddenly, the heavens clear.
PZ responded in a post consisting of ten eight points, and frankly I have trouble seeing how any of them aren't just skirting the matter at hand profusely. Quite a puerile 'no, no, no' objection, if you ask me. For example:

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.
Swoosh, swoosh. God should be able to make a 900 foot Jesus (and all sorts of other amazing things that aren't described in the Bible).
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.

We could then counter that those events could be explained by something else, of course. As people would. However, if we do that, then I would have to ask why? Why not at this point simply admit that, okay, there is indeed a god, and this god did this. We simply defined 'God' as the one who would cause these events to happen. Why not? Because God is more than that, you say? Well, then let's hear what that 'more', and I can come up with another (crazy) example of an event to add to Coyne's, and we could ask the same question. Suppose this 'God' said that he would now create a copy of Earth orbiting Earth One, and on it start creating life again, just like he tells us that he did some 6000 years ago. And he somehow let us all see it, and let all the scientists and atheists have front row seats of it all. Suppose this 'God' could tell each one of us what we were thinking, predict the future, explain away the fossil record, and make a stick that is longer than itself, etc. etc. At one point 'God' would have done everything we think that God is supposed to be capable of, and at that point we would have no other tactic than the claim that everything that is happening is some malfunction of our brains (all 6+ billion), and that it's all just an illusion. However, our daily (normal) lives might all be like that (The Matrix, yada-yada), and the way we think we are not living under a constant elaborate illusion is by verifying what we experience with other humans. "Did you see those planes fly into that building?" "Yes, dude, it was all over the news." "Did you see that ball of lightning?" "What?! You're crazy, balls of lightning don't exist!".

In the process of accepting that 'God' did the things that he says that he did (including creating us, say), we may learn something new about 'God', and this may be off-putting to a lot of people, who may not recognize their own idea of God (there are, after all, over 33,000 Christian denominations that disagree on some aspect of theology, amazingly). This may prompt some people to say that this 'God' is not God after all, but that is exactly the problem of definition that I referred to above. I personally don't think the concept of the 'supernatural' make any sense in the first place; if some 'supernatural' event occurred for us to see, then it happened in the natural world that we inhabit, and we would immediately set out to explain it in terms of natural laws (physics, biology, geology, chemistry, etc.). If we could not do this, then we would simply update our natural laws as we always do when some new phenomenon is observed. As Michael Shermer* puts it, "the job of science is to make the paranormal normal." Same goes for the supernatural.

If such a God really appeared and did all of the above, what would you say? How about, "Okay, God, you exist. You are truly a being of wonder, and all evidence points to you being the creator of ourselves, which we must thank you for. However, screw you for keeping us in the dark for so long. Why on Earth didn't you show yourself earlier? Can you really blame us for not believing in you? I mean, with all the fucked-up things going on here every day, couldn't you have come a little earlier to feed the starving children, and to punish all the sinners? Why the hell did you have to plant all that evidence to make it look like we evolved without any help from you? Do you really despise us so much that you had to deceive us? Did we really mean anything to you after all, or were those just lies in that super-self-contradictory book containing the only information hitherto about your doings in the past? Given the really, really apparent evidence for your existence and your powers, are you going to be much offended if I'm gonna have to pass on loving you "back", and devoting my life to your glory?"

Or something like that.

* Shermer sides with those who would not accept any evidence for a deity, even though I am unsure how he would feel about Coyne's example and my extension.


  1. Actually I side with neither view. In order to work out whether there could be evidence for or against God, you have to specify both the kind of god involved, and the sorts of Bayesian priors in play.

    I have elsewhere argued that if a deity can be empirically inoculated, then it is immune from disproof. Likewise, if a deity is not empirically immune, then it can be both proven and disproven.

    My hypothesis that thunder is caused by Thor striking his anvil with his hammer is empirically vulnerable, and as a matter of fact disproven.

    However, if Thor is allegorically striking his anvil, then that is not disproven by an explanation of thunder as an electrical discharge in clouds. Thor in this case is empirically inoculated.

    Basically we cannot rule out deities by (excuse me) fiat. We do not have a God's Eye View from which we can assert the lack of Gods; and we must build up our epistemic expectations as we go fallibly. A priori, deities cannot be eliminated. A posteriori, we can only eliminate those that are contrary-to-fact. This is basically Hume's argument: apportion one's beliefs according to the evidence (or lack of it).

  2. The whole issue is very simple IMO:

    God as a supernatural beeing, has supernatural powers, in fact is omnipotent. TO that extend, God must have the ability to change cause and effect relations. We must see events that weren't cause within our universe. For example: Take a billard table: either repreat the exact same pattern of collisions 100 times in a row, or just make balls role, or change color, or make them into cake. Everything we consider a "wonder".
    This would show, that cause and effect can be changed and that itself would render our ability to make predictions, and conclusions, and science, and everything that as based on inductions, deduction, or rational thinking ad absurdum. Without these we loose the ability to make any conclusion/test/proof/prediction what so ever. The only thing that a true God-observation can have is to render either the observer insane, or everyone looses his/her mind as well.

    Cheers Arend

  3. Gee, now I'm wondering if I need to do a post on this one.

    I fall somewhere between Jerry and PZ. I think that Jerry fails to consider some important aspects of the discussion, and in his most recent follow-up post a couple of his pronouncements really go "clunk" with me. Furthermore, although the standard of proof he describes is quite high, I don't think it's quite high enough. ("Oh shit I've gone mad" and "Somebody is tricking me" would remain the most parsimonious explanations throughout much of the hypothesized scenarios)

    PZ's arguments contain a whole lot of unimpressive noise (one of his points was basically, "But there hasn't been any evidence like that!" Um, no shit PZ, we know), but I think if you read between the lines, his central argument is logical (although I disagree with one of the core premises). Here's my stab at "Shorter PZ":

    1) The definition of supernatural is "not natural", which according to a stance of philosophical materialism, means "not real". (I agree with this premise FWIW)

    2) God is by definition supernatural. If it's not supernatural, then no matter how theistic it seems, it ain't God. (I understand why this is a philosophically appealing position, but I think it's obstinate and silly)

    Therefore, God by definition does not exist. QED.

    If you read between the lines, that's really what he's saying. But it's hard to find that because those two core premises are implied rather than explicitly stated, and it's all buried amongst a whole pile of static.

    Anyway, to put my position succinctly... the problem of definition is tremendous here, and many God concepts are inherently self-contradictory and therefore we would strongly doubt that there could ever be satisfactory evidence. (Though, OTOH, reality has been known to make an end run around apparently sound philosophical objections before, so who knows...) Moreover, even those God concepts which are not self-contradictory have -- taking a cue from John Wilkins and employing Bayesian language -- very lousy priors that would make it very difficult to ever establish a sufficient level of proof.

  4. @James

    I don't think God is a question of definition... in fact it is quite the opposite.

    Within the context of reality (or system of inference) we can do two things: Observe causality, and derive statements from axioms. But we can not make axioms, or derive statements about axioms. This is simply put not how logic works. If you can define something it is possible to either prove this definition to be consistent (derivable) or inconsistent from the axioms. But I think God is always the original cause of the universe, and I think there is no religion not having this as one of their most fundamental statements. Thus God is an Axiom. And axioms can not be proven in the first place.

    Therefor I am saying God is not a question of definition. I don't want to cherry pick the question of "Arend just defined God to be an axiom". But I think this is what God neccessarily has to be. And we will find that we can explain everything without the need to base any explanation on this God-Axiom, and thus show: Our universe is undistinguishable from a universe withour a creator... but we will see.

    Cheers Arend

  5. I don't get either one of you three.

    If a being appears that tells us all that it can do whatever we ask of it, and when we ask, it happens, and everyone can gets to verify it*, and again and again, then at some point it will become quite an untenable position to refuse to admit that this is something many people would call 'God'.

    * Or choose some other set of phenomena that we don't EVER get to observe in a world in which works the way the four of us know it otherwise does.

  6. Remember we are not talking about a rigorous proof here. Just adequate evidence that will convince you. So again, if a being comes around and shows you that it can do all the things you think a god should be able to do, and this being is able to show you and everyone else repeatedly.

    Next to none of the things we believe about this world are rigorously proven, but just based on adequate evidence.

    Also, Arend, you seem very set on a definition of 'God': "God as a supernatural beeing, has supernatural powers, in fact is omnipotent." Well, suppose it turns out that this being is not omnipotent, and explains that not all the silly things in the Bible are true, but he nevertheless can do all sorts of amazing things, including creating life by a mere thought, and knows the answer to any question you may have, and can break physical laws at will, then that would qualify as a divine being to me and very many people.

    And James,. I think you're giving far too much credit to PZ's amazingly asinine post.

  7. Well,

    imagine some dude with long hair comes around, bables about peace, being the son of someone important, hanging out with his 12 other dudes, pissing of authorities, drinking some more wine, claiming it is his blood, pissing of authorities some more, and getting crucified... not very God like, as every other natural phenomenon. God has to differentiate himself somehow from its creation (again creation in an iminent/universal property of God, as far as I know). Everything that is natural wouldn't "convince" me, and the only thing that could convince me that entity X is special in any way must not be natural. And yes I think nothing in the universe is special.
    Other than that I would call this dude how ever impressing an alien get my gun and shoot the imposer... I am excagurating (sp?) but I guess you get the idea.

    With other words, I wouldn't call an alien the engeneered us God. On top of that, God in most cases implies a universal objective (and superior) moral, and for that you need transcendence or objectivity which you can only achive if you are not within/part of the system. Otherwise this non omnipotent dude would just be any other guy, without objective moral.
    Besides that I don't believe in objectibe/superior moral, but this something atributed to God, or in polytheism to one of the Gods mostly the chief of the gang.

    Also prooving you are just the guy who wrote the bible won't do it either, since I already believe the authors to be simple humans, and yes they lied about a couple of things or invented them, hence the bible containing weird and untrue things.

    "If a being appears that tells us all that it can do whatever we ask of it, and when we ask, it happens, and everyone can gets to verify it*, and again and again, then at some point it will become quite an untenable position to refuse to admit that this is something many people would call 'God'." in this case I could ask this entity to proove it's non existence... and we would have a living proof of an antinomy, which again destrys our ability to distinguish true from false.

    Cheers Arend

  8. Bjorn, that's basically what I was saying at first, although I add the caveat that since the god hypothesis is so a priori wildly unlikely, "Oh crap I've gone bonkers" and "It's all a trick and I just haven't challenged Her to do the 'right' 'impossible' thing yet" would remain in my suspicions for quite some time.

    I have since modified my stance somewhat, in that I think it is reasonable to demand that "Creator of all that exists" be part of your definition... and if you do, then I cannot even imagine any evidence that would convince me -- though that does not necessarily preclude there being some evidence I cannot yet imagine.

    My full thoughts here.


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