What Would Convince This Atheist To Believe?

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

Atheists often point out that religious faith is closed off to evidence that contradicts it. What evidence would persuade atheists that their atheism was mistaken?

If I’m such an open-minded atheist — if I really am an atheist because I think the God hypothesis is unsupported by the evidence — what evidence for God would I accept? What would it take to change my mind?

Atheists often ask religious believers, “What evidence would convince you that you were mistaken?” We like to point out that religious beliefs are usually unfalsifiable — there’s no possible evidence that could prove them wrong, thus rendering them utterly useless. And even if they’re falsifiable in theory (as any belief in a 6,000 year old Earth ought to be), they wind up being unfalsifiable in practice, with an endless series of denialism and goalpost-moving and “God works in mysterious ways” waffling. We often point out that the very definition of religious faith is believing without evidence, even believing in spite of evidence that flatly contradicts the faith. We point out that, when asked “What would convince you that your belief was mistaken?”, the answer from believers is typically, “Nothing. Nothing would convince me that my God is not real. That’s what it means to have faith.” (Which makes accusing atheists of arrogance more than a little absurd… but that’s not important right now.)

And atheists like to point out that this isn’t true for us. We like to point out that atheists are open to the possibility that we might be wrong. We like to point out that the reason we don’t believe in God is that we haven’t seen good evidence for him… and that if we see better evidence, we’ll change our minds.

But I’ll admit that I’ve been lazy about spelling out what that evidence actually is. When the subject comes up, I’ve tended to point to the legendary (in atheist circles, anyway) essay on this subject, The Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists, by Daylight Atheism blogger Ebonmuse. I’ve tended to just point to that piece, and say, “What he said. That’s more or less what I think.”

But that seems like cheating. If I’m going to insist that my atheism is falsifiable, I bloody well ought to be willing to think carefully about what, exactly, would falsify it. Not for some other really smart atheist — for me. And I ought to be willing to spell that out in public.

So it’s time to go out on a limb. It’s time to put up or shut up.

Here are the pieces of evidence that would convince me that God was real. Not necessarily that God was good, or worth worshipping — simply that he/ she/ it/they existed.

And here, side by side with that, are some of the kinds of evidence that would not convince me God or the supernatural exist. Kinds of evidence that are typically offered by believers in debates with atheists, so often it’s depressingly predictable. Kinds of evidence that flatly do not hold up. (All inspired, obviously, by the abovementioned Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists. From which I am stealing this whole idea outright.)

An Unambiguous Message

What would convince me: If I saw an unambiguous message from God, I would be persuaded of his existence. If I saw writing suddenly appear in the sky, in letters a hundred feet high, saying “I Am God, I Exist, Here Is What I Want You To Do” — and if that writing were seen by every human being, written in whatever language they understand, comprehended in the same way by everyone who saw it — I would be persuaded that God existed. I’d be puzzled as to why he’d waited this long — why he’d decided to do it in 2010 and not at any other time in human history — but I’d still believe.

(And for the record: Yes, it’s possible that this could happen without God. It could hypothetically, for instance, be accomplished by a highly technologically advanced alien species. But I don’t think that would be the simplest explanation. If this phenomenon happened, “God” would, in my opinion, be a simpler explanation than “aliens” — and unless I saw good evidence that the writing was done by aliens, God would be the provisional conclusion I would come to.)

What would not convince me: I would not, however, be persuaded by ambiguous messages. I would not be persuaded by religious texts or teachings that contradict themselves, and that are easily interpreted in wildly different and even completely contradictory ways by different believers in that faith. Like, oh, say, every religious text I’ve ever read.

I would also not be persuaded by people saying, “The evidence is all around you! Look at the magnificence of life and the universe! It had to be created and shaped by something, because… well, it had to be! Isn’t it obvious?” Human minds are wired by evolution to see intention, even where no intention exists. Given this cognitive error; given that so much about life and the universe has already been explained by physical cause and effect; given the thorough consistency with which natural explanations for phenomena have replaced supernatural ones, thousands upon thousands of times over the course of history, when it has never once happened the other way around… given all this, I see no reason to interpret the existence of the physical universe as an unambiguous message from God.

Similarly, I would not be persuaded by the “first cause” argument, the argument from design, or the argument from fine tuning. Same reasons, basically.

And I would not be persuaded by a message that only I saw or heard. (At least… I hope I wouldn’t be. It’s possible that I could get hit by lightning or something and get my brain re-arranged in a way that made me think God existed. But I would be wrong to do so. If I ever get hit by lightning and decide that God exists, you all have my permission to print out this article and smack me over the head with it.)

“I feel it in my heart” is one of the worst pieces of evidence for God that I’ve seen. Our personal intuitions are important and valuable — but they’re far too flawed, far too subject to confirmation bias and other cognitive errors, to be the sole piece of evidence for anything in the external, non-subjective world. Especially when it comes to things that we really, really want to believe — like God and Heaven and immortality. If we care whether the things we believe about the world are true, we need to test our personal experiences and intuitions, using rigorous methods designed to filter these cognitive biases out.

Accurate Prophecies in Sacred Texts

What would convince me: If any sacred text in any religion made clear, unambiguous, accurate prophecies about the future — and did so consistently — I would be persuaded that this religion was divinely inspired. If there were a passage in Isaiah or Revelation, the Pyramid Texts or the Bhagavad Gita, that read, “And verily I say unto you, that 1,987 years after the death of Augustus Caesar, on the date of September 11, some followers of an Abrahamic religion that has not yet been founded will attack a city called New York that does not yet exist, by steering flying machines that have not yet been invented into two skyscrapers, whatever the hell those are” — and if that same sacred text made several other clear, accurate prophecies — I’d be convinced that God or some other divine being existed, and had inspired the text in question. (With the same “highly technologically advanced aliens” caveat noted above.)

What would not convince me: I would not, however, be persuaded by vague prophecies that could easily be interpreted in an infinite number of ways, and that can be twisted and shoehorned in after an event to make it seem like that event is what was being predicted. (Like, oh, say, to pick one example completely at random, Nostradamus.)

I would also not be persuaded by one lucky hit among numerous misses. If I saw the abovementioned 9/11 prophecy in a sacred text — but this same sacred text also prophesized that the flying machines would be invented in the year 1066, and that in 1501 all people would sprout green tentacles for three months, and that within a hundred years of the tentacle incident the continent of Antarctica would be swallowed by hamsters… I’d be surprised, I’d stop and take notice, but ultimately I wouldn’t be convinced.

I would definitely not be persuaded by very broad, obvious predictions. “The current empire will someday fall”… well, yes. Empires rise and fall. “There will be a great drought”… well, yes. Droughts happen. You don’t need God to tell you that. Any nimrod can figure that out. Self-fulfilling prophecies would also not convince me. As Ebonmuse pointed out in the Theist’s Guide: “The Jewish people returned to their homeland in Israel just as the Bible said they would, but this isn’t a genuine prediction — they did it because the Bible said they would. The predicted event can’t be one that people could stage.”

And I would not be persuaded by religious texts that were written after a prophecy had been made, conveniently making it seem as if the previous prophecy had been magically fulfilled. When the Old Testament predicted that the Messiah would have such-and-such characteristics, and the authors of the New Testament knew that the Old Testament had made these predictions, and they wrote the story of Jesus after the fact in a way that shoehorned him into those predictions… that’s a teensy bit unconvincing. To say the least.

Accurate Science in Religious Texts

What would convince me: If any sacred text in any religion were consistently accurate in its writings about science — including scientific knowledge that was not known at the time the text was written — I would be persuaded that this religion was divinely inspired. If there were a passage in Isaiah or Revelation, the Pyramid Texts or the Bhagavad Gita, that read, “And verily I say unto you, that the earth orbits the sun despite how it appears to the naked eye, and the sun is simply another of the millions upon millions of stars that appear in the sky, and the continents slowly drift through the oceans, and energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared”… I’d be convinced that God or some other divine being existed, and had inspired the text in question. (Again, with the same “space aliens” caveat noted above.)

What would not convince me: I would not, however, be persuaded by vaguely worded passages that could be twisted after the fact to fit into current scientific knowledge. The fact that the Bible starts with the words “In the beginning” does not mean it’s accurately describing the Big Bang. Please. Absolutely nothing in Genesis implies anything about the Big Bang… and plenty of stuff in Genesis completely contradicts it. Such as the bit about the Earth being created before the stars. Give me a break.

And again, I would not be persuaded by one lucky hit among eleventy kajillion misses. If a sacred text got it right about the earth orbiting the sun, but got it laughably wrong about botany and zoology and epidemiology and geology and genetics and physics… I would remain, to say the least, unimpressed.

The One Successful Religion

Jump for joy
What would convince me: If the believers in one particular religion had noticeably better lives than the believers in any other religion — in ways that couldn’t be accounted for by social or economic or other natural factors — I would be convinced that this religion was true. If believers in, say, the Mormon faith, or the Baha’i faith, or the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, were found to be far healthier, wealthier, and happier than believers in other faiths, if their prayers came true significantly more often, if they had far fewer accidents and birth defects and genetic diseases and pediatric cancer — and this difference was statistically significant, much greater than could be accounted for by higher wealth or social status or something — I would be persuaded that God existed, and that this faith was the correct one, and that God was rewarding these believers for the correctness of their faith.

And if one religion consistently won all its holy wars with all other religions — again, in ways that couldn’t be explained by better military technology or a larger population or other social/ economic/ natural factors — that would get me believing in a heartbeat.

I might not be persuaded to worship this God, or to believe that he was good. I’d be more than a little baffled as to why he hadn’t made his message of Mormonism or Baha’i-ism or Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synodism clearer to everyone. I’d actually think he was kind of a dick. But I’d sure be persuaded that he existed.

What would not convince me: I would not, however, be persuaded by one religion doing better than another for obvious social or economic or other natural reasons. Yes, Episcopalians tend to be wealthier than, say, Baptists. There are lots of obvious, entirely natural explanations for this. None of them have to do with Episcopalians being God’s chosen people.

And I would definitely not be persuaded by believers parading all the times that their prayers came true… and then, when all the times that their prayers weren’t answered got pointed out, responding with something like, “God moves in mysterious ways,” or, “God answers all prayers, but sometimes the answer is No.” Sorry, but you can’t have it both ways. You don’t get to count the hits and ignore or rationalize the misses. That’s what we call confirmation bias. And it’s definitely cheating.

Inexplicably Accurate Information Gained During Near-Death or Other Supposedly Psychic Experiences

What would convince me: This is a slightly different category — it’s more about evidence for an immaterial soul than evidence for God — but I’m going to bring it up anyway. If a person who was near death, or who was having some other sort of supposed psychic experience, were to gather information that could not possibly have been gathered in any physical way — and this was rigorously tested under careful conditions designed to screen out confirmation bias and cold readings and the unconscious sending of messages and other cognitive or experimental errors (not to mention outright fraud), and the experience could be consistently replicated under similarly rigorous testing conditions — I would be persuaded that human consciousness was not simply a product of the human brain, and that it had a non-physical component that could hypothetically survive death. If someone near death or in a trance or whatever could reliably, testably report on the contents of a locked safe… that would persuade me of the existence of the soul.

What would not convince me: I would not, however, be persuaded by anecdotal reports of these experiences. Casual observers are too — is there a nice word for “gullible”? I suppose there isn’t — too unfamiliar with natural explanations for supposedly supernatural events, too unaware of the kinds of experimental errors that can make these experiences seem real, too subject to confirmation bias, too incomplete in their understanding of probability, and far, far too eager to believe that the soul is real and they aren’t going to die. So these experiences would need to be rigorously tested and replicated, by people with experience in the kinds of cognitive and experimental errors that supposed psychic experiences are consistently subject to. (The reality is that whenever these types of experiences have been subjected to careful testing under good, scientific conditions, they never, ever, ever pan out. Ever.)

And I would definitely not be persuaded by the mere fact that some people have strange experiences when they’re near death. Being near death is an altered state of consciousness, and people have weird experiences when our brains are altered. We have weird experiences under all sorts of conditions: exhaustion, stress, distraction, trance-like repetition, optical illusion, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, sensory overload… any of these, and more, can create vivid “perceptions” that are entirely disconnected from external reality. You don’t have to be mentally ill, or even on drugs, to have weird experiences of things that aren’t there. And the oxygen deprivation and other physical changes that happen to the brain when it’s near death are definitely enough to do the trick. This one isn’t even close to being convincing. It makes absolutely no sense at all.

Is The Bar Too High?

High jump
Now, some believers will probably argue that my standards set the bar too high. They’ll argue that I’ve created standards of evidence that are obviously not being met: that I’ve created a counter-factual world in which God might exist, but that clearly is not the world we live in.

To which I reply: Yes. That’s my whole freaking point. The whole reason I don’t believe in God is that there is not one scrap of good, solid evidence supporting the God hypothesis. The whole reason I don’t believe in God is that every piece of evidence anyone has ever shown me in support of the God hypothesis has completely sucked. The whole reason I don’t believe in God is that these criteria — criteria that would be completely reasonable for any other hypothesis — are not being met.

As many atheists point out: If God were real, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. If God were real, it would be freaking obvious. If God were real, nobody would be an atheist. Nobody would even disagree about religion. The most obvious explanation for God’s existence not being ridiculously self-evident is that God does not exist. As Julia Sweeney says in her brilliant performance piece Letting Go of God, “The world behaves exactly as you expect it would, if there were no Supreme Being, no Supreme Consciousness, and no supernatural.”

And it’s absurd to argue that this bar is too high. If God were real — if there really were a God who created the universe and/or intervenes with it magically — none of this would be beyond him. I mean — he created the entire, 93- billion- light- years- across universe out of nothing! Surely he could make hundred-foot-high letters appear in the sky, or create a sacred text with scientific and prophetic accuracy, or consistently answer the prayers of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod! To argue that any bar is too high for him, that any standard of evidence is too rigorous for him, is ridiculous on the face of it.

Besides, just because God hasn’t offered these pieces of evidence so far doesn’t mean he never will. Maybe he’ll decide that he tried sending his message with the flood, and he tried again with Jesus… but obviously none of that worked, humans can be kind of thick-headed sometimes. So hey, why not try that “hundred-foot letters in the sky” thing this atheist chick keeps gassing on about?

If he does, I’ll change my mind.

In the meantime, I remain unconvinced.

Take The Challenge

So I’ve gone out on my limb. What about you?

If you’re an atheist — what evidence would convince you that your atheism was mistaken? Or that it was probably mistaken?

And if you’re a believer… what evidence would convince you that your belief was mistaken? Or that it was probably mistaken?

If you think your faith is falsifiable — if you would not answer the question, “What would convince you that your faith was mistaken?” by saying, “Nothing would change my mind, that’s what it means to have faith” — then take Ebonmuse’s challenge. If you prepare a list of things you’d accept as proof that atheism is true, and you post it on the Internet, he’ll link to it, and open it to discussion on his blog.

Until you do, please don’t accuse atheists of being close-minded, or arrogant, or unwilling to consider new ideas and evidence.

It just makes you look silly.


Addendum: When I first posted this piece on AlterNet, a number of commenters argued that, when it comes to many of the pieces of evidence that would persuade me out of my atheism, the space alien hypothesis would be a much more plausible explanation than the God hypothesis. I think a case could certainly be made for that position.

But to some extent, I’m drawing the line here to prove a point. Yes, an argument could be made that “aliens” would be a more plausible explanation for the skywriting and so on than “God.” But even when I give religion the benefit of the doubt in the evidence game; even when I err on the side of giving religion greater credibility than it possibly deserves; even when I say, “If this skywriting thing happened, I would be persuaded to believe” — it still falls short.

What Would Convince This Atheist To Believe?
The Orbit is still fighting a SLAPP suit! Help defend freedom of speech, click here to find out more and donate!

50 thoughts on “What Would Convince This Atheist To Believe?

  1. 1

    I’m an atheist, and I’ve thought about this question a lot, but I honestly can’t think of anything; not one thing that would officially sway me to believe that God was real, or probably real. There’s simply too many other more-plausible explanations. Even if I met God face to face, and talked with him, and lived in heaven, etc., there’s still the possibility that I’m in a matrix being fed these experiences, or the advanced alien race caveat you brought up. At best I could say that the evidence for God was greater than it was previously.
    If you see a flaw(s) in this position, I’d really like to know what it is. It’s a horrible position to be in when asked what would make you believe in God, as it’s almost the same as a christian saying “I’ll never stop believing in my God.” My position is more rational though, I think, and I really am prepared to change my mind, but it simply doesn’t seem possible to narrow the options down far enough to make God most plausible, or at least nearly plausible.

  2. 3

    Corbin, what in general does it take to convince you of a proposition? One can’t in general eliminate all other possible answers to any question, but one can generally pick out one hypothesis as most plausible. If the writing in the sky occurred as Greta suggests would you find any other hypothesis more plausible? Note this is not asking if the collection of alternate hypotheses outweighs that for a deity in that circumstance but rather whether when hypotheses are taking individually whether that’s the most reasonable single hypothesis.
    One should in general be worried if there’s no amount of evidence that will not convince one of a hypothesis being likely. If that’s the case, one isn’t being a rational individual.

  3. 4

    One should in general be worried if there’s no amount of evidence that will not convince one of a hypothesis being likely. If that’s the case, one isn’t being a rational individual.

    That doesn’t follow at all. Another possibility is that the hypothesis is false. Or unsupportable.
    What amount of evidence could convince you of the hypothesis that 2 + 2 = 6? None, one hopes–because that hypothesis is provably false, and “no amount of evidence” could possibly change that reality.
    One major issue with the argument Greta has posted here, and the Ebonmuse post she’s referenced repeatedly, is that it by-and-large finesses what, exactly, “God” means. If “God” just means a lifeform with far more knowledge and/or power than we have, then the evidence G&E have in mind would be worthwhile. “God” as a mere impressive extraterrestrial intelligence would not be all that difficult to demonstrate, if It were interested in revealing Itself.
    But, of course, huge numbers of theists believe in a “God” that is not just powerful but omnipotent, not just knowledgeable but omniscient. How, pray tell, is one supposed to find adequate evidence of another’s infinite power or knowledge? “Puzzled,” above, is exactly correct to cite Clarke’s Third Law: there is no way to tell the difference between (1) a sufficiently powerful being and (2) an infinitely powerful being. The suggestion that Corbin, who merely pointed out this conundrum, is to that extent not “being a rational individual” is nonsense.
    Greta deals with the (theist) objection that the evidentiary bar she has set in this post is too high. Actually, the problem (as she notes in the italicized postscript) is that the bar is too low–that real evidence of an omnipotent, omniscient being, differentiating it from a merely very-powerful and/or very-knowledgeable being, is impossible to come by.
    Greta’s “drawing the line here to prove a point” angle makes sense; well and good. But even the evidence she (like Ebonmuse before her) suggests does indeed make a Jean-Luc Picard a more plausible explanation than a Yahweh. That’s not Greta’s fault; it’s theism’s.

    Your own reports describe how rational these people are. Millennia ago, they abandoned all belief in the supernatural. And now you’re asking me to sabotage that achievement… send them back into the Dark Ages of fear and superstition.
    No. We must undo the damage we’ve caused.

    – Picard, “Who Watches the Watchers

  4. 5

    I’ve always been amused by The Great God Contest http://www.islandnet.com/~luree/contest.html The contest makes the assumption of the existence of gods. It is more of a test which is the best god, but the possibility is open that no god will win. Still, the three challenges, if met (virgin impregnated, corpse raised, sick healed and/or multitudes fed), would be persuasive evidence.
    On a personal level, I’ve considered setting the burden of proof pretty low with the following: Sarah Palin is transformed into an intelligent, thoughtful, articulate, well-reasoned, rational and compassionate conservative. (I don’t require she be a liberal, as that might be just too difficult for any deity.)
    This is my first comment on this site, which I’ve followed for quite some time. I hope I am not too far off-topic

  5. 6

    Rieux July 19, 2010 at 08:11 AM:

    What amount of evidence could convince you of the hypothesis that 2 + 2 = 6? None, one hopes–because that hypothesis is provably false, and “no amount of evidence” could possibly change that reality.

    Even that’s not true. It’s not overly difficult to imagine a scenario in which you could become deceived about such a thing.
    That said, I would struggle to imagine any kind of evidence not involving long-term delusion which would allow for a traditional monotheistic god. If we were looking at something more like the Ursula Vernon Divine-Social-Worker gods … that’s kinda difficult.

  6. 7

    I hear you about the idea that God may be a persuadable arguement for you. But I dont agree that spae aliens is the other possibility.
    I have a number of ideas of what it would take to prove god’s existence for me.
    But the thing is, even with that proof, the fact of the matter is…
    God is an alien.
    It doesnt matter if he has magic powers, it doesnt matter if he is outside of the universe or the cause of the universe. It would still be a separate entity, with a will of its own (benevolent or wrathful), and it wouldn’t be human or born on the planet Earth. God, if he exists, is an alien.

  7. 8

    Corbin: I see what you’re saying. But I think you may be overlooking a couple of key elements of this challenge. (Or maybe I just didn’t make them clear enough.)
    One is that we’re talking in counter-factuals. I’m not saying, “Given that the world is the way it is, what would persuade you that God existed?” After all, the world being the way it is it exactly what convinced us that God doesn’t exist. I’m asking, “What conditions would have to be different in order for you to think God existed?” Or putting it another way: If there were a God, what would the world look like? How would it be different?
    For you, that bar might be set higher (or differently) than it is for me. You might need more than one of the above conditions to be met: maybe you’d need to see the skywriting, AND the holy book with the accurate prophecies and scientific predictions, AND the members of one faith being granted happiness and success. And maybe some miracles to boot. For you, the fact that the world so clearly operates by physical cause and effect, and that once-unexplained phenomena have always turned out to have natural explanations and never supernatural ones, means you’d need the world to be radically different to persuade you of God’s existence. But I’m guessing you can imagine a world in which there is a God of some sort. That’s what I’m asking: What would that world look like?
    You also seem to be assuming (correct me if I’m wrong here) that I’m asking, “What would convince you that one particular version of God — i.e., the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God of Christianity — existed? I’m not. I actually think that, if we define “power,” “knowledge,” and “goodness” in any standard way, the Omnimax God is a logical impossibility — just as if we define 2, 6, “plus,” and “equals” in any standard way, 2=2=6 would be a logical impossibility. I’m asking what would persuade you of the existence of any God. (God being defined here as, oh, let’s say, a supernatural being, i.e. not comprised entirely out of physical matter and energy, who created the universe and/or intervenes with it.)
    Finally, you seem to be assuming — and again, correct me if I’m wrong — that I’m asking, “What would convince me with 100% certainty that God existed?” I’m not. If any of the abovementioned events happened, I would be persuaded that God probably existed. I would be convinced that God was the most plausible explanation. My belief would be as provisional as my non-belief.
    Yes, the Matrix option is always a hypothetical possibility. But it’s not actually very plausible. Daniel Dennet argued this very successfully: creating a simulacrum or illusion of reality is difficult to the point of impossibility, and it’s just as easy or even easier to simply create a new reality. The Truman Show is more plausible than The Matrix. So while it’s true that any of the events mentioned in this piece could be illusions planted by powerful but still natural/ physical beings, I don’t think that would be the most plausible explanation. I don’t need to be convinced that God’s existence is absolutely certain, that it’s the only possible explanation for the events in question. Any more than I need to be convinced that God’s non-existence is absolutely certain. I just need to be convinced that it’s probable.

  8. 9

    Techskeptic: Fair point. I should have been clearer about my definitions. I’m defining “God” as a supernatural being, i.e. not comprised entirely out of physical matter and energy. I’m defining “space aliens” as physical beings: very powerful ones with a lot of really good technology, but still physical beings comprised of matter and energy.
    It is true, as people have pointed out, that any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic or God. So even if I were persuaded that God existed, it’d be possible that I was being fooled by very advanced aliens. But again, my persuasion that God existed wouldn’t be absolute — it would be as provisional as my current persuasion that God doesn’t exist. I don’t need to be persuaded that God is the only possible explanation — just that he’s the most plausible one.
    And again, as I pointed out in my addendum: Religion can’t even meet that test. Even when I give it the benefit of the doubt and make myself more credulous than I arguably ought to be, it still fails.

  9. 10

    If the writing in the sky occurred as Greta suggests would you find any other hypothesis more plausible?
    Yes, such as the ones I mentioned: in a matrix, or advanced aliens. And yes, I find them individually more plausible than the God scenario.
    Rieux brought up a good point, about “God” not being defined very well. That’s one reason God is less plausible: we don’t even know what we’re dealing with exactly to make a probability judgment. And when we sorta do, such as him being omnipotent and omniscient, we’ve never seen anything like that, neither in nature nor synthetic.
    On the other hand, we can more than speculate on the possibility of a matrix and ETs. For starters, we’ve seen both computers and life in the universe. That makes them immediately more plausible.

  10. 11

    I wrote the above as you were sending your responses apparently, so disregard those as counters or whatever.
    Anyway, you’ve given me a lot to think about, so if I think of anything useful to respond with, I’ll do that later after much thought.
    Also, no, I do understand you’re not speaking in absolutes, but rather in terms of probability.

  11. 12

    As far as the “God” vs. “sufficiently advanced aliens” argument goes, I don’t really care about the difference.
    If Q from Star Trek, or SPOILER from the Suzumiya Haruhi series arrived on Earth and demanded that we being worship it as God, I wouldn’t be one to debate the differences.

  12. 13

    Robin, I was actually going to link to precisely that essay. You beat me to it.
    Corbin, ok. If we narrow the situation down to a more specific deity would you possibly change your mind? Say for example, that almost all the born-again Christians and all the little babies disappeared in a flash of light. What would that do to your estimate on the chance that some version of the evangelical Christian deity is real?

  13. 14

    Say for example, that almost all the born-again Christians and all the little babies disappeared in a flash of light. What would that do to your estimate on the chance that some version of the evangelical Christian deity is real?
    The chances would certainly go up, and quite a bit, I think. Actually, I could probably safely bump it up to plausible, along with some other theories of course, such as hyper-dimensional beings. In my opinion, your scenario would point to this specific deity a hell of a lot more than, say, letters in the sky, though.

  14. 15

    What amount of evidence could convince you of the hypothesis that 2 + 2 = 6? None, one hopes–because that hypothesis is provably false, and “no amount of evidence” could possibly change that reality.
    Even that’s not true.
    Which “that” do you mean? That (a) “one hopes” there’s no amount of evidence that would convince you that 2 + 2 = 6? That (b) said hypothesis is provably false? Or that (c) no amount of evidence could possibly change that reality? What, precisely, are you disputing?
    Presuming (a), the article you link to simply (and comically) ignores what mathematics is. The provable fact that 2 + 2 ≠ 6 has not the slightest thing to do with counting anything, whether “earplugs,” “X”es, or anything else. That 2 + 2 ≠ 6 is merely a direct and unavoidable logical inference from the axiomatic definitions of “2,” “6,” “+,” and “≠.”
    “Eliezer_Yudkowsky” simply ignores this, which renders his (?) post irrelevant to my comment. His hypothetical situation–in which he wakes up in a universe in which two earplugs, placed next to two other earplugs, become three earplugs–does nothing whatsoever to disprove the fact that 2 + 2 = 4. Even if earplugs (and “X”es) did behave that way, 2 + 2 would still = 4, because that’s simply how the symbols in question are defined. All of the parallel universes and capricious earplugs you can imagine can’t change that.
    So my assertion–the one I gather you dissented from–stands. “One” continues to “hope” that folks understand what it means to say “2 + 2 ≠ 6,” such that a few sneaky earplugs wouldn’t call axiomatic mathematical definitions into question. Alas, after an exchange like this one, “one[‘s] hopes” may be dashed. Basic concepts of mathematics are not as widely understood as I presumed. Ah, well.
    It’s not overly difficult to imagine a scenario in which you could become deceived about such a thing.
    Indeed not–but that’s hardly novel. Even Yudkowsky himself notices 1984, which directly posits that some severe amount of torture (along with, presumably, considerable technical proficiency in torturing) can create mental defects that are sufficient to make a poor creature like Winston Smith believe effectively anything. What that has to do with my point, however, I don’t understand. Following one Mr. O’Brien, I imagine that either Corbin or I could be beaten about the head vigorously enough that we’d be ready to accept the proposition that God exists. That falls rather short of a presentation of legitimate evidence.
    So let’s run the replay. In response to Corbin’s very ordinary observation that he (?)

    can’t think of anything; not one thing that would officially sway me to believe that God was real, or probably real. There’s simply too many other more-plausible explanations

    …you admonished him–declaring that

    One should in general be worried if there’s no amount of evidence that will not convince one of a hypothesis being likely. If that’s the case, one isn’t being a rational individual.

    As I explained, this is nonsense (as well as more than a little haughty): you’re simply ignoring the realities that (a) some hypotheses are axiomatically, provably false (to which Yudkowsky’s post is not a relevant response) and (b) some hypotheses are unsupportable.
    There is, in fact, no way to demonstrate empirically that an all-powerful or all-knowing being exists. As such, your declaration that “one isn’t being a rational individual” in the circumstances in question is false. Regardless of what evidence anyone could ever offer, a superior (but material and finite) extraterrestrial intelligence will always be a more parsimonious explanation than an infinite deity.
    Corbin did not deserve to be lectured on “being a rational individual.” Especially not when he was right.

  15. 16


    God being defined here as, oh, let’s say, a supernatural being, i.e. not comprised entirely out of physical matter and energy, who created the universe and/or intervenes with it.

    I suppose I’m being overly difficult, but I still don’t think that actually gets us anywhere. “Supernatural” is another one of those words (religion has so many) that purports to do much more work than it actually does: that a god is “not comprised entirely out of physical matter and energy” says nothing about what the durn thing actually is.
    What would convince me that a being-totally-unlike-anything-in-the-natural-universe-but-also-not-a-garden-variety-extraterrestrial exists? Um, I have no idea. I’m not sure how we can even parse the question, much less the evidence that’s hypothetically being presented to us.
    I emphasize, again, that this problem is neither Greta’s nor Ebonmuse’s fault: it’s theism’s. Questions like this one require one to drill down fairly deep into concepts like “god” and “supernatural” (and perhaps “soul,” “spirit,” “omnipotence,” …). Count me among those who strongly suspect that there’s no “there” there, in just about any of those concepts.

  16. 17

    Rieux, July 19, 2010 at 09:34 PM: I’m in a weird sort of bind, actually – in this context (that is, the comment thread on Greta Christina’s Blog), the you could be mistaken objection is a quibble … but if we’re going to address remarks to people who sincerely disagree, we have a social obligation to treat their claims seriously. If I were in conversation with an otherwise-reasonable person who was convinced that 2 + 2 = 6, I would claim that I could be convinced to agree by evidence … and then point out that the evidence was absent, and contrary evidence was present. Otherwise there’s no way for them – or any of the spectators – to determine that I would have agreed if I had good cause to.
    That’s exactly what Greta Christina does, actually.

  17. 18


    As far as the “God” vs. “sufficiently advanced aliens” argument goes, I don’t really care about the difference.

    Okay–but I hope you recognize the very powerful interests that millions of theists have in caring about the difference.
    If the one true god in the universe is only very powerful, but not all-powerful, then who’s to say where its power ends? Maybe it can’t give you the strength you’re looking for to face the challenges in your life. Maybe it can’t protect your family from harm. Maybe it can’t cure your loved one’s illness. Maybe it can’t redeem your soul. Who knows?
    As for knowledge, take a gander at, say, Psalm 139:

    O LORD, you have searched me and you know me.
    You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.
    You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.
    Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD….

    …And so on, for twenty more verses of praise of the intimate knowledge God has of the psalmist.
    That has tremendous value to a person feeling small and alone on this planet; in contrast, a less-than-omniscient being that–for all you know–doesn’t know beans about you has far less pull. And even an omnipotent god is no help to you if it’s too dumb or ignorant to realize that you’re in trouble.
    (The other side of the coin is that a god that’s less than all-powerful or less than all-knowing can escape the Problem of Evil entirely. Given that, it seems to me rather significant that so few mainstream monotheists take that particular escape hatch. Omni-gods are apparently much more attractive.)
    The standard monotheist god is all-powerful and all-knowing because so many people, apparently, find it meaningful to buy a model with those features standard. I’m no psychologist, but I suspect that says a thing or two about human beings’ emotional needs.

  18. 19

    Rieux: I guess I’d ask the question this way: Posit a world in which some sort of god exists. Not necessarily an Omnimax god — I actually do think the Omnimax God is a logical impossibility, in much the way that 2+2=6 is a logical impossibility, based on the definitions of the terms in question — but any god. Any sort of non-physical being that created the universe, and/or that uses its non-physical powers to intervene in the physical world.
    What might the world look like if this were true?
    I agree that religions are vague and internally inconsistent about their definitions of God, the soul, the afterlife, etc. But we don’t have to be. And I think this is an exercise worth doing: partly to show that atheism really is a provisional, falsifiable conclusion instead of an unquestioned axiom, and partly because it shows, by contrast, how radically different the world would be if God were real.
    Oh, and Joshua Zelinsky: That’s a good one. I may have to update my list. If the Rapture happened — if born-again Christians (and babies/ young children) disappeared in a flash of light, and soon afterward Armageddon started taking place as described in Revelation — yeah, that’d probably convince me. Too late, obviously — again pointing to the stupidity and inconsistency of the Rapture hypothesis — but I’d be convinced that God was real. A sadistic jackass, but a real one.

  19. 20

    Robin: I’m sorry, but I’m afraid you’re just laboring under a fundamental category error that is preventing you from understanding some of the basic points I am making.
    First, mathematics is a system of axioms, and it is nothing but a system of axioms and direct logical inferences therefrom. There is no such thing as “evidence” that 2 + 2 is or is not equal to 6. The simple, provable, logically mandatory fact is that it is not. “Evidence” does not–cannot–enter into it.
    Again, the page you linked to is a weird irrelevancy. One participant in a (very silly) dialogue is dunned into forgetting that 51 = 3 * 17, and therefore 51 is not prime. That’s not evidence; it’s not logic; it’s just a brain fart. Who cares?
    If I met someone who seriously believed and contended that 2 + 2 = 6, I would conclude (rather quickly) that (s)he had an incorrect notion of one or more of the concepts “2,” “6,” “+,” or “=.”
    It may be meaningful to speak of “evidence” that the person in question actually believed the falsehood (the main matter in such a situation that I’d be skeptical of)–but speaking of “evidence” that 2 + 2 is or is not equal to 6 is just, as I’ve said, nonsense. The concept of evidence has no place in mathematics. You’re misapplying it.
    The relevance of this entire digression to this comment thread is that it demonstrates one reason that your lecture to Corbin regarding when “one isn’t being a rational individual” is incorrect. One need not worry in the slightest about “evidence” contradicting one’s belief that 2 + 2 ≠ 6, because there cannot possibly be any such evidence. It is not the slightest bit irrational to accept the fact that 2 + 2 = 4, with 100% confidence that no evidence will ever come to light suggesting otherwise. And thus your admonition was wrong.

    That’s exactly what Greta Christina does, actually.

    Uh, not that I’ve seen. I’ve been reading this blog for several years, and I don’t remember ever seeing Greta confuse (a) questions about axiomatic mathematical facts with (b) questions about empirical reality the way you are here.

  20. 21


    I agree that religions are vague and internally inconsistent about their definitions of God, the soul, the afterlife, etc. But we don’t have to be.

    You can go ahead and accuse me of stubbornly fighting the hypothetical (you’d be right), but I don’t think there’s any escape from the noncognitivist vise. Sure, we can be less vague than theists are in defining “god,” but I still don’t see any middle ground between (a) a powerful extraterrestrial and (b) meaningless syllables… that is actually available, even to daydreaming atheists.
    If we’re talking about evidence that would make it plausible that a crazed, superpowerful, homophobic freak in the sky (y’know, Exodus, Leviticus, all that) exists, then no problem–but the parsimonious hypothesis in that case is a powerful but nasty E.T., an Evil Picard.
    (And let’s make sure to always add in a version of the “sadistic jackass” coda from your comment above: a real Rapture does indeed suggest that there’s some kind of Evil Picard up there with an affinity for the book of Revelation, but that hardly obligates us to worship the freak.)

    And I think this is an exercise worth doing: partly to show that atheism really is a provisional, falsifiable conclusion….

    Only to the extent that “god” means something. (An Evil Picard is a something.)
    And I’m certainly not disagreeing with you that atheism is a provisional, falsifiable conclusion–in large part because I think the most widespread conceptions of the monotheist god do really just amount to a Picard plus a bit of empty fluff about omni-qualities (and “supernatural,” “spirit,” blah blah blah). Atheists provisionally lack a belief in that silliness for extremely good reasons.
    But when God is dragged away from specific personality traits into “super” this and “outside of” that and nothing more, I don’t see what sense remains. I’d contend that “a supernatural being, i.e. not comprised entirely out of physical matter and energy” isn’t a cognizable hypothesis at all; it’s just empty words.
    The point isn’t that atheism is dogmatic. It’s that God (or at least the god of “serious” theologians) isn’t actually a concept with any content.

    [I]t shows, by contrast, how radically different the world would be if God were real.

    Okay, there’s a chance to refute me: how can we possibly claim that any state of affairs is more likely to exist in a universe that has “a supernatural being, i.e. not comprised entirely out of physical matter and energy” in it, as opposed to a universe that doesn’t? I just don’t see any meat on that conceptual bone, any characteristic that such a god qua god has to have.
    It seems to me that to make any sense of the hypothetical, we have to add back some of the peculiarities that various religions pin on their gods–“dictated the Qur’an,” perhaps, or “crucified and rose on the third day.” Religions, as you’ve frequently argued, are hypotheses about the world–it’s just that “god,” as a standalone, theologically distilled concept, really isn’t.

  21. 22

    Questions about math are consequences of axioms, but whether we’ve correctly reasoned about those axioms is an empirical matter. We’ve all misadded numbers at some point in our lives. And it is known that there are stroke victims who routinely make the same arithmetic mistakes. When I say that for example 1+2=3, it could be that I’ve just had that sort of stroke, and my example of a true statement is wildly off.
    Indeed, there are multiple cases of even widely scrutinized theorems turning out to have the known proofs be incorrect. For example, the Four Color Theorem was thought to have a valid proof in the late 19th century and it took about a decade before anyone realized that the proof was flawed. The difference between that and something like 1+1=2 being wrong is a difference of degree, not a difference of kind (except possibly in so far that if 1+1=2 turns out to be wrong I’m not sure we’d be justified trusting our cognitive abilities even to the tiny extent we can do so now.)

  22. 23

    There’s an interesting example of this “Evil Picard” idea in David Weber’s series starting with Off Armageddon Reef. Now, for him, it’s all an elaborate pretext to write swashbucking stories of adventure on the high seas, but the back story is rather interesting.
    Basically, it turns out that broadcasting radio waves into space is a Really Bad Idea, because it attracts the attention of some Evil Aliens intent on exterminating life on earth in general and Homo sapiens in particular. (This is not a new idea, see Saberhagen’s Berserker series for other examples.)
    Anyway, a large group of people are sent out in cold sleep to set up a hidden colony somewhere the Evil Aliens can’t find them. It is also imperative that the colony maintain radio silence for at least 500 years until the Evil Aliens declare success and move on.
    There’s a big debate about the best way to impress on future generations the importance of maintaining radio silence. How do you make sure that out of millions of people, not one decides the dire warnings are all a bunch of crap? There’s the “tell them the truth” camp, which gets outvoted by the “make up a religion” camp.
    Anyway, a whole bunch of people wake up from cold sleep with odd amnesia. But they do have a holy book which is incredibly detailed, accurate, and useful.
    For example, it contains a complete and accurate map of the world. Descriptions of the motion of the stars and planets (including all the subtle long-term polar wander terms). Detailed anatomical descriptions, giving the function of each part of the body and common ways it fails.
    It also contains a whole lot of health information, about the curses you will suffer if you don’t eat the right foods on long sea voyages or don’t follow aseptic procedure properly when treating wounds, or mess about with white phosphorus, or don’t rotate your crops, or have the privy too close to the well, or…
    Holy Writ doesn’t mandate everything, but when it does, you damn well better pay attention, because the curses it predicts actually happen!
    And, of course, it’s all consistent, as thousands of copies were available to the original colonists (“Adams” and “Evens”) and are preserved in libraries.
    So when it says that playing with electricity is absolutely off limits, people tend to believe it. If you have any doubts about the accuracy of Holy Writ, feel free to snack on any of the List Of Plants That Will Kill You.
    Pretty convincing, eh?

  23. 24

    Great post! For me, it’s much like asking “what would it take for you to believe the world is flat?” The simple fact is, I think the world and the universe, the scriptures of your choice, and most of human history would look very different if there were a god like the ones described in our religions and philosophical musings.

  24. 25

    Rieux, July 20, 2010 at 01:08 AM: Joshua Zelinsky already made the point I was planning to make, but I think it’s pretty clear that the way I described it had to have been confusing, particularly the way I used the word “evidence”. So let me try to elaborate a bit.
    Suppose someone said “2 + 2 = 6”. What might that mean?
    Most likely, of course, they won’t mean anything – it’ll be a hypothetical, like the ones we’ve been making up, or it’ll just be a typo. Similarly unhelpful to the analogy are cases where it’s a notational confusion – where “2” does not mean two, “+” does not mean plus, “=” does not mean equals, and/or “6” doesn’t mean six – and cases where it’s a joke like the missing dollar riddle. Or they might be making some sort of metaphorical point, for example about the sum being more than the parts. (That would probably fall into the category of “notational confusion”.)
    But they might simply be wrong. Yes, the statement is obviously, risibly, false … but screws fall out all the time – the world’s an imperfect place. Someone in front of you is saying “2 + 2 = 6”. How do you show that they’re wrong?
    In that situation, I suspect you’d argue it like I’d argue it: by pointing out how we do sums and showing that the sum comes out differently. Me, I’d probably say that addition of natural numbers is like putting counted sets of items together and counting the total set, and if “2” is “one two” and “4” is “one two three four”, you can run the test yourself and confirm that the set “one two one two” has the same number of items as “one two three four”, not “one two three four five six” – “6”. If abstract argument isn’t convincing to that person – perhaps they’re bad at analytical thinking – you might pull use objects on the table to do the same operation. “Here’s two pennies and two quarters. Two and two. How many coins are there? Four!” Maybe you’ll draw a straight line and measure off two touching two-inch segments, make a picture like:
    |- 2″-|- 2″-|
    and measure the distance from the the beginning of the first to the end of the second and show it’s four inches.
    My point is not that the answer is empirical, but that you can actually make the argument as if the question is not resolved. And by reference to that argument, you can say, “If two plus two were six, then this line segment would be six inches long.”
    Similarly, if there were a benevolent and omnipotent God, I would expect (say) flood waters to part like Moses at the Red Sea around the dwellings of the righteous, leaving them unharmed. And there is a similarity between these two statements, despite one being a statement of mathematical inference and the other a statement of empirical observation. In both cases, it’s possible to describe some result which would make the answer at least seem to be different.

  25. 28

    DSimon, no but he runs a website called LessWrong which is dedicated to improving rationality, thinking about cognitive biases, and similar issues. He’s also just a very good writer and often says things much more concisely and much more effectively than many other people. (He has a few quirky ideas (he’s very much a Singulitarian for example) but even there he’s one of the most sensible Singulitarians out there). So Eliezer is often the goto person to reference for lots of issues that come up here.
    (And while we’re discussing Eliezer I’ll note that he also writes fiction and is in the process of writing the absolutely hilarious fanfic Harry Potter and the Method of Rationality: http://www.fanfiction.net/s/5782108/1/Harry_Potter_and_the_Methods_of_Rationality
    which retells the story of Harry Potter if Harry had grown up with a loving scientist as his adoptive father.

  26. 29

    So I want to get off the topic of what it means that 2=2 does not equal 6 (not that y’all should stop that conversation), and back onto God.
    Rieux, I’m puzzled by you saying that “a supernatural being, i.e. not comprised entirely out of physical matter and energy” isn’t a cognizable hypothesis. It seems to me that I can cognize it pretty well. But I’ll drop that for the moment (no promises to drop it permanently), and come back to the key, original question:
    If you think that atheism is a provisional, falsifiable conclusion — what would falsify it for you?

  27. 30

    Joshua, thanks, I actually already knew about the guy but I was just curious where the reference to him re: this article first came from.
    You’re right, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality really is totally fantastic. Isn’t it strange that more fantasy characters don’t notice the obvious loopholes in their worlds’ magic systems? 🙂
    Another really good short story by Eliezer on the theme of people who try to meta-argue “Well, what is truth anyways?” is here.

  28. 31

    Nurse Ingrid, July 20, 2010 at 04:10 PM: Much to my transient shame, I haven’t seen it yet.[1] But a relative of mine that I visited during the vacation I’m on in Texas liked that line, and on reflection[2] I liked it too.
    1. It’s … *edits* … on my list, I promise!
    2. Coincidence. I swear.

  29. 33

    Ah, okay, thanks Robin. It’s a good article, too, and now I can compose a response to Rieux’s point.
    Yes, it’s true that mathematics isn’t subject to empirical evidence (or bound by inferential reasoning in general) because it’s all about abstractions. However, when we say “mathematics” what we really mean is “a mathematics”, one possible choice out of many potential sets of axioms.
    We could’ve picked another set that said 2 + 2 = 3, but we didn’t. If we lived in a universe where setting two apples by another two apples resulted in three apples, then we could say things like “no evidence should ever change our belief that 2 + 2 = 3” with the unspoken addendum of “… in the system of mathematics that we’ve devised based upon empirical evidence”.
    Therefore, in the three-apples universe, it really would be the case that 2 + 2 = 3, because that’s what their system of mathematics would provably say.

  30. 34

    Joshua, you completely suck. I have a lot of things to get finished today, and I do not have time to get sucked into rationalist Harry Potter fanfic. Which I just spent the last 45 minutes doing. Bad commenter! Bad!

  31. 36

    What would it take to change my mind?
    If one day geologists from around our planet rushed to announce that overnight the edges of tectonic plates had become smooth and could now pass without causing earthquakes, I would give it a rethink.

  32. 37

    Hey, fun discussion. I haven’t thought about things like this in years and never really came up with something that would make me believe in God.
    I find most of the things mentioned above as being more likely caused by an alien race trying to take advantage of simpler people instead of a super being who also thought it important to talk about how menstruating women are unclean instead of actually telling people what menstruation is (or pick your own goofy example of something from the old testament). Now when you started talking about what a world with a god in it would look like, that got me thinking. The only thing that really would make me think it most probable that God exists is if the world functioned like theists talked about it working.
    I mean when people get injured in a car accident, it actually made more sense to pray instead of calling an ambulance. In other words, more people survived by praying instead of going to hospitals. Or if when you are attacked, praying caused your enemies to drop dead or flee more often than calling 911.
    You can some up with many other examples. If millions prayed for better schools and suddenly test scores went up. Millions prayed for an end to world hunger and that night the number of people going hungry decreased by a large number. If in answer to prayer storms disappeared.
    I wouldn’t even require it to happen 100% of the time. Or even 50%. If say… 10% of the time these things worked I’d believe that God probably existed.
    I guess this would mean that when large numbers of bigots got together and prayed then civil rights leaders would drop dead or maybe all members of minority group X would suddenly want to do menial tasks for majority group Y for their entire lives. Or when various “conservative” groups got together and prayed then millions of women would leave their jobs and spend all their time trying to find husbands. Or large numbers of people would return to their abusive spouses instead of getting divorced.
    …boy would that world suck.
    Anyway, it is a fun exercise. Kind of makes me wonder what it would take to change my mind in other areas. Change political parties for instance. Or thoughts on economics or morality.

  33. 38

    What would convince me: If any sacred text in any religion were consistently accurate in its writings about science — including scientific knowledge that was not known at the time the text was written — I would be persuaded that this religion was divinely inspired.
    Gimme a little time to work on this one.

  34. 39

    Good evening:
    For, “Tao Joannes.” Obviously, sacred religious texts are going to be far older than the discipline of science.
    Perhaps a simple reference might do? I will submit a reference to you and you take it from A – Z, that is, when it was written, by whom, where and when. Would this be of interest to you?
    Keep in mind that once upon a time, “modern” Western civilization believed the earth was flat.
    If you have access to a Bible, look up: Isaiah chapter 40 verse 22, and ask the question – how could the writer have known this if not informed?
    Thank you

  35. 40

    Dear Maxx, this old chestnut keeps coming up so once
    more… Isaiah 40:22 describes flat Earth circle, with skies described as tent. And no, author was not trying to say ball or globe, as that word is used in 22:18. Boring…

  36. 41

    Citation needed that the writer (whoever he was) wasn’t informed. The earth has been known to be round since at least the 5th century BCE and its circumference was calculated in the third century BCE. Ancient Greeks weren’t exactly stupid.

  37. 42

    This is an interesting discussion, since I’ve never seen an atheist define God so loosely in this kind of questioning. Kudos to Greta for engaging this.
    But I’m in Rieux’s camp that it’s not for us to come up with a sensical definition of “god.” That’s the job of the people who believe in it. We atheists have done our job when we’ve knocked their definitions down as fundamentally meaningless.
    That having been said, I actually do have something akin to a falsifiability standard when it comes to atheism: The strength of the evidence I would accept in favor of the divine is directly proportional to the amount of absolutism in the claim. For example, if the claim is that there is a being with complete control over reality who created the universe, will judge my soul according to my actions and determine its eternal fate, and embodies perfect goodness and justice, then we’re in the-ability-to-have-this-conversation-disproves-the-hypothesis territory. If this god is “greater” than the universe itself, then the evidence for it should be a knowledge as certain or more certain than my own existence. Literally unquestionable. Anything that can be doubted is in the realm of human reason and therefore cannot support the absolutist conclusion.
    But if we start stripping attributes away from that god, the standard of evidence will also go down. For example, if the claim is merely that there is a being with an unprecedented amount of power over the physical universe, then sure, spontaneous sky-words and suchlike would be valid evidence. (Note that the sky-words wouldn’t prove anything about the nature of the power; i.e., whether it’s intrinsic to the being’s existence or if it’s a technology the being has access to, but the power itself and intelligent control thereof would be demonstrated.) The problem is that this stripped-down “deity” is never actually argued for. It’s a weird kind of inverse strawman. The whole point of theism is to tack unreasonable qualities onto this hypothetical power. And when that starts to happen… well, is it still “falsifiability” if the evidence could exist but I already know it doesn’t (i.e., my unquestionable-knowledge standard)? I say it is.

  38. 44

    I would need a plausible scientific explanation for how a consciousness could be disembodied. What is the physical mechanism by which this consciousness exists? I would need a plausible scientific explanation for how this disembodied consciousness was able to control physical forces and matter. By what mechanism can a disembodied consciousness control physical forces and matter? Your required evidence goes more to the what, not the how.

  39. 45

    I can’t conceive of what it would take to persuade me. I do accept the possibility that I *could* be, however. I simply lack the imagination to conceive of the necessary “proof”.
    Using ST:TNG’s “Q” as an example, here we have a being possessing a tremendous level of power. He’s capable of feats that would be seen as miraculous. Were he to descend to Earth and perform all manner of fantastic feats, he would seem like god (or A god). Unless he were omnipotent though, he couldn’t be. Basically, I’m wondering what miraculous display god could show us that would say “I am god, not Odin or Zeus or Q”.

    (I suddenly have this image of scientists putting god through his paces; perhaps a contemporary 12 labors of Hercules. If he fails his labors they tell him to go away and quit being a poseur. If he succeeds they tell him “fine. We believe you. We still won’t worship you though, because you’re a prick.”)

  40. 46

    Very simple:
    I would believe in a god who:
    1. gave me perfect health – even in aspects I have never been thinking of (I am born with 2 genetic diseases),
    2. if I become a telepath and telekinetic,
    3.be able to sort out the problem of time in mathematical AND verbal mode (I do not claim that there must exist exact prediction).
    And all 3 WITHOUT any blaming-the-victim, nothing that resembles the “you wished to be born, therefore you want to be sick” the faithheads and new-agers are so fond of.

  41. 47

    I would not accept a hundred feet high writing in the sky as evidence for God, because God is just one possible explanation. I will only accept as evidence: predictions that logically follow from the God hypothesis, that are thoroughly tested, and that are not falsified. Writings in the sky would not convince us of Newtons theory either, would they?

  42. 48

    I was surprised to see that you said “the bar is too high” some believers would say, because as a believer I actually perfectly understood your concerns about evidence and I don’t see the bar is too high at all. I see it perfectly at the right height, but it is not placed on the right way. Maybe you’ll have to move it a little further towards “consistancy”. Here is my point:

    What I would like to point out is that through all your arguments I see the same thing over and over again: to you the world has to be different so that God can exist, there can’t be possibly a God within the world as it is with the way things are. So it has to be something that there is not so that you can believe in God! Sterile train of thought, you’ll never change your mind nor go any further, because this does not challenge your thinking, it nurtures it. The world is as it is and it will not prove itself wrong to prove you wrong. So obviously, there is no possible argument or evidence that can make you change your mind, although you claim that atheists acknowledge that they might be wrong: how can you acknowledge that you might be wrong about God’s existence if you do not question the way you see life itself, and if you do not explore a different conception of God? If there is a God then here is the evidence that may make you change your mind you say, but the evidence you’re looking for expects things not to be as they are, so you’ll never find it. Which I guess to your eyes justifies your atheism, but at the same time it contradicts your claim that you are aware that you might be wrong: because you do nothing serious to prove yourself wrong, you only prove yourself right, continuously. Sterile thinking. Hasn’t the idea that what proves that God exists might just perfectly fits within the reality of things as they are and that nothing “extraordinary” has to change or happen so that you’d “believe” in God, ever crossed your mind? Your text suggests that no. I don’t care about atheism or theism now, I just see some shallow and incohirent thinking here, and as you said you’d like people to point out to flaws or inconsistencies in what you’re saying so take it from me as a fair critique, nothing personal.

    Now, you’ll get my point better while looking to these “pieces of evidence” which I suggest you to read:

    unambiguous message:
    there can’t possibly be a message that cannot be interpreted differently by people because:

    1- a message is a text, it is language, and language is in its essence interpretation of thought.

    2- humans have two attributes which we can all agree on: intellect and freedom of choice. Intellect is what determines interpretation and understanding of the world and life, and freedom of choice is what determines which interpretation we chose as the right one and what then we do out of it.

    So for your criterion, an unambiguous message from God to you would be one that denies and nullifies both our intellect and arbitrariness, and that deconstructs language as it is. How rational and coherent is the “evidence” you’re looking for?

    I think what would be an unambiguous message for humanity from God, taking into consideration our being and our attributes as a speicy, is a message that says clearly:

    About God:

    That God exists (here we agree)
    Who/What He is (define Himself so that we know who is talking to us and not just imagine/speculate on who He is)
    Why we should believe in Him (Let Him give us evidence that He exists and explain to us what difference it makes that we believe in Him)
    How we can know that He exists (again, the message must show to us evidence and follow our inner monologue as we’re reading it, so that it leaves no argument uncoverd)

    About us:
    Why did He create us? What is the purpose of life?
    Why is the world as it is?
    Where does suffering come from and why do we even suffer?
    Why do we die?
    Is there something after death?
    Why is it that not everybody believe in Him (yes, since He exists, why not everybody knows it and that’s it?)
    Why is it that even if people believe in Him they still do wrong and harmful things (yes, why?)
    Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are going? (Yes, since He has talked, let Him answer those eternal existential questions by the way!)

    About His message itself:

    If there is something unclear in His message or not (we’d rather know it from the beginning)
    If there is something unclear, why is it unclear? (Yes, why not clear?)
    What are the consequences that it is unclear? (for both those who try to explain them, and those who simply say we don’t know what they mean)
    Why should we believe that this message is the right one above all other so-called divine messages? (what makes it special?)
    How is its language? (yes, the form is an aspect of the whole thing too, nuh?)
    Would God mind if we try to imitate His message? or if we try to look for inconsistencies in His message, or contradictions? Are we going to find any?

    Since messages can be interpreted and humanity does not speak a single language, why doesn’t God send a more “obvious” and more “unambiguous message”? (that’s the point I disagree on, but let that message answer it!)

    Maybe I forgot something, but that seems to be a fair list of conditions that must be in a divine message, and that is yet coherent with the fact that we have intellect, freedom of choice, and that language is interpretation by essence.

    What do you think about it? Anything to add to this list?

    PS: I’d be glad if you consider my comment without focusing on the fact that I’m a believer, let’s just discuss the thinking part of it not the believing, belief/disbelief are the choice, the thinking comes before the choice and then sustains it or destroys it.

  43. 49

    My questions back to believers who would ask me this question:

    Is God omniscient?

    If the answer to this question is “yes,” then God knows precisely what evidence would persuade any doubter.

    Next question: Does God want everyone to believe in him?

    If so, then God should be rights put the evidence he *knows* will persuade a doubter in front of said doubter.

    Some will respond, “But that would violate free will.”

    Many ways to reply to that, but here’s one:

    Supposedly, God must remain “hidden” (if only in the modern world; more below), else he infringe on “free will.” In other words, he cannot demonstrate his awesome, unlimited power, or it would be unfairly prejudicing the unbeliever into belief.

    But what about Satan? Surely Satan, who lived in the realm of Heaven and saw its glories, who was cast down by the incredible power of God, was given that evidence (and more) of God’s tremendous power, knowledge and supposed love. God was not in any way hidden to the devil. Yet Satan *chose* (and continues to choose) to rebel against God. In other words, knowing God’s might and power did not infringe on Satan’s ability to rebel and reject him. It is not, in this example, a violation of free will for God to demonstrate his powers.

    So either God is not all-knowing or all-powerful—possessing the knowledge of precisely what evidence would persuade an unbeliever—or, we can argue, he is not all-loving, since he would have created this unbeliever with the full knowledge that he would parsimoniously refuse to show him the evidence that would make him believe.

  44. 50

    What would it take to persuade me that there is no God?
    In my case: positive evidence that the Universe is eternal and uncreated.
    When that is provided, then I will be convinced that there is no God.

    NB: While I understand many people assume “God” must be an entity such as described in the Bible, I do not use the term that way.

Comments are closed.