On P.Z. Myers on evidence for a god

October 17, 2010 • 6:42 am

Over at Pharyngula a week ago, P. Z. Myers, echoing an argument by Steve Zara, explained why there was no evidence that could convince him of a god’s existence. I responded, claiming that there was some evidence that could convince me—at least provisionally—that a divine being really existed.  And I proposed an admittedly fanciful scenario that, I thought, might convince P.Z. as well.

But the old guy is truculent, and has responded with another post, “Eight reasons why you won’t persuade me to believe in a god.”  I can’t disagree with his assertion that he’ll never believe in a god no matter what, but I do take issue with the reasons.  He gives eight of them, and I’ll respond briefly below.

First, though, I find it curious that an atheist would assert, a priori, that nothing could make him believe in a god.  While some atheists may assert simply that there is no god, most of us claim that we see no evidence for a god, and that’s why we don’t believe. But to make a statement like that presumes that there could be some evidence that would make you accept God’s existence.  That’s why I think that Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, puts himself at between 6 and 7 on his belief scale that ranges from 1 (“I know there is a God”) to 7 (“I know there is no God”).  (6 is “very low probability of God but short of zero.”) Unless Dawkins is stuck at 7, presumably there is some evidence that could convert that low probability into a high one.

Granted, I haven’t seen any evidence for God, and my own belief is close to 7.  But the existence of God is still a theoretical probability, and it seems prudent to say that we don’t know for sure.  That is, we don’t know “for sure” in the same sense that we don’t know for sure that infectious diseases are caused by microorganisms.  It’s unscientific, I think, to assert that “there’s no evidence that will ever convince me otherwise,” because there’s always the remote, remote possibility that we’ll find out that we were wrong.  Perhaps it’s not viruses that cause cold symptoms, but something else that just happens to be there along with viruses.  I am almost certain that that isn’t the case, but I can’t say that there’s nothing that could show it.

This doesn’t mean that, for example, we can’t be pretty damn sure that it’s the HIV virus that causes AIDS, and base our research on that knowledge.  But we should always at least be open at first to  alternatives—even if we don’t take them seriously because they seem fanciful.  Just as all truth in science is provisional, so too must be our rejection of theoretical possibilities like God.  To me, the proper stance is, “I haven’t seen a smidgen of evidence for God, so I don’t think he exists.  But I suppose it’s a theoretical possibility.”  P.Z. doesn’t seem to accept God as even a theoretical possibility.

On to his eight arguments, which I address individually:

1) The question “Is there a god?” is a bad question. It’s incoherent and undefined; “god” is a perpetually plastic concept that promoters twist to evade evaluation. If the whole question is nebulous noise, how can any answer be acceptable? The only way to win is by not playing the game.

Yes, believers often twist and turn to avoid giving specifics about their god, or claim that we can’t know anything about him, but I think a reasonable and widely accepted concept of God is this:  “A non-material being who is omnipotent, omniscient, and good.  This god, who knows all our beliefs and intentions, can do anything he wants to on Earth.”  If you wish, you can add to this the claim that God has from time to time affected things on Earth. I don’t think you can “win” by saying, “There simply cannot be a god of any sort.”  You can “win” in the sense of stating the truth of what you think, but it’s not going to “win” in the sense of making atheism more palatable to fence-sitters. (Note that I’m not arguing that we should lie about what we think to make converts to atheism.)

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.

Evidence for an omnipotent and omniscient God need not correspond precisely to the characterizations of him given in human-composed scriptures.  What I would require is simply evidence for an omnipotent and omniscient being (see below).  If that evidence happens to conform to, say, Christian accounts of scripture, then I’d be more inclined to say that (despite prior evidence that the New Testament is not the word of God), the being corresponds to the Christian concept of a deity.  I don’t see why evidence for the kind of god I defined above (weak though my definition may be) must correspond to some existing religion to be convincing.

3. Many of the evidences proposed rely for their power on their unexplainability by natural mechanisms. There isn’t much power there: the vast majority of the phenomena that exist are not completely explained by science. For instance, I don’t understand every detail of Hox gene regulation (no one does), and I don’t understand all of the nuclear reactions going on inside a star (maybe someone does), and pointing at an elegantly patterned embryo or at our Sun will get me to happily admit my ignorance, but my ignorance is not evidence for a god.

I fully agree that we shouldn’t go imputing God to everything we don’t understand.  That’s the basis of the intelligent design movement.  But there are some kinds of evidence that may be extremely unlikely to ever be explained by natural processes.  To take Hume’s view, when the probability of that evidence adducing a god exceeds the probability that it’s either a trick or due to some unexplained natural process, then I think it’s okay to provisionally accept a god.  And I do think that there are some circumstances when the balance of probabilities would fall this way. (I emphasize again that acceptance of God would be provisional, subject to revision if you later find a more mundane explanation.)

Here are two sorts of evidence.  In one, a man appears on earth (let’s say he claims to be Jesus returning) who is able to perform all sorts of “miracles.”  Let’s say, for instance, that he heals amputees and all manner of illnesses and mutilations, claiming that he’s channeling God’s power.  These healings are fully documented by physicians.  And the being can also do other stuff that doesn’t seem to have a natural explanation, like turning water into wine at long distance (this, of course, would be supervised not just by chemists, but by magicians).  You could of course impute these results to space aliens, but even aliens have to work through understandable natural mechanisms.  If they don’t, then they’re equivalent to gods.

Here’s another: a rigorous double-blind experiment provides strong evidence that prayer works. (That is, the people prayed for are almost always healed, while those who are not recover at control rates.) But it works only when praying to God and Jesus, not Allah or Vishnu or anyone else.   Is that not evidence for an omniscient and omnipotent being?  Granted, we know that prayer doesn’t work, but it could have.

Just because some unexplained stuff will eventually receive a natural explanation does not prove that all unexplained stuff will.

4.  Often when people try to convince me that I’m wrong on this, they add increasingly elaborate, detailed intricacies to an invented scenario, piling up improbabilities until they’ve got an event so wildly unlikely to be as close to impossible as possible, and then, aha, I’m expected to admit that if that happened, I’d have to be convinced that the extremely unlikely explanation of a deity must be the best explanation. But I’m not arguing from probabilities at all; personally, I’m ridiculously improbable, being the product of random recombinations of complex strands of DNA and a personal history full of accidents and coincidence, but I’m not god, nor do I think any other peculiar set of accidents amount to a god.

It’s not clear to me why the personal improbability of P.Z. Myers has anything to do with evidence for God.  That God-evidence would perforce appear improbable if we assume a natural explanation, but in a different way from the existence of P. Z. (After all, if P.Z.’s parents copulated, the probability that they’d have any child is high, and we know that it’s improbable that that child would have a combination of genes specified in advance.) But I am specifying in advance that anyone able to grow limbs, restore eyes, and cure all incurable cancers by uttering a few words is evidence for a god.

Besides, here P.Z. avers that there might be some evidence that would convince him of a god’s existence: “I’d have to be convinced that the extremely unlikely explanation of a deity must be the best explanation.” This is an admission that there might be some evidence that would convince him, improbable though it may be.

5.  These elaborate proof-scenarios also have another problem: they haven’t happened, yet people believe in god anyway. We have millennia of history of devoted god-belief, but now you’re trying to tell me that loud voices from the heavens, flocks of angels, healed amputees, and personal messages direct from a manifested Jesus would be sufficient to convince me of a deity’s existence? Well, if that’s our standard of proof, then all existing religions have been disproven.

I don’t understand this at all.  I don’t care whether people already believe in God based on flimsy evidence.  That’s why I’m an atheist.  What I’m saying is that there could be much stronger evidence for a god, even if we don’t have it.  And yes, our standard of proof would be high, and would disqualify all existing religions.  So what?

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.

This goes to the  distinction between “natural” and “supernatural,”  a distinction that, as Russell Blackford has shown, is blurry at best.  Any evidence that we have for a God would have to be natural: that is, it would have to manifest itself as occurrences in the real world. Every bit of evidence for a god that we could ever have would be natural.  But those “natural” events could be caused by omnipotent and omniscient beings—”supernatural” beings, if you will.

And again, here P.Z. implies that there could be evidence for a god—it would just have to be, for him, “rather more fundamental” than the usual miracles adduced by the faithful.

7.  The case for the non-existence of god is not simply a negative one, drawn from the absence of evidence, which can be corrected by throwing in evidence for a miracle. We are atheists because we have a scientific understanding of how the universe works, and the phenomena we observe do not seem to require divine intervention to function. So sure, show me a tap-dancing Jesus poofing loaves and fishes into existence with a snap of his fingers…and I’ll ask how his existence influences chemistry, how the silly bearded man matters in the last few billions of years of evolution, and why he isn’t publishing in the physics journals, where his omniscient insight into the machineries of the world might be better appreciated. Even there, though, I’d question whether adding tap-dancing Jesus to the long list of existent phenomena really helps us understand anything.

Although P.Z. says the “case for the non-existence of god” is not negative, the reason he gives is purely negative: we don’t need to invoke the intervention of supernatural beings to explain nature.  And indeed, as Laplace claimed, “we have no need of that hypothesis.”  That’s strong negative evidence for the nonexistence of at least an interventionist god, and a good reason not to believe in such a theistic deity.

And about that tap-dancing Jesus—well, if there were really strong evidence for a tap-dancing Jesus of the miraculous sort, that is evidence for a god, and that would be some sort of “understanding.”

8.  There are always better explanations for unexplained phenomena than god: fraud and faulty sensory perception cover most of the bases, but mostly, if I see a Madonna appear in a field to bless me, the first thing I’d suspect is brain damage. We have clumsy, sputtering, inefficient brains that are better designed for spotting rutabagas and triggering rutting behavior at the sight of a curvy buttock than they are for doing math or interpreting the abstract nature of the universe. It is a struggle to be rational and objective, and failures are not evidence for an alternative reality. Heck, we can be fooled rather easily by mere stage magicians; we don’t need to invent something as elaborate as a god to explain apparent anomalies.

Fraud and “faulty sensory perception” can be addressed and controlled for.  The “faulty sensory perception” business can be countered by multiple independent documentation of “miracles”—documentation far better than the Vatican uses when naming saints.  I’m certain, for instance, that we can rule out whether the regrowing of limbs on amputees can be due to “faulty sensory perception”—or even “fraud.”  For some types of evidence it’s bit harder to rule out fraud, but I’d assume that enlisting a legion of magicians would help.  In the end, we could conceivably have a phenomenon for which fraud and faulty perception are less plausible than a god, and Hume’s criterion would be satisfied.

Now I’m under no illusion that I’ve responded fully to P.Z.’s claims, or even have provided the most obvious counterarguments.  As Pigliucci points out incessantly, I’m not a trained philosopher. And I cannot claim that P.Z. is wrong—he may really be completely immune to any sort of evidence for a god.  All I can say is that I am not, and that there are conceivable events that could convince me.

Let me hasten to add that I’ve never seen any good evidence for a god, nor do I anticipate that there will be any.  I see no evidence in the world for an interventionist, theistic god (the only kind of god that can provide evidence), much less an omniscient and a good one.  And it just seems so obvious that gods were constructed by humans.  I fall close to 7 on Dawkins’s God Scale.

I’m writing this post simply to continue a conversation that I don’t think has yet run its course, and to make the point that being open to some kind of evidence is required if we’re a certain kind of atheist: the kind who says, “I don’t believe in gods because I see no evidence for them.”  If you make a statement like that, then you must perforce admit that there is some type of evidence for gods that you’d accept.

213 thoughts on “On P.Z. Myers on evidence for a god

  1. When I was reading through this post, the thought at the forefront of my mind was that claiming you could never be convinced of a God’s existence isn’t necessarily at odds with also being open to the theoretical possibility of it.

    In fairness, any ‘evidence’ that is compatible with existent religions is almost paradoxical – if a Jesus-like miracle-worker suddenly appeared, should we accept the Christian creation myth and the rest of the Bible’s unscientific baggage?

    The fact is, if we were to be confronted by potential evidence for the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient being, I don’t believe that humans would be able to recognise it, or be able to sufficiently test it.

    Therefore, I’m happy to assert my own rigid atheism while aware of a theoretical possibility of a deity, but I simultaneously claim that no scrap of ‘evidence’ could ever convince me, if only because the necessary proof would beyond my human comprehension. While I may end up being wrong, the hypothesis has no practical value because it’s outcome doesn’t affect our world.

  2. Would any of those things really convince you or would you be driven to seek their natural explanation?

    I especially don’t like the “equivalent to gods” bit. That seems to me like saying that if we presented ourselves to cave me we would become gods.

    I think at some fundamental level there can not in fact be anything supernatural, by definition.

      1. I think that misses the point of what I was trying to say.

        The article stated that something sufficiently mysterious could be given a provisional “God did it” explanation. I think that’s fundamentally wrong.

        Some being appearing and bamboozling us is not a good reason to label them a god. No more so than a cave man labelling us a god.

        Awesome. Mysterious. Perhaps even currently incomprehensible. But a god? That’s not what anyone really means by god. Do you think Christian’s would turn around and say “Oh god is just a bunch of aliens”.

        No. Me neither.

        I’m verging on saying that “supernatural” is a fundamentally impossible idea. A historical and linguistic artefact used to arbitrarily draw a line in the sand at the edge of our understanding. I don’t think it’s an acceptable idea for anyone with a scientific world view. Regardless of our state of bamboozlement.

  3. I think a reasonable and widely accepted concept of God is this: “A non-material being who is omnipotent, omniscient, and good. This god, who knows all our beliefs and intention, can do anything he wants to on Earth.”

    It may be widely accepted, but it is not reasonable. What does “non-material being” even mean? Can a being be omnipotent, but incapable of evil at the same time? Can an omnipotent being create an object that he can’t move? If he’s omniscient, can God really do anything he wants, or can he only do what he already knows he is going to do? And so on.

    Here’s another: a rigorous double-blind experiment provides strong evidence that prayer works. (That is, the people prayed for are almost always healed, while those who are not recover at control rates.) But it works only when praying to God and Jesus, not Allah or Vishnu or anyone else. Is that not evidence for an omniscient and omnipotent being.
    No. It’s evidence for a very potent being (that you may even consider god-like), but not an omnipotent being. There can only be a finite number of recoveries, so no infinite power is required.

    And how could you prove infinite power anyway? You could disprove omnipotence by finding a single task that the being can’t perform, but proving omnipotence requires proving that no such task exists. It’s like trying to prove a negative: Only testing all possible tasks to exhaustion would do it.

      1. But that’s just the problem of induction, Deen. What you get from induction is varying degrees of certainty, but never absolute certainty. Hence the “as much as you can prove anything at all” part in Hales’s article. 😉

        1. There are situations in which induction can lead to an absolute proof of nonexistence, as well as situations in which no induction at all is needed.

          For example, induction is perfectly adequate to prove, without doubt, that there is not a herd of angry African bull elephants stampeding through my kitchen as I type this. I have thoroughly searched the area and there isn’t anywhere for them to hide; therefore, they aren’t here.

          One might then suggest that the elephants are invisible, inaudible, and intangible. However, they would no longer be elephants by any accepted definition of the term. All you’ve done is put the goalposts on a rocket sled.

          We can also know, without using any induction at all, that there is no such thing as a triangle in Euclidean geometry whose angles sum to anything other than 180°. If anybody claims to have seen such a beastie, you know without having to look that the person is either lying or deluded.

          In the case at point, we also know that anything which incorporates logical absurdities as necessary parts of its definition in turn does not exist.

          For example, it is said that Jesus, by definition, can do anything. That would mean that Jesus could draw a triangle in a Euclidean space whose angles summed to 360°. Since Jesus cannot do such a thing, he is not omnipotent. Since the ability to do anything is an essential part of his existence, Jesus therefore does not exist.

          (Never mind that Jesus could do the feat in a non-Euclidean geometry. So can I. And we both can draw four-sided “triangles” whose angles sum to 360°, or we can draw “triangles” with curved sides, or we can redefine the degree, or whatever. What’s your point, aside from being a smartass who intentionally misunderstands the question by changing the definitions of well-defined terms?)



          1. Please, Ben, let’s take it down a notch and not throw around imputations of sinister intentions. My point was about the unthinking repetition of what is not just a cliché but also misleading and wrong. It is entirely pertinent to the discussion of what kinds of evidence should compel us to believe in something called ‘god’, insofar as inductive (i.e. necessarily incomplete) evidence cannot be ruled out a priori.

            And I think it is well worth understanding that, although we can of course use induction, it does not avail us of absolute certainty. We may show beyond reasonable doubt that there are no elephants in Senegal, but in the case of your fridge (and, analogously, the triangle), it is the deductive argument that any elephant is (by definition) larger than could possibly fit in your fridge that makes us absolutely certain.

            1. The point is exactly that a friendly god of any kind of power is as absent as the elephants in my refrigerator (thanks to Epicurus 2300 years ago) and that all-powerful gods are as absent as the square Euclidean triangles they are powerless to create.

              The matter is absolutely certain, as certain as 1 + 1 = 2. So why are we even having the discussion?



            2. Well, thanks for apologizing, Ben. 😉

              I see your point, though, and I agree that omnipotence and omniscience are as nonsensical as square triangles. If that were all the discussion was about, then we could indeed end it there.

              On the other hand, I think that any such discussion will inevitably involve arguments about assertions that do not suffer from the same fatal logical flaws as omnipotence and omniscience, e.g. the efficacy of intercessory prayer, to make reference to another of Jerry’s actual points. And these things are, in principle, amenable to systematic study as well as to inductive reasoning—even about negatives.

              I hope this is making more sense.

            3. Well, the thing is that omnipotence is the logical conclusion of the premise existence of supernatural powers. Your god can make it rain and so is very powerful. But my god can make lightning so he’s even more powerful. Therefore, your other god can make the clouds that make the rain and the lightning and so is even more powerful still…and so on.

              Once you make it as far as omnipotence, there’s no going back. So what if your god can heal sickness? My god can do that, and he can make your god sick and then go on to heal him. Why? Because my god can do anything.

              The practical point of Clarke’s Third Law has also been made repeatedly. Jerry’s Space Jesus from the previous thread makes the most sense as an hallucination; it’s plausible as a practical joke by an hyperintelligent shade of the color blue; and it’s a logical absurdity to attribute it to a supernatural deity.



        2. You forget we are talking about infinite power here. No matter how much evidence you have, you can’t put a degree of certainty on the hypothesis that a being is infinitely powerful. With only evidence for a finite number of completed tasks available, the amount of untested tasks is still infinite. For the hypothesis that a being is infinitely powerful, there is no degree of certainty that can be attained at all.

          1. No matter how much evidence you have, you can’t put a degree of certainty on the hypothesis that a being is infinitely powerful.

            Yes I can. The chances of the existence of an infinitely powerful being are exactly equal to the chances of the existence of an Euclidean triangle with angles that add up to 360°, which is also, coincidentally, exactly equal to the chances of such a being creating such a triangle.



        3. While I do see your point, Deen, isn’t that kind of the same situation as with our confidence in the fact that the laws of physics are the same everywhere in the universe? For all practical purposes—maybe even in reality—the universe is infinite, and we have been able to observe only the tiniest fraction of it. But that doesn’t seem to faze the physicists, who think that we are pretty certain about the universality of the laws of physics. Not absolutely certain, but ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ and provisionally certain, to take up the word Jerry used and apparently laid some store by.

          1. Perhaps. But there is also a difference: physics doesn’t a priori require the universe to be infinite and uniform. Scientists would be absolutely ecstatic to find out that the universe is finite, or that the laws of physics non-uniform (although the next step would be to try and find out what the pattern of non-uniformity is, and what causes it – which could result in new higher-level laws that are uniform).

            Unlike God, the universe is not defined to be infinite or uniform, and nothing much hangs on it if it isn’t. The universe is what it is.

            On the other hand, God is defined to be omnipotent. If you see a being that claims to be God, or that people claim is God, wouldn’t you want to know whether he really is omnipotent? But if there is no way to tell, you have a serious problem.

        1. The “you can’t prove a negative” isn’t true anyway and many people are familiar with numerous circumstances under which that can be demonstrated. For example, I can make the (correct) claim that I’m not a sausage. I can also state that I don’t have 11 fingers. Those negatives are only “unprovable” if you subscribe to the long discredited philosophy that nothing can be proven (which, for example, Rene Descartes proves a lie with his “cogito ergo sum”).

          1. “I think therefore I am” doesn’t prove anything unless you define what you mean by “I,” “think,” and “to be.” And anyway, I’m pretty sure it’s totally wrong — I think because I exist, not vice versa. The existing is prior to the thinking. I know this because I can stop thinking and continue to exist.

      2. It’s not really a “canard.” It’s usually stated imprecisely, but it’s logically valid. You can’t prove that something doesn’t exist unless you know where it’s supposed to be (I can prove there are no crows in the box, but I can’t show there are no purple crows anywhere in the universe).

    1. Jerry lost me too at “non-material being.” How is such a being structured and organized without matter? How can it be omniscient without some structure and organization to contain its knowledge? How can it obtain its knowledge without sensory input? In what sense is it a “being” without some sort of “matter” to “be” with?

      I think Dr. Myers’ first point stands. I’ve never heard a definition of “god” that is anywhere near coherent, much less testable. Without that, no test is applicable, hence no evidence usable.

      1. You’re confusing “incoherent” with “unexplained.” The concept that a mind could exist independent of a brain is not nonsensical. We can all understand what the concept means. We can imagine it, and do whenever we consider the possibility of life after death. It’s not a very detailed explanation. How that could be is not immediately clear. Nor can we investigate how such a phenomenon works, but only because we can find no evidence that the phenomenon exists. So it’s not an incoherent idea in the same sense that square circles are. Non-material beings are a phenomena that could exist in some conceivable universe, there just isn’t evidence that they exist in ours.

        1. And yet from what we know of nature (and we do know a hell of a lot – the days of earth, wind, water and fire are long gone), human sentience cannot exist without the corporeal brain. There is fantasy about transferring sentience to a machine, and based on what I know I cannot rule out that possibility – but there is still a need for a corporeal entity to host that sentience.

          1. I observe elsewhere in this thread that Shannon established as rock-solid a requirement for energy for communication as anything else in physics.

            That doesn’t rule out a simulation of some sort in which the “real” world has physics so radically different from ours that even the basic concepts of matter and energy are nonsensical, but you pretty much would have to get to that level of abstraction before you get away from the requirement of a mechanism for computation.



            1. But can this postulated simulation exist on its own? I doubt it; it is trivial to imagine scenarios which are not possible.

      2. supposedly, the inmaterial christian god acts in the material world through “miracles” which have material consequences. Then, theoretically, the existence of god is proven by these material consequences.

  4. the kind who says, “I don’t believe in God because I see no evidence for him.” If you make a statement like that, then you must perforce admit that there is some type of evidence for God that you’d accept.

    That is a non-sequitur. Noting the lack of evidence for claim X does not in any way indicate that positive evidence for claim X is actually possible.

    You also dismiss the lack of a god definition too easily. If the generally accepted meaning really did entail omnipotence and omniscience, then the conversation is over – such a being is impossible, period. Omnipotence is logically impossible, even more so when coupled with omniscience (which itself is physically impossible for any coherent definition of knowledge).

    Again, your examples of what would constitute evidence for a god fall quite far from the mark. None of them are remotely best explained as divine intervention. The more likely answer would still be some kind of deception, ranging from tricksters here on Earth to aliens capable of overriding your sensory input to believe you’re seeing something that’s not actually happening (again, fantastically unlikely scenario, but infinitely more likely than any kind of god).

    It’s always possible that there’s *something* that would be evidence for a god, but I don’t know what it is, and neither does anyone else on this planet.

    So I’m 100% certain there are no gods. My mind is made up. And I’m perfectly willing to change my mind if any actual evidence turns up to say I’m wrong. There’s no contradiction there, if we are to grant any utility to the concept of certainty.

  5. In one phrase you refer to the existence of God as a “theoretical possibility” and in another as a “theoretical probability.” I perceive a big difference between the two. On the first I’m entirely with P.Z.: on the second I can accept a place (close to zero)for the existence of God.

  6. The problem with being a full-on ‘7’ – ‘I know there is no God’ – is that to others looking on it seems like a faith statement. And I think it is difficult to argue with believers that belief beyond the possibility of challenge is, indeed, faith. (I know, I know, this is an old, old accusation).

    However anything less than a full-on 7, such as a 6.9 (‘I’m certain enough that there is no god that I’m prepared to live a god free life, unless fresh evidence causes me to rethink’) is a perfectly rational position to take and does not require faith.

    Life of course is even more complicated. You could be 6.9 about the Christian God, 6.99 about the Greek Pantheon, and a 4 (‘We can never know, probably’) about a deistic ‘create and forget’ type of god.

    Quite how you assess the rating, I don’t know – but I’m prepare to be convinced…

  7. And FWIW, I think that PZ’s position is about the same as that for heliocentrism. Humankind has unearthed so much cumulative evidence for the fact that the planets orbit the sun and how that’s all due to gravity that it is at this point almost warranted to say that no possible piece, certainly no single piece, of evidence should convice one of, for example, geocentrism: because the new evidence would have to invalidate four centuries’ worth (i.e. a shitload) of cumulative and thoroughly tested evidence.

    1. Heliocentrism was a better example that the one I used, thanks. I think you’re right though – at some point we should say that the evidence is overwhelming and follow-on observations won’t convince us. This isn’t dogmatism. The question is whether the history of indifference and suffering on earth, revelation and failure is sufficient.

  8. “A non-material being who is omnipotent, omniscient, and good”
    My problem with god is that nobody can explain what god is. The statement used here says absolutely nothing about what this supposed god is. The attributes given are made up to try and define something of which we know nothing. If there was a god there is no reason to believe that he has all, or none of the features mentioned above. These are man made labels.
    I prefer the term Ignostic – meaning you need to define what god is before we can have a debate about if it exists.

  9. I am inclined to agree with P.Z on this one. It may seem dogmatic to say that “nothing could ever convince that there was a god”, but the mistake is thinking that there is no dogmatism involved in saying “there’s nothing that evidence could not convince me of”, since that would imply that nothing could ever convince you to stop trusting your own senses or your own sanity or indeed the existence of external reality. Maybe solipsism is true or maybe we’re all living in the Matrix (or a matrix inside a matrix inside etc… ).

    If you cannot trust any sensory data, then no amount of empirical controls can ever fix that, since those controls would necessarily have to rely on the very same senses that cannot be trusted. If the sky opened, and some kind of being came out and presented itself as “God”, all this would prove to me was that every way of knowing available to me was worthless and nothing could ever be known about anything.

  10. I don’t think you can “win” by saying, “There simply cannot be a god of any sort.”  You can “win” in the sense of stating the truth of what you think, but it’s not going to “win” in the sense of making atheism more palatable to fence-sitters.

    I don’t see how this is at all relevant to the issue. This is a (dare I say) Mooneyesque concern about tactics for dealing with the religious, and what atheists should publicly say to be most effective. That was not (and generally has never been) PZ’s concern, which was instead that the definitions offered for gods are so ill-formed and incoherent as to be beyond empirical test — they are “not even wrong”. That is, I think, a powerful argument, and puts the onus on the believer to start by producing such a coherent definition. Jerry’s response on this point does nothing to address PZ’s argument.

    1. I specifically wrote this to address this concern. It’s not relevant to the issue of evidence–it’s relevant to what we mean by the word “win,” which PZ brought up.

      1. I took PZ’s use of the phrase “The only way to win is by not playing the game” as essentially a statement that the concept of god is “not even wrong”, that there is no argument that can be made against logical incoherence, and not at all about convincing others (the piece is about what evidence he would find convincing, after all).

        (And the fact that the phrase is also famously used in the classic film WarGames to describe nuclear war scenarios suggests that intent is about the validity of the argument, rather than persuading believers.)

        1. One problem with all this is that a truly omnipotent being could just reach into our brains and create conviction, by the next best thing to simple fiat. That, by definition, would convince you, even as otherwise rational people can be convinced that their own leg doesn’t belong to them. (See Oliver Sacks’ “A Leg to Stand On”) And the trouble with that is that so could a being only moderately more potent than us, or even a neurosurgeon of the not-too-distant future.

          So is the “what would convince me” criterion worth using? Should we perhaps rather use some kind of hypothetical fully rational observer? (And is this God fully rational? Is that a consequence of omniscience?)

  11. I can imagine some scenarios where the most parsimonious explanation might seem to be “God”. Others — and maybe me, too — would always be looking for naturalistic explanations for the same thing, though.

    I agree that logically, if we claim to be atheists because of a lack of evidence for god, we have to be willing to identify what sort of evidence we would accept for god’s existence.

    A different approach — perhaps more consistent with PZ’s view — is that the “God” hypothesis just makes no sense, and there’s no evidence that could confirm a nonsensical hypothesis.

    This is a good discussion — please keep it up.

    1. A different approach — perhaps more consistent with PZ’s view — is that the “God” hypothesis just makes no sense, and there’s no evidence that could confirm a nonsensical hypothesis.

      I think that is precisely his first point — if the definition of god is incoherent, it’s not possible to even formulate a testable hypothesis. If I tell you that I strongly believe that “colourless green ideas sleep furiously”, how can you test if such is true?

  12. It might sound contradictive, but I agree with Coyne and PZ at the same time. In debates I stick with Coyne’s angle, just because it is easier to defend. However, I think #1 in PZ’s list is where the buck stops cold.

    Your generic description of a god is still utterly incoherent and has no ontology. It is, at best, a list of arbitrary attributes. This is the same for all god’s I’ve ever heard described. No one is ever convinced by this argument, of course, mainly because few grasp what an “ontology” requires.

    I just let it slide in debates….let them define their god however they want and then just pretend it makes a lick of sense…..but I’m only humoring them.

    1. Well, I’m this far down the comments and have to stop for a disagreement on the definition of god. Certainly the god Jerry defines does not resemble most of the gods who have been worshipped throughout history. Nor does it define the Abrahamic god. The qualities of omnipotence and omniscience, I would argue, are relatively recent inventions. Never have these qualities been attributed to the Greek and Roman gods, or, to my knowledge, to any others. People say the these are qualities of the Abrahamic god, but the Bible belies that assertion. You will find very little evidence for such qualities in that book. (Reference god’s conversation with Abraham under the oaks in Genesis. God is confused and befuddled about what is going on in Sodom and is on his way to find out for himself–and he’s walking). No, the ideas of incorporeality and omniscience and omnipotence can be inferred from several passages in the Bible, but the Abrahamic god of the time of Christ was closer to the Greek ideas.

      Than having been said, the idea of evidence for a god presupposes the capability of the human mind to process any such evidence. When you observe a robed, bearded man regrowing limbs on amputees one after the other, what is more probable, that this is really happening or that you will soon wake up (or be given stronger meds)?

      1. Um. . . what if everyone else observes the same thing, and you aren’t taking any meds and you are awake. And if you say that you can’t tell if you’re awake or not, then you can’t trust ANYTHING you experience.

          1. Indeed. Last night I saw a magician perform, from which I must conclude that real magic does exist, since everyone in the audience saw the same thing. Or maybe there’s another explanation for what I saw, even though I don’t know what it is.

        1. Jerry wrote:

          [Y]ou can’t trust ANYTHING you experience.</blockquote.

          As an absolute matter, this is absolutely true. You may well be a figment of Alice's Red King's dream.

          As a practical matter, this is practically irrelevant. I'll go out on a limb and suggest that you experience a universe that is remarkably consistent and therefore eminently trustworthy.

          I find a fascinating parallel between that which is deterministic and that which is random.

          Random events such as radioactive decay are impossible to predict at the smallest level, yet they tend to be far and away the most predictable phenomenon at the largest level.

          Deterministic events such as gravitational interactions are trivial to predict at the smallest level, yet they tend to be far and away the least predictable phenomenon at the largest level (e.g., the three-body problem).



        2. Jerry.

          Respectfully, I think you missed the point and Ben came a little closer. Theoretically it is true that we cannot be absolutely certain that we are here and having this conversation. Philosophers have been digging that dead horse up and beating it for millenia. But I come at “proof” from a legal background. I agree that I can imagine the evidence that would convince me that some form of non-natural entity existed. But my (sometimes) rational mind tells me that such proof is so very unlikely that the answer would probable lie elsewhere. Hence my suggestion that faced with sensing or even seeing such “proof” I would have to conclude that it did not exist. Therefore, I would have to conclude that the problem would come from my perception. It is simply more probable that I misperceived than there was actual evidence of such a thing. Certainly madness is a lot more common than pink unicorns. When faced with seeing one, I would continue to believe it did not exist. I cannot think of any type of evidence that could make me believe (outside of the dream or hallucination) that it was reality.

  13. Jerry wrote:

    I think a reasonable and widely accepted concept of God is this: “A non-material being who is omnipotent, omniscient, and good. This god, who knows all our beliefs and intention, can do anything he wants to on Earth.”

    If this is the working definition, we can dismiss any even theoretical possibility of such an entity existing, and we can do so in the same way as we can dismiss even the theoretical possibility of the largest prime number existing.

    Fist, you included the word, “good,” in your definition. It has been well-known since a third of a millennium before there were Christians that any gods which might exist are not at all good. Epicurus, as quoted by Lactantius:

    God either wants to eliminate bad things and cannot, or can but does not want to, or neither wishes to nor can, or both wants to and can. If he wants to and cannot, then he is weak – and this does not apply to god. If he can but does not want to, then he is spiteful – which is equally foreign to god’s nature. If he neither wants to nor can, he is both weak and spiteful, and so not a god. If he wants to and can, which is the only thing fitting for a god, where then do bad things come from? Or why does he not eliminate them?

    It wouldn’t have taken anything anywhere near as over-the-top as omnipotence to have prevented all sorts of evil throughout history, from natural disasters to genocides all the way down to individual clumsiness and petty crime. Just as it would be evil for a firefighter to refrain from snatching a baby from a Hibachi or for a police officer to stand idly by as a little old lady’s purse was snatched, it is evil of <insert favorite deity here> to stand by, knowing (through means much less lofty than omniscience) that such things are happening and yet refuse to intervene.

    At this point, Christians generally claim that Jesus only loves free-range willies, and doing good in the world would cage the willies, and we can’t have willies in cages, now, can we? Yet this only demonstrates that either Jesus loves evil more than he loves willies, or that he’s impotent when it comes to stopping evil without stomping on a willie. That is, all Christians have done is put a name to Jesus’s malevolence or his incompetence.

    Moving backwards, I’ll tackle omnipotence and omniscience together. Omniscience is a subset of omnipotence, after all; if an entity can do anything, then it can grant itself the power to know everything.

    Let’s stick with the Christian pantheon for a moment. Jesus, as we all know, is the omnipotent creator of Life, the Universe, and Everything. He is constantly foiled by Satan, his arch-enemy. We’ll ignore for the moment that Satan’s mere existence and Jesus’s inability to do away with him is ipso facto adequate proof against the proposition and assume that the absurdity of the situation somehow makes sense.

    Let’s pretend that Satan announces to Jesus one day that he’s had a change of heart and seen the light. From now on, Satan will only do good in the world and be Jesus’s BFF. Jesus knows that Satan has, shall we say, a problem with telling the truth, so he figures that a test is in order. So, Jesus creates a fake universe identical to ours, but with a twist: he not only puts Satan inside this alternate universe, but he puts Satan in charge of it. And Jesus does it in such a way that, as far as Satan is concerned, the fake universe is the real universe, and it’s the only universe that’s ever existed. And, of course, in Satan’s universe, Satan is the omnipotent creator of Life, the Universe, and Everything. Anything and everything Satan can do or think of unequivocally confirms this fact. Jesus’s goal, obviously, is to see what Satan would do if he were given free run of the place and thereby determine if Satan can be trusted, but to do so in a way that doesn’t actually put anybody in jeopardy. And, Jesus being the perfect perfectionist he is, he makes the simulation perfect.

    So, let’s recap for a moment. Because Jesus has just done it to Satan (and we know he can because, by definition, he can do anything), we know that it’s possible for an entity to falsely believe that he’s the ultimate creator god. But now Jesus is himself in hot water: since we know such a thing is possible, how is Jesus to know that Satan isn’t really the ultimate creator god, and that Satan is the one putting Jesus to the test?

    If you’re at all familiar with Turing’s Halting Problem, you should recognize Jesus’s dilemma and know that it truly is impossible for him to overcome. Either Jesus can’t know whether or not Satan is yanking his chain, or Jesus can’t yank Satan’s chain. Or, for that matter, Jesus can’t know whether or not Satan is as he appears, but Jesus is actually the Invisible Pink Unicorn’s (MPBUHHH) bitch. And so on.

    Either way, it’s clear that not only is Jesus not omnipotent, neither is anybody else. Even if he can create the perfect simulation, he can’t determine if he’s in an even more perfect one.

    And it’s also clear that he’s not omniscient: he doesn’t know whether or not he’s inside a simulation. And, therefore, he doesn’t know whether or not he even created the universe in the first place.

    So what possible sense does it make to say that Jesus or any other god is the all-knowing, all-powerful Creator of Life, the Universe, and Everything when it’s not even possible to know whether or not you actually created anything?

    If you’re familiar with the Halting Problem, you know that it’s a very close cousin to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. Here’s a line of iambic pentameter inspired by Go¨del’s magnum opus:

    All but God can prove this sentence true.

    The formulation is more poetic than perfect, but any competent logician should be able to combine the above Jesus / Satan love story and that sentence and know that making it bulletproof is but an exercise for the reader.

    But the important aspect of the sentence isn’t just that there’s a rock too heavy for God to lift, but that you yourself can lift them with ease.

    Einstein observed that there are no privileged frames of reference, and he was absolutely correct. There are things I can do that you can’t, but there are also things that you can do that I cannot. Substitute any two entities for you and me and the same holds true. No matter how powerful the alleged god, there will still be things that you can do that the god can’t. So why pretend that this god can do anything and everything?



    1. The problem with this is that Satan isn’t omnipotent like Jesus (and presumably not omniscient either). The only reason Jesus’ trick succeeds is because Satan doesn’t have the resources necessary to see through the Almighty’s deception (because Satan isn’t almighty). And Satan could never trick Jesus in a similar way, because Jesus knows everything.

      Your contradiction is only a contradiction if you posit the existence of two omnipotent beings.

      1. What you’re missing is that you’re making an a priori assumption that Jesus actually is omnipotent and Satan really isn’t. That’s exactly the question under discussion, so we can’t simply assume it to be true without going circular.

        The short version:

        Assume that Jesus is omnipotent, that there isn’t anything he can’t do.

        Jesus can therefore convince Satan that Satan is omnipotent without actually making Satan omnipotent. That is, Satan can “use his omnipotence” the exact same way that Jesus would to determine whether or not he’s omnipotent, and conclude that he is, in fact, omnipotent…but his conclusion would be incorrect.

        Jesus’s dilemma: either he fails to give Satan the full omnipotence experience (by not giving him the real secret omnipotence decoder ring that would give the true answer about his omnipotence) or Jesus himself doesn’t have such a real secret omnipotence decoder ring to (pretend to) give to Satan in the first place.

        Either option contradicts the starting premise, thereby proving by contradiction the premise that Jesus is omnipotent.

        Again, if you still don’t get it, please read up on Turing’s Halting Problem. Jesus can no more determine if he’s the real deal than he can determine if a particular Turing machine will or won’t terminate.



        1. Ah, I see what you’re saying. What your argument shows is that if God were to show himself to us and say “I am omnipotent,” we wouldn’t know whether we could believe him. Still, it isn’t a logical contradiction to say that an omnipotent god could exist. Or do you disagree with that?

          1. Erm…no.

            Whether we can believe Jesus’s proclamations of his own omnipotence is irrelevant.

            What matters is whether Jesus himself can know that he’s omnipotent.

            If Jesus has an iron-clad way of knowing that he’s omnipotent, then he can’t give Satan the full omnipotence experience without also giving Satan that same iron-clad way of knowing whether or not he (Satan) is omnipotent. But then Satan will (obviously, before he does anything else) use that technique and discover that Jesus is pulling a fast one. Or Jesus can give Satan a fake decoder ring, but then Satan isn’t getting the real, true, full omnipotence experience. Arguably, he’s missing out on the most important part. Or maybe Jesus gives Satan an ultimately convincing decoder ring that still lies to Satan…in which case Jesus can’t trust his own decoder ring.

            Any way you look at it, the end result is something Jesus can’t do, thereby proving that Jesus isn’t really omnipotent, after all.

            Therefore, omnipotence inevitably leads to a logical contradiction in the exact same way as the premise that one can determine whether or not a particular Turing machine will ever halt (hint, hint, hint, hint!) leads to a logical contradiction. In both cases, we therefore know that the initial premise is therefore logically absurd and nonexistent. No solution to the Halting Problem can exist, and no entity is omnipotent.



            1. That’s a nice argument, Ben.

              In a related vein, Jesus presumably couldn’t make Satan actually omnipotent, because then either a) Satan could then use his omnipotence to take away Jesus’ power, meaning that Jesus’ omnipotence couldn’t prevent his un-omnipotence, or b) Satan couldn’t make Jesus un-omnipotent, which means that Jesus wasn’t actually successful with making Satan omnipotent.

              The whole notion of omnipotence is truly incoherent. However, as others have suggested, the attribution of omnipotence to gods is a fairly recent theological innovation. (Whether gods without such power are worth worshipping, or are really no different than super-powered aliens, is another question.)

            2. Thanks, Tulse.

              Shooting holes in omnipotence is trivial.

              In your example, you don’t even have to invoke Satan. Can Jesus commit suicide? If so, then he’s powerless to do an infinite number of things after he offs himself, so clearly he’s not omnipotent. And if he can’t commit suicide, he lacks a power that, sadly, we humans ourselves possess.

              Or, to sweeten the pot a bit, can Jesus prevent his past self from creating the universe?

              It’s all basic set theory, anyway. Who shaves the barber? Will the liar admit to lying?

              Or, another one of my attempts at logical deistic poetry: “Tell me, God, ‘Yes,’ or ‘No,’ Will you answer, ‘No’?”

              Anybody who’s ever pondered the countability of the reals should be able to come up with plenty more.



      2. How so? A less-than-omnipotent Jesus only needs to convince an even-less-that-omnipotent Satan that Satan is omnipotent. The scenario doesn’t require that Jesus be omnipotent, only able to fool Satan. After all, we think that something like the Matrix is, at the extreme, scientifically possible to devise, and it wouldn’t take omnipotence to implement.

    2. Nice formulation.

      The christian precept that faith in Jesus is required for admittance into heaven is an interesting example, since faith is demonstrably a characteristic which an omniscient being cannot possess.

      So, christian theology boils down to belief in a creator who bestows immortality only on those created beings which possess a power the creator cannot possess, whose gift paradoxically renders the recipient dispossessed of the very uniqueness which prompted the gift.

      A cruel joke, no?

  14. The (dare I say philosophical) question here seems to be: how much does the theoretical possibility argument differ from the god-of-the-gap (or Russell’s teapot) argument where the burden of the proof lies with the skeptic?

    Also belief is quite a nebulous thing. Asking what would it take for you to get freaked out or shit-scared-for-a-very-long-time would be easier to answer.

  15. I favor a more spare definition of what it would take for an entity to be “god”. I don’t believe that such a pared down deity is needed, and I am certainly no Deist. But it does create fewer paradoxes to have a very limited god who could make a stone that she couldn’t lift, for instance.

    A god would certainly not need to be all good, and I don’t even mind if it’s not omniscient. Heck, even omnipotence is not absolutely necessary if we’re talking a creator god who started the universe but might not know everything about or be able to control absolutely everything in its own creation.

    1. Diego, If you read all the way through my #13 above, it should become clear that the concept of “creating the universe” is a logical absurdity.



  16. When asked, “What evidence would convince you that god/s existed?” My response is simply, “The onus is on the god.” Surely any deity worth deity status could end this debate.

  17. I agree with people who say the “God” who is omnipotent and good etc, the familiar “God,” is hard to accept even in principle – so why not make it about a much more provisional and stripped-down version? In that sense I think ID makes a kind of sense (even though most of the proponents are faking it) – never mind “God,” a designer could be something else.

    1. Oh, you did that already. “What I would require is simply evidence for an omnipotent and omniscient being.” Right. It helps a lot to drop the “good” part. It’s easier to think of possible evidence that would convince of omnipotent and omniscient without its having also to convince of good.

      1. Except, of course, for the trivial detail that the very notion of “omnipotence” is a self-contained contradiction, like a circular triangle.



        1. Fine, then change the attribute to “nigh omnipotence”–can’t do the impossible or contradictory. Most theists don’t expect their god to be able to do the impossible or contradictory anyway. They would readily concede away claims to absolutely omnipotence. Quibbling over the definition of “omnipotent” is at best only going to eliminate certain kinds of gods of a very limited type. Which is somewhat useful when arguing against theism generally, but certainly not the slam dunk counter-argument that some atheists seem to think it is.

          1. You’re right; theists do attempt a last-ditch effort at saving their gods by thus re-defining “omnipotence” in such a manner.

            Yet in doing so, they render the term even more meaningless than before.

            For, don’t you see? If Jesus can be omnipotent yet still be excused from drawing an Euclidean triangle with angles that sum to 360°, then my inability to do the same doesn’t preclude me from claiming omnipotence.

            So what if I can’t travel faster than light? Papa Einstein established it as a logical impossibility based on the geometry of the universe. Jesus can’t do the trick, either. We’re both still omnipotent.

            Perhaps Jesus is a programmer of the Matrix and could warp spacetime in a way that would let him pull off the trick…but, then again, I can just as easily stretch the paper over a globe and draw you a square triangle.

            And it’s certainly a logical impossibility for me to leap tall buildings in a single bound; I lack the requisite energy and muscles to the task. Doing so is exactly like trying to make 1 + 1 = 3. Maybe Jesus could leap a tall building in a single bound, but that just means he’s got a jetpack strapped to his back.

            In either case, there isn’t a single instance where you’ll name something I can’t do that isn’t a logical impossibility, or name a single instance where Jesus can’t do something that isn’t a logical impossibility. So why does Jesus get to be called omnipotent using your definition but I don’t?



            1. Hmm. Ok, now this is actually an interesting argument. I see what you’re saying. Omnipotence by definition means the ability to do the impossible. Doing only what is possible is what we do every day. Interesting point. I promise to think it over, but I’ve wasted too much time here today already.

            2. Not only is it the definition of the term, it’s the entire point of it.

              What’s the point of calling something a miracle if it’s something you or neighbor could have done anyway?

              Superman isn’t super because he can leap tall buildings with the assistance of an Army surplus jetpack, after all.



            3. We can’t put physics on the same level as mathematics. Just because mathematical concepts provide a nice model for predicting the behavior of the universe doesn’t mean that the observed behavior of particles is as logically determined as is the observed behavior of parallel lines.

              It is very interesting to be sure that gravity is so well described by saying “mass-energy determines geometry of space,” but that does not make the quote as true as 2+2=4. All that is true is that the model seems to work. All we can say is that the physics seems to be well described by geometry.

              We have no way of telling whether nature actually fixes the speed of light as ultimate, or whether it just seems to as well as we can measure.

              Imagine that we create a simulated world, with simulated light. The inhabitants would certainly not be able to square the circle, but whether they could travel faster than light would be entirely up to us as the creators.

              To such a world we would relate as gods. How would we convince an inhabitant of our simulation of our own existence? Maybe upoad some into android bodies, teach them to type C++, and let them tweak their own world before returning?

              Of course they wouldn’t be convinced that we were the ultimate beings, just that they themselves were not. I suppose that’s the position of some theists: we are not the ultimate beings, but the ultimate beings or being does exist.

            4. Imagine that we create a simulated world, with simulated light. The inhabitants would certainly not be able to square the circle, but whether they could travel faster than light would be entirely up to us as the creators.

              Would it? Is a consistent physics even possible without some sort of speed limit? Relativity is not just some random idea that by pure luck happens to model reality. Einstein deduced it from first principles about time, sapce, and motion, and in that sense it has the same status of logical inevitability as any mathematical theorem.

            5. I’m afraid that the rightfully great status of Einstein has bequeathed upon his theories the mistaken status of mathematical certainty! There are light years of difference between the theorems of Euclid and the theory of Einstein. That is one of the reasons why we call it the theory of relativity as opposed to the theorem of relativity.

              The special theory of relativity takes as a basic observation that the speed of light is the same as measured by any two observers, despite their relative motion. This has been experimentally verified many times.

              But a theorem of Euclidean geometry, say that triangles have interior angles summing to 180 degrees, is not proven by any number of experiments at all! At very first the early geometers measured these angles and noticed a pattern. But a pattern of observation counts for nothing in mathematics–a logical proof from axioms is required.

              I suppose we could say that it would be illogical to imagine a universe where the speed of light (or of anything–sound, toy cars, water drops on window panes) was constant for observers in inertial frames, and where the laws of physics were also true in any frame, and where rigid rods existed, but in which Lorentz contraction failed to exist.

              But it is easy to imagine a universe with different speeds of light in the first place. Light could behave like bullets in the ether, with no logical contradiction. Einstein’s contribution was to dare to imagine that it behaved differently (all observed evidence backs him up) and to derive from that assumption lots of cool results, like the approximation E=mc^2.

  18. I think there’s three hurdles on which religion can falter, corresponding to different types of atheism:

    1. Evidential. This is the least basic. Before we can reject religious belief on evidential grounds we need to establish that God is a coherent concept. Only if God is a coherent concept can he be said to exist or not. At this level we find strong atheism, agnosticism and theism.

    2. Coherence/meaningfulness. This level is more basic. Is God a coherent/meaningful concept? This is a philosophical question and is more basic than the (scientific) evidential question. If God is an incoherent concept there can be no question if his existing or otherwise. For example, in your definition of God, the idea of God being immaterial and capable of intervening in the material world renders the concept incoherent. I think many if PZ arguments are at this level. At this level we find positivistic atheism; the idea that religious talk is meaningless.

    3. The final, most basic level concerns that question if whether the concept of God needs to be coherent/meaningful. It is quite clear from the study if scripture and ancient history that ‘God’ (and religious concepts generally) belong to myth and not the realm of (potentially) empirical concepts. Moreover, all modern discussion of God is derivative of religious tradition, so we might question why we would treat it other than mythological and take modern apologetics seriously at all. It’s like questions of fictional characters. For example, if we found evidence of a British spy who was remarkably like James Bond we might wonder if James Bond was not, in fact, fictional. But the pertinent questions would be those relevant to fiction – was Ian Fleming aware if this man and did he base his character on him? – rather than those pertinent to the empirical world – does this spy meet the definition of James Bond? The same is true of myth. Mythological characters do not need to be coherent. Most are, in fact, nonsensical. The nonsensical is one if the marks of the fictional and mythological. At this level you might find what I would call scriptural or historical atheism. I think some of PZ arguments are a long the lines – i.e., should we take these arguments seriously at all or are the arguments themselves malformed?

  19. I think you’re addressing different questions.

    PZ is slightly off topic, but in a forgivable way.

    You’re answering the question, “Is there anything at all, even hypothetically, that could convince me that a God exists?”

    PZ is answering the question, “Given the sorts of evidence typically offered for a God, and the sorts of beliefs typically held about Gods, is there anything I can remotely expect to be given as evidence that might convince me that a God exists?”

    To analogize, imagine if someone asked you whether there was any evidence that might convince you that evolution was false. You might answer in one of two ways, depending on how you took the question.

    1. Rabbits in the precambrian.
    2. No, because it would take something like rabbits in the precambrian, and we’ve pretty conclusively demonstrated that there aren’t any.

    1. 3. Even if there were rabbits in the precambrian, evolution has been so well supported that this would just be a footnote or exception and would definitely not change the core theory.

  20. Another thing is that by calling it “a God” one presupposes what kind of thing it is, but the issue is more like “what if evidence of something new and unexplained appeared?” Something new and unexplained could be an entity or a force or a regularity/law. A God is a person of some sort, but if we’re looking for a person, then we’re limiting what kind of thing we’re looking for, which seems like a narrower question than necessary.

    The real question is “what if new evidence turned up, of something that didn’t seem to fit existing categories?” That’s a less loaded question, and the answer seems pretty obvious. (You treat it as new evidence and go from there.) If you limit it to evidence of “a God” then the answer becomes less obvious.

    1. If your’re looking for evidence of something that you cannot define (god), your chances of finding it are zero or certainty depending on your prejudices. The whole concept of god is meaningless and therefore there can be no evidence to support it.

  21. I think the really central point here is about whether “supernatural” is an inherent property of “theistic”. By definition, there can never be anything “supernatural”, because if it existed it would be “natural”. PZ seems to believe that any being which is not “supernatural” is not a god, by definition. I don’t agree with that definition, of course.

        1. Well…okay. You have a couple points there.

          And, to be fair, my cat (who has forsaken me for the moment for the windowsill) is most definitely real and unquestionably a deity.



          1. Yes so’s mine, and has most of the qualities of other deities. Self absorption, ruthlessness, unpredictability, sudden fits of murderousness and constantly trying to trip you up!

  22. even aliens have to work through understandable natural mechanisms. If they don’t, then they’re equivalent to gods.

    My question is, what would “they don’t” look like? How could you tell that they were not using natural mechanisms? I propose that you could not tell. The most you could say is that you don’t know how the alien’s magic works. That is not good enough a reason to ascribe deistic status to the operator, in my opinion. Wouldn’t it be more prudent to conclude that they simply understand the nature of the multiverse better than you do?

    Such aliens have been created many times in science fiction/fantasy. They tend to have complete control over spacetime or at least the thoughts of humans in such a way that the main characters can’t tell whether the god-like aliens are manipulating spacetime or just altering human brain processes. Once you come into contact with such a life form, you exist at its pleasure or will. The most you can hope for is that it doesn’t mess with your reasoning facility or you just might have no choice but to be a believer.

    [I accidentally posted this to the wrong thread, so I am re-posting it in the correct place. Updated my email address, too.]

  23. Repost from earlier reply:

    BTW, Ben, Lactantius is my main man. Turning my master’s thesi on him into a book (I hope): “The Man Who Saved Jesus Christ.”
    Well, I’m this far down the comments and have to stop for a disagreement on the definition of god. Certainly the god Jerry defines does not resemble most of the gods who have been worshipped throughout history. Nor does it define the Abrahamic god. The qualities of omnipotence and omniscience, I would argue, are relatively recent inventions. Never have these qualities been attributed to the Greek and Roman gods, or, to my knowledge, to any others. People say the these are qualities of the Abrahamic god, but the Bible belies that assertion. You will find very little evidence for such qualities in that book. (Reference god’s conversation with Abraham under the oaks in Genesis. God is confused and befuddled about what is going on in Sodom and is on his way to find out for himself–and he’s walking). No, the ideas of incorporeality and omniscience and omnipotence can be inferred from several passages in the Bible, but the Abrahamic god of the time of Christ was closer to the Greek ideas.

    Than having been said, the idea of evidence for a god presupposes the capability of the human mind to process any such evidence. When you observe a robed, bearded man regrowing limbs on amputees one after the other, what is more probable, that this is really happening or that you will soon wake up (or be given stronger meds)?

  24. Granted, we know that prayer doesn’t work, but it could have.

    This is key: “we know prayer doesn’t work.” Yes it could work but the fact that it doesn’t makes this failure even more significant. I think that your objection is actually another key mark in PZ’s favour.

    After all, if P.Z.’s parents copulated, the probability that they’d have any child is high, and we know that it’s improbable that that child would have a combination of genes specified in advance.

    Again, I don’t see how this is meant to undermine PZ’s argument. If God’s improbability and function is explained through reproduction and evolution, then it’s an alien, not a god. Gods are not held up as evolved, biological beings but something eternal and fundamental so their complexity and organization must come spontaneously through some other mechanism. Here, this complexity would be specified in advance.

    And I cannot claim that P.Z. is wrong—he may really be completely immune to any sort of evidence for a god. All I can say is that I am not, and that there are conceivable events that could convince me.

    I got the feeling (and maybe I’m way of base here) is that PZ is open to evidence, however being open to evidence he must also consider all of the evidence against the existence of gods. I don’t get the feeling like you’re properly taking into account all of the past failures but maybe I’m off base here.

    In a speech on this subject, PZ commented on the “rabbit in the pre-Cambrian” quip, saying something like even this wouldn’t show evolution was false because the evidence for evolution is so overwhelming that it’s no longer sensible to dismiss it. At this point, it is sensible to say that essentially nothing could convince us that evolution did not happen. Sure we can point to observations which could have happened but did not, which would add exceptions or new developments, but evolution is a fact.

    I wonder if, in your desire to be fair and open to evidence, you aren’t overlooking the huge number of failed tests and positive arguments against gods. These don’t just go away. The problem of evil/suffering is still here.

    BTW: I’m not comparing either of you to Creationists as the Christians fill that role, rather are you responding to their arguments with too much charity? If the bacterial flagellum was designed by a Designer, we both know that wouldn’t negate the evidence for evolution so why would some ‘miracles’ negate the past 14 billion year history of the universe without signs of a god?

  25. A couple people have posted ideas along this line, but I don’t think it’s been put this explicitly:

    Let’s hypothesize a demon named Deshorse which is powerful enough to cause you to experience a perfect, coherent, and undetectable illusory reality. Once you’ve granted the possibility of the existence of Deshorse, it’s pointless to discuss the possibility of evidence for the existence of a being more powerful than Deshorse. Any evidence of a being more powerful than Deshorse can be explained more parsimoniously as yet another illusion generated by Deshorse.

    Of course, being confronted with evidence that something like Deshorse actually existed would be disconcerting (to say the least), but it wouldn’t serve to demonstrate the truth of any particular religion – and it certainly wouldn’t demonstrate the existence of any particular god.

    The only defeater for the Deshorse problem that I can think of is through the use of some kind of ontological argument which demonstrated the necessity of some more powerful entity. In other words, I think it’s indefeasible.

    1. No need to posit anything as romantic as a demon. Your Deshorse is indistinguishable from Lau Tzu’s butterfly, Alice’s Red King’s dream, the philosopher’s brain in a vat, and Hollywood’s Matrix.

      See my other posts in this thread demonstrating how it’s just as impossible to determine whether or not one is in a simulation as it is to determine whether or not a giving Turing machine will halt.



      1. I took your argument to be about the incoherence of the concept of omnipotence, rather than an epistemological limit from our perspective.

        I’m specifically trying to point out that no evidence can be used to prove the existence of anything like a traditional god, because evidence becomes useless after you arrive at the fact that something like Deshorse exists. It’s a different argument than just saying, “You can’t know anything for certain, because you might be a brain in a vat”. Or maybe just a nuance of that argument I don’t often see emphasized.

  26. No ‘god’ would allow quasi-literate trash such as the ‘Bible’ to be attributed to itself; ergo: there is no ‘god’.

  27. Thank you for that. I’m a fan of PZ, but he’s making a fool of himself and giving atheists a bad name with this nonsense.

    It’s nothing more than an argument from incredulity.

    He can’t imagine any evidence that would convince him of god, therefore no god.

    That doesn’t work for creationists, and it doesn’t work for PZ.

    1. It seems to me that it is precisely you and Jerry who are using the argument from incredulity, not PZ.

      PZ is the one saying “given the best evidence you can muster, all I can say is I don’t know what it is, but it’s just another natural phenomenon to look into.”

      On the other hand, it is *you* and Jerry who are saying “all you need to do is give me a scenario so crazy that it will strain my credulity, therefore I will believe in god.”

      1. PZ is saying that there is no evidence that could possibly be presented, which would make him change his mind. That is the definition of faith. How is that different from the people who say “No matter how many fossils, etc. you find, nothing will make me believe the bible is untrue?”

            1. You’re missing the point, which is that the coherence of the concept “supernatural” is *not* an empirical question. It’s analytic, the same as mathematics.

              Supernatural is an incoherent word. It makes no sense, and has no referent. It’s impossible to provide any evidence for. Thus, it is literally impossible.

              To 100% reject the supernatural is the same as rejecting the possibility of a married bachelor, or rejecting the possibility of adding 2 odd numbers and coming up with another odd number.

        1. The difference comes down to the same one between induction and deduction.

          Call it faith if you like, but my certainty that 1 + 1 = 2, that no triangles in Euclidean space exist whose angles sum to 360°, and that “omnipotence” is as nonexistent as the solution to the Halting Problem are all equally absolute.

          On the other hand, I will acknowledge the theoretically possible existence of Russell’s Teapot, as vanishingly improbable as it is. We could, after all, be in a Matrix-style simulation where the programmers have a sense of humor.

          The Bible, on the other hand…please. It opens with a story about a magic garden with talking animals and an angry giant. It features a talking plant (on fire, no less!) that teaches the reluctant hero how to wield his magic wand. It ends with a bizarre zombie snuff porn fantasy. And virtually every truth claim within its pages, from history to biology to physics to cosmology to mathematics, has been soundly contradicted by other evidence. The suggestion that it has any bearing on reality is deserving only of ridicule, scorn, and pity.



    2. It’s nothing more than an argument from incredulity.

      It’s clear that you are either utterly uninterested or simply incapable of engaging with PZ’s actual arguments.

      Tell, me, what evidence would convince you of the existence of qwpeoirsaodfas?

      Oh, OK, I guess that’s not totally fair. I should tell you something about these amazing creatures (but really, they are not “creatures” at all – they are like nothing you have ever, or could ever, encounter in “nature”. They are pure substance and pure essence, orthogonal and inseparable). So here are some attributes of qwpeoirsaodfas:

      1. They are shapeless, colorless, invisible and unmeasurable yellow square bits of pure essence and knowledge.

      2. They are what animates and fuels your thoughts – anything you think, experience, or think that you think or experience is because of them. They are both the rules, the force, and and the medium that props up and enables your consciousness.

      3. What we know of the qwpeoirsaodfas comes in two forms – pure intuition (I mean, these little dudes are what animates your thoughts, after all) and what has been elaborated by the bits of scripture that were compiled when they decided to manifest themselves in the form of Carl and Agnes McCorkle of Wooster, OH in the late 1940s. During this period (known as “the habitation”), Mr. and Mrs. McCorkle performed many, many astounding miracles (tragically, none of which was ever documented firsthand, or apparently witnessed outside the greater Wayne county area). Perhaps the most amazing one – Mr. McCorkle once was observed to dead-lift a Buick and hold it up for more than 15 hours! Also, Agnes McCorkle predicted the unexpected and unaccountable death of a prize llama belonging to their neighbors, the Rothrocks.

      So tell me, then, what evidence would convince you of the existence of qwpeoirsaodfas? Oh, and you should know – since they are pure essence, these little (and yet impossibly huge) buggers are actually quite unknowable. Mysterious, even. So it seems to me that any failure on your part to fashion evidence that would convince you that they are actually actual and really real ought to be put down to a failure of your imagination.

      1. When you say “qwpeoirsaodfas”, do you mean “midichlorians”?

        Of course, for those we could do a simple blood test…

    3. randyextry wrote
      … he’s making a fool of himself and giving atheists a bad name with this nonsense.

      This is great, “giving atheists a bad name.” You mean there are people who had the greatest respect for atheists before, but now that PZ has made this argument all atheists are tarred with this horror. Very funny.

      1. I mean I think there are people who classify atheism as just another religion, with a *faith* in the absence of god. PZ is feeding into this notion. Atheism is not a faith.

        1. So? There are also people who classify atheism as devil worship, or who classify those who belong to the worng side of last week’s schism as atheists.

          There’s little point in worrying about the perceptions of people so clueless. If the opportunity presents itself, fine, try to enlighten them. Just don’t lose any sleep over it.



  28. A question for Dr. Coyne, What sort of evidence would convince you that 2+2= 5?

    What would ever persuade you into accepting the existence of the square root of a negative number?

    In other words, I think PZ’s general statement is right, albeit for the wrong reasons.

    If we agree that a god would need to be omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent, then there is no evidence, factual or potential, not even in principle, that would attest ‘scientifically’ to the existence of such being, if only because it is a logical contradiction.

    Now add to this profligate description a character of benevolence and you will have produced the most vaporous, obscure and obfuscatory conception of an entity.

    If you, professor, can come up with a kind of evidence that could, if only theoretically, speak to the omnipotence or omnipresence or omniscience of ‘anything’, I would like to hear it (or indeed read it).

  29. I maintain, still, that you could hold this exact same conversation about any fictional character, be it Harry Potter, Sauron or the Wicked Witch of the West. *Theoretically* there could be evidence convincing you of their existence, but really, would it be reasonable to have this conversation?

  30. PZ has sadly come out of the closet as a faithist. He has faith that no God exists an no evidence will convince him otherwise.

    Us 6.9ers remain true to a scientific epistemology.

    1. So tell us: what evidence would convince you of the existence of a Squirzleplex?

      What’s that? Can’t you give any? That’s a bit feeble isn’t it? Are you a 7 on the asquirzleplex scale?

      Ah, so you think it’s just a silly idea I thought up which doesn’t mean anything?

      Well so, I suspect, does PZ.

      1. Close, but not quite perfect.

        chemicalscum, on the famous Dawkins scale, where are you with respect to triangles in Euclidean space with angles that sum to 360°?



        1. Look at my posts here:


          Though rather facile presentations, I suspect the two previous posters are trying to propose the “God is a category error” philosophical position. It was a position I used to hold, however I changed my mind when examining Huxley’s concept of agnosticism where he claims that it is impossible to know if God exists or not. This is effectively a metaphysical add on to the atheist view that sees no evidence for God. So agnosticism (in Huxley’s definition and he invented the term) is merely a special subset of the atheist position.

          I reject Huxley’s metaphysical rider as I am not prepared to place limitations on what knowledge science may ultimately be able to discover.

          I am provisionally using the definition of God being an agency having the ability to suspend the laws of physics as a practical one for evidence testing.

          Ben – Since we wish to deal with the “sophisticated” theologians not only the bronze age book fetishists, I accept their postulate that God’s omnipotence does not extend to to an ability to carry out logically impossible and therefore mathematically impossible acts.

          1. Since we wish to deal with the “sophisticated” theologians not only the bronze age book fetishists, I accept their postulate that God’s omnipotence does not extend to to an ability to carry out logically impossible and therefore mathematically impossible acts.

            I don’t. It renders the term entirely devoid of meaning.

            If the fact that it’s logically impossible for Jesus to draw a square triangle doesn’t prevent him from being omnipotent, then my inability to do the same doesn’t prevent me from being omnipotent.

            Similarly, it’s logically impossible for either of us to travel faster than light in an Einsteinian spacetime continuum, and equally similarly we both still qualify as omnipotent.

            It’s a mathematical impossibility for me to leap tall buildings in a single bound; I lack sufficient energy in a suitable form to manage the feat. It’s exactly like trying to make 1 + 1 = 3. Therefore, since it’s a logical and mathematical impossibility, it still doesn’t count against my omnipotence.

            When it comes right down to it, everything that’s impossible for me to do is impossible because of a mathematical (especially geometric) impossibility. Therefore, in your exact words, my omnipotence does not extend to such impossible acts.

            Besides, what else is a miracle but the manifestation of the impossible?

            If Jesus walked on water by using hidden stepping stones, does that still make the event noteworthy?



          2. Well, I was trying for light-hearted rather than facile; I think my point is valid. No, my position is not that God is a category error (though I might yet be pursuaded of that) but that it is a concept too badly defined for there to be evidence for or against. Any unprecedented events would represent a mystery to be investigated, not evidence for “God”.

  31. I’ve been watching the debate with interest, I think both you and PZ have some good points and in many areas, you’re just talking past each other. On PZ’s side, he’s right, the religious have ill-defined gods and therefore, cannot produce anything remotely resembling evidence for them. How can you provide evidence for something you cannot even define? That lets out pretty much all claims of evidence by modern-day theists. However, on your side, you’re entirely right about rejecting any and all possible evidence for any an all possible god(s). That’s just not how rational people work. I don’t believe in unicorns. I’ve never seen any convincing, objective evidence for their existence. I’m not going to say that they’re impossible however, there is a slim chance that there might be evidence that I simply have not seen, therefore I only reject their existence provisionally, pending the presentation of evidence down the road. I also accept evolution provisionally for the same reason, human knowledge is fallible, we only know what we know right this minute. If we never learned anything new, it would be time for science to pack it in. Therefore, there is a chance, no matter how slim, that evolution is entirely wrong and there is another explanation that we just haven’t found yet. If and when we discover it, I’ve got no problem admitting I was wrong all along, but until then, I’ll go where the evidence leads.

    I do have a problem, however, with using “non-material” or “supernatural” as a part of the definition of a god. If you do that, how can you possibly ever find evidence to support it? It goes beyond the realm of not only modern science, but IMO conceivable science. Sure, we might eventually find evidence of the supernatural, although I personally cannot imagine how, but until we do, even evaluating such a deity seems absurd because it’s major makeup is entirely imaginary.

    I did a writeup of both sides of the debate here: http://bitchspot.jadedragononline.com/blog/2010/10/14/what-would-it-take/

  32. Ultimately, PZ is and his supporters are wrong on this issue. The concept of a god doesn’t have to be incoherent in principle. It is possible to define god or the supernatural in such a way that it yields testable predictions. And while the existence of any particular god might be impossible to prove with absolute certainty (it could always be advanced aliens messing with us), I think it’s more than possible to get the probability high enough to overcome all reasonable doubts, which should be standard of proof acceptable to most skeptics.

    But I see way too many people confusing the way things are with the all way things could possibly be. As I wrote on Pharyngula, it’s the difference between an a priori and a posteriori claim.

    The first says a piece of knowledge precedes experience. “We know this is true without even checking.” By contrast, an a posteriori claim is one which follows from experience. “We know this is true because we have checked.” It’s the difference between the abstract and the concrete. A posteriori claims are on much firmer epistemological footing because they actually entail evidence. They aren’t airy constructs of rhetoric, but solid statements of fact determined by interactions with reality.

    All the the “evidence should matter” crowd is saying is “The supernatural does not exist” should be considered an a posteriori claim. It’s a conclusion which follows from the evidence (i.e. there is none). Trying to make it an a priori claim weakens the argument against the supernatural since theists could then (rightly) accuse of us of being close-minded for assuming our conclusions and for being unwilling to even consider the possibility that we are wrong. It would be holding a belief on nothing more that the conviction we are correct. Why the hell we would we resort to dogmatic assertion like that when we don’t need to??? Far better to take up supernatural claims on evidentiary grounds. We have checked reality and found it to be devoid of magic. That’s not something we are assuming, it’s just the way things turned out to be. It’s the stronger claim.

    Anyone who has mistakenly termed the god hypothesis incoherent because it doesn’t comport with what we know about our reality is–unwittingly or not–arguing for treating the god hypothesis as an a posteriori claim. If one wishes to make this discussion about reality, one can’t assume their conclusion a priori. One actually has to go out and look.

    1. I can’t disagree with you more.

      What I am saying, and what I imagine PZ would say, is that the supernatural is an incoherent concept. It makes no sense. It’s like saying “north of the north pole” – it’s a literal paradox. It can’t possibly exist any more than a square circle can or a married bachelor can.

      This is not an a priori assumption – this is simply trying to make sure words actually have meaning. To assert that this stance weakens the argument is nonsense – who cares whether theists accuse of us being closeminded? I was under the impression we were debating actual reality here, not PR strategies for convincing theists of anything.

      I am very comfortable saying the supernatural can never exist, because it has no definition. It can’t exist because it doesn’t mean anything. How can such at thing ever exist? It’s like asking me if efweivhlwevbw exists while refusing to ever define it.

      It’s a game, and it’s nonsense.

      1. But you are making words the primary arbiter of truth, which is insane. Saying the “supernatural can’t exist because that which exists is by definition natural” is a silly word game. Whether you decide to classify a disembodied consciousness as “supernatural” is a matter of semantics. These hypothetical phenomenon could exist in principle, and so we use the word “supernatural” to refer to them. You can take issue with the terminology all you want, but at the end of the day you still have the phenomena themselves to consider. “What phenomena?” I hear you asking. “There no evidence that the disembodied minds exist.” Exactly. This is about evidence. Not rhetoric.

        1. You said “these hypothetical phenomenons could exist in principle.”

          And you correctly predict my response of “WHAT PHENOMENONS!?!?!”

          But you fail to answer that. I’m not asking you for evidence of a diseombodied mind. I’m asking you what the hell a disembodied mind even *is*! We’re not even at the point of evidence. We haven’t even reached the point of coherence.

          If something is illogical on it’s face, we should say so. I think supernaturalism is illogical and paradoxical on it’s face. And you’ve made no effort to dissuade me of that fact.

          You can’t have evidence of an incoherent concept. Before you marshal evidence, you need some idea of what you are marshaling evidence *of*. That’s the problem – the supernatural is not a meaningful thing. No evidence can be brought for it because it is not the type of thing you can bring evidence for.

          It’s like asking someone to bring you evidence of a triangle with 360 degrees. It’s truly nonsense.

          PS: Merely predicting my response is not the same thing as actually answering my questions. Please try to do that if you want to have a discussion.

          1. I’m asking you what the hell a disembodied mind even *is*!

            It’s a consciousness independent which exists independently of a material substrate. Nothing about that definition is inherently incoherent or “illogical on it’s face.” The *only* way it can be countered is by pointing out that everything we know consciousnesses seems to indicate that they require material substrates, a claim which necessarily entails knowledge about our reality, which makes the whole thing a matter of current evidence. Consider your response both predicted and countered.

            1. Your essential argument is “using words means you are making a priori argument, because the only way to know what words mean is to know their referents.”

              No offense, but that’s beyond stupid. You’re confusing arguments about definitions and logic with arguments about basic asssumptions.

              When I tell you a bachelor has to be unmarried, I’m not making any assumptions about the world or any assumptions about bachelors. To reject out of hand the idea of a married bachelor is not to make a priori assumptions. But that’s what you are claiming.

              Consciousness without materiality doesn’t make any sense at all. You know why? Because *anything* without materiality doesn’t make any sense at all. Materiality is a basic precondition of existence. Everything which exists has some connection to materiality, either as a part of it, a composite of it, or a relationship between different materials. Nothing can ever break this rule as a matter of logic – literally, to do so is utterly impossible.

              This is basic logic. It’s not a priori of anything. It’s merely recognizing that the alternative to this rule would be a paradox.

              If you think using logic and avoiding paradoxes is an a priori assumption, I don’t know what to tell you, other than you’re living in some weird solipsistic vat.

            2. Consciousness without materiality doesn’t make any sense at all. You know why? Because *anything* without materiality doesn’t make any sense at all.

              But you can’t just declare reality to be material by fiat. That’s what you’re supposed to be proving. Merely defining “existence” as being predicated on “materiality” is a great example of assuming your conclusions. It’s about as persuasive and powerful as theists who define god as “that which necessarily exists.” Are you moved by such word games? Me neither. Why you think it’s any more convincing when atheists do it is beyond comprehension.

            3. Why can’t I? Remember, definitions are not right or wrong, merely useful or not.

              How would you react to someone saying “you can’t just declare bachelors to be unmarried by fiat!”

              I would hope you would give them a weird look and back away smiling. But that’s exactly the situation here.

              I’ve provided a definition of reality which requires materiality. You need to provide some alternate definition which is logical and avoids paradoxes. You’ve in fact done no such thing. All you’ve done is say “nuh-uh, who says!”

              Well, that’s not a response. That’s barely a tantrum, nothing at all.

              If you want to try to establish some kind of reality or existence without any connection to materiality, feel free to try. In my opinion, it’s literally impossible, like trying to provide a definition of a square that has 5 sides. But you can try; you simply haven’t yet done so.

            4. And I have offered a definition of reality that doesn’t predicate existence on materiality. You have offered no reason why this is a “paradox” other than it conflicts with your definition. Well, that’s not a response. That’s barely a tantrum, nothing at all.

              And yeah, this is brain in a vat stuff. The point is you can’t argue your way out of solipsism using inductive arguments alone. Watching people like yourself floundering to do so is a tiring spectacle.

            5. Provide the definition. Perhaps I missed it.

              And if you’re tired by the spectacle, then leave. No one is requiring your presence.

            6. The problem being, we have no evidence that “a consciousness independent which exists independently of a material substrate” is actually real or even that it’s possible. Just stringing words together doesn’t make it a credible, logical or even worthwhile definition. We have no reason to think that a consciousness can exist separately from a material construct, we’ve certainly never seen one, so why should the bald assertion that one does, without supporting evidence, be met with anything but a chuckle?

        2. But you are making words the primary arbiter of truth, which is insane

          On the contrary – words are not only the primary arbiter of truth – they are the sole arbiter of truth. Reality is neither “true” nor “false” – it just is. It is propositions that are true or false (or, often, a nearly infinite range in between). In other words, whether you are talking about evidence, or beliefs, or knowledge, or anything other than pure direct experience, it’s all silly word games.

          I really think that you are seriously underestimating the term “supernatural” as it is often used in religious contexts and argumentation. You want to restrict it to something more like “paranormal” – but that is emphatically not the sense of the term that PZ et. al. are engaging here. When e.g. a Christian makes some nonsense claim such as “God spoke the world into existence” or describe God as “pure intelligence”, they are not expressing a sincere description of a paranormal phenomenon. They are spouting nonsense, and calling it “mystery”.

      2. Thumbs up in your argument with H.H.!

        I think the people arguing that the supernatural or gods could possibly exist need to explain to us how they decide that something does not exist. For example, how does H.H. decide that Santa Claus is not real? Atheists are being told that we cannot say that Santa Claus or [insert some fictitious character or magical super power here] are not real. Do they leave the door open to Santa’s existence? It’s absurd.

        1. It’s not really about deciding whether or not something exists. For me, it all comes down to this:

          What is the difference between the supernatural and the unknown natural?

          Note I’m not asking how to tell the difference, though that would be my followup. Here I’m asking what *is* the difference. All I want is an operative definition which isn’t circular.

          As far as I can tell, there isn’t any. It doesn’t exist. It’s just a semantic smokescreen for people to hide behind.

        2. …how does H.H. decide that Santa Claus is not real?

          By using evidence.

          Atheists are being told that we cannot say that Santa Claus or [insert some fictitious character or magical super power here] are not real.

          Nope. That isn’t what you’re being told, which indicates you haven’t understood the argument. The issue is over the basis on which one can declare something to be real or not.

          Do they leave the door open to Santa’s existence? It’s absurd.

          Could Santa exist in principle? Yes. Does he? Almost certainly not. Same with gods. Do you honestly fail to see how this fundamentally differs from maintaining that Santa is an “incoherent” concept or impossible even in principle?

          1. But you are not playing the game when you dismiss Santa Claus as being not real based on evidence. We can already dismiss gods the same way. That’s done with.

            But what if you were to wake up one Christmas morning very early and saw a creature resembling the depictions of Santa Claus zoom up through the fireplace chimney, and it wasn’t just you, but every person who celebrates Christmas saw it, too, at the same time? Now, one can ask if you would believe in Santa Claus after this event, and the answer could be a gaping mouth “Yes, I believe!” or one can realize that it is simply impossible unless people experienced a class-1 mass simultaneous delusion or that humans do not understand something fundamental about the nature of reality.
            Must we cling to probabilities for impossibilities?

        3. Well, to be fair, the initial question up for debate isn’t whether God/Santa is real, but rather whether there can be any evidence that might convince me as to whether or not Santa is real.

          The problem, I think, is that stories about God and religion invariably and inevitably involve truth claims that are either a) exceedingly implausible, or b) utterly nonsensical. And one of the reasons that they get away with it is that this is not actually an exclusive disjunction, as they say in sybolic logic circles. That is, such stories can generally be put along a sliding scale, something like this:

          exceedingly improbable<<<<>>>>>utterly incoherent

          Goddists are extremely adept at blurring this distinction. When a Goddist tells you “God works in mysterious ways”, she might mean “I don’t know how he does it”, but is just as likely to mean “I know it makes no sense, but I believe it anyway”, because it makes me feeeeeeel so good”. In both cases, she’ll then pat herself on the back and congratulate herself on her “faith”.

          Looks to me like Jerry and H.H. are focusing their efforts exclusively on claims that fall on the improbable end of the scale, while PZs arguments are geared more towards the incoherent.

          Me, I side w. PZ. If religion only restricted itself to improbable or provisionally unverifiable claims, then there’s no controversy. If the claims of say, Scientology, are really confined to the merely improbable, then I imagine that both PZ and Jerry could be convinced to join up if some ancient evidence were to surface that clearly tracked with what L.Ron Hubbard set down in the 50s.

          Another way to put this PZ is arguing about religion, while Jerry and H.H. are arguing about science fiction.

          1. Well, to be fair, the initial question up for debate isn’t whether God/Santa is real, but rather whether there can be any evidence that might convince me as to whether or not Santa is real.

            Quite right. The debate is over whether evidence is even relevant to the issue of god’s (or Santa’s) existence. If literally no evidence could ever convince you that a god exists, then what we discover about reality becomes inconsequential. Anyone who puts their own beliefs on an epistemological footing above reality like this is off their fucking rocker. It’s exactly sort of muddled thinking used to justify theism, since it comes down to a priori assumptions. It’s no different than beginning with the assumption that the bible is true and all reality must comport with it. But, if we wish to evaluate truth claims of god’s existence against reality and evidence, then we cannot take the position that evidence does not matter. This is so exceedingly obvious to me that I can’t understand why some people are having such a difficult time of it.

            1. The point you’re missing is that the God hypothesis must be formulated in such a way as to be falsifiable before any evidence-based falsification it can be attempted.

            2. No evidence you might care to present to me will persuade me that 1 + 1 = 3. Any evidence you might care to present that I had instead gone off my fucking rocker.

              God claims fall into two categories: those capable of doing the impossible (such a creating an Euclidean triangle with 360° total interior angles, commonly referred to as “miracles”) and entirely-natural idols (which may or may not exist).

              The only reason to suspect the possibility of the existence of the former is if you’re off your fucking rocker. The only reason to worship the latter is if you’re off your fucking rocker.

              So, are you off your fucking rocker, or are you off your fucking rocker?



            3. Ben Goren, I’m not trying to convince you that 1+1=3. I’m only trying to explain to you that the best argument you can make for 1+1=2 is to take two things and put them together, not by simply declaring that 1+1=2 because you say so. Are your beliefs derived from reality or do you impose your beliefs onto reality? That’s the only issue here.

            4. I’m only trying to explain to you that the best argument you can make for 1+1=2 is to take two things and put them together…

              This strikes me as an exceedingly poor argument for the proposition that 1+1=2. How do you propose to determine the 2-ness of the combined set without reference to abstract number theory? “Just count them” begs the question: how do you know that 2 is the next counting number after 1? You must have some coherent prior notion of what counting means before you can do the experiment, in which case the experiment is unnecessary: 1+1=2 follows logically from your definition of counting.

            5. Are you serious, HH? YOu think the best proof of 1+1=2 is to physically put two objects next to each other and count?

              This is the logic of a 3 year old. Your argument essentially means you can’t prove the addition of big numbers in a good way.

              I mean, that’s insane.

            6. I take it that means you believe Santa could be a possibility, even though he would have to be able to move faster than the speed of light using only a sleigh and reindeer (who can incidentally fly). Talk about off your rocker. Some things have no chance of being evident since they are impossible.

            7. H.H., if you really need an explanation of the fact that 1 + 1 = 2, then you truly are off your fucking rocker and not worthy of further serious engagement.

              Aratina Cage, you remind me of some fun a physicist or an engineer had some Christmases back by doing some back-of-the-envelope math and concluding that the thermal energy released from the friction of Rudolph’s lead position in the sleigh would be more devastating than a global thermonuclear war. The assumption, of course, was that Santa would visit so many houses in 24 hours, thereby traveling so many miles at such-and-such an average speed, combined with the cross-section of a typical reindeer, and so on. It really was quite hilarious….



            8. If literally no evidence could ever convince you that a god exists, then what we discover about reality becomes inconsequential.

              Irrespective of matters evidence, what we discover about reality can only be consequential if it fucking makes sense. Why is this so hard for you to understand?

              Anyone who puts their own beliefs on an epistemological footing above reality like this is off their fucking rocker.

              Here are my epistemological beliefs that relate to the current discussion:

              a) you can’t prove nonsense.
              b) you can’t falsify nonsense, nor can you confirm it, with either evidence or logic.
              c) you can’t “know” nonsense.
              d) you can’t even “believe” nonsense (but you can sure as shit spout nonsense).

              But, if we wish to evaluate truth claims of god’s existence against reality and evidence, then we cannot take the position that evidence does not matter.

              There are many, many types of propositions where evidence doesn’t matter, and these types of propositions inevitably provide the foundations for religious thought. For example, what kind of evidence could possibly confirm or disconfirm the traditional Christian notion of the Trinity or triune godhead? Tell me what kind of evidence we should bring to bear as we consider claims such as “God, as an expression of pure and perfect will and intelligence, spoke the universe into existence?”

            9. Joe Bleau wrote:

              a) you can’t prove nonsense.
              b) you can’t falsify nonsense, nor can you confirm it, with either evidence or logic.
              c) you can’t “know” nonsense.
              d) you can’t even “believe” nonsense (but you can sure as shit spout nonsense).

              Right. But the question is how do you determine what is nonsense? A lot of people keep saying how nonmaterial minds are “incoherent” or “nonsense” and that we can make an a priori determination that they don’t exist. Yet any time I ask them how they’ve determined this concept is prima facie nonsensical, they point to the way we understand reality to operate. In other words, they point to evidence, the very thing they claim cannot sway them.

            10. Yet any time I ask them how they’ve determined this concept is prima facie nonsensical, they point to the way we understand reality to operate.

              You are pointedly ignoring a huge component of “the way we understand reality”, and in so doing completely ignoring the arguments.

              Reason, logic, evidence, knowledge, belief – what’s one thing that all of these have in common?


              Get it? If you and I really do disagree over whether “nonmaterial minds” can possibly exist, before we can even get to the question of evidence that might settle the matter we need to come to some common understanding of what those terms mean. The same is true of mathematical propositions like 2+2=5 (or, in the case of the Trinity, 1+1+1=1). It’s all just words.

              Yes, we’ll never know for certain if you and I really agree on terms (I can’t even be sure that you really exist – brains in vats and all that). This linguistic indeterminacy can, and does, cause all sorts of problems, depending on the type of proposition in question. But there are a whole host of propositions for which this doesn’t seem to be a problem at all.

              Now, please pay attention, this next part is important:

              Theological claims do not tend to be of this latter type.. Really, they can’t. Because that’s exactly what makes it theology, and not merely science fiction, or an simply an acknowledged expression of a fantasy.

              The reason that I keep bringing up the Trinity is because it is actually a really good illustration of this. I hold that the concept of a triune godhead is meaningless, or at least logically incompatible with monotheism. I’ve had many, many conversations with Christians where they try to explain it to me in a way to make it meaningful, and every single time it has either devolved into one of two cases:

              a) the Christian in question ultimately proclaimed it a “mystery”, thereby conceding that there was no possibility that we could agree on a common, useful definition of terms like ‘substance’, ‘essence’, ‘person’, and the like, or

              b) they created a reasonably coherent and cohesive and meaningful story that completely destroyed the main tenet of Christian theology (namely that Jesus died to redeem our sins).

              It’s little wonder that, back in the day, the folks responsible for enforcing the official Christian dogma retreated – rather violently, in fact – towards position a) – as Ben Goren has pointed out, it was inevitable. Once it became apparent to modern man that God was only ‘powerful’ if you define ‘powerful’ in such a way so that it bears no resemblance to what we usually mean by the word ‘powerful’, then they needed this ‘mystery’ because otherwise there’s no reason to even like this alleged deity, much less worship it.The exact same situation obtains for terms like ‘love’, ‘good’, etc. etc.

              I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat it: It’s all words..

            11. Joe Bleau, you still haven’t told me how you have determined the concept of non-material minds to be nonsense. I agree that the Trinity qualifies as nonsense (I never said no religious claims are incoherent), because it violates our analytic proposition that A cannot equal not A. Unmarried men cannot be married. 3 cannot equal 1. This is actually a good example of the sort of thing we can determine a priori.

              But “All minds require a material substrate” is a synthetic proposition. By definition, it relies on evidence for it’s justification since it is an a posteriori claim. I doubt less than half of the people arguing with me have yet to even understand the distinction being made.

            12. While this discussion is probably deader than Lindsay Lohan’s career, I’ll take one more run at you, and then I’m done.

              H.H., I assume that you are aware that Kant is not widely considered to be the Last Word in metaphysics, epistemology, and ontology, right? Merely name-checking the traditional Kantian categories is not going to be terribly compelling to those of us who have wrestled with Sellers, Quine, Chomsky, Davidson, Rorty, and the like. And, FWIW, it seems pretty clear to me that even those of your interlocutors who haven’t bothered to name-check the positions of long dead philosophers are having no trouble grokking the distinction being made. It’s you that is pig-headedly refusing to engage.

              Joe Bleau, you still haven’t told me how you have determined the concept of non-material minds to be nonsense

              Well, a full, detailed, and systematic accounting of my philosophy would take us way too far afield (plus, my philosophy devalues full, detailed and systematic accountings). FSM knows that I’ve dropped enough hints that you ought to have been able to at least figure out the basics by now. Perhaps it will suffice to say, that I have determined that it is nonsense because I have decided that it involves terminology that I believe is quite impossible to justify either with an external referent or a non-circular definition. ‘non-material’ seems to me to be a purely abstract, negative term. If nonmaterial ‘stuff’ is different then material ‘stuff’, well, in my exceedingly epistemolgically modest worldview, it’s still just stuff. And ‘stuff’ is exactly how I understand terms like ‘material’ and even ‘existence’. Another word I like to use from time to time is ‘reality’.

              (If I may be indulged a diversion – here at my office, I can avail myself of a packet of ‘non-aspirin’ if I get a headache. This never fails to make me smile. It could be anything in there!)

              And let’s not pretend that ‘mind’ is a whole lot better. Depending on who you are talking to and how they are using it, this term can involve aspects of the following concepts, most of which are themselves hardly without controversy: ‘consciousness’, ‘brain’, ‘experience’ or even ‘soul’. Some of these terms clearly are guilty of the same metaphysical malfeasance as the term ‘non-material’.

              But “All minds require a material substrate” is a synthetic proposition. By definition, it relies on evidence for it’s justification since it is an a posteriori claim

              So you say (it should be obvious that I disagree, both with frame and the claim). But let’s stick with your Kantian assumptions. “My pet invisible pink unicorn” is then also a synthetic a posteriori claim. So are the claims that I made that comprised my story about the qwpeoirsaodfas elsewhere in this thread. So what evidence do I need to present to you that will convince you that my pet unicorn is pink, invisible, and a unicorn? (Also, you should know. She Loves you) And don’t bother telling me that there are contradictions in my terms – I’ll just stomp my feet and shout at you that you can’t just declare that by fiat, and then I’ll demand evidence for that.

              What you are doing is making an argument that amounts to the flip side of the argument from incredulity. Just because you can string a bunch of terms together that seem as if they make sense and can be justified by evidence and/or reason doesn’t mean that they can. And you can’t just whip out the Problem of Induction to try to get out of this – that amounts to telling me that it’s turtles all the way down. There’s no reason to assume (and, I believe, good reason *not* to assume) that many if not all of the old hoary metaphysical conceits like ‘existence’ and ‘non-material’ and ‘mind’ and ‘soul’ are anything other than abstractions that we make up ourselves; simply artifacts of the way that our brains have evolved, emergent from fact that a) we can’t escape our own consciousness, and b) language is necessarily imprecise.

              Oh, and before you go and start pointing and yelling “Solipsist!” – solipsism is an ontological claim, where my claims are epistemological ones.

              Anyway, I’m done. Cheers!

    2. It is possible to define god or the supernatural in such a way that it yields testable predictions.

      So do so, already.

      Elsewhere in the thread you toss out examples such as disembodied minds. Ignoring for the moment that the evidence is overwhelmingly stacked against such a thing, there is an entirely plausible natural explanation for such a phenomenon, along with an afterlife, ghosts, magic spells, Heaven and Hell, and any other sort of such phenomenon you might care to toss out: a Matrix-style simulation. And the computer (or whatever) running the simulation need not exist in a universe with physical laws or properties even vaguely remotely resembling those we’re familiar with or even are capable of comprehending.

      That still doesn’t qualify as “supernatural,” though, as wonderfully remarkable as it would be.

      We have an excellent term for such, and there’s a damn good reason The Amazing Randi used it in the title of his famous Challenge. Those things are all firmly in the realm of the “paranormal,” those which once were plausible theories but which have since been soundly debunked by the evidence. From a scientific perspective, they are indistinguishable from Phlogiston, the Luminiferous Aether, and the Philosopher’s Stone. Or the pillars of the Earth and the Firmament, for that matter.

      As to disembodied minds in particular…Shannon placed some absolute limits on communication and energy. They’re every bit as solid as anything else in physics. In any context in which, say, the kinetic energy of an object is equal to half its mass time the square of its velocity (with a suitable Einsteinian fudge factor at relativistic velocities), it is equally certain that communication, and thus computation, and thus cogitation, requires energy and therefore mass.



      1. So first you deny that the paranormal can be defined in such a way that makes it testable, then you point out that Randi has been testing paranormal claims for decades. It can’t be both untestable in principle and tested in practice. You aren’t making sense.

        1. <sigh>

          Are you being deliberately obtuse? Is that why you’re conflating these terms?

          Here, let me attempt to clarify. If the HTML is bj0rk3d, my apologies.


          A phenomenon which is not part of the natural world; something outside the universe. Since the universe, by definition, is all that exists, “supernatural” is therefore a synonym for “nonexistent.”


          An extant (and therefore, by definition, natural) phenomenon which defies current human understanding of nature.

          ESP would be an example of a paranormal phenomenon. It’s been quite thoroughly debunked, but there remains an insignificantly, infinitesimally small possibility that The Amazing Randi will one day have to pay somebody a million dollars for providing proof of its existence. One can even quite easily imagine somebody a century from now possessing technology that is indistinguishable from what we today think of as ESP; what makes it paranormal today is that no such technology is known to exist and very conclusive evidence has been demonstrated that the phenomenon itself has never been observed.

          Drawing a three-sided figure with straight lines on a flat sheet of paper under standard Earthly geometric conditions whose angles sum to 360° would be a supernatural phenomenon. We can use words to describe what it is we wish to do, yet it cannot be done. (And, please. Spare me any smartalek suggestions you might have, such as redefining “degree” to mean something else.)

          Now, using those definitions, would you care to offer a definition of a god or other supernatural phenomenon which might yield positive testable conditions?



          1. Obviously I can’t define the supernatural in any satisfactory manner when you have already defined it as “that which does not exist.” But that’s just an attempt to sweep away purported phenomena by defining them out of existence. Look, reclassify all supernatural phenomena as paranormal phenomena if it will help keep this discussion moving. Consider the entities being postulated as having god-like powers to be totally natural beings. Now, can you argue against these types of gods on definitional grounds or do you need to invoke evidence and reality? If so, then we’re in agreement.

            1. It depends entirely on what powers you consider god-like.

              Healing amputees? Sure. They might exist. If salamanders can do it without help, surely a hyperintelligent shade of the color blue can do it to a human if the human asks nicely enough.

              Drawing a square triangle? Nope.

              Violating the conservation of mass/energy? Well, one can posit that we’re in a Matrix-stye simulation and that the programmers could pull off such a trick, but I don’t think that’s anything we have to worry about any time in the foreseeable future.

              The only one of those three I’d personally describe as a truly divine power, as opposed to merely god-like, is the second one. And, even then, I’d assume somebody had slipped me a psychotropic drug or something like that.

              The other two would be damned impressive but still not worthy of deification.



            2. Ok, good…at last a distinction between mathematical theorems and physical laws. (I was complaining about their conflation above.)

              Note that the square triangle is impossible even in the matrix; if you ever think you can draw one you have indeed lost rationality. That is because it is precluded by the meanings of the words themselves–a contradiction in terms. There are contradictions that are less obvious, such as the impossibility of using a compass and straightedge to start with a given circle and draw a square with
              equal area.

              Imagine an evil matrix programmer who allowed this impossible construction: every time it is attempted in a certain way he inserts code that transforms your drawing to the correct dimensions by mving a tiny bit of simulated paper to a new location. Yet you can prove it is impossible!

              Maybe the refusal of objects to obey a logical rule would be a sure tip off that we lived in a simulation with a godlike programmer.

        2. Randi tested *CLAIMS* of the paranormal, he never found any reason to actually suspect the paranormal actually existed. He dealt with con men and shysters, people who made claims about their “abilities” that were simply untrue, and lunatics who were deluded into thinking they had special powers. He was testing to see if their claims stood up under scrutiny and not a single one ever did, that’s why the million dollar prize remained safe and secure.

    3. H.H. wrote
      And while the existence of any particular god might be impossible to prove with absolute certainty (it could always be advanced aliens messing with us),

      I don’t see how you get beyond this particular point, the alien possibility, to the “probability high enough to overcome all reasonable doubts” that you seem to think is possible. I could see it becoming an either/or situation, even 50-50, but I haven’t seen anyone postulate any conceivable type of evidence that would go beyond that, i.e., ruling in gods and ruling out aliens.

      1. Well, this is a debatable point I suppose. But I think it’s reasonable to assume that if the great preponderance of evidence pointed to the existence of a named entity with traditionally defined god-like powers, it would be more reasonable to accept this as true than a conspiracy theory involving trickster aliens. Not that trickster aliens wouldn’t remain a logical possibility, just that the burden of proof would then shift to those endorsing such an explanation.

        1. No, trickster aliens would be far more plausible.

          There is no doubt whatsoever from the historical record that Jesus is exactly as much a figment of the human imagination as all the rest of the gods of that period.

          We certainly know he didn’t do any of those things that would require alien technology to duplicate because nobody noticed the fact that he had done them until a century or so later. And we know that he wasn’t some random loser about whom the tall tales snowballed because, right from the beginning, the tales were as big as they get (with Jesus having created the world, according to Paul, the earliest source). Therefore, Jesus, like the seemingly-endless roster of his contemporaries that Saint Martyr compared him to, was yet another in a long succession of made-up syncretic pagan mystery gods.

          Aliens who wanted to control humanity for whatever purpose would be hard-pressed to come up with an easier way of doing so than assuming the mantle of one of our favorite heroes. Half the American population already expects to live to witness Jesus teleporting from the sky. So why not give them exactly what they want?



        2. if the great preponderance of evidence pointed to the existence of a named entity with traditionally defined god-like powers, it would be more reasonable to accept this as true than a conspiracy theory involving trickster aliens.

          So you think it more likely that there exists a being who by definition can violate all laws of physics, rather than there exists powerful but fully natural aliens? Seriously? Even though all the biblical evidence for such an entity could have also been provided by the same aliens? You think that Oral Roberts and John Hagee are more likely to be correct that Erich Von Daniken? Seriously?

  33. I remain with PZ on this. The concept of God as defined by Jerry is incoherent and could not exist even in principle, and no amount of apparently miraculous evidence can rescue it from incoherence. Any attempt to redefine it coherently renders it indistinguishable from extremely powerful aliens whose technology we do not understand.

    Could there be convincing evidence for such aliens? Of course. If such aliens appeared to Bronze-Age goatherds, might they be mistaken for gods? Sure. But that’s no reason for us to mistake them for gods should they appear to us, even if they choose to wrap themselves in our myths. “Aliens posing as Jesus” still remains the better explanation.

  34. I got the impression that Dawkins’ definition of god, against which he rates his level of belief, is even looser than the one stated here.

    Without going back to reference The God Delusion, I got the impression that his definition was simply something like “an intelligence responsible for the creation of the Universe and/or humans, with the ability to make changes within the Universe which would appear magical to us.”

    This allows for some versions of “god” which may be fanciful, but not strictly supernatural. For example an advanced alien race which engineered DNA, or that our Universe is an elaborate simulation created within another Universe.

    I think if you forced Dawkins only to consider the God who whipped up the Earth in 6 days and the talking snake and Jesus and all that, his belief rating (and mine too) would be more like 6.99999999…

    1. MP:

      I got the impression that his definition was simply something like “an intelligence responsible for the creation of the Universe and/or humans, with the ability to make changes within the Universe which would appear magical to us.”

      This definition has two enormous advantages over more popular definitions of god: (a) It does not require any infinite attributes. (b) It does not specify any particular attitude toward humans. (a) is important because infinite attributes often render definitions of god incoherent or impossible. (b) is important because the historical, archaeological, paleontological and astrophysical evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of non-interference. In light of that evidence, great power requires great apathy (with respect to Earth and things readily observable from its environs).
      Of the problems common to definitions of god, this one retains only the problem of unfalsifiability.

  35. Interesting thought experiment.

    Not sure if substituting “Santa Clause” for God in the above piece makes any difference.

    My first reaction is that it’s ridiculous in the first place but then that’s PZ’s point.

    If it was possible to produce evidence for an omnipotent being (for the sake of argument, I’ll use Jerry’s definition), it seems it would have to account for all the evidence to the contrary much like any science.

  36. I disagree with the “existence of a god is a theoretical probability”. In fact I would assign an apriori probability of 0 to the existence of god. I thought Russell made the silliness of the “philosophically correct” attitude obvious with his celestial teapot. All gods imagined by religious people are non-existent. The deist god is the only one which we cannot rule out based on the tricky notion of philosophical correctness, but even that god (or those gods) do not exist.

    The existence of a deist god defies what we know of the universe. An intelligent being which simply exists and creates the universe which would otherwise not have existed without the sentient being? Suuure – pull the other one. The notion of a deist god presumes that a complex sentient being can poof into existence but the component particles of our observed universe cannot exist without being magically poofed into existence by the prime poofer. Now this deist god – surely it must be corporeal? If not, how does it exist and where is your evidence that non-corporeal entities may exist (and how do they manifest themselves).

    Knowledge is the key to the celestial teapot and similar problems. 2000 years ago people would have been wrong for saying that humans could not build machines that fly – but they would have been wrong because they did not understand the world well enough to rule out flight from fundamental principles. Today we can rule out perpetual motion machines – we know they are impossible because of our very certain fundamental understanding of nature. We can also rule out any gods, even the deist god, because no such sentient being can exist – the universe was not initiated by a sentient being. As for Russell’s teapot, that is in fact something which we cannot rule out. We’ve got teapots and we’ve got rockets. Someone may have brought a teapot into space as a joke. I’d say it’s extremely unlikely since a teapot cannot be used in an environment which acts as micro-gravity environment – or at least not in the way we would use that teapot on earth, but a celestial teapot cannot be ruled out on fundamental principles. People involved in the space industry may be able to rule it out based on manifests of all previous flights – this would at least make the teapot extremely unlikely, barring a teapot being smuggled in, so Russell’s teapot shall remain possible (even though extremely improbable) until someone does launch one and make it a certainty.

    1. The existence of a deist god defies what we know of the universe.

      Just raising the notion of a deist god is nothing but a bait-and-switch by the religious. No one worships a deist god. Indeed, why would one bother, if it is truly out of the loop now, and doesn’t/can’t intervene in the physical world. Why not worship Maxwell’s equations instead, for all the good it would do?

      The only reason the faithful bring up a deist god is to get atheists to agree to the possibility, so the faithful can then say “Right! Therefore Jesus says kill gays!” This tactic might best be called the Deist Two-Step.

      1. Not to mention, of course, that a deist god is either logically equivalent to Alice’s Red King or a logical absurdity.

        (I don’t really have to debunk the First Cause argument here, do I?)



      2. Something like the reincarnation of Ianus then? The gods present one face to the faithful and a different face to the nonbelievers?

        1. There is a particularly psychotic theme in certain flavors of Christian fundamentalism that holds that only those whom Jesus hand-picks before birth are capable of faith and thus destined for salvation.

          I’d write more, but my own resident deity of the feline variety has demanded a belly rub, and typing this with my other hand is tedious.



      1. I think a deist god must be sentient otherwise it is not a god. Remember that god wanted to create the universe. An accidental blip which caused the universe to become possible hardly fits any notion of a god – unless perhaps deists worship the Prime Quark or something like that. Oh thank you Prime Quark for creating the universe which created me.

  37. This issue reminds me of Boltzmann brains. Ludwig Boltzmann tried to explain our experienced low entropy state as simply an unlikely deviation from an entropic equilibrium. This explanation fails because a disembodied brain registering the same experiences within a high entropy universe is far more likely than having the entire universe deviate to a low entropy state. I think I’d believe that I am a Boltzmann brain before I would take anything as evidence of god.

    1. In that case Boltzmann should be credited with a version of the “watchmaker argument” for “irreducible complexity”.

  38. It all boils down to whether or not you want to play with the thought experiment or not.

    I’ve presented my personal goalposts based on scientific evidence, and my addendum based on the attributes of the god that those pesky theists claim is there.

    But both of those are basically thought experiments. I see no evidence that either of my conditions (nor anyone else’s) could ever be fulfilled.

    So, I don’t believe there is a god because there is no evidence. In the same way that I don’t believe there are fairies, unicorns, and all the rest of the imaginary creatures.

    So, to all my theist friends: If you want to prove any of those exist, you’d better step up to the plate with something pretty darned substantial and objectively impressive. Otherwise, we’re talking about your belief in a fictional creature. And my indulgence in trying to be “fair” only goes so far.

    I think also that the opposite has never been true. Believers will never declare what would convince them that their beliefs are false. In fact, the most intellectually insecure — folks like William Lame Craig come to mind — declare that no amount of contradictory evidence will turn them away from their falsehoods.

    So, in the end, it’s a tu quoque argument and a logical fallacy.

  39. I agree that it’s “unreasonable” to be truly skeptical and claim to be a 7. But if I’m at 6.9999999999999999999999, then the time I’m willing to devote to postulating a probability of believable evidence to take me back to the absolute other end of the scale effectively gets trumped by something like. “hmm, my butt itches, gotta make some time to scratch it.”

    1. You’ve only put on a finite number of 9s there, thus leaving you space to find god in the last 1.0×10^{-20} seconds of your life. Does that mean you’ll be a convert?

      1. Well, the shortest measured time interval to date is about 1e-18 seconds, so I doubt Joe would have time to truly appreciate his conversion. On the other hand, it’s still a couple dozen orders of magnitude longer than Planck time, so who knows?


  40. Jerry Coyne:

    … I think a reasonable and widely accepted concept of God is this: “A non-material being who is omnipotent, omniscient, and good.” …

    No. The problem of omnipotence is that it makes all things trivial. Good behavior == goodness * power. Any finite amount of goodness in an omnipotent being, however tiny, would necessarily result in an infinite amount of good behavior. The entire history of the world would be radically different, and we would know it.
    Ultimately, I don’t agree with PZ; I’m about a 6.9 on the RD scale, but by providing yet another unambiguously impossible god, your post will make some raise their opinion of his position. Most uses of infinite attributes an equivalent of dividing by zero; when carefully examined, they render the definition of the being which has said attributes incoherent or logically impossible. If you want a definition of god for which evidence could occur, I strongly suggest you stay far away from infinite attributes of any sort.

    1. I strongly suggest you stay far away from infinite attributes of any sort.

      The problem is that this is theologically impossible.

      Once having posited an al-encompassing god, there’s no way to go back to petty rain gods and the like.

      Omnipotence is the inevitable conclusion of theism. The fact that it’s a dead end just serves to do that much more to drive stakes through the hearts of all lesser gods as well.



  41. I read Dr. Coyne’s article in USA Today and had to read his blog. What a delightful and intellectually uplifting person he really is in his quest to expose religion as a “superstition”. However, why is evolution still called a theory if the good Dr. and his peers claims it is a fact? Does not the word theory mean “best guess”? I say this because Robert Carroll in his treatise “Vertebrate Paleontology and Evolution” observes that most of the fossil record does not support a strictly gradualistic account of evolution. Is this not something Darwin’s theory of evolution requires? It is this very point that is the heart and soul of the Darwinian theory is it not? Please advise if I am mistaken.

      1. I see, so explain why this is a common objection? I asked a logical question and you cannot give me a logical answer. Is Robert Carroll in his assessment? The problems for both sides are many, especially when you receive answers like this. Is Dr. Carroll incorrect and if so why?

        1. Greg. I do not think you will get many replies beyond this one because your posts demonstrate profound ignorance of the subject. If you think that “theory” and “best guess” are synonymous and that the pace of evolution is always constant, then you obviously know nothing about science and nothing about evolution. You can read about it in many places, including WEIT, if you are seriously interested in learning. If you are not, which I suspect is the case, then you are just trolling.

    1. In general, a Theory is tested. Before that it is a Hypothesis. When Darwin first published his The Origin of Species, he had already spent many years thinking about his hypotheses and testing them, so from the very first edition the Theory of Evolution via Natural Selection was already a theory and not a mere hypothesis. Of course there are many kooks who like to call their unsupportable ideas “theories” because it sounds cool. On rare occasions something once considered a theory may be shown to be wrong – however, that is certainly not the case for evolution. There are now multiple largely independent fields which support the fact of evolution and absolutely no evidence to date that evolution is not a fact.

  42. Very, very latecomer here, but I find the original post very convincing, funnily despite agreeing with many of the opponents who argue that everything that exists is natural, thus supernatural is an empty category. God, if it existed, would have to be part of nature and could not be omnipotent. Like, say, the one that is actually described in the OT, for example.

    But that does not mean that, when we started doing proto-science, we could not have found evidence for this world having been created, or faith healing working reproducibly, or adherents of one sect being protected from natural disasters and winning all their holy wars, even if outnumbered and -gunned 1:1000. Would any of this evidence be definite, and lead to the same certainty as 1+1=2? Of course not. But we are talking scientific knowledge here, and that is always tentative (for example until the superadvanced aliens tell us that they were really just messing with us, at which point we could reassess the evidence).

    It also seems to me as if many people, PZ Myers included, argue from our current scientific knowledge, and say that any evidence for gods would be against such an overwhelmingly minuscule prior probability that brain damage of all observers would still be the more likely explanation. Quite. But as far as I understand, that is perhaps not the point that Coyne and other here have been making: it could have turned out differently. Imagine you know nothing about medicine, astronomy and physics, and have yet to discover that the sun is not towed around by a chariot or a giant beetle: how can you exclude these gods without looking at the evidence? How do you already know a priori that your universe follows the rule of energy conservation and all those others? Well, you don’t.

    1. Alex SL said “…it could have turned out differently.”

      Exactly. I’m glad somebody finally understands this point.

    2. Alex SL wrote:
      Imagine you know nothing about medicine, astronomy and physics, and have yet to discover that the sun is not towed around by a chariot or a giant beetle: how can you exclude these gods without looking at the evidence?

      Early people had no evidence, merely an observation that the sun moved across the sky, so some of the more imaginative made up stories about it. Anyone could exclude any particular god merely by making up a different story. Nothing has changed in that regard, religions do the same thing today. I don’t see how it relates to whether there could be evidence for a god.

  43. Considering the two hypotheses,

    1. Humans formulated increasingly powerful, knowing and benevolent, and decreasingly material, beings to answer their pre-scientific questions about the universe while best accounting for the total failure of such beings to manifest directly,


    2. There exists an omnipotent, omnicient, omnibenevolent non-material being,

    – there’s not much doubt which way Occham’s Razor cuts.

  44. “A non-material being who is omnipotent, omniscient, and good” – I have a BIG problem with ‘good’ – I am not sure what ‘good’ is, or ‘bad’ for that matter. If they did there would be universal agreement about them – everything would be imbued with them – everything living surely?

    I would say that there is a theoretical possiblity of there BEING a theoretical probability of there being a god/s.

    1. Isn’t the usual expression something like “all-loving”? – which is probably even more fraught with problems of definition than “good”. EG, what can it mean to be loving before one has created any creatures to love?

  45. Beyond the question of the existence of god(s) is the question of how a non-material spirit being could conceivably communicate with you or me or interact with the material world. In the real world, all such communication and interaction is basically electrical (more generally electro-magnetic). (I used to have fun explaining to my physics students how cutting your finger with a knife is an electrical phenomenon.) Initiating such a communication or interaction in the transmitter/actor is also electrical; we jiggle our internal electrons (protons play their role) to work our finger muscles (on the keyboard, or to pick up a rock) or our vocal cord muscles, etc. The material electrons (and calcium atoms, and potassium atoms, etc., etc.) are absolutely required.
    To put it another way, postulating the existence of such a god(s) requires a dual spirit/material world, with human souls and human minds that can presumably communicate in some non-material way, as indeed most religionists believe. Incoherent is a good adjective for this position. The notion that the four-fundamental-forces model of physics (only two at the level of atoms and larger bodies, and we can neglect gravity here) in wrong or incomplete is even less plausible than that biological evolution will be falsified.
    I had 16 years of Catholic education. I was a member of a Roman Catholic religious order for ten years after high school (I am a slow learner). I am now an atheist. If a believer asked me what it would take for God to demonstrate his existence to me, I might say, “restore the limbs of all amputees around the world, and the eyesight of the blind (including me in one eye)”, but I am absolutely certain the no such proof or anything like it can ever be offered. I think this puts me closer to PZ’s position than Jerry’s.

  46. I cannot get the line “rutting behavior at the sight of a curvy buttock” out of my head! Now we know what PZ gets up to in his spare time!

  47. This is an awesome discussion. I agree (somehow) with both PZ and Jerry. I don’t really care about becoming a “better” atheist, but I do care about becoming a better thinker.

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