Greta Christina on The Controversy

November 5, 2010 • 12:37 pm

It’s not going away for a while, and yesterday, at AlterNet, Greta Christina took up the question, “Can atheism be proven wrong?”  What she means by that, with reference to recent debates, is whether there could be convincing empirical evidence for a god or gods.

Greta says “yes,” though she sets the bar quite high and, despite disagreeing with P.Z. Myers about whether any conceivable observation might convince her of a god, nevertheless agrees with him that there are formidable problems with seeing the idea of god as a “coherent hypothesis.”

And the so-called “sophisticated modern theologies” define God so vaguely you can’t reach any conclusions about what he’s like, or what he would and wouldn’t do, or how a world with him in it would be any different than a world without him. They define God so abstractly that he might as well not exist. (Either that, or they actually do define God as having specific effects on the world, such as interventions in the process of evolution — effects that we have no reason whatsoever to think are real, and every reason to think are bunk.)

And when I ask religious believers who aren’t theologians to define what exactly they believe, they almost evade the question. They point to the existence of “sophisticated modern theology,” without actually explaining what any of this theology says, much less why they believe it. They resort to vagueness, equivocation, excuses for why they shouldn’t have to answer the question. In some cases, they get outright hostile at my unmitigated temerity to ask.

But she accepts the possibility of evidence for a god, and it’s not just because it’s good politics for atheists to seem open-minded about this:

So to persuade us — me, anyway, and I suspect many other atheists — that a religion was correct, it would have to do more than show evidence of a few miracles in our time. It would have to explain why those miracles were happening now… and yet had somehow never happened before. It would have to explain why the world had always been best explained by physical cause and effect, but now, overnight, that had changed. Even if a 900-foot Jesus appeared in the sky tomorrow, healing amputees and unambiguously stating his message in all languages and whatnot, a religion would have to explain why God was making all this happen now…and not at any other time in human history.

Now — and here, again, is a point I think PZ is missing — the fact that religion has utterly failed to do this in thousands of years doesn’t mean that it never, ever could. I could imagine, for instance, a malevolent trickster god, who’s deliberately hidden all traces of his existence from us for hundreds of thousands of years…but who today, just to screw with us, has decided to show his existence by healing amputees, moving Earth into Pluto’s orbit without anyone getting chilly, writing his name in the sky in letters 100 feet tall in every language known to humanity, and making all members of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, alone among all other religions, healthy, wealthy and successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

She broaches the idea of advanced space aliens looking like gods, but doesn’t deal with it—she’d simply prefer (as I do) to see evidence for a god as we do all other evidence for theories: as provisional:

I don’t want to get into that particular argument [the idea of advanced space aliens that have “godlike” powers] right here. What I do want to point out is that my conclusion — my acceptance of the trickster god hypothesis in the face of healed amputees and changed orbits and Loki’s name in the sky and so on — would be provisional. It wouldn’t be a fundamental axiom or a tenet of unshakable faith. It would be a provisional conclusion, based on my best understanding of the best currently available evidence. If I concluded that the trickster god hypothesis was the best explanation of these weird phenomena, and then someone showed me convincing evidence that it was really super-advanced alien technology…I’d change my mind. I would renounce Loki. It’d be a provisional conclusion; a falsifiable hypothesis.

Can we then call Greta an “accommodationist” between the provisional-accepters and the no-frickin’-wayers?  LOL!

Since I’m summarizing Greta’s ideas here, it would be good to leave comments on her own blog (and feel free to duplicate-post them here).

116 thoughts on “Greta Christina on The Controversy

  1. Greta’s position is quite reasonable. Her stance is skepticism with a very open mind. I especially like this:

    Religion has to do more than come up with some good evidence for its hypothesis.

    It has to have a coherent hypothesis in the first place.

    And thus far, religion has completely failed to do this.

    Religions haven’t just failed to support their assorted hypotheses with good, solid, carefully gathered, rigorously tested evidence. They’ve failed to come up with hypotheses that are even worth subjecting to testing. They’ve failed to come up with hypotheses that are worth the paper they’re printed on.

    1. The notion that religions have to come up with a coherent hypothesis is very different than asking what evidence might convince one of the existence of the supernatural/god.

      1. The notion that religions have to come up with a coherent hypothesis is very different than asking what evidence might convince one of the existence of the supernatural/god.

        It is philosophically different. But from a purely practical standpoint, it is essentially similar; most religions, especially the highly influential of today, are highly unlikely to come up with their own coherent hypothesis, so we are left with asking “what evidence might convince one of the existence of the supernatural/god?”

        1. To elaborate a bit further – an incoherent hypothesis can be like a math proof which contains a division by zero. As long as the division by zero can be so concealed that ferreting it out is beyond the resources of the audience, said proof can be made to appear to “prove” anything imaginable.
          To the extent that the incoherence of a religious hypothesis can be concealed, or made to appear acceptable, it is an advantage for those who have power the social structure of that religion; it enables the manipulation and bamboozlement of believers.

    2. Exactly, which takes it out of the realm of “show me evidence to support your piecemeal dogma and its moving goalposts” to “show me a total hypothesis with supporting facts and theory about everything”. That has never been done by religion because it has always been built up from fear to parenting to extended dogma.

      1. Right, but I thought the question was “Could there ever be evidence for a god?”, and not “Is Catholicism/Methodism/Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod correct?” If the question is the former, then it seems like issues of specific dogma are irrelevant.

        1. The point is that the question “could there ever be evidence for a god?” is pretty much the same as “could there ever be evidence for a squirgleplex?” You first have to define clearly what god/squirgleplex you are talking about before it is meaningful to discuss evidence for its existence.

        2. The connection is there because for any theist reading the statement, evidence for “a” god means necessarily evidence for their god. I’ve had many conversations with theists who did not seem to understand that as an atheist I do not automatically concede that the only possible god in existence must be their own. The god concept is irrevocably linked to the dogma, which makes the vagueness of the thing more problematic.

  2. Anyone remember the ending of Sagan’s book Contact? It wasn’t in the movie, but it involved the “creator’s signature” as a coded message after the 10^20th digit to the right of the decimal in the value of Pi. Built into the frabric of the Universe. It was implied that a super-advanced civilization was doing some cosmic engineering to create life-supporting universes (black hole colliders?). Anyway, it all is in one’s definition of god versus alien. I’m assuming that if we all were to see some 900-foot Jesus appear and start restoring all earth’s amputees, curing sickness, etc… and he was an alien… he’d probably admit it to us. And if he says he’s god… then at that time, its probably best to play along and welcome our new giant overlord. 😉

    1. Carl Sagan’s novel was very, very crappy, and not just for the idea that some message appears in a decimal expansion of π.

      π is almost certainly a normal number, so the entire Qu’ran written in classical Arabic is guaranteed to be found in π, as are all translations of the Bible, and god is Not Great.

      1. Wow. No need for the critique of Sagan. It was just an example I used where if some direct evidence of a ‘creator’ existed for the universe, that still wouldn’t prove god versus alien + physics. That second part was just me trying to be funny… hence the winky-smiley.

      2. But in his novel Sagan specified that the string found had a statistical significance far greater than chance. Normal numbers may contain all finite strings, but their frequency of occurrence is only as great as would be expected by chance in a random string.

        1. Groan. Groan! Here is Sagan:

          You can never come to the end of pi … In the ten-to-the-twentieth place—something happens … The randomly varying digits disappear, and for an unbelievably long time there’s nothing but ones and zeros. … It’s as if pi has been waiting billions of years for ten-fingered mathematicians with fast computers to come along. You see the message was kind of addressed to us.


    2. Norse gods were not creators of the universe – there is no creator as such. They were emergent properties of their universe, though within it they were creators of other life, & they were doomed to destruction. That makes them super-beings, yet to men who worshipped them (whether worshipped is the right term is another matter) they were gods. If it looks like & god & walks like a god… does that MAKE it a god?

    3. Anyone remember the ending of Sagan’s book Contact? …

      arg. That was in the 2nd half of Contact, which deserves to go down in infamy as the worst ever betrayal of the science-interested reader. I’ve loved, nearly everthing else Carl Sagan or Ann Druyan has produced, but Contact was irredeemably awful.

  3. Over at the FFRF convention last weekend, features speaker Cenk Uygur had an interesting idea (paraphrasing)
    “The claim of the rapturists is that once the initial batch are taken up into the skies, the remaining believers will have to wage a war against deniers. What deniers? Are you suggesting we still will not believe, if it unfolds
    exactly according to Tim LaHaye?”

    1. Are you suggesting we still will not believe, if it unfolds
      exactly according to Tim LaHaye?

      I strongly suspect a large portion of humanity would conclude the raptured individuals were abducted by evil beings, and it was morally necessary to make every possible effort to rescue the raptured individuals, or, rescue failing, avenge them.

  4. “Can atheism be proven wrong?”

    This is perhaps the very test that Pier Pasolini set for himself when he made the Italian neorealist film The Gospel According to St. Matthew, a Biblically literal film about Jesus’ life. The atheist Pasolini doesn’t hold back from portraying Jesus’ bellicose theology, Herod’s baby slaughter, and all the rest. Pasolini claimed that he attempted to make this film from a “believer’s point of view”, and perhaps he did, but the film is in fact no different from one that many of us would have made (if we were blessed with Pasolini’s great artistry).

    I recommend Pasolini for his fine depiction of the various reactions of people, according to the Gospel of St. Matthew, to the sort of evidence discussed in this debate.

  5. It occurs to me that we’re not really discussing direct evidence for a general sort of god. Rather, we’re discussing evidence for a more specific belief system that happens to entail the existence of a god. As Greta suggested, it’s not certain what qualities a god must have if one were to exist, which makes “any kind of deity at all” an apparently untestable hypothesis.

    Instead, we need to describe a specific kind of god (for instance, the Christian god) before we can really consider evidence for or against its existence. This raises an interesting question: could there be evidence that would convince any of the “New Atheists” of a specifically deistic god? Once you reject “fine tuning” and “Why is there something?”, it would seem there is really nothing left.

    1. Once you reject “fine tuning” and “Why is there something?”, it would seem there is really nothing left.

      Exactly. Then you are only left with and god that looks exactly the same to the universe whether it exists or not.

      This is not the god people believe in (except maybe some of those mythical sophisticated theologians) and is of no interest to anyone. (Like Sam Harris says about a moral norm that does not affect anything real people care about: By definition the least interesting thing there could be.)

      1. Unless that deistic god decides to become an interventionist god. Say that tomorrow we all start having a conversation with a voice in our heads that tells us all sorts of true and verifiable things. We can thus test to make sure that the voice is an independent entity and not a personal or mass hallucination (I’m sure we could get Randi to set up the test protocols). In addition, this voice claims to be responsible for the creation of the Universe and that it resides in a ‘supernatural’ realm that is beyond our capability to really know anything about.

        This god, I think, falls into the same philosophical category as the ‘Loki’ god that Greta postulated – a counter-factual god. A god that we have no reason to suppose exists but could possibility because its existence would not contravene all that we know to be true. Conversely, most of the gods postulated in the worlds religions can’t be true because their existence does contravene what we know to be true – they either factually or logically inconsistent with the Universe that we see.

        1. “Unless that deistic god decides to become an interventionist god.”

          Are you saying God might change his religion? That could make things complicated…

          1. That is one way of thinking about it. Another is, let’s say, that this deistic god is not omnipotent and can only interact with the Universe under very special conditions or can only interact in a very limited way. This would meet Greta’s condition about explaining gods historical absence. This god might say “I could not manifest myself until now because the Universe is very delicate and generally very sensitive to intervention but now the Universe is in a stable phase and I now talk to youse guys.”

    2. “why is there something” immediately fails because you can ask that of the god. Given what we know of our universe today, we have a choice between a universe which has been developing for over 13 billion years or an immensely complex being which simply always existed.

  6. I think I ultimately agree with PZ that nothing could convince me that atheism as such is wrong. However, I have plenty of falsifiable beliefs that directly imply atheism (e.g. nothing exists in the universe that can’t ultimately be described by a local relativistic quantum theory.)

    The problem with God is he’s a priori unexplainable, and I don’t think anything could convince me that there wasn’t an explanation, in terms of simpler things, for something so complicated as a superhuman intelligence. It may be possible in principle, but certainly not in practice.

    It’s very interesting how the religious framing hides their own closed-mindedness: When they ask “what evidence could make you believe in God (i.e. an a priori unexplainable superhuman intelligence)” what they’re basically saying is “what evidence would make you shut up and stop asking questions?”

  7. As others have said, even if we state a test that would prove god (make me shoot into the air right now, for example), it does not matter. Because the religious interrogator will never be able to make it happen.

    Here is a deal: I’ll tell you, believer, what would convince me of your god, but if you don’t have your god prove himself in that way immediately, you must pay me $10,000 in cash. And if he does, I’ll pay you.

    1. I don’t think they can be edited. Maybe some good hacker knows how to do it. And then again, maybe I just am missing an obvious button or menu option somewhere! ;^)

      1. It is in the [File] menu. Select [Save Page As] and do the dialog box dance. Now you can edit to your heart’s content.

  8. I basically agree with with Greta Christina (and Dr.s Coyne and Dawkins) that there would be evidence that could convince me of the existence of a god or even a particular God. But it would be a provisional conclusion, like all others.

    And it would take a lot of evidence of particular kinds to convince me of a specific God.

    I think it’s important to be open to the possibility. That’s part of being a skeptic. And, even if you personally can’t at this moment come up with what exactly that evidence would be, that doesn’t mean that in cannot exist in principle. That also (like showing the existence of a god) would require a pretty high standard of evidence and logic: To say it can’t be done under any circumstances and defend that position successfully and convincingly.

    My provisional conclusion is that no gods exist, I’m very confident that no data will ever come in to convince me otherwise; but I also remain open to the possibility. I don’t think this is being namby-pamby or post-modernist. I think it is the default skeptical position.

    My $0.02 (or $0,02 for the rest of the world.)


    1. I forgot to add this (extra $0.01?):

      I think it’s important to contrast the open-minded skeptical attitude (present your evidence, I’m open to being convinced) with the theist’s typical attitude (I believe this because I believe it and no scientific evidence will ever shift me.)

      If you want to say that my metaphysics prevent you from presenting evidence that will ever convince me, tell me how that is different from the believer doing the same, just with different (and incorrect, I grant you) metaphysics?

      Seems like a bad stance for a skeptic.


    2. But see, the real problem with that attitude is that we know what’s happened, historically. We know that there has been no evidence for God. What Jerry and Greta are proposing boils down, in a sense, to future information that completely changes history. And that’s simply not possible, by definition – the past is the past, and it doesn’t change no matter what information we receive in the future (and if you’re a deity with sufficient power to change the past, then this entire discussion is moot).

      Basically: saying that information provided in the future can make it so that God has always existed as described by (e.g.) Christianity is like saying that a deadbeat dad who abandoned you as a child can change that fact by taking you out to dinner as an adult. Shit just doesn’t work that way.

      Even if he was magically transformed into your favorite pet goldfish for these last twenty years or something, the absolute incontrovertible fact is that he was not there – all that can be provided now are excuses or reasons, nothing can change the absence.

  9. Conversely, what do chrisitans say would prove to THEM that there is no god?

    I’ve never heard an actual disproof offered by believers.

    1. I’ve been told (by a theology student at Liberty University no less) that it would take the remains of Jesus being found. This seems to be a common response on the part of Christians with some ‘education’ in apologetics.

      1. How would we know the remains were indeed those of Jesus? Just because someone finds a first century bone in a box with the name ‘Yeshua’ on it doesn’t mean that that bone is the physical remains of Jesus of Nazareth. We don’t exactly have a sample of Mary’s mitochondrial DNA to compare it with do we.

        1. These people don’t tend to understand that a hypothesis being vulnerable to falsification is actually a positive.

          1. These people don’t tend to understand that a hypothesis being vulnerable to falsification is actually a positive.

            And that is why one should be skeptical of the pretension that the position of being open to potentially forthcoming evidence of “god” is strategically convenient. I suspect that PZ’s position is philosophically incorrect, but I am nearly certain it is the superior advocacy strategy. (No, I don’t think that is why PZ took the position – as I commented on his blog when he announced the position, I think he took it because he was tired of being bombarded with incoherent definitions of “god”, goal-posting moving, ideologically motivated lies, and other dishonest debating tactics. Being open-minded about “god” can gobble up horrific amounts of time and energy.)

          2. I suspect that PZ’s position is philosophically incorrect, but I am nearly certain it is the superior advocacy strategy

            Ugh. Shades of accommodationism.

            I think pretty much the opposite. We need to stop letting the compatibilist apologists and the accommodationists move the goalposts, and talk about what people really mean by “the supernatural” and “God,” and how we are pretty sure it’s false.

            Neither basic concept is actually internally incoherent, or even unsalvageable if you freely mess with the background assumptions to evade falsification.

            They just turn out to be pretty clearly empirically wrong.

            One problem we have in these discussions is that people don’t know how falsification actually works.

            You can never really falsify most interesting hypotheses utterly decisively.

            E.g., geocentricism “could still be right” if it turns out things move in just such a way that it looks just like the Earth goes around the Sun. You can salvage almost any hypothesis if you’re willing to posit crazy-ass stuff to make it observationally indistinguishable from the simpler, more direct hypotheses.

            When we let compatibilists accommodationists conflate the supernatural and God with the lawless and unfalsifiable, we’re letting them engage in that sort of desperate denialism.

            No, we can’t absolutely prove that the supernatural or even God doesn’t exist, but we can’t absolutely disprove vitalism or geocentricism either. So what? That was never the point of scientific knowledge.

            We now know that supernaturalism is false in pretty much the same sense that we know that vitalism and geocentricism are false. We have convincing evidence for different and further-reaching naturalistic explanations, and a systematic failure to find the evidence that supernaturalism and theism would predict. Absence of evidence is evidence of absence, unless the goalposts are motorized.

        2. Indeed, how would they know that we haven’t already found the bones of Jesus, left in some shallow pit where the disciples who snuck him out of the cave ditched the body?

          But then, these are people who don’t realize that Jesus would have had more in common (in terms of social mores and appearance) with Osama Bin Laden than with George Washington, so I guess that can be forgiven.

      2. “News Flash: Easter has been canceled. They found the body.”

        (I read this joke on a bathroom wall at Cal Tech back in the 70’s – I was just visiting a friend.)

  10. even if you personally can’t at this moment come up with what exactly that evidence would be, that doesn’t mean that in cannot exist in principle

    That cuts both ways, though — even if you personally can’t at this moment imagine how a 600-foot-tall Jesus that healed amputees could be a manifestation of purely natural laws, that doesn’t mean that it in principle can’t be. The problem is, essentially, we can’t know what we don’t know, so we can never rule out naturalistic explanations for any purported supernatural phenomenon (for a reasonably wide definition of “naturalistic”).

    1. I agree. My conclusion about the 900-foot tall Jesus healing amputees would be a provisional conclusion. It would be open to disproof using additional data.

      1. Jesus inflation – he’s grown 300ft! Forget giant Jesus – he/she/it would be physically impossible made of flesh & blood. He would have to have bones enormously thick & the weight of flesh would tear it off the bones surely?

  11. My interpretation of what PZ was getting has to do with the nature of evidence and how we respond to it. If we encounter anything that we’d be happy to call “evidence”, it would – by definition – be naturalistic. Or, to put it another way, “supernatural evidence” is an oxymoron.

    Then, if it IS evidence, what do we do? I can tell you what we WON’T do: we won’t short-circuit the scientific method and jump to the conclusion that it’s A god, never mind the Judeo-Christian “God”. Whatever it is, it will be poked and prodded until it reveals its secrets, and if it is intelligent, we’ll ask it what it wants.

    I have seen some amazing things in my time, some natural and some technological, but I can’t imagine anything that immediately would cause my brain to switch off and “see God” without question. Maybe some hard drugs, or a brick to the side of the head, will be what it takes. 8)

  12. Greta Christina’s argument, like all arguments for an existence of a “god”, requires that he act “human”. That is, vacillating, quirky, making conscious acts because of subconscious effects, plus many many more implied attributes. Invariably, people characterizing a supernatural being give that being all sorts of attributes that no supernatural being could possess and still be a “god”.

    It’s the same old questions: can a “god” make a boulder so large, that even he cannot move? Is it possible for a “god” to occupy a location “north of the north pole”??

    And, I simply cannot understand why atheists even battle about these “existence” questions. It’s philosophical masturbation, such as “Did the South Pole exist prior to the knowledge that Antarctica existed?” It’s a reduction to absurdity.

    The Lack of a Supreme Being is quite simple to explain: you are who you are because of your memory. Memory requires calcium ions, sodium ions, Adenosine, neuronic dendrites, axons, and a complex chain of chemical and electrochemical reactions, to simple “be”,”exist”, “have substance”. When you die, those chemicals remain, in place. They go nowhere. Proven. Your memory ceases to exist. There is no “afterlife” to go to. Nada. Zilch.

    Conside this quote from Derek Lowe, a pharmaceutical chemist (from the book “101 Theory Drive” by Terry McDermott, 2010, page 228):

    Biochemical networks are hideously, inhumanly complex. There’s really no everyday analogy that works to describe what they’re like, and if you think you really understand them, then you’re in the same positions as all those financial people who thought they understood their exposure to mortgage-backed security risks. You’ll have this enzyme, you see, that phosphorylates another enzyme, which increases its activity. But that product of that second enzyme inhibits another enzyme that acts activate the first one, and each of them also interacts with fourteen (or forty-three) others, some of which are only expressed under certain conditions that we don’t quite understand, or are localized in the cell in patterns that aren’t yet clear, and then someone discovers a completely new enzyme in the middle of the pathway that makes hash out of what we though we knew about.”

    If there are any questions…there are no answers.

    1. Thanks for the book tip – another one to add to the ‘if only I had enough lifetimes to read all these’ list!

  13. No matter how hard I think about this, I keep coming back to the same thing. If a god or gods were shown to exist, or if the supernatural was shown to exist, then those things -wouldn’t- be supernatural anymore. There can be nothing to convince me that religion is true, because once it is shown to be true, it isn’t religion. It is now science and part of our universe. The supernatural doesn’t exist precisely because it is defined as something that doesn’t exist.

    1. Snap. That’s what I said the other day, about much the same process and conclusion. The more I think about it, the more I think there is just what there is, which is natural, and the supernatural refers to nothing that is.

      1. This is exactly PZ’s point. He’s not being “close-minded”. He’s only stating the obvious. A self-contradicting premise can not be proven true. “Evidence” for the “supernatural” can not, in principle, exist as those two words are currently defined.

      2. My problem with the supernatural is natural (or that God is just a super alien) if we show that it exists is that this is just a semantic issue. If you define ‘supernatural’ as having the property that it ‘transcends’ the ‘natural’ then you simply (as if it would be simple) have to have an operational definition of ‘transcends’. Then if you actually do encounter something that might be a supernatural phenomenon then if it has the property of ‘transcending’ the Natural then it is still ‘supernatural’ even if it can be shown to exist.

          1. Perhaps. One possible definition of this type of ‘Transcends’ is that causality from that realm (the Supernatural) is strictly one-way. The Supernatural can directly influence things in the Natural world but the Natural world can not directly influence the Supernatural world.

    2. I am willing to give supernaturalism more slack by positing that mind without matter qualifies as supernatural. If willful, conscious, thinking can be demonstrated to exist independently of a physical entity then I would conclude that we live in a supernatural world, otherwise we live in a natural world. Now I think its clear that we live in a natural world, and I consider it extremely unlikely that we ever have justification to conclude otherwise, but I am also willing to concede that all beliefs are contingent on weight of the evidence. The universe has been around billions of years, so we still have some reason not to rush to declaring our conclusions to date final and ultimate so quickly.

  14. I think Greta only proves PZ’s point at the end, there. After giving all, what she calls, evidence, she is still not sure it is not some other natural phenomena, or space being, we’ve not seen. The universe is only 13.7 billion years old, and the Earth and Sun much younger; there’s a good chance we haven’t seen all of what the cosmos has to offer.
    None of the evidence she provides here is proof that a god exists. It could, I suppose, prove that a certain group of people, long ago, had a grasp on phenomena we don’t understand scientifically; and they attributed that to a god.
    There is tons of evidence against a god existing which should also be taken into account. Even if you have a giant Jesus, that tells us nothing of a his, which is indefinable, it seems, to begin with.

  15. It all depends on what “atheism” means.

    I take “atheism” to mean “living one’s life without concern for whether or not there is a God.” And if that is what it means, then it cannot be proven wrong because it is not a proposition. It simply a pragmatic decision on how to conduct one’s life.

  16. This 900 foot Jesus, aka 600 foot Jesus, aka giant Jesus – there’s a question nobody has thought to ask (that I’ve seen), or answer either. How would anyone know it was Jesus?

    What are we expecting, a 900 foot version of some specific Renaissance or medieval painting? But if so which one, and why that one, and what reason is there for thinking that’s Jesus anyway?

    So we’re not expecting that. Well what then? A guy who looks as if he could have modeled for one or all of those paintings? Surely not – the models were European instead of Palestinian Jewish, and anyway they were just models.

    Well what then? A guy who can show us identity papers that prove he’s Jesus? Er…

    What then? He says he’s Jesus? Surely not – he could be someone else entirely, and just saying he’s Jesus.

    So, what then? A giant guy isn’t good enough – he could be anyone.

    1. I like that. “So you say you are God, then show me your papers…..hmmm, your papers are NOT in order. Next claimant.”

    2. So the 600-foot Jesus wouldn’t convince you because you’d insist it’s really the 600-foot Shylock and he’s after his pound of flesh?

    3. … there’s a question nobody has thought to ask (that I’ve seen)

      Ahem, *cough*. (It’s OK, no-one can keep up with all these threads. It used to be easier in Usenet days.)

  17. The whole notion of “gods” is funny. So say we find some effect that can provably be traced to an intelligence more powerful than human intelligence on earth.

    Are we going to call it “god”?

    God is a hypothesis before an observed fact, and the hypothesis is so gave that way too many concepts can later be linked to it.

    In fact I’d argue that some deist notions of god are inconsequential. It really doesn’t matter because they literally are defined to be unobservable and noninteracting. So if something potentially or actually exist that can never be observed is really irrelevant.

    Why all these different notions even have the same label “god” is also questionable.

  18. ‘The wide applicability of religious beliefs is not a testimony to their coherence but to their evocativness, complexity, counter-intuitiveness and non-empirical nature.’ (Ilkka Pyysiainen in ‘How Religion Works)
    Two happenings that caught my attention: the ‘advanced’ theologian Alistair McGrath in conversation with Richard Dawkins saying that ‘We know God intervenes in the world’ (I can’t recall the exact words, and I think he may have added something along the lines of God’s intervening to sava a child, say). I remember being a bit surprised because Dawkins didn’t pick him up on this. The other happening was at the debate with Dawkins (and Grayling?) on one side and on the other side was the Bishop of Oxford (I think) and some other people whom I can’t remember. Towards the end of the debate, the moderator asked Dawkins whether he thought that there was some infitesimal chance of their being a god. Dawkins grinned and said, ‘Well, there might be a leprechaun’, at which the Bishop of Oxford broke out in outrage and said something like ‘You cannot talk about the God of Abraham like that!’ What struck me was how morally and emotionally outraged he was; and that moral and emotional commitment on the part of believers is what we need to address, and not, I think, these purely intellectual arguments. It was the ‘God of Abraham’, with all his historical depth, his relationship with Israel, his covenants, etc, to which the bishop was committed, not to some coherent philosophical abstraction. And with McGrath, too, you can see that for all the abstraction of his theology, what genuinely grips him is the idea of a god who is a kind of person, with whom some sort of personal relationship is possible, and who will intervene in the world in various personal ways. The point is that no idea of the gods (or ‘counter-intuitive agents’, to use a technical term) as actually held by believers is, or ever has been, or ever will be, coherent, so that asking for coherent, testable concepts in this connexion is really beside the point. You are never going to get them.  

    1. And today this loving god murders thousands of children and these children die in great pain. What an asshole god. And yet he’d save a few – I wonder why. Perhaps it’s so the priests have someone to rape.

    2. The thing is, Harries seems a terribly nice bloke & obviously likes Dawkins (who – & I choose my words carefully here – does not come across as quite so likeable, at least to friends of mine who say he is a fundamentalist). Harries seemingly believes in his trinitarian god very deeply, though in my view erroneously. I reckon that he will be internally conflicted over what will happen when he dies (Abraham’s bosom?) & what will happen to his friend Dawkins (or as Harries would say, his soul) when he pegs it. I am just trying to understand the outrage Harries expressed. There is big gulf between the religion of Harries & the religion of some religious nutters whose god is highly sectarian & seems to be a god of exclusion & hate. [Not that I am criticising hate per se, which surely has its place in the lexicon of human feelings! …or does it?]

      1. And, yes, that is the point, isn’t it? Obviously, the bishop is not a bad man (unlike the Bishop of Durham, was it?, who asserted that God caused floods in northern England, to demonstrayte his disapproval of civil partnerships for gays), and, yes, I also find Dawkins’ smugness irritating. And I do think it would be very helpful if people would try to understand why he was outraged, as opposed to merely dismissing it as foolish and unworthy of note. Because his reaction struck me as genuinely worthy of note and consideration and a degree of respect – unlike the burblings of Alistair McGrath, whose extreme unctuousness arouses in almost physical rejection.

          1. ‘physical revulsion…’ Why the devil can’t I get things right the first time round?

        1. Huh, you mean the well-behaved and eloquent Dawkins that we know is too smug in your opinion; perhaps too shrill and strident?

          Where have we heard that before…

          I tell you what, and in the words of ORAC, “A statement of fact cannot be insolent.”

          1. Yes, Kismet, I expect you have heard it before. And, yes, just as Alistair McGrath’s unctuousness gets up my nose, so does Dawkins’ smugness, his chat about ‘brights’, and the kind of ‘macho’ talk about evolution that Richard Fortey has criticised. Which is not to say that I do not largely agree with Dawkins, nor that I do not admire what he has is doing.But he does not only deal in statements of fact, as you fondly suppose.

        2. While I agree that his reaction is genuinely worthy of note and consideration, I’ll reserve my agreement about that ‘degree of respect’. Prima facie, I didn’t see any reason to respect his reaction as valid.

          1. I remember Dawkins telling a fierce Scottish questioner who took him to task over his atheism, ‘I respect your sincerity, but I think you are wrong.’ Actually, instead of ‘wrong’, I think he said ‘hallucinating’. I prefer ‘wrong’.

          2. I would have to listen to what the Scottish questioner was asserting before I could make a judgment on whether ‘hallucinating’ or ‘wrong’ was the proper term. If what the person was saying indicated that they were hallucinating, then it was right, proper and more precise to use that word.

  19. This is a terrific schism, and I am pleased that we Gnus have figured out a topic on which we can thrash each other with flamethrowers. Keeps the blood flowing.

    For the record, P.Z. is right and Jerry and Greta are disgusting. How can you people live with yourselves?

    1. ‘Contrasting heretics and heresiarchs, I had said, “The latter should meet no mercy; he assumes the office of the Tempter, and, so far forth as his error goes, must be dealt with by the competent authority, as if he were embodied evil. To spare him is a false and dangerous pity. It is to endanger the souls of thousands, and it is uncharitable towards himself.”‘ John Henry Newman: ‘Apologia pro Vita Sua’ (published within a few years of ‘On the Origin of Species’).

  20. An incoherent concept cannot be said to exist or not exist; rather, existence does not apply to it. It is therefore not subject to empirical tests. It’s simply a piece of nonsense. God fails the coherence test at the first hurdle. You can’t ascribe agency to physical objects unlike animals, let alone apply them to the immaterial. There is also the well-known problem of making sense of the idea of something immaterial interacting with the material world (this, of course, is why dualism doesn’t get off the ground). It’s not even clear that ‘immaterial’ can be made coherent.

    How can you give any definition of God without these incoherences? ‘God’ has the same status as ‘green number’. We can rule out green numbers (as opposed to green numericals) because colour attributes don’t apply to numbers. You can never find, or even coherently discuss, evidence for or against the existence of green numbers.

  21. I agree with PZ, and Ophelia, and Brian T, and others I might have missed.
    By definition, any evidence for the existence of a deity would have to be presented in the form of a natural phenomenon (light, sound, a gravitational field, etc.) Is there any mechanism whereby we could distinguish the work of a powerful extraterrestrial prankster from that of a supernatural deity? I cannot imagine one.
    Some years ago I played a prank on a class of high-school students of mine. I told them I could identify their zodiac signs just by looking at their shoes. It took them some fifteen minutes of amazement to realize I had access to their birth dates; in the meanwhile, they were astonished and utterly incapable of explaining how I did it. How could we ever be sure we are not playing right into some trickster’s hands?

    1. piero wrote:
      How could we ever be sure we are not playing right into some trickster’s hands?

      Exactly right, we couldn’t. In the same way that we couldn’t know if someone was omniscient unless we were omniscient ourselves, we couldn’t know if something was a god unless we were a god ourselves. Now, if a god came along and made me a god … then I might believe.

      1. Tomh:

        Now, if a god came along and made me a god… then I might believe.

        That’s a line of reasoning worth pursuing, I think.

    2. Ultimately, we can’t. However, that is also true of the real world that we currently live in. The Moon landing might be a big hoax or we might be in a holodeck simulation or … just about any harebrained idea you want to mention. Carried to an extreme you end up in the dead end of solipsism. So, rather than deny everything that might just possibly be a trick by some super-alien, we make a pragmatic choice: to accept the results of science on a provisional basis. And, we employ the useful rule of thumb about extraordinary claims needing extraordinary evidence.

  22. The fundamental problem is one of definitions. Greta touches on this: “They define God so abstractly that he might as well not exist.” Unfortunately, she doesn’t follow through with a definition of her own. She does exactly what she rightly calls out the believers for doing: she talks about what some god or other might be like without ever getting around to identifying what, exactly, a god actually is. She even acknowledges running away from it by refusing to consider the difference between gods and space aliens.

    Would somebody who is willing to concede the theoretical possibility of the existence of a god be so kind as to tell me just what, exactly, are the qualifications for being regarded as an authentic deity? And do so without necessarily entailing a logical absurdity? And in a way that distinguishes between gods, hyperintelligent shades of the color blue, and the programmers of the Matrix?



    1. I don’t concede the theoretical possibility of there being a god, but there is no way of defining a god without logical absurdity: gods are logically absurd beings, if you think about them, and that is the reason why they have a hold over people’s imaginations and emotions. A god is an (imagined) agent who is like a human being but who has some counter-intuitive properties (he/she,it doesn’t die, can read people’s minds, doesn’t eat food, can move about invisibly, etc) and whom a particular society has chosen to worship in some way. I live in a country where it has been said that there are 8 million kami, or gods, many of whom are naturally very minor (some live in the kitchen, for example, and look after things there). And if you add to those kami the souls of all the ancestors who have died and become kami, then you get millions and millions of kami. Gods are from the beginning not intellectual abstractions (and I include in this the Jewish storm god, Jehovah in his original form and in his subsequently revised forms), which is why debates on a highly abstract level, however well argued, miss the point, I think. The intellectual arguments against the existence of a god have all been made and are really unanswerable; Lucretius and Hume managed that pretty well between them, and Darwin, of course, put the final nails in God’s coffin, as he well knew.

      1. To re-work Epicurus:

        Can the gods do the impossible? Then what they do isn’t impossible after all.

        Is the impossible forbidden even to the gods? Then why call them gods?



        1. Is the impossible forbidden even to the

          Yes. But what’s possible for them is not possible for us—at least doing it their way is not possible for us.

          For example, Aphrodite can make people fall in love because she’s (supposedly) the right kind of being, and Love is the (supposedly) right kind of thing, that she can do that fairly directly.

          We might be able to make people fall in love naturalistically, with clever psychology, drugs, hypnotism, or a snazzy brain-reprogramming machine, but Aphrodite doesn’t need that stuff, because she’s supernatural in a way we are not. Her essence is irreducibly related to the irreducible essence of Love in the right way.

          There is a distinct difference between magic and merely sufficiently advanced technology. The distinction is not internally incoherent, but it doesn’t fit at all well with what we now know (provisionally) about the actual nature of minds, Love, etc. (I.e., that they are not irreducible to nonmental and nonteleological stuff.)

          The supernatural and God are not intrinsically incoherent or unfalsifiable or lawless. They operate by different laws than normal stuff, but the assumed regularities do make predictions, which do turn out to be false.

          We know (provisionally) that supernaturalism is false and that God doesn’t exist in the same basic way we know that the earth goes around the sun and vitalism is false.

          Not because the supernatural is incoherent or intrinically unfalsifiable, but because it is sufficiently coherent (and contentful) to be falsifiable. It just turns out, empirically, to be false.

  23. This debate feels like it’s a silly word game.

    Consider: not only can atheism be disproved, it has been disproved. Just use the string ‘God’ to refer to ‘The cat from the most recent caturday photo’. A God exists. So we’re done.

    But, that argument is absurd on it’s face. We dismiss it because there’s the feeling that there needs to be some requirement on what’s godly-enough to be A God.

    If we specify this requirement, then the whole problem unravels.

    If we set the bar at ‘tri-omni-being’, then PZ is right. The idea is incoherent (or unprovable by construction) and can be rejected.

    If we put the bar lower, to include, ‘beings powerful enough that people would worship them as a god’, then it’s easy to construct sufficient proofs.

  24. I think people are still missing the point: what is this god and what did it do?

    As I have written many times, if the claim is that it is an immortal intelligent being which created the universe then that god does not exist unless the Big Bang theory is wrong. A god which created all life on earth? Well, was this ‘god’ mortal or, as the fairytales claim, immortal? Was it just a cosmic wanderer such as ourselves or was it something more? Are we the results of a wanderer’s science experiment? A god which gave us morals? No, it can’t be that either.

    I can go on all day, but the short story is that absolutely no gods described in all religions extant and extinct can possibly exist. If people insist that “a god” *might* possibly exist then it is not one which anyone claims to know. The religious must first come up with a god which does not defy the fundamental limitations of nature before it would make sense for us to even consider the possibility of there being a god. Otherwise it is simply more time wasted on superstition.

    I think the “there *might* be a god and some means of convincing me there is one” argument is specious; you may as well apply it to the Tooth Fairy. Do you really believe that there may be a Tooth Fairy and evidence to convince you of one?

    1. Even the Tooth Fairy isn’t the best possible example. Sure, we know it’s Mom & Dad, but they could also be supplemented by something like a ring of James Bond-style super-secret agents who go around swapping teeth for money. Or even space aliens with stealth technology. The point is, while the Tooth Fairy is supremely improbable, it’s not actually impossible. Though all evidence today points to the nonexistence of the Tooth Fairy, she could invisibly appear tomorrow alongside 901-foot-tall Space Jesus.

      Gods, on the other hand…the whole point of gods, as I wrote above, is that they can do the impossible. But, by doing the impossible, they demonstrate that it’s actually possible after all. And if even they can’t do the impossible, why are we having this discussion?



  25. Phew! It’s taken a while but I have finally read all the comments. I appreciate that to be a sceptic is to remain open to possibilities yet also to question evidence. Does this mean eternal suspension of judgement? I am not sure! My heart tells me there are no god/s but other people tell me I am being fundamentalist in my atheism. My head tells me to be scientific, i.e. open to evidence. I am well aware of the definitions of deism/theism/agnosticism/atheism Dawkins gives, but to me if you retain doubts can you really be an atheist? I am probably nearer to PZ than Jerry on this but I do not want to be accused of being closed-minded, so while I will continue to call myself an atheist, I will concede that there might be evidence of god/s.

    The nature of that evidence? Show me that the ‘soul’ exists.
    You cannot,
    it does not,
    end of.

    1. Again, I think this gets down to the difference between the concepts of ‘belief’ (religious belief, in this instance) and ‘accepting’ something as true based on the evidence at hand.

  26. There is a gap between my fork and my breakfast plate their could be a gap god there too! Oh lordy, better declare it, how about the 1200 foot forking breakfast plate god?

    You can call me close minded but then I get to laugh at you every time you make a statement that suggests you know something, for the statement would be equally closed minded.

    You might ask ‘But what about the kittehs?’ Nope. Each and every one could be another disgusting mindless christian god all pimped up in silky fuzzy fur that makes underhandedly cute meow-meow sounds.

  27. This non-debate debate about the possible evidence that might convince a non-believer that there really is a god demonstrates (conclusively to me at least) why no one hires a philosopher to actually do anything useful.

    The sound you hear is thousands of readers hitting the page-down key to go on to one of the many actually interesting posts on this otherwise fascinating (but momentarily tedious) blog.

    Let’s assume that PZ (unlikely as that may be), Jerry and Greta agree that there could be some future event that would prove the truth of some religion or other or demonstrate the existence of some version of a God or gods. Then what?

    Wake me up when that discussion is over.

    1. Then what?

      As per Greta:

      And, in pointing out how vastly different that world would be from the one we actually live in, we’re not just making a stronger argument for our position. We’re not even just making our position falsifiable, and thus making it philosophically stronger. We’re making our position rhetorically stronger. In my debates with religious believers, I’ve found the “What would convince you that you were mistaken?” gun to be invaluable. When I can point out that I’m willing to consider the evidence for religion, but that no possible evidence could convince them that they were mistaken — and that they therefore aren’t arguing in good faith — it can be very effective in getting believers to re-examine their beliefs. And it shuts down the “It’s so close-minded of you to come to a provisional conclusion about religion based on the best available evidence” canard very effectively.

      Yes, this is philosophizing about an abstract hypothetical situation that has virtually no bearing on the real world. The only practical purpose that it serves, that I can see, is the one that Greta pointed out. It gives us a rhetorical tool. Other than that, it is very much like arguing about the number of angels that can dance on the head of pin.

    2. Parnell, if philosophical discussions aren’t to your taste, don’t bother hitting the page down key. Just skip the thread.

    3. Whereas I totally appreciated parnell’s post and suspect he speaks for a number of us. Not that I’d go as far as to tell JC what not to post (in fact, I think he, PZ, etc., are almost forced to come up with some replies to these annoying questions). And I’ll admit that a little of this discussion is at least somewhat enlightening; but for me, a little goes a very long way…

      1. I certainly understand that it’s not to everyone’s taste, but I also think that “people are just hitting page down” comments sound like “nobody goes there anymore—it’s too crowded.”

        1. Oh, and that condescending “wake me up when this discussion is over” closer? Ugh.

          Please folks, be very very quiet and don’t wake the whiny baby.

          1. See, and I thought it was just a wry remark about his (her?) take on the whole discussion.

            Capital P Philosophers seem to spend a lot of time trying to make the non-capital-P-Philosophy-inclined feel inferior; turn about’s refreshing.

            And to that end, your reference to Yogi Berra is quite apt. 🙂

  28. Irrespective of all the preceding comments, in a court of law one must first provide a definition of what one seeks to prove and then adduce evidence.

    Assuming one can provide a coherent definition of god that will stand up in court, which I maintain that PZ, Jerry and Greta Christina all deny can be done, then there is no reason to ask about evidence.

    One cannot adduce evidence about an incoherent theory.

    1. Except that for the believer (as opposed to those infected with philosophy like the theologian), what is believed is not a theory and it doesn’t bloody well matter that the definition of god is not coherent: the whole point of a god is that he or she or it, judged by ordinary standards, is anomalous. So believers are simply not in the business of proposing testable theories that can then be shot down with contradictory evidence or supported with favourable evidence. I do wish that many of the highly educated and highly intelligent people who contribute to this sort of argument would have the simple ability to actually look at reality, at how believers in religions actually think, feel and behave. Or, failing that, to acquaint themselves with a few good anthropological studies of religious behaviour.

      1. Precisely. They might as well be trying to devise a coherent definition of “magic.” By colloquial definition, magic is pretty much exactly that which can’t be proven.

        Thinking we can ever “prove” a belief out of existence seems like the ultimate tilting at windmills.

    2. One cannot adduce evidence about an incoherent theory.

      Yeah, those physicists are pretty whack. That talk about “particles” that interfere like “waves” was just incoherent nonsense.

      Good thing we tossed that “photon” crap out of court.

  29. My 2 cents:

    To me proving the existence of god would be like proving anything else, you just have to adjust the experiments to whatever you are testing. We are testing the supernatural, so lets make cases for how to prove that.

    God is defined as an all knowing, all powerful and all compassionate being. Ok, one at a time. We just need to come up with consistent experiments that proves that such a being can exist. This being must do all of the following to prove me that it is an omniscient being:

    > Read my mind with a 100% accuracy, then;
    > Explain to me (using logic and reason) how is it possible to know what I’m going to do without the constraint that that implies to my will, then:
    > Predict what I’m going to say, then tell me, then I’ll say something (obviously once I know your prediction I’ll say something different), but, your prediction and my answer still have to be the same word by word (this is impossible, but still shouldn’t be a problem for such a being), then;
    > Recite without pause and at verbatim any facts, dates, quotes, data I ask for, then;
    > Predict the result of any coin I toss, (I’ll do this at least a thousand times), then;
    > Predict the order in which the cards of a deck of cards shuffled by me will appear (again, a thousand times), then;
    > Predict the result of the thousand dices I will throw at once (another thousand times), then…
    > (Add here your own probability experiment here).

    If any error is made then this is not an omniscient being. Remember it is a 100% or nothing. After this experiment we move on to the omnipotent part (also known as start breaking the laws of physics big time)

    > Stop the time but let humans roam and have full conscience in this still universe.
    > Disable and enable gravity whenever I ask you to (this would be so cool), then;
    > Get me to the surface of the sun in less time that it takes the light to get there (8 seconds) but save me from scathing, the lack of oxygen and the likes. I want to plunge in the sun at least once, then;
    > Get the sun bellow 0 degrees kelvin, and then heat it up again, this would be more impressive if it was done instantly, then;
    > Make me bigger than the universe and let me see it from outside (ala MIB), then;
    > Take me to the past and to the future, then;
    > Keep me alive after I have beheaded my self and then reattach my head to my body, then;
    > Get my mom back to life (I’d like to talk to her once more), then;
    > (Add here whichever law of nature you want to break and a case for it).

    Again, If this being cannot do but just one of these tasks, then it is not an omnipotent being, at least not in this universe. This way I think I’m ruling out any super advanced alien species with more advance technology. Now the omnibenevolence part:

    > Prevent all suffering in the world from happening. then;
    > Impart justice in a way that satisfies humans.

    Now, all of this experiments have to succeed as a whole in a verifiable scientific manner. That is, this being will carry the same experiments with all the human beings in this world, one by one, in pairs, groups and as a whole. I want to avoid the case of being asllep and mentall illness so our traditional measuring devices will be running and collecting data, cameras will be recording, and peer review will be part of the process.

    Now, if you are thinking, “who am I to demand such proofs and conditions?”, well, if I have to take seriously the existence of such being I need serious proof. No more no less. If all of the above can be done by a being under the conditions that I have demanded, then, I will call that being god.

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