Dawkins and Grayling: can there be evidence for god?

March 14, 2011 • 5:02 am

In late February, during Oxford Think week, biologist Richard Dawkins and philosopher Anthony Grayling discussed a topic dear to my heart: “What would it take to convince us of the existence of the supernatural?” (the link goes to the 69-minute podcast).

According to Dawkins, the controversy about this issue was begun by Steve Zara and the man described as “P. Zed Myers” (LOL!)—both of whom rejected the possibility that any evidence would be convincing—and me, who took the opposite stance.  Readers may remember our dueling posts on this topic (they are, in chronological order, here, here, here, here, and here).  I believe the internet consensus among atheists sided with Zara and P.Z., and with P. Zed’s assessment that “There is no valid god hypothesis, so there can be no god evidence, so let’s stop pretending the believers have a shot at persuading us.”

The Oxford discussion is an informal and unmoderated conversation, 35 minutes long, with questions from the floor occupying the remaining half hour.   The strange thing about it is that in the end neither Dawkins nor Grayling seemed to give a definite answer to the question, nor described what sort of evidence might convince them of the existence of a god.  (I may have missed some subtle philosophical positioning here, so I’ll be glad to entertain corrections from readers who have listened to the piece.)

As one might expect with Grayling on the dais, there was lots of philosophical throat clearing:  what is “proof”?, what do we mean by the “supernatural?” and so on. This is of course necessary preamble.  And there was discussion about what specific god would be supported by evidence: if a 900-foot celestial figure appeared to all of us, and was documented on film, would that count as evidence for god if the figure wasn’t clearly associated with a known human faith?  And how do we know that a supposed god-appearance wasn’t a conjurer’s trick, or the work of aliens?  Hell, even a 900-foot Jesus with a rough face, sky-blue eyes and a booming voice could merely be the work of aliens who had learned about human religion and were playing a monstrous joke on us.

Grayling and Dawkins’s debate thus seemed to me curiously inconclusive.  I think they sort of agree with me, but not in an obvious way.  But their lack of specificity doesn’t mean the debate isn’t worth hearing, for they made a lot of good points along the way.  Dawkins is becoming more and more eloquent in his public appearances and unscripted talks, and Grayling shows his ability to turn listeners’ questions, even uninformed ones, into wonderfully lucid answers.

One striking point that Anthony made was that the vast majority of people hold religious beliefs not because of evidence, but simply because they were taught them. (He calls the emotional and didactic reasons for belief “nonrational” rather than “irrational”.)  Because of that, he said, “The discussion we’ve been having, about proof, about evidence, about how we would change our minds, and so on, is really rather marginal about people having a faith or not.”  Another good point was that deism is not a scientifically testable proposition—at least those forms of deism that by definition preclude the existence of evidence.  Grayling notes Popper’s dictum that a theory that is consistent with any possible observation is not a scientific theory at all.

Maybe I’m foolish or credulous, but I continue to claim that there is some evidence that would provisionally—and I emphasize that last word—make me believe in a god.  (One can always retract one’s belief if the god evidence proves to be the work of aliens, or of Penn and Teller).  I agree, of course, that alternative explanations have to be ruled out in a case like this, but remember that many scientists have accepted hypotheses as provisionally true without having absolutely dismissed every single alternative hypothesis.  If a violation of the laws of physics is observed, that would be telling, for neither aliens nor human magicians can circumvent those laws.

The statements by P.Z. and Zara seem to me more akin to prejudices than to fully reasoned positions.  They are also, of course, bad for atheists, since they make us look close-minded, but I would never argue that we should hide what we really think because it makes it harder to persuade our opponents.  On the positive side, a discussion like this one is really good for sharpening the mind.

I will contact Grayling and Dawkins and ask for clarification.  Watch this space.

244 thoughts on “Dawkins and Grayling: can there be evidence for god?

  1. I was lucky enough to attend this live. It was the first time I had ever heard these two speak live & I found it to be riveting.

  2. I think I come down somewhere between the two positions: I think the question of the existence of the various traditional gods of various religious has been settled, and these don’t exist. It’s impossible to conceive of any additional evidence that would confirm the existence of, say, Yahweh or Allah.

    However, there might be some other sorts of gods that might exist, and it’s possible to tentatively believe in those if evidence was available to support their existence. Considering the poor showing of other gods, scepticism would be the wisest approach.

    Even 900-ft Jesus could just be an elaborate trick, using some sophisticated technology that the rest of us don’t yet understand.

  3. Maybe I’m foolish or credulous, but I continue to claim that there is some evidence that would provisionally—and I emphasize that last word—make me believe in a god.

    But what sort of evidence would it have to be that would make you believe (provisionally) in a god that doesn’t also make that god a natural entity, instead of a supernatural entity?

    1. Exactly. That’s the problem that puts me on the Myers-Zara side of the equation. If evidence of X turns up, then X is part of nature. Maybe it’s a way surprising part of nature (not for the first time), but it’s still part of nature. It’s not clear to me why we would give it the honorific “god.” That’s not being stubborn or closed-minded, it’s just trying to figure out what we’re really talking about.

      1. And all definitons of god are incoherent or self-contradictory, meaning that gods are human inventions.

        I come down on the Zara/P-Zed side because the concept of god can be fully explained not by physics, but rather human psychology.

        Religious belief, when all is said and done, comes down to wishful thinking and self-delusion.

        1. I fall provisionally on that side of the discussion simply because there’s no way to actually test for the supernatural- I simply can’t think of a way to do so where the test subject couldn’t more easily simply present the illusion of having such abilities, thanks to the limits of human observation.

      2. Case closed. Although I’m sure I will enjoy reading the other 178 (and counting) comments, I really don’t know what else there could be to say on this topic.

    2. The problem with this argument is that you are re-defining supernatural as that which doesn’t exist. When you re-define natural as that which exists then of course, by definition, if the evidence suggests something exists then that something is natural. But that is an improper definition of supernatural and natural. We know its an improper definition of supernatural because there are lots of things that we have excellent reason to think do not exist, and never have existed on earth, such as flying primates with underwater breathing gills, but we don’t consider air flying and underwater breathing primates to be supernatural. On the other hand, if we consider primates that consist only of bodies from the neck down with no heads which function as if they had heads but there is no material explanation for their seeing, hearing, talking, and thinking capabilities then such primates are supernatural. Supernatural has to with capabilities that have no visible agency, have no physical source, lack any material cause and effect foundation.

      1. Ahhh, but what makes you think that those “primates… with no heads which function as if they had heads” actually do “…lack any material cause and effect foundation”?

        I still can’t get past this – the way I see it, Deen and Ophelia quite appropriately defined “supernatural” as “that which can’t exist” and “Explicit Atheist” then agreed with them by defining “supernatural” as “capabilities” that, among other things, “lack any material cause and effect”. What is a “non-material cause and effect”??

        There is simply no coherent way to talk about the existence of anything other than the “natural” world.

        1. Bryan wrote:

          ‘Ahhh, but what makes you think that those “primates… with no heads which function as if they had heads” actually do “…lack any material cause and effect foundation”?’

          On exactly the same basis as everyone rationally reaches conclusions about everything else: The weight of the evidence. If we see the capabilities and behaviors without any underlying physical, material mechanisms as their source then the weight of the evidence would be that it is supernatural. Everywhere we look we see physical, material correlates with events which evidences that we live in a natural world, but if we lived in a supernatural world then we would rationally expect the evidence to be otherwise.

          1. What would it mean to “see the capabilities and behaviors without any underlying physical, material mechanisms”? Would it count if we just “couldn’t see them”, or would they actually have to not be there? How could we tell the difference?

  4. but remember that many scientists have accepted hypotheses as provisionally true without having absolutely dismissed every single alternative hypothesis.
    True. But they still need a hypothesis which makes predictions and with supporting evidence to begin with. Declaring a phenomenon to be “supernatural” doesn’t seem to fit that description.

    If a violation of the laws of physics is observed, that would be telling, for neither aliens nor human magicians can circumvent those laws.

    Or it means that we simply were incorrect about what we thought were the laws of physics, and that there are more advanced laws that can explain both the new phenomenon and our old laws. Aliens may know natural laws that we haven’t discovered yet.

  5. I think the term “god” would need to be defined before you can actually form a belief in it. While most believers will never define their god for you deep down they do assign it characteristics which define it.

    If a 900 foot Jesus with the power to raise the dead, turn water to wine and transmute matter, appeared I might think it a cosmic joke but I would probably still consider it “a” god if not “the” god.

    On a different note, how about an unambiguous message written into the fabric of the universe? I think I read a book once where someone discovered a message written in the numbers of Pi. That might constitute proof if the message was written right.

    1. I think I read a book once where someone discovered a message written in the numbers of Pi. That might constitute proof if the message was written right.

      Not really. It might have been impressive if we had found it in the first few hundred digits. But since pi has infinitely many digits, eventually all possible messages can be found there.

      1. I didn’t think of that, but perhaps the message is in the beginning and not found yet. And I suppose it would also depend on the message. In the new stargate series there is a message written in the background radiation of the universe. These are not proof of any particular god but (if they existed) but evidence of something that could be called a god.

      2. If the digits of pi were random, this would be true with probability one. However, the digits of pi are obviously not random (because they spell out pi!), so it’s in need of proof, and has not yet been demonstrated.

      3. The whole “message in pi” idea always struck me as nonsensical, since that would imply that the value of pi is not entailed by the laws of Euclidean geometry but is an arbitrary parameter of the universe that could in principle have any value. I grant that physical spacetime is non-Euclidean, but even non-Euclidean geometries don’t have arbitrary values of pi; they have circles whose ratio of circumference to diameter converges on the one true Euclidean value of pi in the limit of zero radius. So I don’t know what it could even mean to say that God could have put a message in pi. Pi is what it is, God notwithstanding.

        Back in the 1960s Samuel Delaney wrote an SF novel called The Einstein Intersection in which wormholes to parallel universes could be opened by enormous computers calculating slightly different values of pi. I never quite made sense of that either.

      4. @Sean and Ido: you’re probably right. But it still wouldn’t be very surprising to find weird messages in an infinite series. Especially not if you allow the use of a near infinite number of possible encodings/languages and you’re not too picky about what messages you’ll accept.

        1. What *would* be surprising if these messages were *NOT* found in PI, or “e”, or any transcendental aspect of mathematics.
          For, should that be true, they would no longer be random, nor transcendental!

      5. Huh? Not at all. An infinite set is not necessarily exhaustive. Search the set of all even numbers far and wide, you won’t find the number 3.

    2. I think the term “god” would need to be defined before you can actually form a belief in it.

      This. A thousand times, this.

      If a “god” is an entity able to do really impressive things, then we with our GPS cell phones, jet airliners, and digital wristwatches are gods to 99.999% of all humans who ever lived.

      If, on the other hand, a “god” is an entity that can perform true miracles, then one must first define that term. And what is a miracle but an instance of the truly impossible? Yet, at soon as a god goes ahead and performs a miracle, it demonstrates that it wasn’t really impossible after all, but instead merely really impressive, putting it back squarely in the first category.

      I am not an atheist merely because I lack belief in the gods of traditional religions, but because nobody has yet to explain to me what, exactly, a god is supposed to be.

      Do you admit to the possibility of a round triangular cube? No? Can you define the term, “god” in a more coherent manner than that? Then why hold to the possibility of the latter but not the former?



      1. Yet, at soon as a god goes ahead and performs a miracle, it demonstrates that it wasn’t really impossible after all, but instead merely really impressive, putting it back squarely in the first category.


        But it gets worse. If God is almighty and all-knowing, shouldn’t he be able to design and build a machine that replicates the miracles? But if a machine can do it, it wasn’t really supernatural after all. And if God can’t make such a machine, he’s not all-powerfull and all-knowing.

        1. No need to bother with machines.

          It’s a central tenet of virtually all religions that the gods grant the power to perform miracles to selected humans. But now you’ve got ordinary humans doing “impossible” things which apparently aren’t so impossible after all. Indeed, they seem to be quite commonplace…at least, according to religious tradition. Entire crops are grown for no other purpose than that an old man in a dress can mumble a magic spell to turn them into zombie flesh and vampire blood, for example.

          You’ve heard that old chestnut about being able to conclude literally anything from a contradiction? This is the great-grandmother of that principle.



          1. Yes, but humans (according to most believers) supposedly still have some sort of “spiritual” component. On the other hand, most people will admit there is nothing supernatural about machines.

            1. My macbok pro is pretty magical.

              And when I turn it off, and my screen goes blank, where do the pretty words and pictures go? Probably some cosmic quantum supernatural dimension, like where our souls go, but different. Or not.

        2. I think Deen’s argument is incorrect: there’s no reason to think that if a god can work miracles then it can make a machine that (operating purely naturally) works miracles. Or, more precisely, in order to make such a machine it might have to change the laws of nature, and the fact that the machine would *then* operate according to the (new) laws wouldn’t say anything about the lawfulness of the god’s previous or subsequent interventions.

          Imagine that we’re inside a big computer simulation. The person who owns and operates the computer has godlike powers over our universe, and they are achieved largely by that person’s ability to do things not permitted by the rules that apply inside the simulation. For instance, it might be that the simulator absolutely enforces a “speed limit” like that in relativity, and no causal influence can propagate faster than that limit.

          Our computer operator could arrange for faster-than-the-limit transfer of information (pause the simulator, copy some bits over, set it running again). S/he could only make a machine that does this by tweaking the simulator so that in some circumstances FTL information propagation is allowed after all: that is, by changing the rules.

          (You might not consider such a computer operator eligible for godhood, e.g. because s/he is presumably embedded in some other universe with rules of its own. But as far as our universe goes, s/he would have just the same sorts of power as gods are supposed to have.)

          1. [T]here’s no reason to think that if a god can work miracles then it can make a machine that (operating purely naturally) works miracles.

            So, you’re claiming that making a machine that can perform miracles would require a true miracle to accomplish?


            1. Yes: making a miracle-working machine would itself be a miracle. (This follows from another proposition that may be more obvious: consequences of natural happenings are themselves natural.)

              (I suppose it depends a bit on what definition of “miracle” you use. But I can’t think of any plausible definition that makes miracle-making-machine-making less miraculous than miracle-making.)

            1. I didn’t say it was *likely*! (Though, as it happens, I think it’s more likely than Choprawoo. Most things are.)

              1. 😛 I was being sarcastic, meaning it almost certainly is not a real possibility. After listening to AC Grayling’s part of the talk above, I think I would have to say that the “we are a simulation” idea still has a considerable mountain of work to do to even get to a point where it should even be considered a possibility.

          2. @g: pausing the simulator and tweaking it to allow FTL communication also changes the rules. Does it really matter whether the operator does it only once, many times, or just makes it official?

            And besides, this intervention proves that the simulator did, in fact, support FTL communication. It just used a feature of the simulator that we were previously unaware of: the possibity to copy bits from one part of the simulator to another. This feature was there even before the operator decided to use it.

            Therefore, I think that if simulated creatures would find a machine that enables FTL communication using this feature, it may seem like a miracle at first. But they would still be entirely justified in thinking that it operates by natural processes, not by supernatural ones.

            1. Yes, I agree: pausing the simulator and messing with it (either to change the rules to permit FTL signalling, or to perform ad-hoc FTL signalling “by hand”) either breaks or changes the rules. I thought that was part of the point I was making; if you were expecting me to disagree then I think we may be at cross purposes.

              No, it doesn’t prove that the simulator already supported FTL signalling. The divine-intervention-like scenario I have in mind goes like this: pause the simulator, reach in with a debugger and change a bunch of bits in the simulator’s representation of our universe, let it carry on running. This is not something that the simulation supports; it’s at an entirely different level. The inhabitants of the simulation could do any amount of basic physics research, at any level of ingenuity, and never discover that that capability is there, unless the operator happens to make use of it in a way they can observe.

              Of course, once the operator makes a *machine* that can do FTL signalling, that capability does have to be part of the simulation. If it wasn’t already in there, the rules have to be changed. That was my point.

              1. To clarify: My point is, the rules that govern the simulator already allowed FTL communication within the simulation, even if this feature was hidden from inside the simulation. If an operator changes the rules, he’s merely using a feature of the (natural) universe that wasn’t apparent to us, but was already there. If we’d find out, we’d probably just conclude that there is a rule or mechanism that allows other rules to be changed.

                And yes, it takes someone with access to the simulator to change the simulation, but that does not make the simulator a supernatural object from our point of view. If we had had access to the simulator as well (which the operator could indeed give us), we would happily label it “natural”. And we’d happily try and find out all we could about how it works.

              2. (In reply to Deen; the comment system won’t allow deeper nesting.)

                Presumably my hypothetical computer-operator is “natural” in the sense that s/he exists within some lawful universe (though I didn’t actually say so, and I’m not sure how obvious it is that s/he would have to be). But how can you know that *any* hypothetical miracle-working agent has to be natural in any useful sense?

                It seems almost as if you’re defining “natural” to cover everything that exists, and then saying “therefore nothing can be supernatural”.

                Of course the term “supernatural” is often used in ways that are (1) vague, (2) inconsistent and (3) incoherent, and in so far as *that* was your point I entirely agree. But I think it’s fairly clear that there isn’t anything impossible or incoherent about the idea that there might be some agent outside “our” universe, with godlike powers over it, and I’d be willing to call such a being “supernatural” for most purposes even though, for all anyone could tell, it might actually be “natural” when looked at from “its own” universe. Being “natural” in that sense might, for some theists, disqualify it from being called “God”. Not for all, though (I know from talking to some for whom it wouldn’t.)

    3. David quote: “…I think I read a book once where someone discovered a message written in the numbers of Pi. That might constitute proof if the message was written right”

      The Wiki article on Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel Contact states:

      …In a kind of postscript, Ellie, acting upon a suggestion by the senders of the message, works on a program which computes the digits of π to record lengths and in different bases. Very, very far from the decimal point (10^20) and in base 11, it finds that a special pattern does exist when the numbers stop varying randomly and start producing 1s and 0s in a very long string. The string’s length is the product of 11 prime numbers. The 1s and 0s when organized as a square of specific dimensions form a rasterized circle.

      The extraterrestrials suggest that this is an artist’s signature, woven into the very fabric of space-time. It is another message, one from the universe’s creator. Yet the extraterrestrials are just as ignorant to its meaning as Ellie, as it could be still some sort of a statistical anomaly. They also make reference to older artefacts built from space time itself (namely the wormhole transit system) abandoned by a prior civilization. A line in the book suggests that the image is a foretaste of deeper marvels hidden even further within pi. This new pursuit becomes analogous to SETI; it is another search for meaningful signals in apparent noise. This idea, among other plot points, was omitted from the film version…

    4. The book is “Contact”, written by Carl Sagan – a astronomer, writer, etc, sadly missed by many.

  6. I’ve actually changed my mind on this topic over the past year.
    I used to be of the opinion that a traditional miracle type event (Jesus descending from the skies with a host of Angels and everyone on Earth witnessing the event) would be sufficient.
    Surely that could be proof of God.
    The reason I changed my mind was I realized that it could be possible that an advanced technology could produce the same effects (an alien with either a sense of humor or a desire to pretend to appear like a religious figure known to humans – for whatever nefarious reasons it might want).
    How would I be able to distinguish between the two possibilities, God or Alien?
    I couldn’t, just as undeveloped tribal cultures might mistake the technologies of the colonizing nations as being supernatural, we might be similarly fooled by purely ‘natural’ technologies.
    What this means is that there is no evidence that could be used to definitely prove the existence of God. The best evidence will only show the existence of something that is either God OR an advanced alien (or a time-travelling technically advanced human).

    1. Personally I wouldn’t assume it was aliens. In that scenario, an event described in the bible thousands of years ago, the simplest explanation to me would not include aliens. It may not be direct proof of a creator god, but I would assume I wasn’t being tricked by whatever was coming down out of the clouds & that if they said they had been sent by God (or a god) then I would believe that they weren’t deceiving us or deluded themselves.
      However, I wouldn’t worship anything until I was given a damn good explanation of why there is so much wrong with what the Bible says (from failed prophecies to the need for redemption through sacrifice of a human-god hybrid) & why there has been ~2000 years without contact. I don’t think anything could convince me that an omni-{potent,scient,benevolent} god could exist as there are too many contradictions to account for, but that the things coming down from the clouds had been sent by something ‘other’ that did not claim to be alien in origin, yes, I would.

    2. Look, we don’t know, and can’t know ANYTHING in an ABSOLUTE sense as being GUARANTEED to be correct. That is an impossible standard and as such no one adopts it. ALL knowledge is based on the weight of the evidence. Whether the weight of the evidence is misleading in any given instance we cannot know absolutely and we don’t need know absolutely with complete certainty, we only need to play the odds pragmatically that this approach is successful and no other approach is successful.

      You could argue that the best we can ever do is conclude that there is a 50/50 chance of either God or intelligent and powerful aliens. I am not convinced that is true, but I am willing to grant that people can make a good argument of that sort. There are two points to made about this:

      1) That isn’t the world we currently live in. In the world that we currently live the overall weight of the evidence favors atheism over gods/aliens.
      2) If we lived in this alternative gods/aliens evidenced world then we should be agnostics, or maybe theists, but not atheists. Therefore, P.Z Myers et al. are mistaken.

  7. Ignosticism is all that remains in principle, but the endless hours of creative ridicule begin only after the proposition is entertained.

    What to do? Hmmm…

  8. Only evidence outside of nature could be evidence for the supernatural. Would a footprint of a ghost even provisionally convince you of their existence? If a ghost could leave a footprint wouldn’t that be proof that it was natural? If a method could be developed to distinguish the validity of supernatural claims that would do it for me.

  9. As others have suggested, once something becomes observable it is no longer supernatural but rather part of measurable reality, the natural world. The only question after observation would be constructing a theory that explains its existence within that natural reality.

    1. I think all this emphasis on “supernatural” versus “natural” is beside the point, for it assumes that once God interacts with the world, as theists presume, he is no longer a supernatural being. Russell Blackford has discussed at length the misleading nature of the term “supernatural” and how it can be used to sidestep a meaningful discussion (see here).

      That’s not really the point at issue. The point, it seems to me, is whether there is some being who can violate natural laws and do stuff beyond the power of any living being while interacting with the real world. That would be MY test of god.

      1. The point, it seems to me, is whether there is some being who can violate natural laws and do stuff beyond the power of any living being while interacting with the real world.

        The question then becomes, “What to you constitutes a natural law?”

        Euclid might have suggested that drawing a triangle with two right angles would have constituted a violation of natural law.

        One the one hand, we know that’s not true, as the trick is trivial to achieve on a sphere or other non-Euclidean surface. Further, we know that spacetime itself is Einsteinian, not Euclidean; concentrate mass in just the right way and you can create a localized geometry of just about any shape you can imagine.

        On the other hand, we also know that he was right, so long as you include “in a fixed and uniform Euclidean space” to the terms of the task.

        So if 900-foot Space Jesus started drawing square triangles on your coffee table, what would you conclude: that spacetime is non-Euclidean (perhaps as a direct result of local influences from Space Jesus’s mass); that Space Jesus really was a god; or that somebody had mixed some LSD in with the sugar?



      2. I agree that there could conceivably be evidence for a “being who can do stuff beyond the power of any living being human”. But what would evidence of violating natural laws look like? And how does it differ from evidence that our understanding of natural laws is incomplete?

        For example, if we see a being flying without wings or detectable thrust, do we conclude that it is breaking the laws of gravity, or do we conclude that it may be using an as yet unknown theory of anti-gravity?

        1. I take that even one step further.

          Observing such a “miraculous” event and concluding “goddidit” is as cowardly (sorry, Jerry!) a retreat from the scientific method as observing the complexity of the eye, failing to imagine its possible origins, and coming to a similar “conclusion” that those origins must be “divine.”



      3. Yes, but how could you be sure that the ‘Laws of Physics’ were being violated, rather than just appearing to be violated. We can do many things in our daily lives that would appear to Newton to be completely violating the laws of physics. Can we really rule out the possibility that an advanced technology couldn’t appear just as ‘miraculous’ to us as our use of iphones, jet airliners and microwave ovens would have appeared to Newton?

        1. One could never be sure that the “god” or whatever wasn’t just using natural principles and indeed might be a lot more mundane than it appeared. That’s one reason any acceptance of it as “supernatural”, if any, would have to be tentative.

          A sceptic or convinced naturalist would keep looking behind the curtain and perhaps would never entirely accept the “god”, no matter how impressive or inexplicable the appearance. However, my main concern with this approach is that it seems close to assuming the conclusion before performing the investigation.

          In the end, though, the old adage about advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic would hold.

      4. The point, it seems to me, is whether there is some being who can violate natural laws and do stuff beyond the power of any living being while interacting with the real world. That would be MY test of god.

        It is a commonplace in literature and even history for individuals who find themselves among less-technologically-advanced cultures to claim supernatural powers with mere tricks of science and technology, from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to The Man Who Would Be King to stories of explorers using lighters to save themselves from savages to cargo cults. How is what you’re suggesting any different? Or, perhaps more directly, are you saying that it would be appropriate in those cases for the cultures to “provisionally” presume these individuals are gods, simply because they can do things that violate their understanding of the natural world?

        1. Exactly. It would seem evidence for miracles has more to do with one’s position in time, a relative problem. Weren’t Conquistadors on horses mistaken for gods by the natives of Central America?

          The same situation might apply to us today if we were visited, via time travel, by our own future human race.

      5. I believe it was Sam Harris that gave an example that could be imagined. It went something like we could be simulations manifest by rules (laws of nature) chosen by some “supernatural” computer scientist. I’m struggling to imagine how we could know this programmer.

  10. “I will contact Grayling and Dawkins and ask for clarification. Watch this space”

    Thanks very much Dr. C.

    Yours is always the first site I visit each day!

  11. Most gods, e.g. Greek or Hindu, don’t seem very “goddish” these days. I think we’d want evidence of a creator-of-the-universe god, nothing else would do.

    As for all the old gods, angels etc, we already know what they were.

    It was the Vorlons.


  12. People will believe absolutely anything if authority figures were influential enough. And so that explains religion.

  13. Jerry:

    “Maybe I’m foolish or credulous, but I continue to claim that there is some evidence that would provisionally—and I emphasize that last word—make me believe in a god…The statements by P.Z. and Zara seem to me more akin to prejudices than to fully reasoned positions. They are also, of course, bad for atheists, since they make us look close-minded…”

    I’m with you. If you stick with science in deciding what’s factually the case, naturalism is the best bet about what exists. But naturalists should remain cognitively humble given the possibility of someday being proven wrong by their own standards of evidence.

    We can’t rule out the possibility that there might come a time when, for good evidential and conceptual reasons that we don’t currently grasp, we will divide reality into the natural and supernatural. Still, in the unlikely but conceivable event we encounter what we judge to be supernatural, we also can’t rule out the possibility of eventual naturalization as inquiry proceeds. Neither naturalists nor supernaturalists can responsibly claim to know in advance what existence must encompass.


    1. We can’t rule out the possibility that there might come a time when, for good evidential and conceptual reasons that we don’t currently grasp, we will divide reality into the natural and supernatural.

      True, but is that what PZ is doing?

      If you include “for good evidential and conceptual reasons that we don’t currently grasp” then it’s hard to disagree, but for evidential and conceptual reasons we do currently grasp, it’s hard to figure out how we could know a new X was supernatural rather than natural. That’s my objection anyway, and I think it’s other people’s too.

      1. What do you call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine.

        What do you call the supernatural that’s been shown to exist? Natural.

      2. I disagree with this. We do recognize supernatural from natural by the presence of non-material mind, or even more generally, by non-material agency. Supernaturalism is more than the non-material, its something akin to having the property of being a willful actor without any material foundation. Naturalism says something along the lines that willful actors always have a material foundation.

  14. “One striking point that Anthony made was that the vast majority of people hold religious beliefs not because of evidence, but simply because they were taught them.”

    Why would this be “striking” to anyone?

    I thought this when I was a teenager without even knowing about atheism or anything…

      1. Well, I’ve thought something similar myself all along. What believers were taught, essentially, is that God and the supernatural are magic. I’ve never seen any point in invoking even all the science in the world when they can just claim everything is magic (or ineffable). You don’t get anywhere asking, “then who created the creator,” because they don’t need to know. It’s magic. “Real” magic. Anything’s possible. (If you believe strongly enough, of course. And if you don’t you go you know where.)

        I doubt if this debate has changed much in centuries, or ever will.

  15. If a violation of the laws of physics is observed, that would be telling, for neither aliens nor human magicians can circumvent those laws.

    So Marie Curie was a god? Einstein magicked the orbit of Mercury?

    We usually call violations of the known laws of physic “scientific progress”. Indeed, I don’t know how you propose to speak of violation of the laws of physics without a priori certainty that you have a complete understanding of the actual laws, and not just those that we have discovered to this point.

  16. “…god evidence proves to be the work of aliens, OR [emphasis added] of Penn and Teller”

    Good grief, what do you mean by “or”? That they’re NOT aliens?!?

    Have you ever seen one of their shows? Only true aliens could do what they do on stage!

  17. Wow – loads of posts already!

    1/ Jesus deflation – according to that nutty child-author he could hold the whole world in his bleedin’ hands, so 900ft is way off 😉

    2/ “I continue to claim that there is some evidence that would provisionally—and I emphasize that last word—make me believe in a god” – that is because you are a good scientific sceptic/skeptic. I am guessing the RD & ACG are in the same camp – open to evidence. From the Zara & P Zed [“thou whoreson zed” – http://www.bartleby.com/46/3/22.html ]
    point I am closer to them. The more I consider the more absurd it [god/ess] seems, however it leaves us open to accusations that we are just another set of believers of a different hue, whereas you can rise above that. I WANT to be as sceptical as you but I find myself pretty convinced that there is a truth, & that that truth is godless.

    1. …and if he was holding the world in his hands, he appears to have squeezed just a bit too hard around the area of Japan.

      Not to make light of a horrible situation, but the concept of a god that cares for each of us individually and actively, yet condones untold misery and destruction is just nutty.

  18. I have a question. Just suppose some programmer can write an awesome simulation of a planet. He has an interface into his simulation, so is able to change things on the spot. Within his simulation inteligent life develops. Now in relationship to his simulated world, the programmer can through his interface do the impossible.

    So are we right in looking at the programmer as (a) god in relationship to this simulated world.

    Suppose this intelligent that devoloped on the simulated world starts doing science. Is there a way the simulated inteligence can find evidence for the programmer?

      1. Not if the programmer desires to remain hidden – in which case the programmer can continually avoid capture, changing conditions so that proof remains elusive, or even reprogramming the intelligent ‘life’ if it gets too clever.

        1. That reminds me of a facetious comment that I made to my fellow post-grad students of theoretical physics: Physics becomes more and more bizarre at higher and higher energies because God is furiously trying to invent the substructure to the lower-energy “layer” he previously created, and in a way that explains the behavior of that previous layer, so that there is always something more to be discovered!

          1. You do raise a most important point, however.

            Let’s say that we do somehow <waves hands /> discover that there’s one or more “gods” running amok in the universe.

            Which is the more useful response: to stop and ooh and awe at their magnificence, or to apply the scientific method to them to try to figure out what makes them tick?

            That is, even if “goddidit,” so what? It just means the universe is a bit more bizarre than we had previously imagined, and we’ve now got our work cut out for us. Presumably, we’d have to start by trying to figure out which bits the gods directly mucked around with and which are byproducts of the mucking; that might give some direct pointers as to what constitutes divine mucking, and it’d certainly provide raw data necessary to any further analyses.



            1. There is also the Tron scenario: God creates a universe simulation then accidentally gets sucked into it and can’t stop it! Still God? Would anyone believe God if all he could do was whimper, “I’m God,” with no way to verify it.

    1. Is there a way the simulated inteligence can find evidence for the programmer?

      In specific examples, perhaps. However, there is guaranteed to be no universal method, for the exact same reason there’s no universal solution to Turing’s Halting Problem. There always remains the possibility that the simulation is real but cannot be detected.

      Keep probing that and the very concept of “real” reality turns out to be pretty meaningless. What if the computer simulation is part of Alice’s Red King’s dream — specifically, in which the Red King dreams of Lao Tzu’s butterfly dreaming that it’s a computer programmer working on the Matrix project? Which of those is the “real” world? And how does the Red King know that he himself isn’t part of a practical joke being played by the Invisible Pink Unicorn Herself (MPBUHHH)?



      1. An infinite regress of faux realities. Might as well assume we’ve got the genuine article. Not to would be rather crippling, it seems to me.

    2. In principle, yes – especially if the programmer engages in active communication with his simulated creatures.

      But would he really be capable of doing the impossible? Or would we have to concede that far more was possible than we thought? Or would we even be able to understand that our world is virtual and can be re-programmed? Maybe even learn how?

      Either way, we’d learn that there exists a (from our viewpoint) very powerful programmer – but what reason would we have to assume he’s infinitely powerful? Or supernatural – that is, not subject to laws of nature of its own?

  19. The following is a description of an ongoing miracle that I would have an awfully hard time believing to be a natural occurrence. I posted this on a theologian’s forum in response to the claim that atheists never say what would convince them that a God exists. I’m curious as to what others think…

    God could cause a monolith to pop into existence in every town of 1000 people or more, with the inscription in the local language… “I, the God of Christianity, give you this proof that I exist.” The monoliths could be made of a material totally alien to this universe, and indestructible and fixed at their longitude, latitude, and altitude. So if one nuked one of these monoliths with a 20 megaton nuke, the monolith would be unscathed and hanging suspended in midair over the crater left by the nuke. As an added touch to let us know he hasn’t forgotten about us, the monoliths could all rotate 180 degrees every pi days. Might as well have them glow, over the interval of time that God considers to be the sabbath as well.

    1. That would be trivial to accomplish in a sufficiently advanced computer simulation / Matrix / Holodeck / acid trip / etc.

      It probably wouldn’t be much of a challenge to do without simulation for a civilization that had build a Dyson sphere.



      1. Actually, I think the key is in this: “material totally alien to this universe.”

        I understand when folks say that violations of the laws of physics are “just” apparent violations of the known laws of physics, but… 

        We know the period table pretty well, inasmuch as it’s consistent with several layers of physical models that have undergone – and withstood – massive scrutiny. A material existing at normal temperatures and pressures, comprised of something other than elements that fit the pattern of the periodic table (even superheavy elements beyond what we’ve created in the lab), would be quite convincing, I think.

        The two pieces of “evidence for [a] god” my son and I agreed upon were: (1) A violation of the second law of thermodynamics. (It’s so fundamental, that any departure must be seen as supernatural, in some sense.) (2) Transforming base metals into gold – without any residual radioactivity. (Again, it would fly in the face of the known behavior of the elements.)

        1. Again, none of that is even remotely challenging in the case of a simulation of some sort. And a civilization with the entire energy output of a star to play with shouldn’t have any trouble with small-scale non-radioactive transmutation or apparent local violations of thermodynamics.


          1. Oh, yes, if it were a simulation… 

            But that raises a whole new question of evidence: How can we be sure we’re living in the “real world,” not in a simulation/dream.

            I was thinking of the real world, and the evidence being presented on Earth, preferably in a lab, under controlled conditions – sort of a Mega-Randi Challenge.

            Actually, I suppose they’re arguably contiguous questions: If evidence proves God exists, doesn’t that demand a “godspace” in which the “real world” is “verisimulated”?

            1. How can we be sure we’re living in the “real world,” not in a simulation/dream.

              Simply, we can’t. And this is provable, the exact same way that Turing’s Halting Problem is provably unsolvable.



              1. Ah, but… 

                I’d agree if the simulation was internally consistent with our expectations of a naturalistic universe, and if it was running perfectly, with no glitches.


                I proposed something inconsistent with a naturalistic universe as evidence for “god”, but you said, “but this could be a simulation” – so, wouldn’t it then, if it isn’t evidence for god, be evidence for a simulation?

                However, I think these could be tantamount to the same thing: If the universe is a simulation, there is a god (the “simulator”); if there is a god, the universe is essentially a simulation in the mind of god.

            2. There are many other possible scenarios besides universe simulations that cause similar problems. For example, a technology capable of planting false memories. Or just solipsism.

      2. The problem with the “simulation” argument is exactly the same as the “god exists in another dimension” argument. It means that there is no evidence possible that could not be ruled out or explained away as “programmerdidit.” This includes anyone’s skepticism over god in the first place, and the lack of evidence of god. It goes nowhere but in a circle, but sends the message that special arguments over perception are allowable.

        And of course, such a programmer is god, in virtually (hah! I kill me!) every sense of the word.

        It’s just a glorified way of saying, “No, I can explain away any evidence contrary to my mindset,” which is exactly what the religious want to hear in answer to that question.

        1. Yep. It’s just a cheap trick to doge tough questions and comments, like:

          1) What does it mean for a universe to be simulated?
          2) Why on Earth are we describing the universe as a simulation, when in real life, we’re just abusing metaphors of computer simulation to things that can’t be described as such?
          3)”Laws of physics” is a shorthand for: the descriptions of how the world works, to great accuracy by humans.
          4) How can we even work out the probability [blame Nick Bostom for this!] that we are in a simulation, even if we neglect the above questions and comments? After all, there is only one universe which we can [so far] explore, so working out such things is pointless.
          5) People have defined their gods into disappearance: they only exist in their imagination, and any other place doesn’t make sense, due to the contradictory descriptions they bestow upon them…
          6) Even then, can people even imagine something contradictory in nature? We can believe contradictory things, if only because we are finite animals with little time to correct our mistakes […well, at least until recently]. Imagination does has its limits, after all.

          For all of these comments and much more, I’m no longer bothered with this religious topic. I have a duty to do something practical in the real world, after all 🙂

    2. In the 1200s, one could have proposed similarly incredible miracles: that one could make images of loved ones appear on a miraculous window, and talk to them over great distances; that with a miraculous rod, one could emit thunder and strike others dead at a distance; that a prick of a miraculous needle could cure mortal sickness; that, as in Ezekiel, a miraculous device could travel through the air, and moreover take passengers; etc. etc. etc.

      Presuming something is a miracle entails presuming that one knows what the limits of possible science and technology are. Not only does it seem impossible to me to predict such limits, but it strikes me as a profound example of hubris.

      1. Yes, you’d have to find a “test” that was not technology dependent.

        Mine involved altering the ability of weapons to harm based on a prediction of whether the use of that weapon would harm a human. Since such a test would invoke omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence, it removes the technology-dependence of most models.

        However, as others have pointed out — if you remove one or more of the alleged attributes of a god, then it makes the test meaningless. A god that doesn’t give a shit would find the test a yawner and refuse to participate.

        So, it only works if you’re talking about specific god concepts.

        In the end, we’re back to the fundamental question. First, define which god you’re talking about. Once we have a handle on what its ontology and its attributes are, then we can talk about the rest.

        1. Not to keep banging the same drum, but the programmers of a simulation could trivially monitor your thoughts.

          If you work out the energy budgets, interstellar travel isn’t likely until you get a civilization that’s using most, if not all, of the energy produced by its star. Technology at that level shouldn’t have any trouble creating, say, a skin-mite-sized EEG machine that can interpret human intentions, as well as other similarly-sized machines that could foul a firearm or even disrupt nerve impulses.

          Again, all you’re doing is reinventing an eye that you’re sure couldn’t possibly have naturally evolved. “I can’t imagine how X could possibly arise through natural means, therefore goddidit.”



          1. No, sorry, a mite-sized EEG could not grok the intent of the bullet. If I fire a gun and it misses, the gun works. But if I fire a gun and the ultimate end result (passing through walls – which happens quite often in drive-bys) is human harm, then the bullet just doesn’t work.

            Can’t grok intent of the bullet. So, your scenario doesn’t work.

            Plus, if we’re all in the Matrix, the god would have already showed up. Unless it’s an evil god, in which case things are going exactly according to plan.

            1. BTW: My scenario would also preclude suicide. All pills would work except if taken in overdose.

              It would also preclude accidents. Cars would no longer careen into bridge abutments if the driver falls asleep (or if they did, the resulting crash would destroy the car but not even wake the driver from his slumber).

            2. No, sorry, a mite-sized EEG could not grok the intent of the bullet.

              Sorry, I misunderstood your initial premise to be that gods would prevent humans from intentionally harming each other, not that (as you’ve now clarified) gods would prevent humans from coming to harm.

              However…computer simulations (games) today already have such functionality. And it’d still not be that much of a challenge for a Dyson-sphere-type civilization to create an all-pervasive surveillance network to know when a gun was pointed at somebody, and to implant a failsafe mechanism in each and every gun that worked as an override switch only they knew about and could control.

              Would it be impressive? Sure. Would it be evidence of the supernatural? Hardly. Would LSD and / or a Holodeck still be a more parsimonious explanation? Yup — at least for the time being.



    3. Any material alien to the universe appearing in it is no longer alien to it. Or is this the same as the natural / supernatural argument somewhere above (I mean in an earelier comment, not heaven!)?

      1. Exactly. “Material totally alien to this universe” is meaningless word salad. Whatever those monoliths are made of, obviously it must be a material capable of existing in this universe. Unless you want to argue that they don’t actually exist at all, and our eyes and instruments are simply being tricked into thinking they exist.

  20. Initially, I was on the side of “yes, you can prove god to me”. But then I looked at the conditions that I thought would have to be in place.

    I’m changing my mind.

    If god wanted us to know that it existed, it would have already done so. Clearly and unambiguously.

    That it hasn’t means either it can’t or that it doesn’t exist. Either way, it’s not something that requires worship. And certainly is not in the position to tell humans what they can and cannot do with their naughty bits (which appears to be the ultimate obsession of just about every religion everywhere).

    1. Just supposing that God, for whatever reason, decided to reveal him/her/itself only now and not before. You would reject ANY evidence that appears now on the grounds that the evidence hadn’t shown up before?

      1. I just posted my ultimate “test” above.

        God would announce that from now on, no weapon would work if the outcome of its use was to harm a human. No knives would cut, no guns fire, no bombs explode, no fists harm. But only if the result of the use would be to harm a human. So you could still cut a steak (and kill the cow). So, a drive-by shooting would have the gun fire 100 bullets in a row, except for the one that would randomly hurt a human.

        That’d pretty much end all wars, wouldn’t it?

        That’s a technology-independent test. It requires and demonstrates omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence (well, a lot of power in any event), and omnibenevolence.

        But if the god in question doesn’t have all of those attributes, then we’re back to square one. A non-omnibenevolent god wouldn’t care, for example.

        1. But I think the ultimate answer is that if god decided that today was the day to unambiguously show up and demonstrate its existence, one would have to ask what the heck took so long? And therefore question whether or not the being in question was in fact a god.

          Such a god certainly would not look anything like the god everyone fights over.

        2. So your god/ess would have to be peaceful? Sorry Kevin – I don’t buy your test. I prefer not to have a test as I have not seen one that is not, sorry, a bit silly. If there is a god it would probably not be a revealed god from one of these ridiculous religions people go on about.

          What if god is mad?

          1. Yes, that’s what I just said.

            The test only works for the modern concept of an omni god.

            If you define god some other way, then it doesn’t work.

            But, as I also said, such a god wouldn’t warrant worship anyway.

  21. We still must concider the crudification process of energy that leads to the physical universe and the subtlefication process in biochemistry that leads to intuitive minds.

  22. We’re basically re-treading Hume’s on argument on miracles.

    The first problem in trying to resolve this problem is: what is a “miracle”?
    Something that is impossible (under the laws of nature)? But we only know the laws of nature by seeing what happens. Any supposed “exception” to those laws just shows where the law needs to be re-assessed. (This then connects to the problem of induction, or, if you prefer, the uniformity of nature.)

    So we get get to a miracle being something that’s contrary to what has previously been observed, where the previous observations are so overwhelming that no rational person would expect the contrary to happen. Not just because no one ever thought about it before (discovery of a new phenomenon), but because it’s an exception to previously established order.

    Where people draw the line, and what they infer from it is still very much open to debate.

    1. we get get to a miracle being something that’s contrary to what has previously been observed, where the previous observations are so overwhelming that no rational person would expect the contrary to happen.

      Like, say, guns would have been to a Babylonian, or television to a Sumerian, or cell phones to a Mayan.

      I just don’t see how we can be so certain of what the possible laws of nature are that it would make sense to say some phenomenon violates them. It seems far more likely to me that our understanding of the natural world is incomplete than it is that there is something in addition to the natural world. The former does far less violence to our empirically-based understanding of the world than the latter.

  23. Re: “P. Zed Myers”

    Some Canadians pronounce Z as Zed and did so when Myers visited Toronto in 2008. Larry Moran added this postscript to one of his posts:

    “P.Zed tells me that he prefers the English version of his name to the American version (P.Zee) because the English version sounds so much more sophisticated.”


    1. And to me ZED sounds far more final – having a consonant at the end helps. I always thought that the Euro as a name for a currency is far too soft sounding – most of the currencies it replaced were heavy on the consonant count!


      No – I don’t have anything against P Zed! 🙂

    2. Dawkins and Grayling are Brits, and so “zed” is just them speaking actual English (as opposed to the US dialect of it).

      I still have to remember to say “zed” I’m from the US originally.

      1. English as spoken today in the UK is just as much a derivative dialect as that spoken in the US.

        I’m always amused when I see period pieces using one or more modern English accents, none of which match how anyone spoke 200+ years ago.

  24. Here’s what it would take to really impress an astronomer (shades of Douglas Adams follow): in just one Earth day, 1000’s of stars – of different ages, masses and distances from Earth – all (rapidly) evolved to a much brighter phase of their evolution, which, when viewed from Earth quite clearly spelled out a message. In plain English, with copies in Mandarin, Spanish and Hindi appearing alongside (the three most spoken languages on Earth). The message would have to be sufficiently complex that it (or any message of comparable complexity) would have negligible probability of occurring by chance. A few clearly drawn words would do. The coordinated use of so many different stars types and positions to give the message would require massive planning and a deliberate attempt to message Earth. Some of the stars would be 100’s of light years further away than others – and so would have to flare-up hundreds of years earlier if all the stars are to appear in the same day as viewed from Earth. (The message would look completely garbled, in both time and space, when viewed from a different position in the Galaxy). The show lasts for ten years, then the message changes (different starts) to a new one. These would be roughly equatorial stars so can be viewed from most latitudes at some time of the year.)

    (Ancient people thought they saw images of people and animals in the stars. I want clear writing, in a nice font. And I expect punctuation: this is not an SMS!)

    That would lead me to infer an alien intelligence of almost unimaginable power and physical ability (to skillfully manage stellar evolution of stars throughout the Galaxy), and is aware of modern human civilisation and interested in communication with it.
    Call it what you will.

    This certainly wouldn’t be a problem for an deity capable of creating the universe, and would be a pretty unambiguous calling card of superhuman power and intelligence. Much more impressive than a few catering-related magic tricks in an iron age Roman province. It could happen any night. But I won’t hold my breath.

    1. That would lead me to infer an alien intelligence of almost unimaginable power and physical ability (to skillfully manage stellar evolution of stars throughout the Galaxy), and is aware of modern human civilisation and interested in communication with it. Call it what you will.

      If I don’t call it “Fred” or “Sue,” I’ll call it “LSD” or “The Matrix.”

      Wouldn’t you?


      1. Not sure how “Fred” or “Sue” help. Are these well-posed hypotheses?

        LSD – or, more generally some kind hallucination – could explain these effects, but only for one person. The reason I made the message in the sky was so that billions of people could see it. Much harder to explain a mass hallucination on that scale. I think a genuine intelligent message is a more parsimonious explanation.

        “The matrix” – not quite sure what this means. Surely any intelligence sufficiently powerful to mess with the nature of reality ‘matrix-style’ is sufficiently powerful to call ‘god-like’. Then what’s the difference between ‘god-like’ and a ‘god’?

    2. You have narrowed it down to a god OR an alien technology. How do you propose to dispose of the second option?

      1. This is only possible given operational definitions specific enough to distinguish these two choices.

        A bit like distinguishing A.C.Clarke’s ‘magic’ vs. ‘sufficiently advanced technology’ – we need definitions of each that include testable differences. Otherwise they are (operationally) the same.

      2. … a god OR an alien technology

        Is that not a type-sample of the logical fallacy of a false dichotomy?
        Why not:
        * Madness
        * Fraud
        * Pranks
        * Facile comedy
        * Advertising
        &c ?

    1. Ditto.

      When PZ[ee] came to London for TAM last year he insisted on being PZed for the duration.

      Which was odd.

      Now, please excuse me while I go and listen to some Zed-Zed Top music.

  25. Something that confuses me: if we categorically reject the possibility of any evidence of the existence of a deity and/or of the supernatural, aren’t we giving theists a “free pass” on the burden of proof question?

    I’d argue that we are, and that offering that “free pass” is a really foolish thing to do. For example, I became an atheist at sixteen because I could no longer pretend that there is any evidence of the existence of God. I was surrounded by people who firmly believed in a deity who actively involves himself in the natural world, i.e. by responding to intercessory prayers, by punishing “sinners”, by performing miracles, by causing or preventing natural disasters, etc. These people would tolerate no questioning of their beliefs. To them, God is an active and powerful shaper of the lives of individuals and of the progress of societies.

    My response to this, and, I imagine, the response of many/most atheists, is “you have absolutely no evidence in support of your claims; thus, they can be dismissed as nonsense. If you come up with some testable, provable evidence, let me know. Until then, keep your baseless beliefs out of the public and political arenas, and stop trying to force them upon other people”.

    In other words, the onus is on the theists to provide the evidence. And it almost certainly is never going to happen. But categorically denying the possibility that it could happen, that they could somehow provide evidence, allows the theists to carry on making baseless claims that often have extremely detrimental effects on society. If we don’t press them for the evidence, if we don’t pin them down and remind them that the burden of proof is on them, we might as well tell them that we’ve given up, and that they can carry on unchallenged, making their claims and trying to force them upon others, and we’ll just stay out of their way.

    I’m genuinely perplexed by the question of why any atheist would want to give theists this “free pass”. I just don’t get it.

    1. I’m genuinely perplexed by the question of why any atheist would want to give theists this “free pass”.

      Because it’s the truth?

      Seriously, are you suggesting that atheists should determine their epistemic commitments based on the possible social effects of those commitments?

      And do you really think that it is somehow “easier” for theists if there is in principle no possible evidence that can be mustered for their beliefs? Why is that “better” for them? Doesn’t that simply point out how irrational those beliefs are?

      1. Yes, the possible social effects absolutely must be kept in mind and should, to a large extent, determine our epistemic commitments.

        Theists make claims that have tangible and detrimental effects on individuals and societies. We don’t exist in a vacuum, and this debate is one that needs to focus on society, and on the “real world” (for lack of a better phrase), not the philosophical implications of the possibility of the supernatural. This isn’t a philosophical game we’re playing here.

        1. I think this can be pitched in a way that does have social implications: there should be a demand for clarity on the nature of supernaturalism and gods. Considering the vast chasm between the god of believers and the god of theologians, I have a feeling that that demand should open a huge can of worms for the public face of religion.

        2. Yes, the possible social effects absolutely must be kept in mind and should, to a large extent, determine our epistemic commitments.

          Seriously? So if it might cause some groups to misbehave if we said the sun will alway rise in the east, you think we not only shouldn’t say that, but shouldn’t believe that?

          Really, my comment was meant as reductio — I had no idea you’d really suggest that we shouldn’t believe things we think are true just because such belief might have problematic social consequences. That’s certainly not how science works, and it shouldn’t be how philosophy of science works, either.

          1. Again, we don’t live in a vacuum and this isn’t a philosophical game. If various sorts of theocracy weren’t rearing their ugly heads all over the world, then this question could be left to the philosophers. In reality, though, it can’t. The danger is too great.

            If we sit around and debate topics like this while theists force their way into the legislative and political arenas, we’re playing right into their hands. Instead of philosophizing, we need to show that the emperor has no clothes and demand that theists either show us the evidence, or stop trying to force their beliefs on everyone else. People like Jerry and Ophelia (among many others) do that on a daily basis. And that’s much more difficult than abstract philosophizing.

            (And what sort of science requires belief?)

            1. I’d have thought maintaining that the idea of proof for the “supernatural” is incoherent at best is demonstrating to theists the nakedness of their emperor.

              1. Yes. That is part of my motivation for my part in getting this debate going.

                I see supernaturalism as a game being played by religious leaders and theologians to justify political influence and control over believers.

                I say let’s not play their game.

            2. So you really do want us to either a) lie about what our reasoning leads us to, or b) somehow not believe what reasoning tell us, all for political expedience.

              I can’t speak for others, but frankly, I’ve had enough from the accommodationists telling me that I have to modify what I say or believe out of expediency.

              In any case, I don’t see why this argument is so toxic to you. Surely if the religious want to believe that there is evidence for their god, the burden is on them to produce it, no matter what we say. If they think we are wrong that there could simply be no evidence, all they have to do is show us what that evidence is.

        3. @Miranda Celeste Hale

          Yes, the possible social effects absolutely must be kept in mind and should, to a large extent, determine our epistemic commitments.

          Let me be the 2nd one to respond: BOLLOX!
          There are at least two main streams in rational discourse:

          1) The short term pragmatic that achieves short-term apparent reconciliation, but is merely an illusory cease-fire observed by only one side, inevitably poisoned by politics.
          The side-effects are a prostitution of the scientific method, and the debasement of all that is good.

          2) The long term pursuit of unalloyed truth.
          The side-effects of which are a temporary embarrasment for the delusional, but a leap forward for human-kind.

      2. Aren’t we then taking naturalism as a metaphysical assumption?

        I’m not saying that this is wrong or unjustified. Naturalism is certainly a parsimonious assumption and the one that makes by far the most sense.

        When a theist or wooist points out that our naturalism is an assumption, we should admit that and ask for evidence that justifies any alternate assumption.

        1. When a theist or wooist points out that our naturalism is an assumption, we should admit that and ask for evidence that justifies any alternate assumption.

          But the point is that it’s not clear there can be any evidence that unambiguously shows naturalism is false. There are potentially naturalistic explanations for any imaginable phenomena (at the furthest extent, just by postulating that everything we experience is merely a simulation).

    2. Very interesting question.

      I agree with Tulse.

      I can’t see any basis at all for the whole edifice of theology and considering believers to be authorities on moralilty.

      Doesn’t conceding that the existence of their God is even a meaningful question if you don’t believe that give support to theism?

      I think it’s far healthier to say “times up! You have had centuries and you can’t even come up with a sensible description of what you believe in. Game over.”

      I don’t see how that is helping them at all.

    3. The burden of proof is still on the theists. That such proof is not forthcoming doesn’t change the fact that we can still remind them they are making baseless assertions.

    4. Something that confuses me: if we categorically reject the possibility of any evidence of the existence of a deity and/or of the supernatural, aren’t we giving theists a “free pass” on the burden of proof question?

      Quite the contrary; it raises the bar even higher.

      There’s long been a tradition of giving theists a free pass by not demanding they present a coherent definition of the terms they toss about with such careless abandon.

      Imagine that, for millennia, religious believers had professed ultimate faith in the round triangular cube. Which is more effective: to ask them to produce a picture of such a beastie, or to ask them just what it is they think they mean when they string together such a meaningless set of words?

      The former grants them the apparent legitimacy of potentially having an inside track on a heretofore-unknown branch of geometry. The latter makes clear that they’re not playing with a full bag of marbles.



    5. I don’t see it as giving theists a free pass. I see it as not just pointing out the burden of proof, but also the burden of definition. If you can’t even define what you mean by “supernatural”, or “god”, how could you ever decide what would be proper evidence for it? And you need to be able to do this *before* you look whether the evidence is there or not. Theologists, however, appear to be working hard to make their definitions *less* clear.

  26. I think an appearance of all the gods that ever were would be necessary. How many past gods can the U of C Campus hold?

  27. The bottom line for me is that the “supernatural” is a flagrantly false idea and, from what I can tell, an impossible thing outside the realm of thought and therefore no supernatural beings are possible and so all seemingly godlike entities will in fact not be gods at all.

    People can worship rocks and call a particularly beautiful specimen their god for all I care. That doesn’t make the rock a supernatural entity or bestow it any magical powers. When the Lizardpeople enslave us, some might indeed call them gods and they are welcome to do so, but that doesn’t mean the Lizardpeople are any less natural than anything else in the universe.

  28. This is the second unmoderated discussion I have watched involving prof Dawkins. The first involved he and Neil de Grasse Tyson. I rather like the foremat, often moderators get in the way.
    And btw zed came long before zee. LOL

  29. There is no reason for “god” to be supernatural. “God” is just any being that holds the power of life/death and reward/punishment. If such a being is a super-advanced alien race that has developed the ability to grant immortality at will, then they are “gods”. They could be entirely based in the natural world, just with technology that is beyond our current comprehension, and they would fit every definition of “god”.

    1. “God” is just any being that holds the power of life/death and reward/punishment.

      So prison wardens are gods?
      Parents are gods?
      Generals are gods?

    2. First I would need to be shown there is an afterlife.

      Next I would need to be shown I don’t have a choice between annihilation and an immortal afterlife.

      Finally I would have to be shown that there is a being that has control over my immortal self in the afterlife and that it can cause me pleasure or pain.

      Then I’d be willing to consider it a god… but after a while I suspect I’d want to figure out a way to rid myself of it.

      1. The first is relatively simple to do yet mortally treacherous if the claim is false (the claimant must cause you to die somehow) and quite unimpressive to everyone else still alive/not in the afterlife. Why anyone would actually submit to that first step is beyond me.

        1. I wasn’t thinking a currently living person had to die but that we could be given the ability to observe such a “reality” populated by people who had passed. Fanciful, I know, and Clarke’s third law probably makes it meaningless but it’s as close I’ve come to being able to imagine something I’d find convincing.

  30. For me, the clincher is the possibility that we are living in computer simulation. As Nick Bostrom has persuasively argued, there is a rather parsimonious set of assumptions which would make it impossible for us to decide whether the “real” world is “really real” or just a computer simulation. So, any violation of the laws of physics could be interpreted as a prank by those running the simulation.

    Those interested can check this link:

    This was published in 2003. I would’ve hoped that eight years on most people would be aware of the existence of the argument, so that we could finally put this silly argument to rest.

    NOTHING that happens (is, is the case, can be detected, etc.) can EVER be evidence for the existence of the supernatural. That’s it. Stop. Full stop. Curtains. Fanfare. End of the discussion.

    1. So, any violation of the laws of physics could be interpreted as a prank by those running the simulation.

      Which, as I noted above in a reply to Ben Goren, indicates that this is a simulation, and thus demonstrates that there are one or more entities running it! Relative to the simulation, are they not, then, gods? Ergo, god exists. QED

          1. I hate to disagree, but the issue is precisely whether a god actually exists, and not what people think is the matter. After all, the majority of those on the planet currently do believe that god(s) exist.

            1. Um, no.

              Because the simulation exists & you exist, so the Sims likely would see you as a god (whatever you thought you were).

              As I said before, believing a (creator) god exists (whatever he thinks he is) is tantamount to thinking the universe is a simulation, & vice versa.

              1. I am mortal. I cannot create anything I want in my own reality. I am most definitely not omnibenevolent.

                So no, I am most definitely not a god. It may very well be that the sims can’t tell that this is the case, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

              2. But from the pov internal to SimCity?

                If the Sims can’t tell that you’re not a god, how could we tell that who/whatever’s running our simulation is not a god? He/it would certainly have a lot of godly qualities.

                (I’m unconvinced that omnibenevolence is a quality of the Abrahamic God, fact or fiction.)

              3. “If the Sims can’t tell that you’re not a god, how could we tell that who/whatever’s running our simulation is not a god?”
                That’s the wrong question – why would you assume it *is* a god? Instead of some other limited creature who happens to be in a position of control over our universe?

              4. @ deen

                If it/he/she is in a position of control over our universe/simulation, in what sense is it (&c.) a “limited” creature? If it has the power of creation, the ability to intercede in our affairs by suspending or changing the laws of nature, if it has the power to answer prayers and to cause terrible disasters, in what sense is it distinguishable from “God”.

                Yes, within the “reality” outside our universe or simulation it may be limited, it may be a minor being of a greater race of creatures (each of whom plays with their own universe or simulation).

                But as far as our experience within the universe or simulation goes, this creature’s powers are limitless.

                “Any creature running a sufficiently advanced simulation is indistinguishable from [a] god!” 😉

    2. I am very sympathetic to the simulation argument, but I wonder if it isn’t too powerful, and forces solipsism. Upon reflection, it’s not clear to me that the notion of “naturalism” as it is usually used would survive such a total simulation.

  31. Oh, and I beseech, nay implore, besiege, entreat, impetrate you: read Stanislaw Lem’s short story Non Serviam. Not only is it a literary masterpiece, it is as clear an exposition of the issue at hand as you could ever hope to find.

  32. (One can always retract one’s belief if the god evidence proves to be the work of aliens, or of Penn and Teller).

    This is where you lose me. If you’re prepared to accept aliens or Penn & Teller as a fallback explanation, then why on earth would you go to the god hypothesis first, as being somehow more plausible?

  33. I can knock this on the head, quick-smart.
    Here are some gods which I, and you, know to exist right now:
    * The Sun
    * Prince Phillip
    * The Emperor of Nippon

    I am convinced that these entities exist.
    Quod erat demonstrandum!

  34. Sigh. Wrong time zone, always late to the party. But here are my five cents.

    I kind of agree more with Jerry Coyne here, but not in the sense that I would easily accept evidence for god now. The problem is that we know so much about the universe by now – it is like a puzzle that is far from being completed, but you have already put together the margins and half the interior, and it is obvious that it will show a bunch of fruits on a plate, with a gray background. And then comes somebody and suggests the inclusion of another puzzle piece, and it is a completely different shape than all the other pieces, it shows Gandalf the Wizard, it is a different drawing style and color pattern… etc. This is what god would look like in the context of what we now know – although there would still be a gap big enough for it, it simply does not fit the rest of the picture. So the prior probability that any evidence would have to overcome for the cautious preliminary acceptance of gods is now ridiculously small, and the evidence would have to be accordingly overwhelming.

    But where people like PZ Myers or Ben Goren lose me is with the Whiggish assumption that we can judge the question based on all that knowledge we have today. When we started out with the puzzle, we could not have known that the god piece would not fit. When we started exploring the world, finally developing science, how were we to know that there are no souls, that prayer does not work, that the world was not created by a superior intelligence? Of course we could not have known that.

    The solution is to define god out of existence. Ben will write: if they are merely very powerful, they aren’t really “god” god, because for this they must be able to do the impossible, and that is, well, impossible. That seems like a cop-out to me. How do you know, a priori, that there is no higher power in the universe that alone can countermand the laws of physics? And what gives you the right to simply tell all those religions who worshiped non-omnipotent deities that their deities aren’t really deities? That is kinda like a theist redefining atheism into just another faith position and then looking smugly at their own cleverness.

    1. You’re absolutely right that it all comes down to a matter of definitions. All I’m doing is taking those definitions and running with them to explore their logical consequences.

      It’s an ancient technique. Define p as “the largest prime number”. It therefore follows that there is another number, q which is the product of p and all primes smaller than p, plus one. However, q must therefore either be prime or have prime factors larger than p. Therefore, p is not the largest prime number and, consequently, the very concept of “the largest prime number” is itself meaningless.

      I don’t think any theist will dispute that an essential property of a god is the ability to perform miracles, though there would doubtlessly be great debate over which miracles are on the menu. The next obvious question becomes, “What is a miracle?” We can answer that question in one of two ways: an instance of the improbable, or an instance of the impossible.

      If miracles are merely improbable, then that opens the door to humanity some day discovering how to make them happen. All of modern technology falls squarely into this category.

      Therefore, the only useful (in this context) definition left is that the miraculous be impossible. And, indeed, that’s exactly how we see it used in each and every “god of the gaps” argument — “There’s no way x could have possibly happened; therefore, goddidit.”

      Yet, as soon as a miracle occurs, we now know that it isn’t impossible — it happened, after all! We might not know how, but the proof that it happened and is therefore possible is staring us right in the face. Abiogenesis? Whether the result of chemical inevitability, alien seeding, Matrix programming, or 900-foot-Space-Jesus having a really good wank, we know it really happened and most emphatically was not impossible and therefore not miraculous. The only question is, “How?” We can then assess how well the different hypotheses stack up against the evidence and hopefully reach a useful (and always theoretically tentative) conclusion.

      So all that we’re really left with is deciding an arbitrary limit to how impressive an entity must be before slapping the “god” label on it. You and I, typing here on teh Intertubies, would be gods to 99.999% of all humans who ever lived, but we’d both agree that neither of us are gods. I think we’d also agree that interstellar space aliens with super-advanced technologies could conceivably do godlike things such as raise the dead and turn water into wine, but that they wouldn’t really be gods, either. Just how much farther back do you really want to push the curtain before the “god” label is a better fit? The programmers of the Matrix? Hyperintelligent shades of the color blue, so long as they can collapse universe-sized waveforms into a Big Bang?

      Me? It seems quite clear that the notion of “the most powerful entity in the universe” is exactly as meaningless as the notion of “the largest prime number,” and for exactly the same reason. So why hold on so tenaciously to the prospect that perhaps the next number in the GIMPS will be The One?



      1. You still take pains to limit god to being impossible. I simply don’t agree with that. Historically, there were lots of religions with powerful but very limited gods, gods who could even die. The concept of hubris describes humans doing just what you imply – using technology or suchlike to do something as impressive as what the gods can do, and then being punished for it (which often works not because the gods could do something qualitatively different, but because they still had the bigger stick).

        So your whole argument boils down to (1) the logical contradictions inherent in omnipotence – well done, but works only for Abrahamic faiths – and (2) telling all polytheists that their definition of “god” is wrong – not so well done.

        I think we’d also agree that interstellar space aliens with super-advanced technologies could conceivably do godlike things such as raise the dead and turn water into wine, but that they wouldn’t really be gods, either.

        Ah, but that is the question. If we found out that the universe was constructed by an ancient and terrifyingly powerful intelligence somehow residing outside it, what would be the criterion to say whether this intelligence is a super-advanced alien or a creator god? Would gratitude to those aliens for our existence really be distinguishable from deist belief? Methinks not.

        1. All in all it’s somewhat irrelevant– any god worth her title should know how to convince anyone–

          Of course super smart tricky aliens (or demons) could probably do the same.

          When theists ask me if anything would make me believe in a god, I answer somewhat like the above. Of course, I add, although I might provisionally believe in some sort of god– it wouldn’t likely be the 3-in-1 Jesus-brand of god they believe in. I wouldn’t have a good reason to believe in any particular brand of “god” unless the “god” was informing me on the topic. Like most people here– I have a hard time even knowing what the hell people mean when they tell me they believe god exists. In what manner does an immaterial form of consciousness exist?

        2. Historically, there were lots of religions with powerful but very limited gods, gods who could even die.

          Yes, and those gods could potentially have evidence for them. But I think it would be justifiable to describe these gods as “natural” – you could poke at them, interact with them, even kill them. This makes them uninteresting to the discussion about what evidence could exist for the supernatural.

          what would be the criterion to say whether this intelligence is a super-advanced alien or a creator god?

          But that is exactly the question we’ve been asking all along. Why assume a supernatural god, when the other explanation is much more likely, and much more open to investigation?

          Would gratitude to those aliens for our existence really be distinguishable from deist belief?

          Gratitude != worship.

          1. But I thought we were discussing gods all along, sorry. I try to avoid the word supernatural because I am also in the “everything that exists = nature” camp. But I am not in the “gods do not exist by definition” camp. If they existed, they would be part of nature, yes.

      2. 1) Agreed.
        2) Holy shit. I’m not sure how long it will take before I get the image of a gigantic Jesus with his dick in his hand out of my mind. I will be chuckling for months, I’m sure. 🙂

  35. We ignostics find that as He has incoherent, contradictory attributes, and as He has no referents as the Divine Miracle Monger and so forth, that He cannot possibly exist!
    The logical problem from evil, with Fr.Meslier’s the problem of Heaven eviscerates His three of His attributes alone to show one contradiction. And Lamberth’s teleonomic argument alone, shows all arguments from intent- miracles, cosmologic and others, that He lacks referents!
    Therefore, by deft analysis, we naturalists eviscerate that pernicious God-notion! We need not be omniscient or traverse the COsmos to declare that no God can possibly exist!
    Then again, we fallbilists might be wrong!
    Furthermore, as supernaturalists ever put old garbage into new trash bins, and never will have a successful argument,here as Stenger notes, and in line with Charles Moore’s auto-epistemic rule, evidence of absence is indeed absence of evidence, and therefore we naturalists commit no argument from ignorance!

  36. “If a violation of the laws of physics is observed, that would be telling, for neither aliens nor human magicians can circumvent those laws.”

    This presupposes we fully know the laws of physics, which we know we don’t. The known laws of physics (as we know them) are already violated within a black hole. It is only telling in the sense we don’t know everything.

    I tend to agree with AC Grayling. No such discussion can commence until the the ‘god’ is actually defined, and then the types of evidence can be recognised.

    Should it use the scientific method? or remain a philosophical discussion ?

  37. For what it’s worth, Jerry, I’m totally with you. Of course there could be evidence of the operations of a god. It seems to me that this is so obvious it hardly needs to be discussed.

    It’s just that we don’t have that evidence. The world we live in seems to be free of gods.

    1. So…what would the nature of such evidence be? Can you offer an example, or state what properties it would have?

      And, more to the point, why would “goddidit” be a suitable conclusion for such evidence when it isn’t for abiogenesis and the development of the eye?



      1. Its an issue of weight of the evidence, its not an issue of there obviously being no other explanation. There can always be other explanations, we can opt to say that evolution is explained as the orchestrated product of a god who wants to make us think that evolution is true, but we shouldn’t opt to do that because it contravenes the weight of the evidence. If the weight of the evidence favors a non-material super-powerful and super-intelligent creator of everything then we should favor that conclusion, which in turns favors the conclusion that a god exists.

    2. There could be evidence for the actions of a being of arbitrarily large power. Why should that be a god, a being that has magic abilities, and has moral importance?

      One argument against such evidence that should appeal to a science-fiction fan is that any evidence that we could think of as for a god could conceivably be the result of suitably advanced technology. ANY evidence.

      1. We could also say that ANY evidence could conceivably be the result of a god. At some point it becomes implausible that god is a best match explanation relative to other explanations. That happens to be the case in our world as we currently understand it. But the same could apply in reverse. At some point (in an alternative world) it becomes implausible that advanced technology is a best match explanation relative to a god. Where that point is may vary for different people, but at some point advanced technology becomes implausible and far-fetched relative to god.

        The problem with your argument is that it is divorcing itself from logically following the weight of the evidence. The evidence tends to have a direction, and when it does have a direction we rationally compelled to follow where the evidence goes. Someone certainly COULD selectively dismiss that evidence, and always stand in a fixed place regardless of the evidence by saying ANY evidence could be molded to fit their own pre-commitment, but then that person wouldn’t be rationally grounding his/her belief in the evidence.

        1. “We could also say that ANY evidence could conceivably be the result of a god.”

          I don’t believe so. The technology argument is only one of many.

          There would have to be evidence not just for the existence of a powerful being, but also for magic, and for the ability to define moral standards, forgive sins and so on.

          What possible evidence could there be that a being is the source of moral absolutes, for example?

          1. I don’t believe so. The technology argument is only one of many.

            Exactly. Why would we privilege the god explanation over the simulation explanation, the mass hypnosis/mind control explanation, or the even solipsism explanation?

          2. Steve Zara wrote,

            ‘I don’t believe so. The technology argument is only one of many.’

            in response to this:

            ‘“We could also say that ANY evidence could conceivably be the result of a god.”’

            But what does your “not thinking so” have to do with conceptual possibilities? The fact is that conceptual possibilities are infinitie, and you are completely missing the point. The point is that to justify your “thinking so” you must ground your thinking in the weight of evidence which blocks you from taking all possibilities seriously simply because you can conceive it. If the weight of evidence was that technology is insufficient then we should conclude that technology is not the best explanation. That is what we must do to have rationally justified beliefs, we must follow the weight of the evidence evidence, our beliefs follow, and therefore we must preclude possibilities on the basis of intuition or conceptualizations whenever the evidence goes against intuition or conceptualizations.

            1. But then we are back to the original question – could there be evidence for the supernatural?

              Rejecting one idea about the basis of a phenomenon does not mean automatic acceptance of another.

              Personally, I’m not sure what kind of evidence there could be that an unknown phenomenon was not potentially technological.

        2. Except that we know what technology is, while we have no club what a god is (and most “sophisticated” theologians will even argue we *can’t* ever know). Which, then, is the more likely assumption? Or the one more likely to lead to fruitful inquiry?

          1. deen wrote:

            ‘Except that we know what technology is, while we have no club what a god is’

            I think it may be better to call it supernatural instead of god because god has too much baggage associated with it. We can all agree to something about what supernatural refers to, even if some people define it more (and arguably overly) broadly. Again, non-material mind and agency are generally accepted as being within the scope of what distinguishes the supernatural from the natural. Furthermore, it is because we know something about technology that we have evidence there there are various limitations to technology and on that basis could conclude that the evidence favored a supernatural explanation.

    3. In these discussions I always have to ask if you all have considered why there is such a term as “flat earth atheist”.

      The second question is WHY NOT use “god” as a placeholder for the new and amazing something, and why should “goddidit” be less provisional an explanation than anything else? As long as we don’t know how germs come into existence, believe in spontaneous generation; then when Pasteur comes along, revise that belief. As long as we don’t have a better idea how prayers for miraculous regrowth of lost limbs are answered, call it “god”. If we find out 400 years later that is was little grays from the Sirius system messing with us, revise that explanation. If we found that there was a perennially mysterious force at work in the universe, we would have to describe it somehow, but that still would not have to mean that we would be forced to accept the pope’s views (or even that mysterious force’s) on gay marriage.

      1. The second question is WHY NOT use “god” as a placeholder for the new and amazing something

        Because that’s not how the word “god” is used most of the time. It is much more common that “god” is used as the explanation that doesn’t need an explanation. And once you accept that as an explanation, why continue looking for greys from Sirius?

        1. Because that is what we have always done. There were lots of things for which, once upon a time, goddidit or demons did it was a sensible assumption, because our ancestors did not know any better: earthquakes, diseases, creation of the world. As you will notice, we continued to look for better explanations.

          I fail to see why this would be different today – if it turned out that something without fail made lost limbs regrow if and only if a Catholic priest prayed for it, and we were absolutely unable to find any trickery even after searching for decades, what would you, seriously now, provisionally conclude from that? And if one day we met those Sirians, and learned that they have technology that can do this, what exactly would mysteriously keep us from getting suspicious?

          This is also my stance in the ID debate: this is not, per se, not science, it is just an idea that was decisively superseded by a better explanation in 1859.

          1. The reason that people keep looking for better explanations anyway is because the god-explanation is in the end not actually satisfactory. You can’t explain creation by a creator that doesn’t require a creator. You can’t explain morality by a moral foundation that doesn’t require a basis itself. Many people *don’t* accept these as valid or useful explanations. And they shouldn’t.

    4. Russell, I’d be curious to know the angle you are taking here. Do you a) think that you have answers to Ben Goren’s questions, b) define “a god” in a way that is somehow less demanding than what Ben Goren expects of “god”, or c) have some other insight that I haven’t thought of?

  38. This God would have to depend on natural laws in order to exert His intent so that He could not really be that Primary Cause. He could not have made them!
    God did it as that is all He could be as an explanation means He cannot be Aquinas’s or Leibniz’s Ultimate Explanation.
    Why expect a square circle or married bachelor to explain anything?
    Isn’t theology just animism behind one incoherent Super Spirit as nonsensical as the many spirits of the animists or the many gods of the polytheists, and so no more advanced or needed?
    Google the ignostic-Ockham!
    Indeed, Russell, as Stenger so notes in line with that rule.How indeed could there be such an Intelligence when it would be contradictory and incoherent and lacking referents,sir?
    Google skeptic griggsy and any of my other monikers noted to see how I redo our arguments against His very being.I now have a network of blogs to rebut that intellectual and emotional scam of the eons.
    That is why I’m a gnu atheist!

  39. There are certain words which seem to me, by their nature, to be untestable with respect to a God.

    For example, it’s impossible for finite beings to empirically determine that some being is likely to have the “omni” properties, other than perhaps omnipresence (I’m pretty skeptical about anything other than empiricism being able to weigh in either).

    I’m pretty down on the idea of being able to determine that a being is morally perfect, as well. Oh, and that a being is “supernatural”. I can’t even understand this word properly; how can we determine that something violates, not only the laws of physics we know, but the actual, deep-down most fundamental ones? How can some phenomenon obey laws that come out of the mind of some being, and yet not obey laws of a mathematical sort (within a sort of probabilistic determinism)?

    It’s not merely that I could find “alternate” explanations for any supposedly supernatural thing. It’s that I can’t conceive of any alternative deep-down nature of the world other than being bound by some combination of mathematical law and probability, which is almost definitionally what we think of the fundamental laws of physics as being. Even “minds” generally seems to function only when based on parts that work together in this way; how could anything think or deduce unless their mind functioned in a quasi-deterministic way that allowed one to reach logical conclusions? I suspect that “supernatural personal being” is an incoherent concept of the invisible pink unicorn sort, unless someone can demonstrate a way for minds to work that requires nothing like a law of nature.

    Could I be persuaded that some entity deserved the title “God of the Bible”? Absolutely. Could be aliens, or something more impressive. There could be a bland “Creator” as well. Those are within a skeptic’s purview. But a supernatural omnipotent omniscient omnibenevolent being? That’s four claims which are constructed in a way as to be maximally untestable in all directions. Not a chance that anyone could convince me of something like that, not without spending years first even constructing what they mean by that and how any of these things could be detected in the first place.

    1. Actually, I could have put this a bit more simply. I don’t think that there’s a problem merely in distinguishing aliens from God in terms of evidence. Rather, I’m not sure what the difference is in principle either; the only way I can think of that one would ever need to invoke the word “God” to distinguish some entity is if naturalism was false, and I’m not sure what the alternative would even be. Under what circumstances, even with perfect knowledge about the phenomena involved, could anything be considered a violation of the laws of nature?

      1. @ Sean

        I give you (again) the second law of thermodynamics.

        It’s easy to say (as others have) that supposed evidence for the supernatural is really only evidence for the incompleteness of the laws of nature as we understand them, just as astronomical observations showed the limitations of Newtonian mechanics and measurements of the speed of light obviated the æther.

        But the second law of thermodynamics is so fundamental, so profound (as @profbriancox would say), and so thoroughly validated that any proven violation of it would now, I posit, have to be accepted as evidence of the supernatural.

        If we have perfect knowledge of the phenomena involved (unrealistic, but that’s your proposition), we can imagine a perfectly sealed (but openable) and insulated container. If our putative god can decrease the entropy within the container (make a sandcastle from loose, dry sand, for example) with no physical input of energy (the container is perfectly insulated, remember), then the second law of thermodynamics would have been violated.

        1. 1) I definitely don’t buy that test in particular, because we have to rely on several laws of physics in order to a) define and measure entropy for a specific system, and b) ensure that the system really is sealed closed. Closed boxes are all very well and good, but they don’t rule out the existence of previously unknown forces or weird space-time geometries involved.

          2) We all like to joke about the second law of thermodynamics being the most inviolable one, but honestly I don’t place it on that high of a pedestal. It’s an extremely robust statistical rule, not a fundamental law of physics. I could write for pages and pages on why it really is or isn’t as powerful as people say, but I can summarize it with this: exception not granted.

          1. 1) I wouldn’t disagree, except you gave me, ”even with perfect knowledge about the phenomena involved.”

            2) So, I look forward to reviewing your designs for a perpetual motion machine.

            1. 1) The claim about perfect knowledge was meant to refer specifically to the definitional issue of whether anything ought be considered supernatural. I should be more clear. The supernatural would have to refer to an event that was caused by something we could not possibly incorporate into any laws of nature. Supernatural events would have to be occur for reasons that we could not concievably summarize through probabilistic mathematical/logical frameworks. What kind of thing could even be like that? This is not a scientific but an ontological question; if a God does all things for no reason, he is nonsense, not even a true mind. If he does have reasons, his reasoning must work according to rules subject to scientific scrutiny as if they were part of the lawful natural order.

              2) I didn’t say that the second law was breakable, only that it’s a) not in an obvious way fundamental to the laws of physics (the same can be said for the related notion of temperature, which can be defined/derived in a secondary way but is not in any obvious sense a fundamental sort of property), and b) breaking this law is no scarier to me than, say, breaking CPT symmetry, or whatnot. Cute sayings be damned, no law of physics, fundamental or otherwise, is so sacred we should declare it permanent at this juncture.

  40. I think that any view of a God that claims he relates to people intimately can be dismissed immediately without giving it another thought. After all, a god who has the presence of mind and logistical capability to place a soul in every human being at birth could certainly take that tiny extra step to communicate his thoughts directly to each person through the soul.. it’s like god placed a radio telescope inside each person and he’s not going to use it as such? come on. So the proof that this god exists would be when there are no more Bibles nor books on theistic apologetics because these materials would be redundant. The fact that a person must communicate god’s thoughts to me is always a confirmation that he doesn’t exist.

    This is off the current subject, but I wonder if I can plug an article I wrote recently about us “militant” atheists. It’s on my blog, and I go through the Bible and note offensive, hateful attitudes toward unbelievers in order to show that Christians are completely hypocritical on this issue. They celebrate hateful speech directed against atheists, and they define atheists as the enemy of God and of civilization, yet they expect us to play nice when talking with them. I’ve posted the link on a few blogs so far, but I would appreciate assistance by the dedicated readers of WEIT. Any time you hear Christians crying about angry, rude atheists, send them a link to this article and put them in their place. Hopefully it will at least make them think a bit. cheers.


    jeff b

  41. the man described by Dawkins as “P. Zed Myers” (LOL!)—

    The British, Australians, etc, are equally LULZY when we hear Americans pronounce the last letter of the alphabet as “Zee”(LOL!)

    1. But you must admit that “Pee Zee Myers” sounds a bit like “Pee Wee Hunt”, whereas “Pee Zed Myers” sounds like… well…

      1. Sounds perfectly good to me!

        After all .. we made P Z(ed) an honorary Aussie when he visited for the Atheist Convention!

        My kids had to be continually corrected about the correct pronunciation of “Z” as Zed because of the all-pervading influence of Sesame Street in 1970’s Aussie television.

        1. Yes, I know. I learnt English in England, and to me “zed” comes naturally. I would not go as far as calling it the “correct” pronunciation, though

  42. Has anyone asked if proof of a god could exist on a world that has no concept of gods?

    Would that be easier or less easy? Would they have to invent one?

    Seems to me some here only default to a god when confronted with the absurd because we already have an explanation of absurd events pre-made. If a society is all about aliens from other planets and never heard of god they could have the same discussions defaulting on aliens as a cause.

    This rather makes the disussion about what can and can not be the case in reality as we know it, when emptied of false context, and if there can ever be an event we can never explain.

    I assume such an event is possible, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a naturalistic answer in priciple, it just could be nigh impossible to measure?

    Like measuring both the speed and location of a quantum particle and the resulting quantum uncertainty? Seems that defies naturalistic sensibilities but we accept it because it gives us results. Is that not an incorporation of something we would not find logically true from a naturalisic standpoint? (in that it is rather mystery why it is so at this point in time). Or is that false and can one simply state that energy can never equal the amount required to measure such two states at the same time (since it would form a black hole?). I’m not sure if that’s the explanation or just the inference of the inherent mystery as such, would love more info because it may be relevant or not.

    I don’t mean to say something stupid, Just trying to add something from a fresh perspective with my limited knowledge of philosophy and science.

    Thanks for the amazing discussion, loving it. Getting smarter each time I visit. Little bit intimidating to be among all these studied minds though!

    1. …and this is why we should be more concerned about the consequences of people’s actions, than their beliefs: beliefs are not indicative of how a people operates in the world.

      Beliefs do change our actions, but it’s often the opposite that occurs to us.

  43. To be honest – I think people are not being honest with themselves. A lot of people on this thread BELIEVE there is no God and thus insist that nothing will convince them otherwise. (Which frankly is an expression of pure faith not any kind of adherence to scientific method.)

    If you saw billions of angels descending from the sky, taking all the Christians and bringing them to heaven (or Muslims or Jews or Baptists or Mormons or Wikas or whoever it turns out was “right”) and then a supreme being left demons on the earth to torture everyone else . . . REALLY that would not believe in a God? Really would you be saying “gee, this could simply be evidence of an alien culture, there is no God here” while a demon tortures you?

    Or what if you died and then found out there was an afterlife of some kind . . . and that afterlife was shared with godlike being – would you not believe then too?

    The response is “those are silly scenarios – none of these things will ever happen”. . . then you are simply making an expression of faith.

    If you say “after I die, I am certain I won’t experience anything – so saying the proof will come then doesn’t count” then you are making an argument strikingly similar to folks who might have said “when you sail west you will fall off the side of the earth, so saying you will prove a round earth by doing that doesn’t count”

    I suspect that 99% of people WOULD find these scenarios compelling evidence of a God. And thus what everyone is really saying is “I would have to see it to believe it, and I am certain I will never see it, so I can never be convinced.”

    That is a fine stance to take.

    But frankly I find the stance that “there is no evidence that would convince me no matter what” is disingenuous. You are really saying “I don’t believe the evidence required exists – so I will never see it.”

    1. To be honest – I think people are not being honest with themselves. A lot of people on this thread BELIEVE there is no God and thus insist that nothing will convince them otherwise.

      The interpretation that PZ et al leave us is fine, AFAIU. They make a probability assessment along the lines of Dawkins’ in “The God Delusion”. They deem the probability so utterly low that they feel safe to say “never gonna happen”.

      It is an interpretative issue, and if we refuse to read their claim in the positive way possible it is us that are disingenuous, not them.

      Also, there is a conflation here. What if you were able to quantify a test for physicalism beyond reasonable doubt? You could very well underwrite “I would have to see it to believe it, and I am certain I will never see it, so I can never be convinced.” The difference being that you know that even beyond reasonable doubt there can be new observations failing your old theory. (But again you deem the probability so low et cetera.)

      1. Fair point and well stated.

        And I think it is fair for people to feel that the chance of those things is so low as to be nonexistant.

        But the question at hand is “is there any evidence that would make you believe in the existance of a god” — and that question requires us to say “these extreme conditions WOULD make me believe . . . but frankly I don’t think those conditions are possible so I am sure I will not ever be made to believe by those conditions”

        This is an important distinction in understanding the answer to the question. I think that people are not saying “there is nothing that could make me believe in God” – they are saying “There is evidence that would make me belive in God, but frankly, I don’t think that evidence exists and is impossible. Thus I will never see it and never believe in God.”

        An important distinction I think.

        1. Actually what most of us are saying (and what Grayling said in the talk) is that the concept of God is not well enough defined to allow us to decide whether any conceivable evidence could confirm it. In other words, on what basis could you determine that what you’re seeing is in fact the First Cause, creator of the universe, ultimate moral authority, etc., and not just (as Dawkins said) some really powerful but naturally evolved intelligence putting on a show for the yokels? That’s the question that has yet to be answered satisfactorily.

          1. To be frank – that is a cop-out. If we use that standard of proof — than how can say there is enough evidence to confirm anything?

            Strawberries seem red – but what if they are really blue and some invisible-mini-alien-civilization has been hand painting them without us knowing them for hundreds of years.

            Birds fly, but what if there is some invisible highly powered slingshot put there by a powerful but naturally evolved intelligence putting on a show for the yokels (and earning 99 cents per shot)

            Light seems to move at a certain speed, but what if we simply have not yet seen “crazy-faster-light” because it happens to be on the other end of the universe?

            Are you saying that just God is too hard to decide if evidence would convince you — or are you saying everything is too hard to convince you. And if it is just God, then how do you have enough proof that you are sentient? How do you have enough proof that the earth is round? How do you have enough proof that we landed men on the moon in the 1960s? How do you have enough proof that light has a constant speed? How do you have enough proof that we are not all in a simulation?

            And seriously – if you saw all the things I mentioned before (you watched all of one religion ascending in rapture, then demons start crawling the earth and torturing nonbelievers, rivers run hot with lava as angels and demons begin to fight) . . . you really would not consider that enough evidence of God? (not saying that is likely – I don’t believe it myself of course . . . but what is your answer to the question “would that be enough evidence if it DID occur and a demon was torturing you?”

            1. We understand the physical processes that make strawberries red and birds fly, so no need to invoke alien conspiracies there. The physical explanations are simpler.

              On the other hand, if I saw an elephant fly by flapping its ears, it would not be a cop-out to assume, provisionally, that it was a product of Disney technology and not the “real” Dumbo somehow come magically to life.

              Being tortured by a demon would convince me that there was some powerful guy who didn’t like me very much, but it would not constitute evidence that said powerful guy was the creator of the universe, no matter how big his special-effects budget.

            2. If you’re asking whether I’d break under torture and tell the demon what he wanted to hear, OK, sure, I probably would. But that’s irrelevant to the question of whether demon-torture qualifies as evidence for God.

  44. I have to agree with Coyne in the one end, but find the whole discussion misguided at the other. It is doable and more illuminating to test for materialism or physicalism as Carroll calls it.

    Why is it more illuminating? Because we can readily answer the questions below:

    deism is not a scientifically testable proposition—at least those forms of deism that by definition preclude the existence of evidence.

    If materialism pass the test, every non-materialist (dualist; less simple) alternative falls whether they are part of a sensible hypothesis or not.

    if a 900-foot celestial figure appeared to all of us, and was documented on film, would that count as evidence for god

    This argument only makes sense if you start from a philosophic instead of empiric position. We don’t have to test or understand every instance covered by a theory to be able to reject it in the first place. Our specification and acceptance of some level of uncertainty accepts that.

    This is one case where it is really difficult to have a reconciliation between philosophy and empiricism, even if you would like it to be such. And if we are serious with our science we shouldn’t accept arguments that doesn’t pertain to the empirical question, that falls by considering science method at large and how it applies.

  45. I’m tempted agree with Jerry Coyne here and yes Dawkins and Grayling were curiously inconclusive.

    A starting point for tackling the question is to reject NOMA, that is reject the word play that says the supernatural by definition has no observational consequences and therefore leaves no evidence.

    If God is supernatural I think we need to use a fairly soft definition of supernatural – something which is outside our currently understood laws of the universe. So I think we can leave aside whether God would be subject to some undiscovered laws, or the possibility that there are no laws or partial laws.

    I also think we can rule out fairly quickly the need to go to the psychiatrist or visit a magician and move the question on to distinguishing God from alien (or other non-personified intelligent force).

    To do the latter I think we only need ask what could God do that an alien could not? I think some of the examples suggested have lacked imagination. How about this:

    God spontaneously writes the words ‘God will show his presence in 7 days’ on the number plates (license plates) of all vehicles in the world and on the front of all fridges with gold letters. Then in 7 days time a recent relative from all living families is brought back to life at the family home at an age when they were in good health. The relatives are not ghosts but real and alive. They describe how they have spent time in heaven and have been placed back on earth to show God’s presence.

    On the strength of that (and subsequent verification by science and world’s news media) I would say what happened is consistent with power generally attributed to God and not to aliens. That is extra-ordinary evidence that would make me provisionally at least believe in God.

  46. Erm — spoiler alert? Jerry has been thoroughly pwned on this issue by any number of people, glitterati and commoners alike.

    The reason he can’t quite make the shift is his powerful connection to his Jewishness. Despite — actually, because of — his (repeated, tiresome) crowing about being culturally but not religiously Jewish, he just can’t quite bring himself to completely break with the faith of his fathers.

    Love the guy, love the blog, he’s a hero, but nobody’s perfect.


  47. I don’t understand why, given the impressive credentials these people have on their walls, seemed hard for them to understand that evolution is and does not contrary to religious belief on how human life was formed.

    Evolution, as understood by science, does not, in anyway, a contradiction of belief that God created man. It is in fact, supports a particular Christian belief that man was formed out of the earth. If it is true, as evolution suggests that man evolved from a single cell bacteria, then by all its acceptable definition, evolution is, indeed, in light of the Christian faith is acceptable. And this is how I see this evolution, as well.

    1. You must be kidding, right?
      Evolution flat out contradicts large chunks of your bible, both literally & metaphorically.
      What sort of Christian treats their bible as a highly flawed, yet believes the few truly unbelievable bits that support their doctrine, such as virgin births, miracles, triune godliness, etc?

      1. ahh.. an attempt to muddy the water with diverting tactics.. an old devil’s trick… we are talking about evolution and you talk about something else. What can I expect from people like you, anyway?

        Should you have grounds to dismiss what I just said, then by all means please do so. I will be glad to read what you can bring on the table.

        1. What?

          we are talking about evolution and you talk about something else

          My main point, in a very short post was:
          “Evolution flat out contradicts large chunks of your bible”
          Yet you accuse me of talking about “something else” other than Evolution, and resorting to “diverting tactics”!
          I shall have to leave to others to determine which one of us is barking mad.

          1. Kindly state your argument against my specific claim and refrain from using sweeping statement.

            Let me do this once again. I said, Evolution, is not a contradiction of my Christian belief on the formation of life as opposed to your claim that ” evolution flat out contradicts large chunks of your bible.”

            You do not have to disagree with my post as I do not intend to discredit Evolution in the standpoint of science. In fact, given my Christian belief, I can accept evolution without problems. On the other hand, you as non-believer, could not believe that part of this science is acceptable to my faith.

            Should you have a particular point, which I’ve been dead trying to find, just say it, please.

  48. forgive me all but in my book the majority of this discussion amounts to tautology. Although I am an atheist to the degree of 7 on RD scale, I am only that because there is no evidence for the existence of gods. So, if there was any sort of evidence I would change my mind. Not only that, I am ready to believe in god or gods even without evidence if there was any reason for that.
    as for what kind of evidence or reason, it will be interesting if a god calls me on my mobile explaining how and why she created the universe and I will be happy if she explains that she actually wrote those holy books full of mistakes dileberately to confuse us so that anyone who believes in god would be sent to hell along with anyone who asks stupid questions. Only joking

    1. Don’t bother watching the ‘debate’ between William Lame Craig and Lawrence Krauss.
      Not worth the price of admission.
      It is as if two prize pugilists sparred on entirely different planets.
      #1 Problem: The thesis “Is there Evidence for God?” strictly implies that there is only one god. Disallowing that there are greater, or fewer: vis Zero (or less).
      No-one even addressed this point.

      WLC spewed, (ala the Gish-Gallop), his pre-mixed concoction of Fibs, Lies, Fraud, a soupcon of fact, and the remainder glaring logical fallacies.
      LK did not even attempt to react, save a few blunt barbs.
      I thought all the way throught that Lawrence missed a golden opportunity by not suggesting that Lame Craig’s suppositions for the God of Abraham could equally well apply to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, thus rendering it facile.

  49. There can probably be no evidence for God.

    Let us consider for example the case where scientists, after decades of intense research, are still unable to figure out how a complex organized system might have evolved.

    Would this justify us to believe that Zeus, a stinking spaguetti Monster or an invisible lightening unicorn have intelligently designed the system ?

    Of course not ! Because the possibility that there is a natural explanation which deludes us is still extremely plausible.

    Now let us consider the following scenario: an amputee get back his arm.

    Would this then be an air-tight case of the supernatural ?

    I don’t think so, because there exist alternative natural explanations, as strange it may sound:

    first possibility: we are living in the simulation of intelligent beings who have themselves evolved purely naturally, and who sometimes allow their children to intervene or to make fun of humans.

    Second possibility: the multiverse interpretation of quantum physics is true (or some other theory involving a infinte number of them).
    Statistical physics teaches us that no event is impossible in and of itself.
    A cow naturally rising to the moon is not impossible, but just very very unlikely.
    But if there are an infinity of universes, even the most improbable events may happen somewhere.
    If Boltman’s brains may pop of existence, why not an arm ?

    This is why I believe it would be wrong to conclude that God exists after having seen an amputee being healed:
    in order to prove that the God’s hypothesis is the right one, it would be necessary to disprove the two naturalistic possibilities I have presented.
    However I don’t see how anyone could do that.

    So, in general, I believe there cannot be any positive evidence for God’s existence.

    The reverse is not true: while science may be unable to provide us evidences for the existence of God, I do firmly believe it can provide us lot of evidences AGAINST the God’s hypothesis.

    And I think it has largely done it.
    The bad designs of most biological systems, coupled with the cruelty of animal and human behaviors stemming from brains, show beyond any reasonable doubt that there is no intelligence responsible for our existence.

    1. I wonder why would these people do the things that are impossible for them to do. Why the hell would they observe the things that are unobservable or falsify the non-falsifiable?

      At one particular time in the past, it occurred to me if those people from the other side of the fence are true to the assumption or idea that there is no God or Creator – that everything just happened by chance, and so I asked myself a question – “is it possible or logical to conclude or to even to assume that there is no Supreme Being or Creator responsible for everything? How does everything came into existence if there is no Creator, then?”

  50. I think the point here, though, is how could we possibly tell whether something is a legitimate miracle (in other words, something that truly does circumvent the laws of physics), or simply some inconceivably advanced technology? Hell, how can we say for certain that advanced enough aliens COULDN’T legitimately circumvent the laws of physics? Remember Q from Star Trek?

Leave a Reply