Dawkins comes for the Archbishop, and can there be evidence for God?

February 27, 2012 • 5:28 am

Last Thursday Richard Dawkins had a debate/conversation with Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the Sheldonian Theater at Oxford.  The topic: “The nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin.” I must confess that I haven’t yet seen the conversation, which I present in its entirety in the video here, but readers who have seen it should weigh in below.

The Independent gives the debate a lukewarm review:

Yesterday, the university hosted what seemed tantalisingly like a similar clash of great minds, between the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and Professor Richard Dawkins – like Huxley, a bulldog on behalf of Darwin’s theories. But anyone hoping for a dust-up would have been sorely disappointed, for the conversation was conducted with utmost politeness. The cleric even confessed his belief in evolution, and agreed with Dawkins that humans shared non-human ancestors. Wilberforce would be turning in his grave – assuming, as Williams does, that the soul survives death . . .

Rather than arguing, Dawkins and Williams seemed intent on finding areas of agreement. Did the Archbishop agree that there was probably no “first man”, that human evolution was gradual, and that – in Dawkins’ formulation – no pair of Homo erectus parents gazed down proudly at their Homo sapiens newborn? He did. “The Pope thinks that,” Dawkins claimed. “I’ll ask him sometime,” Williams replied. . .

They did, finally, come to verbal blows – or gentle nudges, at least – over the origins of the universe. “The writers of the Bible, inspired as I believe they were, were not inspired to do 21st-century physics; they were inspired to pass on to their readers what God wanted them to know,” Williams argued. “In the first book of the Bible is the basic information – the universe depends on God, humanity has a very distinctive role in that universe, and humanity has made rather a mess of it.”

“I am baffled,” responded Dawkins, “by the way sophisticated theologians who know Adam and Eve never existed still keep talking about it.” God, he said, “cluttered up” his scientific worldview. “I don’t see clutter coming into it,” Williams replied. “I’m not thinking of God as an extra who has to be shoehorned into it.”

Once more we hear, from a sophisticated archbishop, that the Bible isn’t a science textbook, but still contains things that God wanted people to know. (Note that Williams admits that the Bible was somehow written under God’s “inspiration.”)  What, exactly, were those things?  Are we tainted by Original Sin or not? What, exactly, is our “very distinctive role” in the universe? And how did we make a mess of it, aside from environmental despoilation? And did god want us to know that it’s our duty to kill adulterers, or that homosexuality is an abomination? By what warrant does Williams know which parts of the Bible are metaphorical, which are meant literally, which convey those timeless truths of God, and which are to be ignored?

Anyway, the debate:

Richard has written his own analysis of the debate—and of the attending publicity, including his “admission that God might exist”—in a piece at his website: “No blood on the carpet. How disappointing.”  Here are two good or intriguing bits:

It’s hard to resist a feeling of “You can’t win”. On the one hand we ‘horsemen’ and ‘new atheists’ are attacked, often aggressively and stridently, for being aggressive and strident. On the other hand, when journalists or religious apologists actually meet us and we turn out to be courteous and civilised, they accuse us of climbing down, “admitting” or “confessing” that we have changed, when actually we are behaving exactly as we always have. They seem to feel let down when they discover that the real people aren’t anything like the way they so relentlessly portray us; as if, since they’ve gone to the trouble of inventing extravagant caricatures of us, we should at least have the decency to live up to them in real life.

And this:

I am actually drawn to the Steve Zara / PZ Myers point that it is hard to think of any evidence that would in principle be capable of convincing me of a god’s existence (a trick, or a hallucination, or insanity, or even a visitation by an evolved super-human from outer space would always be more probable). But I didn’t feel like raising this in the Sheldonian, where it would have been so far off the radar of either of my two colleagues as to lead to no fruitful exchange. There was also the risk of a blast of epistemic incomprehensibility from the philosophical referee. And that would have been no way to finish off a civilised evening.

Here I disagree with Richard, not about not mentioning this in the Sheldonian (I probably would have done that, though), but about evidence for God. I’ve posted before that although I’m a diehard (i.e., 6.995) atheist, I cannot say for sure that there is no God, and there is some evidence that would convince me of one.  The hypothesis of a supernatural, omnipotent being that can do anything can in principle be supported with evidence.

Richard says that one can’t distinguish that evidence from the actions of an evolved alien or super-human, but I’m willing to provisionally accept that evidence as “god” pending more data.  Suppose that the Bible had made detailed prophecies that came true, and whose truth wasn’t brought about by the prophecies themselves? Or if we found secret divine messages coded in our DNA?  What if prayers always worked, but only prayers uttered by a Jew importuning Yahweh? What if amputees who visited Lourdes regrew their limbs? (Ebon Musings has put together a list of evidences for God that he’d find convincing.)

If a divine, miracle-working being appears who has characteristics comporting with those of some faith, then I think it’s okay to provisionally accept that being as “god.”  We can worry later about whether it’s an “evolved alien or super-human” (see the take on this at Daylight Atheism).  I know some readers will disagree, but remember that this is about evidence that I would accept as a scientist.  If other scientists disagree, then we have a controversy. It won’t be resolved, of course, because such a being almost certainly won’t appear.

If Richard really accepts the idea of God as a scientific hypothesis, as he seemed to do in The God Delusion, then presumably there’s evidence that could confirm that hypothesis. If there isn’t, then it’s still a hypothesis, but not a scientific one, and one can reject it on first principles without having to deal with “counterevidence” like the existence of evil.  Or, like P.Z., Richard might consider the hypothesis of God as incoherent, in which case it’s not worth discussing at all.

143 thoughts on “Dawkins comes for the Archbishop, and can there be evidence for God?

    1. It doesn’t really matter what he says or how he says it, it’s how they have already labelled him, sadly. He has the ‘strident’ meme firmly attached to him for ever.

  1. My main concern is that people will take Dawkins’ speculation too seriously about the sudden appearance of syntactical language. He was acknowledging that yes, such a thing could happen, but then again almost anything could happen. It is another thing entirely to weigh the various theories to determine what most likely happened based upon the evidence. I fear that distinction will be lost on those eager to make the Adam and Eve story make sense

  2. It is striking how both archbishop and the philosopher in the middle downplay or entirely downgrade the capacity of computation and complexity. The opinion that computers may not even perform correct arithmetic operations or tell the time is not only factually true for everyone who ever saw an iPhone.
    It is false even metaphorically. They obviously never have been exposed to amazing behavior of neural networks or seemingly magical search evolutionary algorithms, particle simulations or other AI/simulation methods. All of these are based on very simple principles or models and simple beginnings but behave in completely unpredictable (from our perspective or perception) ways when build of great number of components while being at the bottom of it completely deterministic.
    I think that lessons of basic cybernetics would do good for both gentlemen.

        1. “If they thought of it as a problem, I think we’d start seeing a great deal less of it. (because it would stop being the case)”

          They might see it as a problem, but not *their* problem.

      1. The profession is split. There are a lot of philosophers who pay lip service or more; there are a lot of philosophers who do know a fair bit, usually one of one science. There are, unfortunately, a large number who are essentially scientifically illiterate. I have no idea of relative numbers, and it depends on the part of the world; it seems (and French philosopher Jacques Bouveresse has agreed) that in France, say, scientific illiteracy is much more common amongst them. (Witness all the, to use one example, Lacanians!)

    1. You misunderstood what Anthony Kenny was saying when he said a computer could not add up or tell the time. He was using the Wittgensteinian notion of instrumentality. If you listen to the relevant part of the recording he says computers are tools. Thus he would say we use a computer or calculator of set of tables or abacus or pile of stones or whatever to calculate 3+4 but these things can not themselves calculate 3+4. Incidentally Alan Turing, who had been a pupil of Wittgenstein, had very similar views. You might disagree with this view but the iPhone is not a counter example

      1. But analogy with abacus is not good here too, because:

        1. Computer systems can be autonomous if you design them so. The fact that they are not yet may be result of our current technological limitations and because we do not see need for fully autonomous machines (with free-like will).
        You imply that these tools you mentioned need to have operator. Computers may need them too still but so do human babies.

        2. Complexity of makes some properties to emerge from the chaos and multitude of small components. Just like structure of galaxy emerges from simple laws of physics and multitude of stars. Or the life which we know it is chemistry in the bottom of it (i.e. cell).
        Abacus or simpler tool do not provide such level of complexity.

        3. The simulated entities (i.e. artificial organisms in evolutionary algorithms) in the computer may not have a goal set from the start. Usually designers provide one for practical reasons (to test or deliver optimum solution for a problem etc.) but nothing stop us to make the automatons to use reproduction success-only criteria for selection instead of human goal-directed.

        The point Dawkins was making is that the criterion for consciousness we use might be very illusory, that we may even design simple applications which dupe other people in thinking that computer is conscious being. Dealing with primitive algorithm after 5 minutes you may find that it is machine. For more sophisticated one it might to take you hours. At certain point system may be so complex that humans may never determine if the machine is not conscious or not.

        In my opinion Kenny and Williams are use wrong analogies which constrict their thinking. They look at the complex system and see hammer (which is designed to solve specific problem) that cannot hit the nail by itself. Biological systems are not designed so are not operator-requiring tools in that sense. Similarly, sufficiently complex computer systems may become more and more self sufficient and autonomous. An maybe one day may reach the threshold when we will be not able to fail them on any Turing test.

        1. I suspect we’re getting pretty close to “the threshold when we will be not able to fail them on any Turing test” already. IBM’s Watson computer mopped the floor with the two best Jeopardy! players in history, and I suspect that had Watson been programmed specifically to behave like a human, it’d be awfully hard to trip “him” up.

          As far as I know, once Watson was set to run during the Jeopardy! episode, there was no human operator involved. (Someone, please correct me if I’m wrong on this point.)

        2. In my opinion Kenny and Williams are use wrong analogies which constrict their thinking. They look at the complex system and see hammer (which is designed to solve specific problem) that cannot hit the nail by itself.

          What? Isn’t it obvious that Kenny and Williams’ opinions are radically different?

      2. Turing was not a student of Wittgenstein – he simply attended some of one of his classes (after Turing had already earned his degree). As for the “do calculating machines calculate” thing, Turing’s own view is not Wittgenstein’s, but is rather hard to go into – and any explanation is contentious.

        1. In “Computing Machines and Intelligence” (Mind LIX, no. 2236 (Oct 1950): 433-460), Turing considers the question ‘Can a machine think?’ and concludes that it has no clear meaning. He then describes a game called the ‘imitation game’ in which one person A imitates another B. He then says:

          We now ask the question, ‘What will happen when a machine takes the part of A in this game?’ Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman? These questions replace our original, ‘Can a machine think?’

          Note that he does not say that answers to these questions are or could be evidence for a machine thinking, but that one question is to be replaced by others, which he formulates in terms of a game. You can’t get much more Wittgenteinian than that.

    1. In fact, most of the so-called “major” religions hold this viewpoint.

      Even the Catholic Church acknowledges that humans evolved from ancestral primate species.

      Each and every one of them also argues that at some point in the process, the special nature of humans emerged via some sort of ‘ensoulment’ process.

      The creationist view of ‘whole and entire’ animals created by god via magic words is in force in a few denominations — Southern Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists, etc.

      And the viewpoints of individuals might not coincide with the theology espoused by their particular church.

  3. Jerry, the very notion of “omnipotence” is incoherent, even in theory.

    After all, an omnipotent being is incapable of suicide (for it would then become the perfect opposite of omnipotent) or of feeling powerless — or, for that matter, of knowing even mild frustration. It is also the ultimate violation of the laws of conservation; the perfect perpetual motion machine.

    I don’t think there’s any more reason to hold out for the possibility of evidence for such an entity than there is for a married bachelor, a four-sided triangle, or mimpletrated glingfrapnitchen.

    Cheers,

    b&

    1. There’s another way to look at it that might help.

      Either the word, “omnipotent,” has meaning, or the word, “impossible,” has meaning. But it’s impossible for both to have meaning.

      Cheers,

      b&

        1. But should we be talking them having meaning, or should we be talking about actual omnipotence vs actual impossiblity being enacted (there will be a better word) in the real world?

          1. Sorry, I’m not strong on the kind of metasyntactics you’re getting into.

            What would the difference be between whatever you’re referring to by “actual omnipotence” versus what the rest of us are referring to by “omnipotence”? How does adding the word, “actual,” change things?

            How could it make sense for “omnipotent” to be devoid of meaning yet there “actually” be an omnipotent entity?

            b&

          2. It’s a common dodge for theologians to qualify omnipotence as “can do anything that is logically possible”. So an omnipotent god couldn’t make a square circle, or create a married bachelor.

            As appealing as this limited omnipotence may be, the problems of omnipotence aren’t just the inability to perform logically contradictory acts. Making a stone so heavy that one can’t lift it is a perfectly coherent notion (heck, I could create a piece of concrete that I can’t lift), as is committing suicide (lots of folks do that daily) — these are things people do in the “actual”, real world all the time, so they aren’t “actually” impossible. These aren’t problems of omnipotence not applying to logical contradiction — they are problems of the incoherence of the notion itself.

            In simpler form, as Ben suggests: “I can kill myself, so why can’t god?”

            1. Thanks for the hat tip.

              If I might expand on your point a bit…I’ve been unable to find anybody who can provide a coherent definition of the demarcation between “physically impossible” and “logically impossible.”

              The reason I can’t jump over the moon is the exact same reason the Shuttle couldn’t reach lunar orbit: not enough Δvs. In other words, it would require a violation of conservation, or, more simply, an attempt to make 1 + 1 = 3.

              Now, if that’s not a logical impossibility, I don’t know what is.

              So, if gods can still be considered omnipotent despite their inabilities to do the logically impossible, why should the logical impossibility of me jumping over the moon be held against my own claim of omnipotence?

              b&

              1. This is interesting, and it has been bothering me as well. How do you feel about “conceivability” vs. “possibility?” It seems as though we can conceive of all kinds of things which are actually physically impossible – this is one of the reasons we do science, after all – to cleave what is possible from what is imaginable. That’s why we do math, as well, even though I don’t think math is empirical in the same way as science. We had to wait a fair amount of time before Fermat’s Last “Theorem” was proved, and until it was, an exponent != 2 solving the equation was conceivable (that’s why we needed the proof). I could even make a definition to call out “the set of Euclidean Platonic solids with hexagonal faces,” and until I do the work to show that the definition yields the null set, the idea is “conceivable.”

                Conceivability is epistemic where possibility is either physical or metaphysical, and a lot of bad ideas come from conflating the two, like “P-Zombies are possible therefore materialism is wrong.”

                Incidentally, I think this is similar to where some of the free-will disagreements occur. The difference between “My brain could not have chosen otherwise.” and “There are other options my brain could have chosen but didn’t.” pits a physical/metaphysical sense of “could” vs. an epistemic one, respectively.

                Sorry for the long reply – the combox method of conversation makes things simplistic as it is.

              2. Rhetorically, I think I’d lean towards “imagination” or “fantasy” rather than “conceivability.” And even then I’d try to further distance those concepts from reality by pointing out that one can imaginatively fantasize about married virgin bachelorette mothers all day long, but that still doesn’t mean that the Swedish pro mud wrestling team will be cleaning your dirty underwear for you anytime soon….

                b&

              3. I would think that logical impossibility involves a logical contradiction. A square circle would have to be a shape with 4 right angles and no straight edges, which is practically the same as saying a shape with straight edges and without straight edges. A & ~A. It’s simply a contradiction.

                There’s no contradiction involved in Ben Goren jumping over the moon. He simply can’t do it.

              4. Tim, jumping over the moon requires a certain specific impulse, which requires the application of so much force for so much time. It is literally an exercise in rocketry, which is exactly an exercise in geometry.

                Just as it is impossible to draw a triangle in uniform Euclidean space with two right angles, it is impossible to achieve a given orbit without sufficient Δvs.

                Me trying to jump over the moon is just as doomed to failure, and for much the same reasons, as me trying to draw (on a flat sheet of paper) a right triangle with 3″, 4″, and 6″ sides. Both attempts are clearly doomed to failure, and for the exact same class of reason.

                Cheers,

                b&

              5. Ben, why have you completely ignored what I said about logical contradictions? This is key to what I’m saying.

                A square circle is impossible to draw because it is defined as a plane figure with four right angles and four equal straight sides, and the points of those lines must all be equidistant from a single fixed point. But 3+ points on a straight line can never be equidistant from a single point – only a curved line could accomplish that. So basically you’re asking me to draw something that is curved and not curved, A and ~A, at the same time. This is what I have defined as a logical impossibility. There is a contradiction of terms here. Your moon example does not have that – or at least I cannot see how it does. If you’re going to claim that your example is the same sort of thing, please show me the contradiction involved.

                It seems to be there is a difference between:
                “Can you jump over the moon?”
                “No, I cannot generate enough force.”

                and

                “Can you do draw a square circle?”
                “No, there is no object that satisfies that definition.”

              6. Tim, let’s try it this way.

                Pretend I have a 12′ piece of 2″ × 4″, and I want to cut it up and assemble it into a right triangle. I put it on the saw, and chop it into 3′, 4′, and (obviously) 5′ pieces. So far, so good.

                But I decide that I want the right angle not between the 3′ and 4′ segments, but between the 3′ and 5′ segments.

                Is my inability to do so the result of a physical impossibility, or a logical one?

                Let’s say that I’m in orbit and I want to accelerate a 1 kg mass by 1 m/second, but I only want to fire a half-second burst from my one-Newton rocket motor to do so rather than a full one-second burst. (Apologies if I’ve fucked up the units…my last physics class was aeons ago.) I’ve got enough fuel to fire the motor for an hour if I want to, but I only want to fire it for a half-second — just as I wanted to put the right angle between the worng two pieces of wood. Again, is my problem physical or logical?

                Back to the moon.

                According to the good Dr. Einstein’s most famous equation, my body has far more than enough energy to put a mass of my body’s weight in lunar orbit. Is my inability to harness that energy in a manner that would let me actually achieve lunar orbit a physical or logical shortcoming?

                Once you realize that physics is simply advanced geometry, and that we live in (at least) a four-dimensional Einsteinian(ish) universe rather than a two-dimensional Euclidean Flatland, then it should become trivially obvious that, if you would dismiss violations of Euclid’s laws as logical rather than physical impossibilities, then you must similarly dismiss any real-world impossibilities as equally illogical.

                Cheers,

                b&

            2. Logical possibility is usually elucidated as provability (or satisfiability) in an appropriate context. Actions are not logically possible (or impossible), strictly speaking. What is logically possible (or not) are descriptions of same, which is something else. (Incidentally, Kenny makes this very confusion through his famous _Action, Emotion and Will_, which despite its name is hardly about *action* at all.)

              That aside, this is a dodge still, because logical impossibility of a set of statements is still relative to the rest.

            3. I am probably missing your point but I have no difficulty with what you call the theologians’ common dodge. Of course an omnipotent being could not make a four-sided triangle. This is about the meaning of the word ‘triangle’, not a comment on God’s ability. An omnipotent being could of course turn a three-sided shape into a four-sided shape, but the four-sided shape would be a square (or rectangle)and not a triangle, because a triangle by definition has three sides, not four. Same with the married bachelor – it is simply meaningless…

              You say that making a stone so heavy you can’t lift it is a perfectly coherent notion – yes for humans, because we are not omnipotent. Again an omnipotent being cannot commit suicide because that being would cease to exist and thus lack an essential requirement for being omnipotent.

              So when you say, ‘These aren’t problems of omnipotence not applying to logical contradiction — they are problems of the incoherence of the notion itself’, I don’t agree. There is no more incoherence here than insisting that yellow is always yellow and not red. Omnipotence has to rule out some things as a matter of logic.

              1. The point you’re missing is that there are whole classes of things that mere mortals can do that an all-powerful god can’t — and they’re some of the most important and poignant things a person can do.

                An omnipotent being cannot commit suicide; after he’s dead, he’s powerless, as far removed from all-powerful as one can get. That means that he can’t sacrifice his own life to save another.

                He also can’t resign his power and hand it to a successor; he’s the father who shall never see his children come into their own. Hell, he can’t even share power, can’t take a vacation.

                And he can’t draw inspiration from his own sense of powerlessness. He can’t feel the pain of the disenfranchised.

                And on and on and on and on.

                So if YHWH can’t even do what basically every king in human history has ever done and he can’t do what countless soldiers and parents and others have done, what possible sense can it mean to claim that he can do anything?

                b&

    2. There is also a basic empirical problem, in that there is no evidence for omnipotence that wouldn’t also be evidence for not-omnipotent-but-just-powerful-enough-to-produce-the-evidence. One cannot produce empirical evidence of the infinite (“just look how large this number is!”).

      1. Add that to the list: it is impossible for an infinite being to demonstrate its infiniteness to a finite being.

        And that’s being overly generous in assuming that the “infinite being” isn’t really a married bachelor….

        Cheers,

        b&

      2. It is an interesting question, actually, which there is some work on. My former colleague and professor Kevin Kelly (not the Wired guy) and some of his students have worked on the computational testing of uncomputable problems. Testing infinite “potency” is possible, in some respects, if one can put omnipotency on the analytic (or arithmetic?) hierarchy somewhere. Theists cannot, as far as I know, state where their god belongs in terms of its computational power (well, actually, Selmer Bringsjord might have stated this sort of thing), and that will tell you how in principle the claim could be tested (what sorts of errors one has to make, etc.) Unfortunately, “infinity beyond infinity” etc. of the traditional theist is simply too ill defined to talk about in this respect – or any other – as already noted. Once again, theism clashes with science and science oriented philosophy (in this case, computational learning theory).

        (Oddly, Kevin teaches philosophy of religion too. I never thought to ask this sort of questioon …)

    3. Also, it seems to me that there can’t be any evidence that something is “uncaused” since all evidence is caused.

      In the case of random quantum events, my understanding is that they are caused, but indeterminately so. Even there, however, at least within the Everett relative state interpretation determinism is restored.

    4. Another for the list… to answer for the “outside of space and time” goddy who nonetheless has desires (e.g. to be worshiped) or intentions (to want to make humans in the first place):

      Desires and intentions are temporal thingy-wingies.

      Poof. Bye atemporal goddy-woddy. Nice “knowing” ya.

      OK… so what kind of god(s) remain?

  4. If one leaves the door open to the “possibility” of an all powerful, all knowing being, then one also has to leave the door open to fairies, cupid and a whole host of lesser gods. I heard a scientist once say that he was a “possibilitarian”- that the universe was so awesome and always surprising us that ANYTHING was possible. I found this annoying from a scientist who ought to know that the universe does have some fast and firm rules. In my book one of those rules is “there are no gods, period”. And there is no “proof” that would convince me, as I would immediately distrust its source and default to the position that there is some natural explanation for any such “proof” of a god.

    1. David Eagleman?

      I’m reminded of the subtitle to The Quantum Universe by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw: Everything that can happen does happen.

      And, yes, there are some fast and firm rules about what can happen.

      Thus, modified possibilitarianism: Anything that is possible is possible.

      /@

      1. The only place that I have seen where anything is possible is in the human imagination. This does lead to some great science, art, poetry, and music, but does not have influence on the laws of the physical universe. Of course, there is a theory that the application of human observation at the quantum level affects how particles appear at any given moment (is it a particle or a wave?) but I have not seen any solid evidence for that, and if it were true, we would not be able to prove that we are influencing quantum states because of the limitations of our brains.

    2. I heard a scientist once say that he was a “possibilitarian”- that the universe was so awesome and always surprising us that ANYTHING was possible.

      First, that therefore means that it’s possible that Darth Vader would win a cage fight against Superman. And, as such, I think it safe to dismiss such childish optimism for the nonsense it so transparently is.

      But, further, if anything is possible, then it’s possible that it’s impossible for an all-powerful entity to exist. And, if such a possibility exists, then such an entity clearly cannot exist, for its very definition relies upon the absence of impossibilities.

      <oldfart>What is it with these kids, who can’t ever manage to take their arguments to their logical extremes? Recursion, my boy — recursion!&lt/oldfart>

      Cheers,

      b&

      1. Apologies for the HTML fuckups….

        But, the basic point is that all these sorts of open-ended fantasies are, by their very nature, self-limiting.

        If anything is possible, then it’s possible that there are unsurmountable limits. An unsurmountable limit means that not all things are possible; therefore, the original statement is false. On the other hand, if it’s not possible that there are unsurmountable limits, then that’s another thing that’s impossible, again invalidating the original premise.

        On the other hand, if one starts with the assumption that not everything is possible, no contradictions ensue.

        The same reasoning applies to all the properties of the “sophisticated” theological Capital-G-God: omnipotence, omniscience, primal causality…they’re nothing more than “sophisticated” variations on the child’s counting game of “name the biggest number,” that always ends in “Infinity!” “Infinity plus one!” “Infinity plus infinity!” “Infinity times infinity!” “Infinity times infinity plus infinity!” Charming…but only in those who can still count their ages by using their toes.

        Cheers,

        b&

        1. By such arguments as this, Kirk defeated many a God-like computer!

          /@

          PS. IIRC, some kinds of infinities are bigger than others… ℵ0 < ℵ1

  5. I think that RD is skirting around (IIRC) “Clarke’s Law” with this :

    (a trick, or a hallucination, or insanity, or even a visitation by an evolved super-human from outer space would always be more probable)

    “Clarke’s Law is the (somewhat jokey, SF-ish, but still serious proposition that “a sufficiently advanced technology, beyond the capabilities of the observer, is indistinguishable from magic”. There have been various re-formulations in the SF world, and in the context of putting oneself in the historical context of (say), the Aztec nobility against the Conquestadores, it does make a fair point (imagine if the Conquestadores had also had attack helicopters and napalm?). But given the SF-ishness of it, I think RD was wise to not haul that particular comment out onto the table.

  6. Jerry,

    Here is the one bit of convincing that makes me a 7.0… if there was convincing evidence for the existence of a god(s) then we (humanity) would have already been convinced by that evidence from the get-go. There is no coherent way to reconcile an omnipotent being that has a most fundamental desire to be known as existing by its creation remaining unknown by even a single one of those creatures.

    The very fact that one atheist exist defeats the assertion that god(s) is omnipotent and desires to be known to exist. Evidence of the existence of such a being would be the universal knowledge of its existence coming miraculously from that deity to each and every person. Ergo no god(s) of which this is claimed.

    Theology is all a made up fiction. Period.

    p.s. Just wondering: Are there any god(s) that have no requirement to be known by any humans? You know, um god(s) that say, “It’s no big deal if any humans don’t think I exist.”

    1. p.s. Just wondering: Are there any god(s) that have no requirement to be known by any humans? You know, um god(s) that say, “It’s no big deal if any humans don’t think I exist”

      How would we know it/they existed Steve?

        1. Ant,

          Yes, but as you point out, such a being we wouldn’t know about.

          Also, this isn’t the kind of being that is being asserted by those asserting in this case.

      1. Michael,

        Well they could have revealed their existence in a very nonchalant manner… but all the while being sure to make it clear that they really couldn’t care less whether anyone took their existence to heart. I don’t know… maybe leave a note etched on the bottom of a rock at the bottom of the deepest part of the ocean of the furthest planet in the universe (from Earth) written in code in 1 pt. font. Just sort of a “Not that it matters two hoots to me, but I just thought I’d say that I do exist, in case anyone might be interested… not that I care or not if they are.”

    2. Are there any god(s) that have no requirement to be known by any humans?

      Lovecraft wrote a lot about them. It was precisely their indifference to humanity that made them so horrific. (“[The] Elder Things [are] supposed to have created all earth-life as jest or mistake.”)

      It does seem odd that a supposedly perfect being would need the worship of humans (much less need anything).

      1. Indifference and utter alienness, too. In the Lovecraftian mythos, Azathoth controls the universe, but is, by human standards an absolute moron, no more intelligent than a rock, but is close to as powerful as possible.

        1. “… the human race will disappear. Other races will appear and disappear in turn. The sky will become icy and void, pierced by the feeble light of half-dead stars. Which will also disappear. Everything will disappear. And what human beings do is just as free of sense as the free motion of elementary particles.” — HPL

          /@

    3. Steve #10 wrote:

      Just wondering: Are there any god(s) that have no requirement to be known by any humans? You know, um god(s) that say, “It’s no big deal if any humans don’t think I exist.”

      Yes: most of the new-ageish or neo-pagan versions of God — which try to play down the overt anthropomoprhisms and portray God as more like an energy field or stream of consciousness underlying/transcending the universe — usually do not have a specific desire that everyone knows about it. Instead, those who are ‘enlightened’ enough to realize that the material world is an illusion or that God is a Higher Consciousness have simply moved up the Great Chain of Spiritual Being a bit faster than the rest of us.

      The penalty for not knowing that God exists is that you’re just less wise and less sensitive and less happy than those who do.

      This may also apply to Eastern variations.

      My problem (well, one problem) with this approach is that the more important God is, then the more impressive the enlightened ought to be. And they really aren’t. Smug, yes. But not so different.

  7. It is amusing that in Dawkins’ report on this we read:
    “…In my discussion with the Archbishop I called myself a 6.9. A man I met at the drinks afterwards called himself a “six point nine recurring”, and I agreed with him…”

    Not meant as a criticism, and most perhaps should not be expected to realize this, but in fact

    1) “six point nine recurring” means 6, dot, and then an infinite sequence of 9’s ;

    2) That latter number is in fact 7, which Dawkins isn’t!

    1. I kind of think that once Dawkins introduced the possibility of using fractions on his 7 point scale he eviscerated his own 7 point scale. I mean, it seems to me as if he was being humorous in a tongue in cheek way. Deliberate silliness due to the gravitational pull of the planet Python. Come on people, laugh, we are after all talking about adults who are giving credence to something which amounts to Santa Claus for grown-up humans to believe in.

      “On a scale of 0 to 20 where 0 is no belief in Santa Claus and 20 is I am as sure of Santa’s existence as I am by own, I am a .000001… ha ha ha ha.” Wink-wink, nudge-nudge.”

      1. Well when he introduced the 7-point scale (TGD p50) he said, “The spectrum is continuous, but it can be represented by the following seven milestones on the way.” and people who argue about fractions over seven are really going “Follow the gourd!” “No, follow the shoe!”

  8. It is an interesting thought that the original Huxley-Wilberforce debate (actually the session in which Hooker did a better job refuting Wilberforce than Huxley did) occurred in what is now the University Natural History Museum. a mere 1500 feet north of the Sheldonian Theatre.

  9. I’m far from convinced that Rowan Williams even believes in god. I suspect that he is a “belief in belief” man and regards his job as being to defend the C of E, hence requiring him to espouse at least a few of the standard xian beliefs.

    I have some sympathy with this, as the more I learn about all the other religions of the world the more I come to appreciate the C of E.

    I’ve never been into the Sheldonian but have walked past it many times as there are loads of good pubs nearby.

        1. Because when you are writing a script it is better to not saying anything that might give away the blockbuster concept at the very heart of your tale.

          Shit.. I might have already said too much.

  10. Regarding the “could there ever be evidence for God” thing, I’ll reiterate what I’ve said about this before: I fall somewhere between the “PZ” position and the “Coyne” position on this question. I agree with the “PZ” side in that for most of the evidences we might put forward for the existence of god(s), the more likely explanation, at least initially, would be trickery (e.g. super-advanced aliens) or error (e.g. hallucination or insanity on my part, some kind of very bizarre illusion, etc.). But I agree with the “Coyne” side in that I don’t think I can state categorically that god(s) would never be the more parsimonious explanation. At some hypothetical point, as the evidence accumulates, super-advanced aliens (for example) would be a worse explanation than Jeebus.

    However, I’m not sure I can quite articulate what that body of evidence would be. In other words, while I refuse to say “No evidence would ever be sufficient to establish god’s existence”, I cannot exactly say what evidence would be sufficient.

    I find most of Jerry’s examples unconvincing. “What if prayers always worked, but only prayers uttered by a Jew importuning Yahweh?” is a pretty good one… but of course, that is clearly not the case today, and if it suddenly started to work that way tomorrow, then one might be suspicious of trickery. This ties into something someone said about it (maybe PZ?) that there could have been evidence for god, but now that ship has sailed. I won’t quite go that far, for the reasons I described above, but it is very difficult to think of future evidence that would be sufficient in light of all the past evidence we already have.

    It is not difficult to think of a different universe where there is sufficient evidence to support the god hypothesis. But it is incredibly difficult to think of a future for this universe where there is sufficient evidence.

    1. Is the existence of a being that can act through sheer will and directly violate the actual laws of the universe ever more probable than phenomena which merely simulate the appearance of that via the actual laws of the universe (even those are laws we have yet to discover)?

      More simply, it is ever the case that it is more rational to postulate miracles than simply the expression of natural phenomena we don’t currently understand? I think believing the former is far more radical, and thus far less rational.

    2. This ties into something someone said about it (maybe PZ?) that there could have been evidence for god, but now that ship has sailed.

      That would be me, up in comment number 10. “if there was convincing evidence for the existence of a god(s) then we (humanity) would have already been convinced by that evidence from the get-go.”

    3. I will declare myself to be the author (or at least “an” author) of the “the ship has sailed” line.

      To me, it’s the fundamental issue with all of the proposed evidences for Yahweh. If it can do the things suggested, why hasn’t it already? Waiting for some future time to unveil proof-positive evidence is the ultimate question begging. What took it so long?

      The only reason it hasn’t happened is that it can’t happen, for the very simple reason that the alleged author of benevolent works does not exist. So cannot perform them. Now or in the future.

      And for those who would point at the myths in the NT and declare them to be sufficient evidence, I would say “not to 2/3rds of the non-Christian population of the world.” Any god worth its salt would find a totally convincing method of proving its existence to believer and nonbeliever alike. Not one that is still being argued about 2000 years later.

    4. Agree entirely, I can’t imagine what would need to happen to convince me that Yahweh is a better explanation than Hallucination or Aliens Playing The God Gambit. However there are lots of things I can’t imagine and it seems unlikely that absolutely all of them are separate from this.

      As an aside, the boycott of Elsevier must be having an effect, I just got an email from Elsevier Mathematics saying how they are changing and becoming open access friendly. Interesting.

      1. I can’t imagine what would need to happen to convince me that Yahweh is a better explanation than Hallucination or Aliens Playing The God Gambit. However there are lots of things I can’t imagine

        …including how the actual structure of the universe could work that would nonetheless produce supernatural-looking results.

        Ignorance of the possibilities cuts both ways, and as long as “works within the actual laws of the universe” is one of those possibilities, it will always seem the most likely explanation to me.

        1. If the “actual laws of the universe” start to get strange enough (and strange enough in the right way), then there is really nothing to stop us dividing those laws into those which apply to the natural part of the universe — and those which apply to its supernatural part.

  11. I was originally with Jerry on the whole “evidence for the supernatural” issue, but at this point I’ve changed my mind. The supernatural is an incoherent concept – it’s what you get when someone says “okay, take everything you know about everything, and imagine there’s something else, outside that.”

    “Outside that? You mean, like in another universe or dimension or something?”

    “No, because other universes and other dimensions are still considered the natural world. Physicists are currently considering the evidence for their existence, and if they do exist, it’s probable that they interact with our dimension or universe in some way. I’m talking about something that *doesn’t* interact with the natural world at all, unless it wants to. Something completely separate in both space in time. In fact, it is “above” both of those concepts, if you can imagine that.”

    “Uh, and this is useful how?”

    “Wait wait, there’s more. The supernatural can actually be a sort of sentient being, that can think and perform actions. This being (call him god) is separate from everything “natural” and therefore completely undetectable by us as long as he wants to be. Oh, but he can do anything. And he can influence the natural world if he wants to.”

    “So how does that work? I mean if god wants to push Jupiter out of its orbit, how does he do it? Where does the energy come from? How does god direct it where it needs to go? How did god ever “think” to perform this act in the first place, if everything we know of that thinks has either a brain or a computer chip in it? What is “thought” if not a process of weighing outcomes according to one’s programming? If god doesn’t have a program or a physical body to instantiate one in, how does he have thoughts? How does this scenario make any sense??”

    These questions have no answers. It’s not that we don’t know the answer, it’s that it’s impossible for an answer to ever be given, because as soon as you take magic, which is something that “just works,” and explain it, you now have science. As soon as you take the supernatural and submit it to rational investigation, it becomes natural. God only exists as long as people don’t ask questions.

  12. So Genesis isn’t meant to be an astrophysics lesson. Fine.

    But why did God need us to know things about the physical universe that aren’t true?

    1. Genesis 1: “In the beginning, in the time before time, all was but a single point. From this point the LORD brought forth a huge explosion, and all expanded outward far faster than an eye could see. All that is boiled out from this beginning, spreading out and cooling, so that it eventually formed the sphere of the earth, and sea, and sky, and the sun in our sky, as well as the stars, which are just other suns so far away only God knows their distance.”

      Genesis 2: “Oh, yeah, and mass comes from something called the Higgs. Don’t worry about that for now, but it will be important later…”

  13. I think your divine super-healing personage might be defined as “a” god, but not necessarily “the” god.

    The problem is that “the” god — the omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent whose name is Yahweh — demonstrates lack of omnibenevolence by only healing adherents to a specific religion.

    Even the healing god you propose isn’t this Yahweh character because of the problem of evil.

  14. The Hebrew bible makes a claim that Joshua, working through god, got the sun to stand still in the sky for a day. If there were independent evidence that such an event occurred, I would be forced to consider the possibility of the existence of a supernatural being as such an event not only defies the laws of physics but the consequences if it did happen not being observed defy the laws of physics even more. I cannot conceive of a natural explanation for such an event. or the lack of consequences thereof. Currently, there is no such evidence that it actually took place.

    1. Let me re-write that for a Viking in the first millennium: “It is claimed that Thor produces lightning. If there were independent evidence that a man produced lightning, I would be forced to consider that he is Thor.”

      To paraphrase Dick Cheney, we can never know what we don’t know, and thus we can never know in advance what defies the actual laws of physics (as opposed to defies our understanding of them). I think it far more likely that our understanding is incorrect rather than the very fabric of the cosmos can be violated.

    2. Some theologians (!) have suggested a series of mirrors in space to make it appear to be permanent daytime.

      No kidding.

      Might as well talk about angels with shiny wings. Or actually holding the Earth from rotating.

      The fundy crowd will most certainly reply “Were you there? Then how do you know it didn’t happen?”

      So, once again the issue is not whether a supernatural superpower can violate its own laws of physics (it can), but whether it left any concrete evidence behind. It didn’t. You might as well be talking about the coins Hercules used to cross the river Styx when he went to Hades and back.

    3. But if God can defy the laws of physics and make the sun stand still in the sky for a day, surely He can also ensure that no one observe the consequences or, for that matter, eliminate the consequences. With God, all things are possible! 😀

      /@

  15. The writers of the Bible, inspired as I believe they were, … were inspired to pass on to their readers what God wanted them to know

    I just bought a Bible—the Brick Testment—for my child because it’s time she learned about this nonsense for cultural awareness.

    I can’t give the Bible to my child, and her mother and grandparents won’t let me give it to her, because it is filled with God’s graphically explicit commandments to slaughter enemies, rape women, and murder children.

    I doubt very much if the Archbishop actually believes that any decent person would want a child or anyone else to know these things.

    1. When the child is ready for Grimm’s Fairy Tales, it’ll be ready for certain stories from the bible.

      The giant flood was the story that convinced me at age 8 that the entire enterprise was fatally flawed.

      But I agree that the book contains a lot of culture you wouldn’t want your child to miss — especially if he/she wants to be a contestant on Jeopardy!

  16. Personally I don’t think its possible to prove an omnipotent (although I’m open to being wrong). In any case I’m more or less ok with the super entity being called a god as it is consistent with many historical views of gods like say the ancient greeks.

    Also on the link of possible proffs of god I personally wouldn’t accept a perfect non contradicting holy book. That just sounds like you had a good editor for the thing. With the bible for example I think that with 2000 years of edits it ought to be consistent.

    1. I’m more or less ok with the super entity being called a god as it is consistent with many historical views of gods like say the ancient greeks.

      How about the views of gods by cargo cultists?

      Do you think if you went back to the Bronze Age with a shotgun and flamethrower that you might also be viewed as a god?

  17. The hypothesis of a supernatural, omnipotent being that can do anything can in principle be supported with evidence.

    Sorry, I’d have to disagree. In order for Hume’s problem of induction to be even remotely resolvable, it’s required to limit discourse to entities generating patterns of ordinal Turing degree of hypercomputational complexity.

    There’s also some difficulty in taking the inductive step from “puissant” to “omnipotent”. If an entity A could only produce evidence Y (eg, p=1), but entity A-prime could produce evidence X or Y or Z (eg, p=⅓ each), then if A and A-prime are given equal initial weight, introducing evidence Y is more supportive of entity A (p=¾) than it is of entity A-prime (p=¼). And (leaving a slightly more infinite can of worms unopened on the shelf for now), in so far as the range of possible options for action is increased, that decreases the degree to which evidence gives support; the infinite power of omnipotence decreases this support infinitely.

    Which math boils down in plainer language to: “conjecturing infinite power means any evidence can’t support the notion worth a damn”.

  18. The hypothesis of a supernatural, omnipotent being that can do anything can in principle be supported with evidence.

    Yes and no. I think versions of God which emphasize the “omni” properties are either self-contradictory or the ‘omni’ part would have to be taken as a working hypothesis — though not, perhaps, an unreasonable one.

    I also disagree with PZ and agree with Coyne. The existence of God is a hypothesis so yes, I can imagine evidence which would persuade me that it existed, and it was unlikely to be only a technically advanced alien.

    But — the case would have to be cumulative and as objective as possible. Multiple lines of evidence from all the scientific disciplines over a long amount of time. Not just something I witness myself, or some discovery made in a lab somewhere and not repeated.

    And — I would be working with a clearer definition of “God” and the “supernatural” than is usually advanced. Thus, you avoid the incoherencies and logical contradictions in the definitions. I’d be looking for some sort of irreducible mentality or mental quality which can be separated from a physical chain of causation.

      1. The Supernatural: Non-material, irreducible mental Being, beings, or forces which exist apart from and/or ‘above’ the material realm, do not obey common physical laws, and which affect the natural world through the direct power of intentions or values.

        “God” would be included.

        There are several advantages to this definition. For one thing, it avoids the whole pointless inside-of-nature/outside-of-nature goalpost sliding. Same with the can-or-can’t be studied by science debate. Yet it still tracks with how the term is actually applied in common usage. And it allows falsification, both ways.

        It also permits a step-by-step approach to examining the God hypothesis. Under this definition, pure ESP and PK would be considered “supernatural.” We’ve already got a (half-assed) set up for studying the (proposed) existence of the paranormal.

        Can you think of any version of God which does NOT assume the existence of either ESP (how God communicates and knows things) or PK (how God acts)?

        I can’t.

        If there is support for those types of forces/abilities, it’s supporting evidence for God. Failure to support is a very black mark against, I think.

        1. I don’t think that gets you where you think you’re going.

          How would this “supernatural” realm be different from a cosmological brane or similar “alternate universe”?

          And if the denizens of the supernatural are affecting the natural world, those effects are happening in the natural world. What is it that the supernatural is adding that doesn’t exist solely in the real world? Either the supernatural is something that can be examined naturally, in which case it’s part of the natural world (even if it’s something more bizarre than quantum mechanics or relativity), or it’s entirely separate in all possible senses and therefore might as well not exist.

          Worse, if you go with the naïve interpretations, you run very quickly and very hard into problems with conservation. A god such as you describe is either limited by the mass / energy of the universe (even if the system is larger than currently understood) or it represents the ultimate perpetual motion machine. Granted, we don’t yet have absolute proof that perpetual motion machines truly are impossible, but I can’t think of anything more profoundly demonstrated by empirical evidence than the laws of conservation.

          In other words, if you’re going to hold the door open for a god such as you describe, then you might as well throw the door off its hinges for every snake-oil peddler who comes along.

          Cheers,

          b&

          1. How would this “supernatural” realm be different from a cosmological brane or similar “alternate universe”?

            Mental state as an irreducible component. If a cosmological brane is fundamentally mental in some way — it’s love, or it reacts to love, say — then it would be supernatural.

            Either the supernatural is something that can be examined naturally, in which case it’s part of the natural world (even if it’s something more bizarre than quantum mechanics or relativity), or it’s entirely separate in all possible senses and therefore might as well not exist.

            You’re still using the old definition, with its emphasis on terms. In nature/out of nature isn’t the relevant issue here. As I said to Tulse above

            If the “actual laws of the universe” start to get strange enough (and strange enough in the right way), then there is really nothing to stop us dividing those laws into those which apply to the natural part of the universe — and those which apply to its supernatural part.

            Think instead if you prefer of a level of nature which can be objectively examined through science but which consists of some sort of pure intentionality, morality, emotion, consciousness, and/or values — all of which are independent and prior to any physical substrate. It’s so cool to us that we label it “special” — “super.”

            Someone once characterized the natural/supernatural debate as the question “Does mind come out of matter — or does matter come out of mind?”

            A god such as you describe is either limited by the mass / energy of the universe (even if the system is larger than currently understood) or it represents the ultimate perpetual motion machine.

            The latter. Common physical limitations don’t apply.

            In other words, if you’re going to hold the door open for a god such as you describe, then you might as well throw the door off its hinges for every snake-oil peddler who comes along.

            But that’s exactly the point of the definition: to find a description of “the supernatural” that is clear and broad enough to
            1.) include everything we commonly consider to be supernatural or “woo” (God; the paranormal)

            2.) exclude fringe theories in physics which may currently not be testable or which deal with ‘other universes’ but which aren’t considered supernatural or woo-ish (string theory; multiverse)

            3.)be testable.

            We have indeed thrown open the door for every snake-oil peddler who comes along. And we say “Step in — and welcome to the James Randi Million Dollar Challenge!”

            If Proof of Gods is too large, then let’s dismantle it and take God down into more manageable steps. And it the steps lead nowhere, then we throw the door open again and toss it.

            1. Think instead if you prefer of a level of nature which can be objectively examined through science but which consists of some sort of pure intentionality, morality, emotion, consciousness, and/or values — all of which are independent and prior to any physical substrate. It’s so cool to us that we label it “special” — “super.”

              I’m sorry, but I still don’t see how even this is coherent.

              Can you have software without computer hardware to run it on? If somebody were to propose something like that, what could it even possibly mean?

              …and that’s what your proposals seem like to me.

              “Imagine a color more blue than blue!”

              “You mean, like ultraviolet?”

              “No, above blue and even ultraviolet!”

              “X-Rays?”

              “No, not even part of the electromagnetic spectrum!”

              “Terahertz sound waves?”

              “No, even more blue than that. So blue you can’t even see it!”

              “I think you’ve had enough LSD for one lifetime….”

              Cheers,

              b&

              1. I’m sorry, but I still don’t see how even this is coherent.
                Can you have software without computer hardware to run it on? If somebody were to propose something like that, what could it even possibly mean?

                Mind/body dualism isn’t coherent under the assumption that mind is what the brain does. But it’s coherent in a very vague, flat, superficial way if you don’t understand that. At all.

                Imagine someone trying to sell a computer which runs faster because it’s “not all clogged up with wires and metal and all that stuff inside.” It is, in fact, a completely empty shell. Nobody who understands anything about computers would think that even remotely plausible — but there might be some earnest buyers among the very old, the very young, or the very isolated. And there would probably be marks to be found among the very hopeful.

                Because they can imagine flipping the switch and the computer runs faster. They surf the web and send out their emails and play their games with ease. The experts, you see, got everything about computers wrong. You don’t need physical stuff like microchips and curcuitboards. You just need the ideas to run around inside the box and process themselves and jump onto the screen. Or something like that (wave hands and invoke human ignorance.)

                Supernaturalism makes sense if you don’t know very much or think very hard. It becomes respectable when you consider this to be “deep” and approaching “mystery.”

              2. Supernaturalism makes sense if you don’t know very much or think very hard. It becomes respectable when you consider this to be “deep” and approaching “mystery.”

                Methinks you’re making my point for me….

                b&

              3. We’re not so far apart. IF the hollow computer really worked, then we might have to reconsider what we know about how the computer works and strive for new theories consistent with the evidence.

                The case against the supernatural is two-fold — if you define it in a way that’s testable.
                1.) It doesn’t work.
                2.) We know why it doesn’t work.

    1. Thanks Sastra. It’s the “supernatural” part that I worry about the most – Coyne’s examples might be evidence might be for a “god,” but the evidence would still have to be folded into our understanding of nature, wouldn’t it?

      1. Science doesn’t study nature: it studies reality, and models that. There’s nothing in any of its methods that demands that first we have to make a distinction between the ‘natural’ and the ‘supernatural’ and be sure we don’t try to study the latter.

        I think that whether we enfolded God into nature or decided to split reality into two categories would probably come down to a matter of taste and consensus. A semantic debate, iow.

  19. Well, having listened to this discussion, I really have to disagree with the Chancellor’s (?) summary description of this as being a brilliant representation of academic debate. I found it kind of dull. Dawkins is polite and, as always, competent. But he doesn’t really drill into the Archbishop’s inane fuzziness as much as he might have. And Rowan Williams has nothing at all to contribute. Boring!

    And… couldn’t they find a philosopher to host who has at least a passing knowledge of basic science?

    1. The summary was made by John Hedley Brooke. He is the president of the International Society for Science and Religion.

      I suspect that Sir Anthony Kenny was chosen because he is promotes agnosticism as the default position in discussions of this type, and perhaps the organizers wanted a line-up of atheist, agnostic and theist. If that was the case, it was amusing that the symmetry was broken when Richard Dawkins said he was agnostic. Kenny refined his agnosticism in a recent paper by pointing out that he is an agnostic about God as creator of the universe but an atheist when it comes to the God of the Bible and Koran.

      The only other reason that I can think of is that, as the Chancellor pointed out, between him and the panel there were three Balliol men.

  20. On the “proof of the existence of god” point, I think it was on PZ’s site, but I read something that I found elegant. The only proof of god that would acceptable to me, the saying went, is one which would convince everyone on Earth. In other words, we need not detail what it would be, we must merely state that if it convinced everyone, even the most unpersuadable, the provisional conclusion of “god” should be accepted, but not before.

  21. If a divine, miracle-working being appears who has characteristics comporting with those of some faith, then I think it’s okay to provisionally accept that being as “god.”

    A parade of wonders performed by some being — call him G — demonstrates nothing more than G’s ability to perform such wonders, by some means or other.

    If some of those wonders seem impossible to us, that indicates that our notion of what’s possible is in need of revision.

    If the wonders bear a strong resemblance to those described in the Bible, the obvious inference is that G or his minions are familiar with what is after all one of the most widely read books in the known universe. Bible literacy is frankly the least impressive of G’s accomplishments, since it can be duplicated by any schoolchild. Indeed it would be remarkable to encounter a being fluent in our languages who had not heard of Jesus or the Bible.

    None of the above has any bearing on the question of whether G is the creator of the universe, the reason there is something instead of nothing, or is himself uncaused and eternal.

    Jerry’s argument is that at some point it becomes reasonable to accept G at face value and assume he is in fact the Christian God. But it seems to me that this goes well beyond the face value of the evidence and imputes to G attributes that he has not demonstrated.

    The fact that G can perform (apparent) miracles does not make him trustworthy. On the contrary, it means we should be extremely skeptical of anything he purports to demonstrate, since he clearly has the power to fake the evidence in ways we could not detect.

    On a purely pragmatic level, G would obviously have God-like power over us. But the most parsimonious conclusion about his nature is that we have no idea who he really is or what his motives are, and therefore no reason to take his word for it that he is the guy in charge of the whole show or that he has our best interests at heart.

    On the other hand, if all you require from a god is the ability to dazzle us with magic tricks, then fine; Clarke’s Law applies, and for all we know the universe is chockablock with lower-case gods of that sort. But that’s not what I take the question of evidence for God to be about.

  22. Oh, come on, all you guys who don’t believe miracles are even possible. Consider this: the Chicago Cubs win the World Series this year. My understanding is that this club has been rebuilding for over a hundred years (I heard George Will say that years ago, he was exasperated). Surely, that would be a miracle, wouldn’t it? Oh well, what do I know, I’m not even a baseball fan.

    Cheers, or something.

  23. I’m with Jerry on this one, and I find it a very unfortunate state of affairs that this notion of “there could be no evidence for (a) God” is taking hold in atheists as visible and influential as P.Z. Meyers and (possibly) Dawkins.

    The reasons I see given over and over for there being no evidence one would accept for God seems to skirt between a sort of 1. Special pleading, where the normal, rational, empirical reasoning is abandoned only when it comes to God, and the 2. No True Scotsman Fallacy.

    In the case of #1, Dawkins repeats a popular rational: “it is hard to think of any evidence that would in principle be capable of convincing me of a god’s existence (a trick, or a hallucination, or insanity, or even a visitation by an evolved super-human from outer space would always be more probable)”

    But this seems an abject failure of imagination and consistency. If we are being consistent about how we reason empirically, then “things are as they seem to us unless we have reason to believe otherwise” and we look at the direction all the evidence seems to point towards. If the evidence is mostly or all pointing in one direction, then what is the motivation to deny the explanation it seems to indicate, in favour of an explanation that is NOT indicated by the evidence?

    In terms of sheer existence (e.g. not being a “trick” or “hallucination”) all we need ask of any Being is that it manifests in just the type of empirically consistent, intersubjectively checked and re-checked manner as all the other entities we have empirically verified, from coke cans, to mountains, to X-rays, quarks, you name it.
    A new type of Personal Being could appear to us and make Himself as empirically verifiable, and his miraculous acts empirically verifiable, as any other empirical thing of our experience. Why would we say “no, I”m not going to accept the evidence of my senses” in THIS SPECIAL CASE of a God-like Being? (Remember, here I’m first dealing with the objection that an amazing miracle-wielding being would more likely be something OTHER than what he seems, like a delusion or alien trickery).

    The objection that this Being may be displaying powers and phenomena unknown in our experience, and therefore we ought not accept it as really happening, is inconsistent with how we have come to accept all manner of amazing new and often outrageous phenomena. If we refused to accept new entities and phenomena because they did not match our past conception of how the universe is, then we would of course never have learned anything about the universe!
    We have to be (and science has been) open to WHATEVER exists, no matter how wild (the entire universe started as a minute point? Are you kiddin’ me?!!). Science and rationality isn’t about ruling out entities a priori, it’s about THE METHOD of inquiry, and so long as an entity is amenable to our ways of double-checking our perceptions and predictions, we accept it.

    Let’s say it turned out that the recent (purported) phenomenon of neutrinos breaking the speed of light actually was repeated. And repeated. And repeated. Equipment checked and re-checked. New experiments year after year repeating the results. What do we do? Do we say “Well…this is a completely new phenomenon that would seem to pull the rug out of what we thought we knew about how things were…so let’s not accept what seems to be the case…and instead go with an explanation like we are all hallucinating or aliens are playing a trick on us.”

    Does that sound like a scientific mode of reasoning? Ignoring the direction the evidence points, and supplanting another entirely un-evidenced entity as an explanation? Of course not.

    Same if a God-like being showed up, empirically, sticking around month after month, year after year. What possible, consistent empirical reasoning would it be to ignore that ALL the evidence pointed to our encountering such a powerful being, to instead suppose the entire world is under a consistent delusion (which is supplanting one miracle with another), or alien trickery – when no evidence whatsoever can be found for the hypothesis of behind-the-scenes aliens?
    (And, most important, as in every other empirical situation, we don’t require Absolute Certainty that can not be attained…we just infer from the evidence what seems to be the case to us).

    It would just be special pleading to make an exception to normal empirical reasoning, just because a being shows the powers associated with a God.
    And if it displayed appropriately God-like powers, e.g. creating humans and worlds in front of our eyes, showing us messages it left in our DNA, etc…what motivation except obstinency would anyone have to reject this being as a God?

    Cont’d…

    1. Which gets to #2:

      No True Scottsman Fallacy: In which the other objection is that God is an incoherent concept, and there can be no evidence for an incoherent concept.
      And I’ve seen it play out like this numerous times:

      Skeptic: There can be no evidence for God, because God is incoherent concept:
      Opponent: You’re wrong, here is a coherent concept of God, and here’s the type of evidence it could generate.
      Skeptic: Then it’s not a real God you are talking about, since Real Gods are incoherent and can not generate evidence.

      The problem is there are many, many different conceptions of God(s) in many cultures, and even just within Christianity, there are almost as many versions of God as there are Christians. Some are more coherent than others. In fact, I’ve discussed with some Christians a coherent God that they would accept as “The Christian God” (e.g. the only God, a Being who created the universe, who created humans, who manifested as a man, Jesus, and who lived in a manner that expressed God’s nature to us, and who suffered and died to take on our sins and offer an afterlife with God, etc…most of the things that centrally motivate Christians about the Christian story can be expressed without need of keeping those aspects that are strict logical contradictions).

      To say essentially “The only REAL God we could be talking about is the one that is totally incoherent” is no more motivated than any particular Christian who clings to THEIR God as being “the only True Understanding Of What God Is Like.”

      Anyway…

      Vaal

      1. Whether God is a coherent concept depends on how it is defined. I would argue that the god Thor, a super-sized person with a hammer and an anvil, actually makes sense. But I would go along with philosophers such as Ayer and Carnap in saying that the theologian’s notion if a God outside time and space is incoherent. It wouldn’t make sense for there to be evidence for such a God.

      2. Eh, no.

        Not even close.

        The reason I reject the notion of gods entirely (and therefore place myself as a 7 on Richard’s scale) is that I’ve yet to encounter a coherent definition of the term, “god.” And, believe me, I’ve had plenty of definitions offered up.

        If you’d care to step up to the plate and offer your definition, have at it. But you’re doomed to failure.

        The reason is simple. A god is nothing if it doesn’t perform miracles, and a miracle is nothing if it’s not an instance of the impossible. But, if it happens, it’s clearly not impossible, merely difficult, unlikely, or incomprehensible. And, colloquial usage aside, that which is possible isn’t miraculous, no matter how difficult, unlikely, or incomprehensible it may seem to be.

        In other words, deities are nothing more than an expression of the common problem of the inability to think through the logical consequences of a proposal.

        People in general have an especially hard time with recursion, and recursion is the best tool to use to lay bare theological claims. For example, an all-powerful entity can’t divest itself of its power; it can’t commit suicide — it would then be powerless, the opposite of all-powerful. But how many of the faithful would it occur to, even (especially!) in the throes of deepest depression, to ponder the suicide of their favorite imaginary friend and the logical consequences of such an act or attempt?

        So we’re left with what I think of as “Hamlet’s Life Syndrome.” It’s a whole lotta bullshit, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Another common problem is that people assume, as they saying goes, that, “If there’s smoke, there’s fire.” You especially seem vulnerable. You sense all this sound and fury surrounding religion and assume that there’s at least the theoretical possibility that there might be something there, and you insist that we remain open to the possibility. But possibility of what? Something, you insist.

        Sorry. I’ve got enough T-shirts already. I’m not buying yours.

        Cheers,

        b&

        1. “If you’d care to step up to the plate and offer your definition, have at it.”

          I’ll be happy to. However…

          ” But you’re doomed to failure.”

          Well, “doomed to failure” that is exactly what one expects when dealing with someone promulgating the No True Scottsman Fallacy, where you have essentially defined away any possible evidence against your position.

          And this is just what you seem to have done, setting up a sort of NTS situation at the outset. You’ve used semantics to MAKE it impossible to meet your demands:

          “A god is nothing if it doesn’t perform miracles, and a miracle is nothing if it’s not an instance of the impossible. But, if it happens, it’s clearly not impossible, merely difficult, unlikely, or incomprehensible. And, colloquial usage aside, that which is possible isn’t miraculous, no matter how difficult, unlikely, or incomprehensible it may seem to be.”

          You’ve simply conjoined the term “impossible” to “miracle” making evidence for miracles “impossible.” So if someone presented evidence for a miracle (e.g. raising the dead, splitting an ocean, levitating the empire state building) you simply say “Well, that’s not a miracle, because obviously we see those things are possible now, and only impossible things are miracles.”

          A perfect example of the No True Scotsman fallacy in action!

          But despite your desire to say that a miracle must by definition be “impossible,” I don’t use the term that way, and neither does anyone else I know, nor do many theists.
          In fact, if we are talking definitions, here you go, from Merriam-Webster:

          http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/miracles

          1: an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs

          2 : an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment

          The word “impossible” as you’ve employed it is nowhere to be found there, and there is nothing internally incoherent in those definitions.

          Someone rising from truly being “dead,” or splitting the sea on command, etc. are held to be “miracles,” and hence someone performing these would qualify as performing miracles by most people’s understanding.

          I see no reason to take your odd definition of “miracle,” self-negating as it is, when it is hardly the only, let alone standard conception of the term.

          As for a coherent concept of God, the point is, as Wikipedia wisely points out “there is no clear consensus on the nature of God.” There are many, many versions of God(s), including the monotheistic God. But of course a lack of consensus in competing concepts of God does not entail that all individual concepts of a God are incoherent. Here’s one description of an entity that fulfills a main requirement often associated with “God.”

          A Personal Being (e.g. an agent with desires and means to rationalize about how to fulfill it’s desire, and means to act to fulfill desires) who deliberately created our universe.

          Could be the deistic “God of the philosophers” who created our universe and leaves it from then on. It could be a Being who still watches over us, etc.

          Explain how it is in principle “incoherent.”

          (BTW, if you are inclined to start arguing that this would logically necessitate this Being as having incoherent properties like “incorporeal, outside time and space,” in order to create the universe, that wouldn’t be the case. I’m talking of the “visible universe” and not universe as in “everything that possibly exists.” There is nothing logically incoherent about a Being creating THIS instant of space/time while existing in it’s own realm, with it’s own laws…or time…)

          Cheers,

          Vaal

          1. In fact, if we are talking definitions, here you go, from Merriam-Webster:

            Seriously? A dictionary definition? Well, ok…

            1: an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs

            Of course, the “divine intervention” part is question-begging, since that is precisely what is at issue. So this version isn’t particularly helpful in the present discussion.

            2 : an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment

            And that is a ludicrously low bar. Was Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak a “miracle”? It was certainly an extremely outstanding accomplishment — was he therefore divine?

            And what counts as “outstanding” and “unusual” changes with time and technology. A few hundred years ago it would have been “extremely unusual” to communicate with someone thousands of miles away in real time — is a long-distance phone call therefore a “miracle”?

            Or take, for example:

            Someone rising from truly being “dead,”

            Medical science can, in some circumstances (such as drowning in very cold water) revive a person who is by all measures “dead” for up to half an hour. Paramedics routinely revive people who have no heartbeat, and even an average person who knows CPR can revive a “dead” person. Such revivals would have seemed like literal miracles to those in Jesus’ time — are we to take them as miracles now?

            1. And engineers routinely part seas on demand (and rejoin them) with all manner of dikes, dams, levees, canals, caissons, and whatnot.

              Displays of awesome power do not by themselves count as miracles or proof of divinity unless we have some independent reason (apart from sheer awesomeness) to think they’re supernatural in origin.

          2. By your reasoning, James Randi isn’t merely Amazing, he’s divine.

            And you’re missing the big picture. Miracles aren’t real; they’re plot devices. Every single miracle in all of human history has been found in fiction, and not a single one has ever happened in reality.

            Jesus walked on water for the same reason Superman leapt tall buildings with a single bound: because such feats are impossible. It wouldn’t even have occurred to the authors to have had Jesus using inflatable sandals or Superman a jetpack, or to have had Jesus hop across a stream or Superman climb a ladder.

            Could be the deistic “God of the philosophers” who created our universe and leaves it from then on.

            Primal causality? Please.

            The only meaningful definition of “universe” in this context would be that which Sagan used for the Cosmos. Otherwise, “God” is merely the programmer of the Matrix, leaving open the question of which super-god programmed the Hyper-Matrix.

            And, if your god exists, then “he” is part of the Cosmos. Even if there wasn’t anything else to the Cosmos other than this god of yours, the Cosmos still (already) existed and thus it was impossible for your god to create, putting us right back to your god as the programmer of the Matrix, so whence your god?

            Recursion, my boy — recursion! Learn it or forever be stuck in theistic woo-woo. It ain’t hard.

            All but God can prove this sentence true.

            Tell me, God, “Yes,” or “No,” will you answer, “No”?

            If God created everything, who created God?

            It’s not rocket science — just introductory set theory.

            b&

    2. Seems to me you’re attacking a straw man here. I don’t see anybody saying that we should ignore evidence or pretend that unexplained events didn’t happen. What we’re saying is that we shouldn’t leap to conclusions or over-interpret the evidence just because the alleged miracle-worker happens to resemble a character from our mythology. That would be special pleading.

      Rather, we should treat apparent miracles the same way we’d treat any unexplained phenomenon by applying our normal empirical reasoning and trying to figure out the most parsimonious explanation. And in pretty much every case you can imagine, “powerful but natural entity wielding physics beyond our current comprehension” will turn out to be more parsimonious than “omnipotent creator of the universe”.

      As others have said upthread, no finite display of power can suffice to convince us that the being has infinite power at its disposal.

      And putting messages in DNA? Even we can do that.

      1. Hi Gregory (I enjoy your posts on Free Will!).

        I’ve been round on this with Steve Zara somewhat, and have read great numbers of comments in the Dawkins and PZ Meyers sites
        expressing the #1 position I outlined. There are various issues tangled in this, and I was careful to explain which specific issues I was criticizing. The first one does not pertain to the identity of a Being who shows up wielding God-like power (“Is it God?”), but rather to the assertion that in any conceivable scenario of a Being doing incredible things, it is ALWAYS more likely that you are being tricked or are hallucinating etc…in other words, what you think you are seeing is not REALLY occurring.

        It’s not a strawman: it’s right there in Dawkins’ quote. Read it again:

        it is hard to think ofany evidence that would in principle be capable of convincing me of a god’s existence (a trick, or a hallucination, or insanity, or even a visitation by an evolved super-human from outer space would always be more probable)

        So to start with a “trick, hallucination or insanity” would ALWAYS be more probable than the conclusion that what he is seeing is really occurring.

        As I pointed out, you would have to abandon our normal process of empirical reasoning to take such a position. Because it should be ridiculously easy for any scientist to propose ways of testing whether a Being is actually there and has actually done the things it seems to be doing. Can President Obama’s existence be scientifically demonstrated? Of course. Have all manner of people, scientists etc. show up, study Obama, and when Obama remains empirically consistent, they say “Obama exists.” Similarly, all a new Being has to do is present itself in the same empirically verifiable manner as Obama and anything else we know empirically. That is after all how we determine pretty much ANYTHING exists, right? People believe many bizarre false things, but we also have accepted many bizarre phenomena as being real? What’s the method for determining what is “really there” vs what is a dream or delusion or false belief? Dawkins would say empirical reasoning – evidence etc. It would be special pleading to suddenly say “We use this method of inquiry to establish everything else exists…but even though THIS case has passed the same tests as every other empirically real entity…I’m not going to accept it.”

        So the “hallucination, delusion” claim, made by Dawkins, simply fails the test of consistency.

        What about a “trick” or “it’s an alien being.”

        The question again is, is this ALWAYS motivated no matter WHAT conceivable phenomena we could encounter? Again, the “trick” means we are not seeing what we think we are seeing, and if there is no actual evidence that what we are seeing isn’t occurring, then it is no more motivated than folding your arms and saying of weird quantum phenomena, no matter how empirically demonstrated, “nope, too weird, it’s a trick and isn’t really happening.”

        Now, given a Super Being could conceivably be empirically demonstrated, and produce empirically testable results (e.g. levitate people, bring people back from dead, etc), the question moves to it’s identity.

        What if a Being shows up, claims to be NOT an alien, but: “God, the Creator Of The Universe and of human-kind etc.?” We ask for evidence. This Being raised the dead. Cures disease. Creates planets in front of our eyes for us to inspect. Creates new life forms. Tells us the message he left in our DNA, and we find it.
        Alters the speed of light, alters gravity at will…is able to control every process of nature. Even creates singularities and shows how He can create universes. And demonstrates to anyone who asks that he can read our thoughts, and knows our inner thoughts and the details of all our lives intimately. And on and on…

        Every single bit of empirically verifiable evidence we can get is in SUPPORT of the proposition this Being can do what he claims, and is what he claims. What, then, can possibly be the motivation to point to an alternate explanation – he’s really an alien – that not only is not where all the evidence points, but which has no evidence whatsoever (no evidence for this other entity, the alien)??? That is completely at odds with normal, scientific, empirical reasoning to do so.

        The idea that the universe started as an infinitesimal singularity is a bizarre, wild proposition. Yet…we believe it because that is where all the current evidence points, even though we weren’t “there” when it happened. We can never have absolute proof of such things, only follow the lines of evidence. Could aliens be planting evidence to make us THINK the Big Bang occurred? It’s logically possible. But absent any evidence pointing to the existence of such aliens and their desire to trick us, parsimony advises against introducing such additional entities that do no more to explain the phenomena.

        If a Super Being introduced new evidence about the origin of the universe, and now the massive preponderance of evidence would support that Super Being’s claims as the creator of the universe, then it would be utterly inconsistent to reject the clear train of evidence….and say things like “Well…maybe it’s an alien, maybe we are being fooled.”

        Now, as to whether such a Being deserves to be called “God,” I sure as heck would
        be fine calling it “God.” That’s what it calls itself, and it did the things many of us attribute to being “God.” Of course one can always fold one’s arms and say “Well I’m not going to call that God, since it isn’t the incoherent concept held by certain Christians.” But, since when has the concept of “God” been so narrowly defined and only the privilege of certain theists holding to only particular concepts of God?
        (And, btw, it is also conceivable that this God could provide plenty of reasons to think he appeared earlier to mankind as Jesus, died for our “sins,” offers us the gift of an afterlife etc.).

        Cheers,

        Vaal

        1. And demonstrates to anyone who asks that he can read our thoughts, and knows our inner thoughts and the details of all our lives intimately.

          We’re already taking baby steps in the area of reading minds. I don’t think telepathy could reasonably be called godlike, since we may well be doing this ourselves before the decade is out. Perhaps technological “entire memory scans” are on the horizon as well.

        2. Most of the “miracles” you’re describing are not supernatural. We can cure diseases. Planets create themselves all the time, without any help. Craig Venter claims to have created a new life form. (I’m not convinced that it was really “new” in any important sense, but let that pass.) Messages in DNA are child’s play. Thoughts are physical phenomena and can in principle be read technologically (we can already detect the formation of intentions).

          The speed of light and gravity are a bit more challenging, I admit, but given that we don’t yet have a complete theory of quantum gravity, we can’t say that such things are impossible to sufficiently advanced natural beings.

          Again, all you’ve done is pile up a catalog of wonders, which (per my post #26) demonstrate nothing more than the being’s ability to perform those particular wonders. They do not add up to omnipotence, nor prove that the being is who he claims to be, namely the creator of the universe, rather than merely a very powerful inhabitant of it. So the trickery hypothesis remains viable, if you consider trickery to include using advanced physics and technology to pose as the God of our mythology (which I’m sure is how Dawkins meant it).

          Even if the being shows us natural, independently verifiable evidence that the universe was created, that does not establish that he’s the creator. We’d still have only his word in support of that — and no reason whatever to trust his word. Showing us his signature in our DNA doesn’t help: anybody could have put that there, and he’s just taking credit for it. Conclusions about his divinity are simply not warranted by the evidence, and I don’t see what sort of evidence there could be for that.

          Look at it this way. If you see what appears to be a baby elephant flying by flapping its ears, which is more likely? That Disney is using technology you’re not familiar with to promote a new movie? That it’s a trick, an illusion, or a hallucination? Or that, despite a lifetime of evidence to the contrary, you suddenly find yourself in a world where Dumbo is non-fiction? Under what circumstances would it be reasonable to prefer the non-fiction hypothesis over the trick, illusion, or insanity hypotheses?

          I don’t see how substituting Yahweh for Dumbo changes the argument any. If we’re willing to accept Yahweh over trickery on less evidence than we would require for Dumbo, that’s special pleading.

          1. Gregory,

            Thanks for the reply!

            1. You’ve skipped a bit. Remember I’d quote Dawkins and addressed the implications in all his alternate explanations. I showed again it was not a strawman, and I showed why the first 3 alternate explanations (“trick, hallucination, insanity”) are not “always” more probable explanations for the appearance of a Super Being doing “miraculous” things.

            Whether you agree with my assessment or not (I’d like to see how you could disagree), would you not admit I was addressing proposals that Dawkins actually gave?

            Then there’s the issue of the No True Scotsman fallacy. And sure enough, Ben Goren supports that as not being a strawman, by producing an almost perfect example the fallacy in action (he explains that a God is something that “does the impossible” (miracles) so that if you ever could show a Being doing anything, even creating universes, he gets to say “Well, that doesn’t count, since those aren’t True Miracles, because No True Miracle is possible.”)

            On to the issue of identifying a being as a Creator of the universe or a God:

            2. When theists and creationists dig in their heels and refuse to connect the evidential dots, you recognize their inconsistency immediately. So it’s very odd to see you taking just such an approach to this question. Creationists will be happy to connect all the logical dots for a murder case, but suddenly will refuse the same reasoning when applied to any science that threatens what they want to defend – e.g. that God created man, not the process of evolution. Suddenly, the bar for “proof” is raised so high, it can never be met. So if you show 3 transitional fossils, instead of connecting the logical dots they say “Well, you’ve just shown 3 distinct forms, and all that does is create more gaps you need to fill, you haven’t proven anything.” And if you manage to show both that life can be created in a laboratory under conditions X and Y, AND show that conditions X and Y existed in the past, the Creationist can always say “Well, all you’ve shown is that you’ve managed to create life NOW in a lab, and shown that certain conditions existed in the past. But we weren’t there to see life form, so you haven’t PROVED that life arose by such methods. You can always isolate instances of evidence this way as not being worthwhile, if you refuse to connect the logical dots. And this is what you seem intent on doing, apparently only on the issue of a Creator of the Universe or God.

            BTW, I think the term “supernatural” will be a distraction, for the types of reasons already apparent in Ben’s post. I’m concerned simply with “Can this entity DO X? And DID this entity Do Y?” Much of your reply relied on minimizing important distinctions between what we can do, and what one could conceive a God-like being to do.

            – We can cure diseases. That’s like saying “We can travel places” to ignore the difference between us and a being who could instantly appear anywhere on earth, at will.
            No one can cure cancer, or rabies, or aids, or make a limb re-grow instantly by simply laying a hand on and commanding it to happen. If a being did this, it would surely be astounding and “miraculous” in the way most people think of something being miraculous.

            – Planets create themselves all the time, without any help. But planets DON’T suddenly form instantly at anyone’s command, do they? THAT is what would distinguish something truly extraordinary. If a Being showed up who could form planets intently at will, it would hardly be as mundane as you imply.

            “The speed of light and gravity are a bit more challenging, I admit, but given that we don’t yet have a complete theory of quantum gravity, we can’t say that such things are impossible to sufficiently advanced natural beings.”

            There are two slippery words in there: “impossible” and “natural.” They can muddy the waters. Right now I’m concerned with the claim that some Being created the universe (and perhaps us). And I’m concerned with whether it’s conceivable for there to be evidence for that claim. Certainly a Being who says that he sustains the processes of the universe, says “watch” and he utterly changes the gravitation of elements in our solar system, or galaxies, that would be astounding, and “God-like.” And no appeals to what we can do compare to the powers we can conceive for a Super Being.

            If a being showed up who does not purport to have created the universe or to have created humankind, but it shows us the ability to counter gravity etc, then that is not the type of scenario I’m discussing. I’m discussing a Being who claims to be “God” and to have created the universe. When we ask for evidence for this, and the Being gives us plenty of evidence he CAN do such things as well as plenty of evidence suggesting he DID create the universe (e.g.
            he could show us how our current problematic models of the origin of the universe are made more sense of by introducing processes that he demonstrates he can perform)….then it becomes mere recaltricance to not “connect the dots” and admit the evidence now points toward this being as The Creator.

            Is it logically possible for such a Being to trick us? Of course. But appeals to the logically possible are red herrings, as there are always logically possible alternatives to EVERYTHING we hold to be “true” or a “fact.” The only way we negotiate between mere logical possibility and what likely “is the case,” is to look at what the evidence suggests (and using parsimony).
            Is this Being’s word trustworthy? Well, does my mother actually love me, or could all her apparent affection and compassion simply be a trick and she secretly hates me. Could be, but what motivation, what additional evidence, points to my mother being other than she seems and hating me instead. Similarly, if all the powers and behaviour of this Super Being appears trustworthy, and in support of the proposition He is telling the truth, what good motivation is left to give more credence to the un-evidenced proposition that the Being is lying and tricking us? We have to be consistent, and establish lines of evidence for any person, and any Being’s
            trustworthiness in the only, imperfect, previsionary way we do for every other being we know.

            Offering alternate explanations as logical possibilities is just neither here-nor-there unless you have reason or evidence that the alternate explanation is MORE likely or required to explain the phenomenon.

            Finally, on the example of Dumbo: If Disney claimed they had an elephant named Dumbo
            that could fly by flapping it’s ears, I’d want that claim investigated by the same methods we use to vet any other empirical claim. If it turns out scientists look at this elephant, find it is indeed physiologically an elephant, and it does indeed manage to fly by flapping extra gigantic ears…that is if it survives all the empirical inquiry as any other scientific “fact,” then of course I’d accept this new entity, Dumbo, into my ontology (I’d have to accept Dumbo exists). The real question here is…why in the world wouldn’t you?

            Again, I don’t (and I don’t think science does or should) rule out entities a priori. It’s the method of inquiry, of intersubjetive confirmation, of controlling for variables, including human delusion, bias etc, that I trust. If we made special exceptions and refused to belief new phenomena that passed our empirical inquiry, just because it did not conform to our previous view of the world, then we would not have had any scientific progress!

            Cheers,

            Vaal.

            1. I showed why the first 3 alternate explanations (“trick, hallucination, insanity”) are not “always” more probable explanations for the appearance of a Super Being doing “miraculous” things.

              No, you didn’t really show that. Surely any explanation that does not involve the violation of the foundational aspects of the universe is far more likely than not. A priori such explanations will always be more likely.

              1. Tulse, concerning what you quoted, I find you aren’t addressing the actual point I’ve argued.

                I’ll try to make it clear again…

                The fist thing I addressed, in regards to what you quoted, was Dawkins’ appeal to “tricks, hallucinations, insanity” ALWAYS being the better explanation. What is the context? Well, it’s in the context of “What would we have to see or experience – what evidence – could establish that a God exists?” From there people start talking about incredible phenomena appearing, e.g. a 500 foot Jesus striding the earth, or a Being producing incredible phenomena, for instance. raising the dead, splitting oceans, levitating buildings, or as I’ve suggested, creating entire planets and solar systems and galaxies etc before our eyes.

                In this context, Dawkins suggests that a hallucination or insanity will ALWAYS be the better explanation for our experience over the conclusion that what we are seeing is ACTUALLY HAPPENING. So, note that this is an issue that doesn’t even need to get to the question of whether such entities could be considered “God,” it is stuck at the issue of how we decide if some phenomenon is “real,” if it’s “actually happening” vs being a figment of our imagination.

                I suggest that the appeal to insanity or hallucination could be rational if we were talking about fleeting experiences, or experiences as subjectively variable as those typically presented by religious people. But as the proposition concerns phenomena that survive ever mounting empirical inquiry by more and more people, the appeal to “insanity” and “hallucination” and “tricks” become more and more strained, finally absurd, and finally right into special pleading where you’ve just abandoned trust in the very method you’ve used to establish the reality of everything else you consider “real.”

                Again, take the scenario of the recent “faster than light neutrinos.” If that bizarre phenomena were really happening, many scientists were saying it would be against physics as we thought we understood it – special relativity, time travel, E=MC2, Cause and effect and on and on, our notions were all possibly threatened by this phenomenon. But scientists were nonetheless ready to accept it as real SO LONG as the tests passed the standard scientific muster of checking, re-checking, and repeated verification by various groups. Because it’s the method we trust, not ruling out phenomena a priori, or only on the basis of our current theories. (That’s one reason WHY theories change!). If the faster-than-light neutrinos were detected over and over and over, year after year, the scientist who said “Fellas, this doesn’t fit with our previous beliefs about physics, so I suggest it’s more likely we’ve all gone insane or are suffering an amazingly consistent group delusion, that just happens to mimic empirically consistent reality…”

                THAT would be the nutty scientist, the one who clung to the bizarre “explanation” instead of actually accepting empirically established results. Right? We would point out to this reluctant scientist that if the constant empirical verification of the neutrino phenomenon didn’t constitute evidence in it’s favour, establish it as “really happening,” then NOTHING is established science, since everything else is established by the same method.

                So now apply this to a scenario of a Being showing up, doing incredible things.

                (Again…we aren’t yet at the issue of whether an entity actually ought to be considered “God” yet).

                So here’s a proposed scenario: A Being shows up (calls itself God, but we don’t have to conclude it is God yet), and instantly able to re-appear wherever he wants around the world, where people can touch him, interact, just as they would any other person. This Being then says he’ll demonstrate his power over gravity by levitating 10 feet above the ground the largest building in every town and city in the world. All such buildings rise 10 feet and remain hovering at his command.
                Now, these building REMAIN in that state as long as we wish. Everyone in the world can visit them, see it with their own eyes, touch the buildings. We throw every relevant science we have at it, even finding that there is no gravity registering beneath the buildings. Day after day, month after month, if necessary year after year, these buildings (and this Being) remain empirically consistent, testable by all the methods of empirical inquiry at our deposal.

                Now, if THAT does not constitute evidence for the reality of the phenomena (vs being a mass delusion or insanity) then NOTHING constitutes evidence anything is real, because it would have survived the same rigorous inquiry we have used to establish the reality of everything else. How can you say it would not, that it would still “always be better” to propose mass delusion or insanity, no matter how empirically consistent and testable a new phenomenon is…without special pleading?

                I suggest you can not do so while reasoning in a consistent, empirical manner.

                I hope this argument, and the point I’m making concerning the “hallucination/insanity is a better explanation”, is clear at this point.

                Vaal.

                (BTW, if someone wants to suggest in defense of Dawkins that all the other people in the world confirming they see these things are part of his own delusion, that too falls to special pleading for the same reason, as it undermines everything else Dawkins would have accepted empirically).

            2. I don’t have time to respond at length to everything you’ve written, so I’ll just focus on the crux of the issue as I see it, which is this:

              Accepting the reality of Disney’s bioengineered Dumbo facsimile is not the same as believing that the Dumbo story is true.

              By the same token, the existence of ultra-powerful, world-creating entities would not automatically promote our creation myths from fiction to fact. It is quite possible to accept the former without accepting the latter, and I claim that intellectual rigor and scrupulous interpretation of the evidence demand that we draw that distinction.

              A being, however God-like, that purports to be the God of our mythology is therefore in all likelihood not playing straight with us. When confronted with a fictional character apparently made flesh, our default assumption should be that it’s a masquerade or imposture of some kind, not that the line between fiction and real life has suddenly been abolished. This is true regardless of how good the imposture is or how many special effects he deploys; after all, if he’s that powerful, we’d expect him to do a decent job of it.

              This is I believe what Dawkins, Myers, and others are getting at with their assertion that trickery is always more plausible. Not that we should reject evidence or refuse to connect the dots, but that one of the dots we are obliged to connect is our vast prior experience at distinguishing reality from fantasy.

              1. Thanks Gregory.

                However…

                You still haven’t acknowledged that I actually addressed what Dawkins said (e.g. trick/hallucination/insanity will always be a better explanation). Hence I was not strawmanning.

                But moving on…

                “By the same token, the existence of ultra-powerful, world-creating entities would not automatically promote our creation myths from fiction to fact. It is quite possible to accept the former without accepting the latter, and I claim that intellectual rigor and scrupulous interpretation of the evidence demand that we draw that distinction.”

                But I’ve been emphasizing that very distinction over and over! That’s why I keep pointing out there are many conceptions of God(s), not just those of any specific myth (e.g. Christian). And that we don’t have to be stuck talking about a particular Christian God to entertain the proposition of SOME God-Who-Created-The-Universe to show his existence.

                In fact, notice what Dawkins says in the quote I’ve been repeating: ““it is hard to think of any evidence that would in principle be capable of convincing me of a god’s existence…” (Note: “a” God).

                So here he is not specifically referencing a specific God myth, and early in the God Delusion Dawkins also clarifies that he’s looking at a catchall, basic God concept (“created universe, has interest in human affairs etc”) rather than only shooting down a single particular religious God myth. (Although, of course, he goes on in other chapters to ALSO look at some specific God claims – e.g. the Biblical God).

                Why you’d write as if I were missing this distinction, when I’ve felt the need to emphasize it many time, is baffling to me.

                So…can we agree yet? That we can conceive of a Being who gives plenty of empirically detectable evidence in favor of his ability to control nature and produce planets, solar systems, galaxies on command, and who could in principle provide empirical evidence that points toward his powers as being responsible for the universe as we find it?

                Following that, since you’ve moved on to the proposition of a God of a specific myth…

                By the same token, the existence of ultra-powerful, world-creating entities would not automatically promote our creation myths from fiction to fact.

                That’s right. Unless that ultra-powerful Being started claiming to be the God of a certain creation myth, e.g. biblical God, and started providing evidence in favor of that claim. Then we’d have to see if the evidence supported his claims.

                A being, however God-like, that purports to be the God of our mythology is therefore in all likelihood not playing straight with us.

                That does not follow whatsoever from any of your previous statements. I don’t see where you established any likelihood whatsoever (or even how you would establish it) that such a being would likely be a trickster. Please explain.

                When confronted with a fictional character apparently made flesh, our default assumption should be that it’s a masquerade or imposture of some kind, not that the line between fiction and real life has suddenly been abolished.

                At first, sure, just as we should greet ANY anomalous or unexplainable phenomena with skepticism. But if evidence piles up all in support of the proposition that this being is the character told of in an ancient book we THOUGHT was only myth, then it starts to become inconsistent and mere stubbornness for us to retain our skepticism.

                “This is true regardless of how good the imposture is or how many special effects he deploys; after all, if he’s that powerful, we’d expect him to do a decent job of it.”

                Uhm…you are here just assuming he is an “impostor” and “special effects” (implying a priori that the powers and displays are not real as they would seem), without actually establishing any argument that it would be the case. “Could” such a being trick us? Of course.
                But as I’ve already pointed out, “coulds” – alternate explanations – attend EVERYTHING we believe, hence we are always left making the provisional, best inference from the evidence we can get. Like I said, someone “could” only appear to love you and be tricking you. But absent any good reason to think that is case, absent any additional evidence of such a motivation, and evidence of trickery, it is simply unmotivated to appeal to trickery. We always base our conclusions on how things appear, unless there are strong reasons or evidence to think things are not as they appear. It’s like metaphysical solipsism: it’s a logical possibility, an alternate explanation for our experience that everyone else is only a figment of our imagination. But nothing SUGGESTS it, which is why we don’t walk around taking that proposition seriously.

                Likewise, if every bit of evidence points to this Super Being as truthful – all his explanations help us make more sense of the world/universe, he imparts new knowledge, he provides evidence that certain relevant claims in the bible were indeed descriptions of him, and there is NOTHING indicating deceit, then it is unmotivated and not parsimonious to presume it’s a trick….just because it being a trick would also happen to explain the experience.

                Vaal.

              2. I just wanted to clarify in my post of 8:17 pm:

                I do not see why “in all likelihood” a Super Being would have the character of a trickster – fooling us when claiming to be the being described in one of our myths.

                That is different, however, from the normal demands of empirical inquiry and skepticism.
                In other words, if a new type of Being showed up and claimed to be the Biblical God, I would want evidence specifically for that claim. If that evidence is provided, I can say I assent to the claim. If that Being refuses to provide evidence or reasons to think He is the Biblical God, instead acting in a manner that indicates untrustworthiness, or if some of his claims and “evidence” don’t support the proposition, THEN I have reasons to think He could be a Super Powerful trickster.

                But if all the evidence provided supports His claim, then I don’t see the grounds for
                refusing to believe the evidence.

                Vaal.

              3. The Biblical God is an untrustworthy trickster. Any being who claims to be that God is either deceiving us, or admitting he’s the guy who deceived Abraham (among many other heinous crimes).

                More generally, the overwhelming evidence is that all of our creation myths are homegrown fiction without any connection to reality. A being that claims to be one of those mythical gods is telling us to ignore that very convincing evidence, and we ought to be suspicious of that. Any evidence he provides in his favor would have to outweigh the evidence we already have that he’s probably lying.

                (Note that I did not say that all super beings are liars — only those who claim to be fictional characters.)

                Regarding Dawkins, nowhere did he say that “a hallucination or insanity will ALWAYS be the better explanation for our experience over the conclusion that what we are seeing is ACTUALLY HAPPENING.” That’s a misrepresentation of his view, since he also included trickery and alien visitations as alternate explanations, neither of which entails a denial of empirical evidence. You can accept that something is actually happening, and still be wrong about what it means.

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