Michael Shermer’s talk in Mexico, and a note on the possibility of a god

November 3, 2012 • 11:22 am

Michael Shermer just gave the morning’s first talk at the Mexican Atheist meetings. This is the first time I’ve heard him speak, and he’s very entertaining and engaging.  While he was nominally touting his new book, The Believing Brain, it was really a talk about Skeptic magazine, which he edits, and about why people are credulous.

Many of you may be familiar with the reasons why people believe weird stuff from Shermer’s previous books, or from those of other skeptics: they include the fact that we’re hard-wired to accept authority, that we come naturally to the concept of agency and thus to accepting the supernatural, that that concept of agency is also instilled in us by evolution (better to mistake a rustle in the bushes for a predator than to ignore it, since fitness is maximized by the former strategy), and so on.

He gave a lot of examples of studies with which I wasn’t familiar, including Emily Rosa’s experiment debunking healing touch, which led to her publishing that study at the age of 11 in The Journal of the American Medical Association; she’s still the youngest person to publish a paper in a major journal (see the link above for more information).

Shermer also answered audience questions for about 45 minutes, including one about whether Deepak Chopra really believes what he says. (Shermer gave an unequivocal “yes,” saying that Deepak may well have deluded himself into really believing his quantum-based woo, but yes, he really believes the tripe he dishes out.)

Shermer ruled the supernatural out of court from the beginning, saying that, like Hume, a naturalistic explanation is always more parsimonious, even if we can’t find one.  I asked him if there was anything that could make him believe in the existence of a god, and he joked about “A million dollars appearing in a Swiss bank account in his name,” but then said, no, even the healing of amputees might be attributed to the intervention of aliens.

While I respect Shermer’s view that invoking aliens or some unknown explanation avoids a “god of the gaps” argument for unknown and miraculous or divine phenomena, I still feel as a scientist that the existence of a true supernatural god is a theoretical possibility, and that there is some possible evidence that could convince me of it. (I’ve described that evidence before; needless to say, none has been found.)

Yes, such miraculous evidence for a god might eventually be found to be due to aliens or the like, but my acceptance of a god would always be a provisional one, subject to revision upon further evidence. (We might find aliens behind the whole thing.) After all, every scientific “truth” is provisional.

As always, I find the natural/supernatural distinction confusing, and see that it is possible in principle for some divine being who operates outside the laws of physics to exist.  To say there is no possibility of such a thing is an essentially unscientific claim, since there is nothing that science can rule out on first principles.  We rule out things based on evidence and experience, that is, we consider the possibilities of gods extremely unlikely since we have no good evidence for them. But it is close-minded to say that nothing would convince us otherwise. This is not just a tactical move to make me appear open minded; it’s something I really feel.

Now I know that the concept of gods is incoherent in the main, one reason because nobody can agree how you would identify one. But it is possible in principle that some god, say the Abrahamic one, could exist. (I know that even Abrahamic-god folks can’t agree on what their god is like!)

As scientists we dismiss possibilities not on first principles (“those things simply couldn’t exist”), but from our experience about how things work in the universe.  The Laplacean dictum: “We have no need of that hypothesis,” still applies in science, but it is possible that some day we would have need of that hypothesis. Again, so I don’t give succor (or out-of-context quotes) to the faithful, I don’t envision that ever happening.

165 thoughts on “Michael Shermer’s talk in Mexico, and a note on the possibility of a god

        1. Not really.

          The point behind Pascal’s wager is not so much that there may or may not be a god, but that it is better to believe in one than not believe in one.

          Those two things are quite different inquiries.

          1. Pascal’s wager is an utterly impotent argument for belief in the undemonstrated existence of an Almighty supernatural creator God, for it is in total effect merely an argument that one should believe — truly BELIEVE — JUST to PLAY SAFE.

            And the fatal problem with that (at east for me) is two-fold:

            1. I do not know HOW to believe — truly BELIEVE — an extraordinary claim that does not enjoy the support of even ordinary evidence — JUST to PLAY SAFE.

            2. And even if somehow I COULD believe — truly BELIEVE — JUST to PLAY SAFE, I do not think that would fool a genuine God.

            1. On top of all that, there’s an even more important question:

              Which gods?

              Pascal’s wager only makes sense if there’s only one possible god, and if it’s the eponymous Abrahamic deity.


            2. Pascal’s wager was not about convincing atheists. He was clear about this. He made it for those who were already believers but who had their moments of doubt.

          2. ^^^correct. Pascal’s Wager doesn’t really apply to the issue Jerry is talking about – whether there could in principle be evidence that justified believing in a God. (I think, like Jerry, that we need to be open to such evidence).


          3. “The point behind Pascal’s wager is not so much that there may or may not be a god, but that it is better to believe in one than not believe [to]in one.”

            It can be summed up in three letters:

            C Y A

  1. I guess I just find the whole question whether anything would convince me there was a god to be a loaded question and usually an irritating one asked by people with an agenda. If it weren’t for the fact that we are primed to find agency in everything and religions weren’t such a dominating feature of human history then the question would never even arise.

    I agree that to dismiss the possibility out of hand is technically unscientific. But then so is the outright dismissal of unicorns, fairies and the Loch Ness Monster.

    I don’t see that there is anything wrong with rational, inquiring. intelligent human beings coming to a point where they no longer bother to entertain the idea of gods seriously.

    1. We can — indeed, logically, we must — maintain the hypothetical possibility that we are fundamentally being deceived in some manner profoundly beyond our abilities to detect.

      However, once you set aside that possibility, the laws underlying the physics of everyday life are completely understood, and we can therefore eliminate the possibility of all the traditional boogeymen as surely as you can eliminate the possibility that you are, right now as you read these words, being attacked by a swarm of angry wasps.

      That is, the evidence of Jesus would be so obvious in relation to observations that there would be no more question of his existence than you would have of the existence of the swarm. There is no evidence for either; therefore, no swarm, and similarly no Jesus.



      1. I agree, that is why I dislike even entertaining the question. It’s a setup, or at least, it usually is.

        And it’s one that at base becomes meaningless once you allow for any likely candidates to be rigorously tested. So what if you can conceive of anything – it’s simply mental masturbation.

        1. I prefer countering the question with an analogy: how many continents are there on planet Earth?

          Asia, Europe, Africa, Australia, Antarctica, North America, South America.

          Seven Continents.

          What would it take, to convince you that there are actually NINE continents?? C’mon, there’s gotta be something!!

          In 1492, there were only three known continents. What convinced people that there were more? Reliable, repeated observations and reports by a variety of persons.

          To keep insisting that there might be something out there to convince you that there are NINE continents is as absurd as trying to draw a philosophical line and suggest that, yes, somehow, the supernatural could exist if “X” event on that side of the line came to this side of the line.

          It is a football game (American) played on a field with no yard lines, no end zones or sidelines demarcated. The Faithful simply run plays and yell “Touchdown” wherever they feel it is ‘obvious’, and the Atheists run about pointing at bare ground, saying, “There’s nothing there. There’s no end zone…wait!!” and the Faithful run off another play, yelling “Field Goal”, u.s.w.

          Gods and religion originated in a world that, to most observers, was awash in natural -and- supernatural phenomenon. Rain, lightning, disease, heat from sunlight, microscopic plants and animals, even a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, these were all ‘supernatural’. As the definition of what are natural phenomena grew, what filled the realm “supernatural phenomena” became increasingly absent until it was reduced to an absurdity: no longer physically possible, but simply a human brain originated idea…an idea without substance or meaning. It is the same process that leads us to conclude that there are seven continents: we have exhausted all the possible ways of finding an eighth and ninth continents, because, unlike the situation with the fourth, fifth continents, the planet Earth has been completely examined, many times over. By definition, the eighth and ninth continents do not physically exist, and neither can or will the supernatural physically exist.

          1. I’m nit-picking here,Scott, triggered by your “und so weiter” (is that current over there?) but can Asia and Europe really be considered separate continents on other grounds than culture and tradition ?

            1. “u.s.w.” is my personal literary flourish (since Jerry is literate in German, I thought it was a nice expansion of all things WEIT).

              I didn’t want to go into what defines a continent per se (size matters, of course) but it brings up the point made by Ben: this is all about definition. If my argument were made with “Eurasia” as a continent, six instead of seven, it would be the same argument: what evidence would make you believe there are eight continents instead of six?

            2. Define ‘continents’. If Europe and Asia are one continent, why not Africa as well?

              I’m sure there are geological features which could be used (plates etc?) but I’m also fairy sure that they would give plenty of anomalous results. A bit like trying to define a species.

              So for practical purposes, it’s simplest just to take the traditional demarcations as drawn by generations of mapmakers. Wikipedia has an enlightening article.

              I think the original point though, is that we can now be sure that there isn’t another [large land mass] waiting to be discovered, whatever we choose to call it.

            3. can Asia and Europe really be considered separate continents on other grounds than culture and tradition ?

              If you’re willing to accept that the Urals mark an incomplete continental suture, then you could consider them to be separate continents. But then you’d also consider the UK to comprise two continents, Mainland Europe (west of the Urals) to be two or three, Asia itself at least two continents, and North America another couple too.
              If you want to accept even more dissected mountain ranges and continental sutures as still not being “properly” sutured, then you could consider Russia alone to comprise at least three distinct “continents”, but by now you’re really stretching the meaning of “continent” from what it’s normally considered to mean.
              You could just about make the “Urals separate Europe and Asia”, but it’s a bit of a stretch. Are all domestic dogs the same species, or not?

          2. If there is a supernatural, can it interact with the natural? If so, we can detect its effects. If not, what does it matter to us?

    2. Agree 100%

      This seems like the best place to add a quote from Isaac Aximov:
      “I am an atheist, out and out. It took me a long time to say it. I’ve been an atheist for years and years, but somehow I felt it was intellectually unrespectable to say one was an atheist, because it assumed knowledge that one didn’t have. Somehow, it was better to say one was a humanist or an agnostic. I finally decided that I’m a creature of emotion as well as of reason. Emotionally, I am an atheist. I don’t have the evidence to prove that God doesn’t exist, but I so strongly suspect he doesn’t that I don’t want to waste my time.”
      Free Inquiry (Spring 1982)

  2. I’m not sure what to think of Shermer. I’ve only heard him speak a few times and not at great length, but I was particularly frustrated when I bothered to watch (I think) his most recent TAM talk where he basically regurgitated data from Steven Pinker’s latest work – it made me wonder whether he actually contributes anything or if he just piggy-backs (I’m not actually jumping to any conclusions; it may just have been an unusually bad talk).

    1. I’ve found Michael’s Shermer’s books to be quite helpful and interesting. He can be a bit accommodationist, but in his work it’s but a minor flaw. The books of his that I’ve read are “Why Darwin Matters” (excellent demolition of ID), “Science Friction”, and “Why People Believe Weird Things”. And don’t miss his hilarious “Genesis Revisited: A Scientific Creation Story” reprinted in Hitchens’ “The Portable Atheist” or on-line at http://www.michaelshermer.com/2001/12/genesis-revisited/

  3. It again comes down to a matter of definitions.

    How would you (definitionally) distinguish the programmers of a Matrix-style simulation from YHWH descending from the Heavens to move upon the face of the deep, and would either scenario be fundamentally different from aliens restoring limbs?

    In all cases, the proper conclusion, I would argue, is not that the supernatural has been discovered, but rather that nature is quite different from what we have previously understood it to be and that we need to adjust our understanding of nature to accommodate the newly-discovered evidence. Aliens, YHWH, and the Matrix programmers would therefore be no different from cosmic dark energy: something radically unexpected that fundamentally shifts our understanding of the universe, but certainly not something supernatural.



    1. Exactly. If it interacts with the natural world, then it is natural and not supernatural.

      If it doesn’t interact with the natural world and never has and never will, then in what sense does the supernatural exist, besides self-delusion?

  4. P.S. On the question of proof for god, I believe the furthest we could theoretically be pushed is to believe that something superhuman exists beyond our understanding which causes otherwise inexplicable events to occur, but there is no physical evidence that could convince you of a specific metaphysical entity; the only reason why you would be ready to accept “god” as a provisional hypothesis is because it has been so dominant in our culture, but that is not a good basis on which to speculate.

    1. This is my view as well. Performing miracles before our eyes is evidence only of the ability to perform such miracles; it says nothing about the miracle-worker’s alleged authorship of the Universe or status as the Ground Of All Being.

      Even pointing to a signature embedded in the fabric of the Universe would be evidence only of the ability to find such a signature and claim credit for it. There’s no way we could verify that such credit is warranted.

      1. “..a signature…” or, a tortilla….a tortilla with the virgin Mary on it…or Jesus, or both!!

      2. Gregory,

        “Even pointing to a signature embedded in the fabric of the Universe would be evidence only of the ability to find such a signature and claim credit for it.”

        But what then about this Being showing the ability to us to impart such a signature into nature, showing how he did it? I do not see how a being who had the ability to create the universe could not also have the ability to demonstrate to us the knowledge and power to be the likely candidate for having done so. I mean if he says things like “look at the life forms I created at one point – you’ll find them exactly THERE in the fossil record” and we find them, he shows us how he created them – he could keep continually giving us evidence, in the form of predictions of what we’ll find based on the work he claims he did, and in demonstrating in front of us the power to do these things.

        He could easily fulfill exactly the same evidential demands we have for any scientific explanation that we use to support ANY hypothesis. If a being did this, then it would only be special pleading and blinkered of us to make an exception in it’s case – and conclude – in just the tentative, provisional way we make any scientific conclusion – the this is the Creator Of Our Universe. Someone who says “but it could be an alien fooling us” would actually be profoundly unscientific if there was actually NO EVIDENCE of such an alien, or no evidence supporting that hypothesis, whereas all the evidence supports the more parsimonious “this being is as He seems, the Creator Of The Universe, unless and until there is evidence otherwise.”

        Once we have good empirical support with all evidence pointing to one conclusion, we don’t go adducing alternate possibilities just because “it could be.” The moon “could always be an illusion created by alien technology” too. But we’d have to ask “Do you have evidence for this hypothesis that the moon is not as it appears to all our best methods of inquiry, and is instead some alien technology?” If not, then get outta here! Same with the type of being I describe above.

        Let’s keep thinking scientifically here 🙂


        1. Sorry, I meant to write:

          “If a being did this, then it would only be special pleading and blinkered of us to make an exception in it’s case and appeal to other un-evidenced explanations instead of how things seem to our best efforts of inquiry. It would be consistent to conclude, in just the tentative, provisional way we make any scientific conclusion – that “This Being Created The Universe. ”


        2. Creating species (and even showing us how it’s done) falls into the category of what I called “performing miracles before our eyes”. As I said, it demonstrates no more than the ability to perform those specific miracles.

          But what does it mean to demonstrate “before our eyes” the power to create whole universes? How could we meaningfully perceive such an event, and verify that our perceptions are accurate?

          Basically what you’re saying is that if a being performs an escalating series of convincing miracles, and finishes up by saying, “Trust me, I can create whole universes too,” we should take him at his word, because it would be “unscientific” not to.

          I don’t buy it. The rules of scientific inference apply to mindless natural phenomena that are not out to trick us. Intentional agents such as gods or alien miracle-workers fall into a different conceptual category that warrants a more stringent standard of proof, precisely because they have motives and goals that may conflict with ours.

          So the approach to investigating God-claims should be the same as investigating any other paranormal claim: you assume there’s cheating go on somewhere, and do your damnedest to try to figure out where.

          1. Gregory,

            “But what does it mean to demonstrate “before our eyes” the power to create whole universes? How could we meaningfully perceive such an event, and verify that our perceptions are accurate?”,

            Believe it or not, you are talking like a creationist here. You are essentially saying “Sure you can show me some enormous amount of evidence all pointing toward one conclusion…but I’m not going to accept that conclusion if it involves something we have never seen before our eyes!” And on such bad arguments they reject that men formed from earlier hominids because “you can’t show it to me happening” and that life may have arisen naturally “we weren’t there, have never seen such a thing, so we can never have enough evidence for such a claim.”

            The objection you raise about the proposition a Being caused the universe could be raised against the Big Bang Theory.
            “What does it mean to demonstrate ‘before our eyes’ evidence for how the universe began. How could we meaningfully perceive such an event and verify our perceptions as accurate?”

            Well…of course, the same way we verify EVERYTHING, including coming to the inference that, yeah, all the evidence we have suggests the universe originating as depicted by the big bang theory, even though we could not be in the position to watch the formation of the universe! We accept the conclusion because various lines of strong evidence support it.

            For the same reasons, if a Being showed up and was able to educate us on physics, solving various current problems, who manifested incredible powers, explained how he created things on earth, tell us precisely where to find all sorts of evidence (fossils etc) for his claims, actually demonstrates the power to create life and mold new species, demonstrates powers to alter current known physics (speed of light etc), shows us in front of us he can
            create mountains, deserts, moons, planets, change constellations before our eyes etc.
            And this being keeps it up, manifesting in as strong and persistant a way as every other empirical entity we accept through this same process of evidence gathering…then what could it possibly be but special pleading to say “Well…nope…I refuse to even tentatively accept the conclusion to which all the astounding amount of evidence points?”


            1. Fine. It’s clear we’re not going to reach agreement on this, and you’ve gotten in your obligatory dig at dogmatic atheists who think like creationists, so I guess we can call it a night.

              1. Gregory,

                My apology if that came off as harsh – the appeal to creationism was meant essentially as a reductio ad absurdum, not some insult.

                Your posts are often among my favorite here. I find them very cogent and insightful!

                It wasn’t an “obligatory dig” as I do not
                normally attribute creationist-like thinking to other atheists. In fact I’ve often argued the opposite – that some atheists accuse others of an obdurate type of religious clinging to a position (e.g. how so many of us here defending compatibilism are accused of this by the other side) because that’s what it *seems* like from each side of any disagreement.

                However, in this particular case it’s not that I thought you were clinging religiously to a position: but rather that you actually have offered virtually the same argument that creationists give to deny following the evidence of evolution. “You say speciation has been observed? So what? All that tells us is it’s possible for animals to adapt. It doesn’t support the claim that all life on earth arose from earlier simpler forms!”

                But of course what creationists are doing is simply refusing to follow where all the lines of evidence point toward. Sure we can’t go back and watch all life evolve again, but if you follow all the lines of evidence it points to the conclusion of Common Descent.

                I’m not seeing how your objection to the God evidence is any different: “Yes I could be provided with all sorts of miracles that depict this Being as being able to have created life on earth, and even do miracles that imply his power to mold nature, physics and the cosmos. But that’s all it proves, that this Being has such great powers. I refuse that any line of evidence could point to this Being as the Creator Of The Universe.”

                If you deny that any evidence could suffice, it seems to me this line of reasoning IS indeed essentially that of the creationist who can be presented all possible evidence for a proposition, but who refuses to connect the dots. (And the appeal to creationism here is essentially a Reductio ad absurdum, which shouldn’t be understood as an insult since it is a standard form of showing a line of reasoning to be dubious).

                But if you aren’t interested in answering, so be it. I still think extremely highly of your input on this forum.



              2. Vaal, you’re just repeating your same argument in different words, and I’m still not buying it.

                You’re also putting words in my mouth. I did not say that no amount of evidence would suffice. What I said was that there are some crucial aspects of God’s purported nature (such as his role as author and sustainer of the universe) for which no evidence is possible, and that godlike powers for which evidence is possible (such as moving matter and energy around to form stars, planets, and creatures) do not suffice to distinguish God from powerful natural entities.

                You want your Being to be transcendent enough to be indisputably God, and at the same time transparent enough that we can know we’re not being fooled. You can’t have it both ways. Either his powers are comprehensible and therefore not supernatural, or they’re beyond our ability to analyze and therefore unverifiable.

                I’m not just sticking my fingers in my ears and refusing to follow the evidence. I’m saying that when you break it down, any evidentiary chain purporting to demonstrate the existence of God will always have in it a step that says “And then a miracle occurs.” For me, that’s where science stops. To go beyond that and take the Being at his word is to privilege the God of Christian mythology above other explanations, and that’s what I refuse to do.

                I don’t think I can make my position any clearer than that, and we’ve hit the indentation limit, so if you still think I’m just being stubborn and closed-minded, then we’ll have to agree to disagree.

      3. There could be signatures built into the universe which are so improbable (and with predictive value) that there would be no question that the author had the power to determine some of the laws of nature or boundary conditions on the universe itself. That would be a “god” by most people’s definition.
        An example would be a signature in one of the fundamental dimensionless physical constants, with some straightforward coding of a message to humanity, repeated without breaks in every language spoken today, in alphabetical order, with an occasional joke and reference to current events thrown in.

        1. If we are in a Matrix-style simulation, such a feat would be trivial for the programmers.

          You might choose to equate said programmers with gods — but who programmed their Matrix?


  5. But it is possible in principle that some god, say the Abrahamic one, could exist.

    I’m not sure exactly what that means. The physical laws of the universe assuredly prevent the existence of a disembodied intelligence. To me, in principle, such beings cannot exist.

    1. The question becomes: suppose evidence were to present itself supporting the existence of YHWH. Yes, that’s even less likely than the Sun failing to rise tomorrow — but, for the sake of argument, suppose the evidence actually were to present itself.

      Would you conclude that YHWH was supernatural, or would you conclude that your definition of “natural” needed expansion?

      Jerry’s going with the first answer, which I find unsatisfying and unscientific — which is why I go with the second.


      1. or would you conclude that your definition of “natural” needed expansion?

        Out of interest, what is the definition of `natural’? That one’s long puzzled me (and `not supernatural’ is not helpful if `supernatural’ is defined as `not natural’).

        1. “…what is the definition of ‘natural’?”

          I don’t think this is a complicated issue. “Natural” is that which we observe. If we can observe a phenomenon – if it really happens – it is necessarily a part of nature.

          “Supernatural” as some on these threads have used it is just a label for a catchall category comprising any number of ill-defined and incoherent ideas that contradict everything we know about how things work, how they can (and can’t) happen. In this sense I suppose you can use the term “supernatural” – we’ll just have to understand that you mean specific things like dowsing or ESP.

          But ontologically speaking, there can be no supernatural.

          1. So `natural’ is everything that is real, and `supernatural’ doesn’t exist by definition.

            I’m ok with that, however it isn’t how believers in the supernatural define the term. To them, the `supernatural’ does exist and is observable (e.g. ghost sightings, spirits speaking through Ouija boards, etc).

            We should be careful that the response `if they do exist then they’re natural’ is not misinterpreted as a dismissal of these possibilities a priori.

            1. I don’t think my explanation dismisses specific things like ghosts or ESP, rather, that if we ever actually find those things, they will have to be a real part of nature.

              And I don’t think that’s what supernaturalists are looking for. Their conception of the supernatural seems to me to be “extra” incoherent, in that they want it both ways: they want the impossible to be possible, but if it turns out to be possible, then it loses its magic, and that’s not what they’re looking for. They want the impossible to be possible AND impossible.


              1. Can you give me an example of something which supernaturalists today would agree was ‘supernatural’ which is scientifically proven and they AREN’T excited about it?

                Here’s the criteria: does it show that ‘physical material naturalism’ is WRONG, and that mind has a significant place in the cosmos? Whenever they insist that, say, studies on the paranormal or alternative medicine or such are valid, they have zero problem with the loss of “mystery.”

                They want materialist atheists to sheepishly admit we were wrong, and they were right.

                Obscure mystery is only dragged in as an excuse.

              2. “They want the impossible to be possible AND impossible.”

                I think, to expand on that, what they believe “supernatural” to be are phenomena that are not constrained by the laws of nature that we understand, and furthermore that it is not possible for supernatural phenomena to be precisely understood and defined. And, as Sastra has pointed out many times, there is invariably agency, or some aspect of direct interaction with human consciousness, involved in any claims of supernatural phenomena.

              3. Sastra –

                Admittedly, I’m only describing my perception if the issue, so I make no claims to authority.

                But I think supernaturalists would cease being excited as soon as science began showing how the phenomenon worked, that is, when the phenomenon began to lose its aura of impossibility.

                I think your last sentence is correct, which another part of why I think supernaturalists would cease being excited as scientists once again began to demonstrate the superiority of their methods.

              4. @musical beef

                I think supernaturalists would cease being excited if it turned out that the “supernatural” phenomenon was reducible to mindless, material mechanism.

                They want the ‘mechanism’ to involve things like “being fair” or “willing” or “ascending in Beauty.” Not chemical or physical equations involving atoms.

            2. Agree. Those definitions are bad for several reasons, including that one.

              Hence, I propose a general rule that covers all and thus distinguishes naturalism from supernaturalism: If naturalism is true, everything mental is caused by the nonmental, whereas if supernaturalism is true, at least one thing is not. (R. Carrier)

        2. How about “repeatedly found, or repeatedly, successfully predicted”?

          That’s a rough cut, subject to some word-sanding of the roughness.

        3. musical beef’s definition works for me, but I prefer to expand upon it by appropriating Dr. Sagan’s definition of “Cosmos”: all that was, is or ever will be.


      2. I agree with Ben. Were the sky to open up and a loud voice issue from the heavens: “I am the Lord thy God, worship me!” My first instinct would be to ask, “why should I do that again?” followed by “and where did you get such a kick ass sound system?”

        In the last 20 years, 15 million people have been cured of leprosy. In the past, that would have been evidence of God, now it is merely evidence that science works. I cannot think of a single miracle that could not be explained by sufficiently advanced technology. Someday we will be move the stars themselves.

      3. would you conclude that your definition of “natural” needed expansion?

        That. But then that leads to a debate about what “supernatural” means, and I don’t know. It more describes an emotional feeling when some force operates outside of our understanding, is uncontrollable and unpredictable.

        If prayers actually worked, it wouldn’t be outside of science, but would lead to a new sort of science. Whose prayers work and under what conditions? Does the number of people praying for something affect the outcome? When two opposite prayers conflict, whose wins? And do successful prayers really indicate that some conscious entity exists, or is it merely a form of psychic power? Could prayers be a form of energy that could be harnessed, eliminating the need for fossil fuels?

      4. If you expand a definition so far that you now include everything that was previously outside of it, I think you’ve now made the term meaningless.

        Consider expanding the definition of “God” so that any atheist would now be able to say they believe in “God.” Or, consider expanding the definition of “supernatural” to encompass materialistic naturalism, so that Ben Goren now not only believes in God, but he accepts the supernatural. None of your views have changed: we’ve just re-adjusted our “understanding” of what God and the supernatural mean.

        Unsatisfying and unscientific. So I think you’ve got it the other way around.

    2. Hyperphysical beings such as God certainly aren’t physically possible. The question is whether they are metaphysically (ontologically) possible.

  6. I have seen the phenomenon before. The most outspoken, valiant and rational mexican atheist now tells me that perhaps there are superhuman intelligent forces influencing History. The need to believe is SO GREAT that overwhelms reason.

    1. The human mind craves and demands reasonable stories. That’s why people with dementia wander. They see a door knob. Right now, they don’t know where they are and why they are there. So they go through the door, because, SOMEWHERE something will satisfy their incessant internal demand for reason.

  7. In my opinion, the whole argument about the possibility of a god is amusing but irrelevant.
    The “gods that matter” are the ones put forward by organized religions and cults. Looking at the historical record of human mythology, it is absolutely safe to say that those gods are man-made fabrications and do not actually exist. That is, by the way, the form of atheism that actually matters.

    Moreover, if something truly extraordinary happens, it would be silly to attribute it to the God of Abraham, Zeus, or Brahma. That would follow exactly the same pattern that created all those gods in the first place, when extraordinary events in nature challenged the limited imagination of our primate brains.

    1. This is an extraordinarily good response to this question, pablo, congratulations.

      Jerry, I suggest your frame pablo’s contribution here, hang it in your study, and read it the next time you get sucked in by the god botherers.

      1. I think the only people who will think this an ‘extraordinarily good response’ are those people who were either raised in a standard mainstream religion, or those who think we ought to ‘give a pass’ to liberal theology and stick to politics(ie accomodationists).

        Since one of the main criticisms of new atheism is that it fails to take account of sophisticated and serious versions of God and theology, this stance just lays down placidly before them and bares its belly. Jerry has read too much theology to think it ought to be waved away without consideration. It should be waved away after consideration.

        1. I disagree. All theology should be dismissed without consideration, because all religions have an explanation for living eternally, the afterlife. This negates everything about them, all their literature, every possible sophisticated argument. There is no afterlife.

          Memory, the very phenomenon that makes you who you are, is a physical process. Just like your nose, toes, hair, teeth, it goes nowhere when you die. Those sodium ions, calcium ions, phosphorus, the physical pieces that are used to construct memory, stay right in place. No memory of you, i.e. “you”, travels anywhere.

  8. If we observe phenomena that are ruled out by the laws of physics from occurring (where the laws of physics otherwise follow from the available empirical evidences) then we are left with two choices: One, we can conclude that our understanding of the laws of physics is fatally flawed or two, we can conclude that our understanding of the laws of physics is correct but incomplete because of an additional role for supernatural agency. It seems to me that there are conceivable combinations of circumstances under which the second choice would be a better fit with the available empirical evidences. We currently don’t even need to hedge about this question because we aren’t confronted with that choice at all, but the argument that under no circumstances could such a choice even conceivably be viable seems to me to be too flippant and not consistent with how we generally go about justifying our beliefs based on empirical evidences, as opposed to basing our beliefs on prior ideological commitments to particular conclusions.

  9. Since you have the perspective that many of us do not have, which is the integrity of a working scientist, it only follows that though the possibility of a divine entity is almost nil, that you, in order to be consistent with your practising science, recognise that it could be possible.

    However, I must think that you share with many atheist activists the disgust we feel when this slight possibility is lorded as something terribly important and crucial as its need as an explanation has been made largely redundant by science.

    1. I often read here and there, arguments based on how “unlikely” the existence of god is. It’s a weak argument. In my line
      of work, quantum mechanics, a probability of say “one in a million” is enormous. The development of modern physics, relativity and quantum physics, was and is still based on trying to explain and describe theoretically phenomena at the frontier of what’s experimentally observable. Physicists are dealing everyday with the most improbable (even by the standards of the quantum world) phenomena because that’s where we can produce the most stringent tests for the theory. In other words, some of the coolest effects in the quantum world are the most improbable ones.

      Now, if one still wants to play games and consider the probability argument, even the smallest imaginable probability of something supposedly “the greatest conceivable existent” would constantly produce effects on the natural world not even cephalopods could ignore. However cephalopods, cats, and humans don’t seem to notice. Neutrinos show almost no interaction with matter, that’s what makes them hard to detect. Ever since the first neutrino event on November 13, 1970, we’ve observed plenty of neutrinos. And still not a single god.
      Therefore, my take is that either god is not an “existent”, either that’s “the most insignificant conceivable existent”*. And I trust the human mind excels at conceiving insignificant existents.

      * to quote the great Niels Bohr, physics does not find out how Nature is, it concerns what we can say about Nature.

  10. Please everyone, read pablo’s comment.

    However, I will just add the following practical advice:
    Don’t get sucked in by the question!
    If someone asks you what would it take for you to believe in god, simply reply:
    “Define (your version of) god”.

    This is a legitimate question, because there are about as many definitions of god as there are believers in god.

    And every definition of god can be refuted, except the deist god and no one will define their god in deist terms.

    And you can be about as open-minded about the deist god as your are about faeries at the bottom of your garden. Are you open-minded about faeries at the bottom of your garden?
    The question is obviously rediculous.

    1. except the deist god

      Seriously? I think it is rather obvious that modern science reject deist gods.

      – It is impossible that deist gods set up conditions that created souls, as we know there isn’t any.

      – It is unlikely that deist gods set up conditions that created life, since it got going so fast on Earth. It is naturally an easy process. (Seems RNA, and phosphorous to activate its nucleotides, is pretty much what is required.)

      – It is unlikely (and in most cases impossible) that deist gods set up conditions that started a universe, since inflation creates universes easily.

      – It is unlikely that deist gods set up conditions, period. Eternal inflation creates multiverses that decides local laws, and it is the natural outcome of inflation.

      I think it will be intellectually untenable to claim deist gods-of-the-gaps soon, if it isn’t too late already.

      1. Your equivocations are noted.
        Which, of course, means that you actually agree with me.

        In any case, let’s just agree that the deist god, unlike theist gods, does not leave evidence behind that should be there if he actually existed. In that sense, science cannot disprove the deist god.

        But neither can science disprove faeries at the bottom of your garden. It’s no big deal.

        1. Perhaps you could offer your definition of what, exactly, the deist god is?

          I’ll bet you a suitable beverage that it either logically equates with the programmers of the Matrix or that it’s logically incoherent.


        2. The problem with deist gods is that they aren’t *gods*, for the reason Vic Stenger has explained for a few decades now. If something created our hubble volume (which is all that it could mean to create a universe), any initialization of parameters is wiped out by the expansion process. Consequently there’s no way to know or control what happens. Even most deists would blanche at calling this ultimate in “uncontrolled experiments” a divine act.

  11. “To say there is no possibility of such a thing is an essentially unscientific claim, since there is nothing that science can rule out on first principles.”

    It may be unscientific, but there are things that are true or false that science cannot verify empirically. That is one reason why subjects such as mathematics and philosophy are important when considering what is possible.

    If I define God as “A Turing machine that solves the halting problem,” then mathematically/logically, God does not exist. So it is possible to say things like “God does not exist” is true based on reason depending on your definition of God. Which is why the definition of God is of utmost importance when answering the question, or determining if the question has even a possibility of being answered in the affirmative.

  12. Ah, so Chopra is an incompetent that somehow got a following. Good to know.

    While I respect Shermer’s view that invoking aliens or some unknown explanation avoids a “god of the gaps” argument for unknown and miraculous or divine phenomena, I still feel as a scientist that the existence of a true supernatural god is a theoretical possibility, and that there is some possible evidence that could convince me of it.

    I don’t respect Shermer’s argument at all, since it is as you describe it a philosophical possibility but an unlikely one. It has nothing to do with the non-existence question, which we can decide based on a larger likelihood for rejection.

    In fact, we always do so in similar cases (say, no magical perpetual motion machines), and to point out possibilities instead of comparing likelihoods is a religious argument based on the regular special pleading. “Oh noes, don’t hurt my beliefs with your facts!”

    If we had similar concerns and social overtures over perpetual motion machines, which are likelier as they aren’t based on known ancient myths but on ancient “common sense” ideas, I would feel much more lenient for these antics. But we haven’t. It should, I feel, be considered shameful to even raise such an argument.

    1. Uh oh. I just noticed that Jerry wrote “theoretical possibility” instead of “hypothetical possibility”.

      That should be definitely corrected.

  13. A convincing miracle would be a list with the supernovas of the next year.
    (aliens can not do this because the limit for the speed of any interaction)
    It is very easy for God to do this miracle.
    I’m waiting!

  14. Yes, such miraculous evidence for a god might eventually be found to be due to aliens or the like, but my acceptance of a god would always be a provisional one, subject to revision upon further evidence. (We might find aliens behind the whole thing.)

    That’s one reason why, instead of positing One Big Miracle which would suggest the God hypothesis, I prefer a cumulative case for establishing the existence of God. After all, the cumulative case for naturalism is currently overwhelming: it would have to be overset. We already know that one amazing study is not enough to throw out a well-attested theory. One amazing experience shouldn’t either.

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. “Extraordinary” needn’t mean miraculous: it could also refer to a huge body and weight of evidence, an extraordinary amount.

    So … break naturalism. Prove mind/body dualism. ESP. PK. Precognition. Remote viewing. Vitalism. Dowsing. Separate consciousness from the brain AND do so in a way which makes no sense on either materialism OR on the theory of evolution. Make a list. Pick every form of testable paranormal and supernatural claim you can think of and assume that it’s demonstrated so thoroughly, so consistently, and so rigorously over such a length of time that it has gained the consensus of experts in every field, generated new predictions and research, and changed the current scientific model of reality.

    Okie dokie. NOW we can start getting down to niggly little details like the existence of God. We’ve got a precondition which makes a giant controlling Consciousness more plausible. After that, you can bring in miracles for fine-tuning our understanding of what’s out there. Positing ‘aliens’ isn’t as necessary if we already accept the existence of souls.

    Cumulative case. God’s too big a change to just go with one or two anomolous experiences.

    1. All of your heavy lifting (e.g. psychic powers, prayer, etc.) eventually boil down to one question:

      What is the nature of the natural/supernatural interface? How does one tell where the supernatural begins and the natural is not in play?

      The supernatural would have to reside in a realm where natural phenomenon were suspended, or ignored (e.g. that’s why angel wings are impossible to lift even fifty pounds of human, but if Angels have no mass, then why wings???). What about the arrow of time? And, time itself?

      1. I think the answer to your question is basically going to come down to a distinction between mental existence/power and physical existence/power. In other words, Minds are magic.

        How do we currently separate mindless, nonmoral, inanimate matter from mindful moral agency when we talk casually? Supernaturalism goes with the same distinction but makes this dualism SOLID, and puts mind above all, outside of physical laws.

        For supernatural laws, we’d just look for consistencies and try to figure out predictive patterns.

        1. You and I have had this discussion before. You don’t like my equation of “natural” with Dr. Sagan’s definition of the Cosmos, and insist that merely violating the laws of nature is insufficient, and instead you (and Dr. Carrier) create a perfect one-to-one equivalence between the supernatural and mind-body dualism.

          This, despite me offering up example after example of the non-mental supernatural, from magic wands to lucky coins to dowsing rods and so on.

          I doubt we’ll come to agreement on this, unless you can convince me that a lucky coin has a mind.


          1. You are still misunderstanding what we are saying. It’s not limited to mind-body dualism as such, but non-material, irreducible mind-like Being, beings, forces, powers, or qualities. All your counter-examples involve something mental.

            I don’t think a lucky coin has a mind.”Luck” has to do with evaluation. In a universe with no life and nothing with a goal, “luck” would make no sense, would it? And yet here it is, being used as a property for something emotionally inert and morally non-responsive like a coin. It just “knows” what would be best for its owner.

            It’s an old argument, but we still might eventually agree — because we are not that far apart. The supernatural always violates the current laws of nature in a particular, interesting, human-concerned way. When you make the presumed violation completely unconnected to anything having to do with Mind, it’s just weird or unusual.

            Quantum is weird; Quantum Consciousness is woo.

            1. And I still say that minds are a red herring.

              A stick lying on the ground is meaningless until we add something “mental”: pick it up, whack somebody over the head with it, light it on fire. Or, if it’s a supernatural magic wand, wave it around and watch things levitate.

              That you need minds to make the wands work or the coins lucky or the rods dowse is irrelevant; you need minds to make any tool do something useful.

              Here’s yet another example: a flying carpet. Compare with a helicopter. The one is supernatural; the other, not. And the difference between the two sure doesn’t have anything to do with cognition.


              1. No, no, and again, no. You misunderstand what I’m saying. It’s not just that supernatural objects don’t work unless there’s someone with a mind to pick them up and use them, like a stick; it’s that supernatural objects are imbedded with innate characteristics which are mental sorts of characteristics. A lucky coin (or lucky stick) has the property of attracting or manipulating “luck.” Try to make sense of what the term “luck” means without connecting it to goals or values.

                The difference between a flying carpet and a helicopter is that the flying carpet works by responding directly to wishes. “Wishes” have to do with cognition. The carpet somehow senses your needs and knows what to do. It’s not just a mechanical tool. It’s a tool with qualities, powers, and abilities which are normally associated only with minds.

              2. If I may butt in with a suggestion: what about Iron Man’s rocket suit?

                Prediction: Ben will say it’s impossible, therefore supernatural, because “supernatural” is just a synonym for “impossible”.

                Sastra will say it’s not supernatural, because we’re meant to imagine a chain of physical causation that connects the flight controls to the motors. An impossible chain, perhaps, but that’s irrelevant to the “supernatural” question. A rocket suit is therefore more like a helicopter than like a flying carpet.

                I think most people will agree with Sastra’s taxonomy that excludes things like rocket suits, antigravity, warp drives, time machines, human-Vulcan hybrids and so on from the realm of the supernatural. “Supernatural” means something more specific than merely “impossible”, and the absence of a physical causal chain between intention and action seems to capture that specificity.

              3. @Gregory Kusnick —

                Yes, I wouldn’t consider Iron Man’s suit “supernatural,” for the reasons you say.

              4. Yes, I wouldn’t consider Iron Man’s suit “supernatural,” for the reasons you say.

                Then what it comes down to is not logical guidelines but literary genre.

                A fantastical flying carpet is thoughtfully supernatural; a fictional flying suit of armor is mechanically impossible. A flaming sword, supernatural; a lightsaber, science fiction. A succubus is supernatural, but an anal-probing alien is allegorical. The possibility nor plausibility of the phenomenon matters not, only its Dewey Decimal designation.

                I’ll grant you that that’s how you think the distinction should be made and perhaps even that such a view might be common…but I still maintain that it’s not very useful in these sorts of discussions.


              5. @Gregory

                “I think most people will agree with Sastra’s taxonomy that excludes things like rocket suits, antigravity, warp drives, time machines, human-Vulcan hybrids and so on from the realm of the supernatural.”

                (Not sure if Sastra would concur with that stament but that’s not my point).

                I’d put the split somewhere else. IMO rocket suits, human-Vulcan hybrids (if Vulcans existed), along with aliens (and the Loch Ness Monster) are NOT supernatural since they could exist within the realms of currently known science, even if beyond our current technology.
                On the other hand, antigravity, warp drives and FTL travel, and time machines are (probably) in violation of physical laws so are likely to be forever unreal (‘supernatural’ doesn’t seem quite the right word here). Teleports are borderline, I can imagine that – in principle – a person could be scanned molecule by molecule, transmitted as a digital signal (oh the bandwidth!) and reassembled by nanotechnology at the destination. I guess that means that by the time aliens get (got) here, they would have developed teleports. Which explains a lot of alien visitations, also probably Jesus.
                ‘Beam me down some loaves and fishes Scotty’.

              6. I consider the rocket suit to be impossible because it requires both an inexhaustible power source (to keep flying for more than a few seconds) and 100% efficiency (to keep from cooking the occupant with waste heat).

                I don’t think any technological breakthroughs are likely to change the picture much. In fact we have a well-developed technology of high-performance single-person flying vehicles; we call them “fighter jets” and they remain at least an order of magnitude larger than the Iron Man suit.

                But that’s really beside the point, which is that there are things that are physically impossible without being supernatural.

              7. Well, there is ‘Jetman’, though admittedly he uses a wing which gives much better efficiency (in atmosphere) than a rocket can. Rocketman would need a much higher specific energy fuel to be develped, and much better heat shielding technology.

                But I agree with the main point, that ‘physically impossible’ does not necessarily equal ‘supernatural’.

              8. Ben Goren wrote:

                …but I still maintain that it’s not very useful in these sorts of discussions.

                I think a clear definition of what makes “supernatural” claims distinct from other bizarre or unlikely claims is very useful in discussions involving science and religion — particularly when it comes to Jerry’s point regarding whether there ever could, in theory, be convincing scientific evidence which would allow him to change his mind on the subject.

                It’s not about fiction, it’s about seriously entertaining hypotheticals and alternatives — in order to be justified in rejecting them through a scientific approach.

              9. Sastra,

                Compare and contrast Bilbo’s elven sword, Sting, with Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber.

                I’m pretty confident you’d classify the one as supernatural and the other not; yet the only difference between the two of any significance is that the one appears in the fantasy section of the bookstore and the other appears in the science fiction section of the movie rental store.

                If you can’t see how I therefore find your definition of “supernatural” entirely useless for the purposes of “seriously entertaining hypotheticals and alternatives — in order to be justified in rejecting them through a scientific approach,” then I’ve got nothing more that I can think of that would possibly convince you.



              10. I think you’re blurring together a significant distinction between “fictional” and “false” — so that we’re talking past each other. And yes, we’re probably finished on the topic …. for now (bwahahahaha!)

    2. I agree Sastra.

      I find those atheists these days who are going in for the “I can’t think of any evidence I’d accept for the existence of a God” approach (including appeals to delusion and aliens) have suddenly made themselves uncreative to do so.

      Mostly people seem to sort of think up an occasion with a single big miracle or two and say “But it could be a delusion, or alien technology.” And then their imagination just gives up. But surely we can conceive of a Being who created the universe as a logical possibility, and that it’s reasonable such a Being would understand what type of evidence would be convincing, and that it could manifest itself and provide us as unending a stream of empirical evidence for it having been the cause of the universe. I mean, hell, we have accepted really wild theories like The Big Bang, this whole universe arising from a miniscule point and all sorts of crazy counter-intuitive propositions about reality – on much less evidence than I can imagine a Universe Creating Being could supply us.

      I despair when I see people stop thinking like scientists and getting so uncreative, only when it comes to the question of a God.

      I’m with Jerry on this one, big time.


      1. Vaal, you write about “God” as if there is an agreed-upon definition. What is your definition of God? Is it the Old Testament, I-get-mad-and-kill-things, but-I-cannot-defeat-this-army-with-chariots-of-iron God? Who answers some prayers?

        How can anyone be creative, when the issue (God) is undefined? How can anyone be creative with words when they have no context??

        1. Scott near Berkeley,

          Yes I agree we should have an idea of what is being talked about when using the term “God.” That is why I keep the issue to discerning whether a Being could be The Creator Of The Universe, which certainly satisfies many of the conceptions of “God.”

          There is the stance that we ought not accept evidence for a concept that is not logically coherent, and that the concept of God is logically incoherent. But while there are certainly grounds for this in some (many?) cases, I think we get into the No True Scotsman Fallacy when we a priori reject ALL God propositions as incoherent. There are so many conceptions of God, even within a single religion like Christianity, that I don’t think we can make this move. What I see some atheists doing is “God concepts are incoherent.” Someone says “But here’s a concept of God that isn’t logically incoherent…” Atheist replies: “Well then that’s not really a God, because all God concepts are incoherent.”

          Even within Christianity it’s proposed that God has the power to manifest himself physically to us, and demonstrate his power over nature. So it’s logically possible for that God to do so (which is why atheists have been demanding such evidence for so many years).


      2. I see no reason to call such a “being” “supernatural” rather than just “natural”. Surely a being that creates the Universe is natural. I’m happy with accepting the logical possibility of some heretofore mysterious force or entity, one which imaginative people might like to label as “God” or some kind of “God equivalent”, being responsible for the laws of physics and the universe, but we don’t believe this entity is “theistic” in the sense of having a personal relation to humans, and I like to keep the term “supernatural” meaning “does not exist outside of human imagination”. Iron Man, Aquaman, Spiderman, and the theistic God are supernatural. What remains to us to learn about the natural is still unknown to us.

        The term “being” in this context is what bothers me the most. I think most atheists accept there is something we don’t understand, which could even be beyond our capacity to understand, that is responsible for existence, in some sense of the word “responsible”.

        But the likelihood that we could attach the label “being” to this entity in any sensible way seems remote.

        1. Surely a being that creates the Universe is natural.

          Either your definition of “Universe” is a local one, and the question of what created the creator remains; or your definition is the same as Carl Sagan’s, in which case your sentence doesn’t even parse.


        2. I like to keep the term “supernatural” meaning “does not exist outside of human imagination”.

          Sure you’d like that. And there are religious believers who would like to keep the term “atheist” as meaning “someone who pretends to not know that God exists.”

          You can all keep those definitions — as long as you keep them to yourselves. Otherwise, if you try to take them out in public, you’re going to be hit with controversy. The opposition will notice hey, there’s a trick there somewhere in the wording of those terms. And you can’t do what you’d like any more.

          1. So, if you take exception to Jeff’s indication that the supernatural doesn’t exist outside of the imagination, then you must, Shirley, have some examples to the contrary, no…?

            I don’t think there’s any question but that the supernatural is, always has been, and always will be nothing more than a literary device. It is, by definition, an instance of the impossible, and the storyteller uses the impossibility of the supernatural as a foil to move the story along. A story about somebody mopping the floor isn’t nearly so exciting as somebody waving a special stick and making the floor mop itself. Somebody vacuuming the floor by setting the schedule on the Roomba isn’t interesting, but the Roomba running back inside the burning house, up the stairs, and back out again to rescue the kittens might be.

            In both cases, what makes the story interesting is the fact that it’s impossible.

            So why the upset when everybody equates a well-worn literary technique of using impossible elements to add interest…with that which is impossible?


            1. As you well know, I’m bothered when people fail to make a distinction between a definition and a conclusion.

              When a religious person shows me “atheist: someone who pretends to not know that God exists,” they do not win the argument because oh, that is the definition of atheist. They can’t make their case in the damn definition.

              1. I really don’t think these two cases are at all parallel.

                I think you’d agree with my assessment that the supernatural has, from its origins, always been something that’s been present exclusively in fiction, and understood by authors and audiences alike to be something fundamentally separate from the everyday world — though, of course, there has always been disagreement on whether or not the supernatural actually does impinge upon the everyday world.

                I think you’d also agree with me that it’s the very impossibility of the supernatural that makes it such an impressive and compelling tool in the storyteller’s chest.

                All I see you objecting to is my observation that impossibility is the whole point of the supernatural — and I only see you making this objection on political grounds not unlike the accommodationist’s “We can’t tell them the truth because it’ll upset them.” Specifically, you’re upset that pointing out that the whole point of the supernatural is that it’s impossible will somehow give ammunition to those who would claim that hedonism is the whole point to atheism.

                So, here’s another challenge: identify something you consider supernatural which doesn’t come from a storytelling tradition and which isn’t part of the story precisely because it’s understood to be beyond the ken of mere mortals.


              2. All I see you objecting to is my observation that impossibility is the whole point of the supernatural

                No, the whole point of “the supernatural” is that it makes Mind and/or its products prior to and independent of matter. If you don’t accept the discoveries of modern science, then this will seem not only possible, but likely. If you DO accept the discoveries of modern science, this will seem like a hypothetical possibility which was falsified — and is now incoherent when plugged into what we know.

                — and I only see you making this objection on political grounds not unlike the accommodationist’s “We can’t tell them the truth because it’ll upset them.” Specifically, you’re upset that pointing out that the whole point of the supernatural is that it’s impossible will somehow give ammunition to those who would claim that hedonism is the whole point to atheism.

                Then you see wrong. No, my analogy was used only to illustrate the problem with putting a conclusion in the definition. It wasn’t meant to suggest a political cause-effect.

                On political grounds, I am bothered by what I see as your unscientific approach– one that will marginalize us new atheists AND our arguments. By defining “supernatural” as you do, you are fighting against Jerry’s statement here:

                To say there is no possibility of such a thing is an essentially unscientific claim, since there is nothing that science can rule out on first principles. We rule out things based on evidence and experience, that is, we consider the possibilities of gods extremely unlikely since we have no good evidence for them. But it is close-minded to say that nothing would convince us otherwise.

                You apparently disagree with him. And me.

                So, here’s another challenge: identify something you consider supernatural which doesn’t come from a storytelling tradition and which isn’t part of the story precisely because it’s understood to be beyond the ken of mere mortals.

                If by “storytelling tradition” you include the stories people tell in their heads, then I can’t. But this isn’t where we’re disagreeing.

                The new atheists believe in naturalism as a highly-verified working theory, one of the strongest theories we have. We think nature is all that ever has, will, or does exist. But we could be wrong, and we could change our minds.

                If you start out by defining nature as “all that ever has, will, or does exist” — and the “supernatural” is defined as “impossible things in the human imagination” — then you give the religious exactly what they want. There’s no room for doubt or inquiry. Naturalism is now an unfalsifiable belief, held just like a matter of faith. Here’s the politics. Don’t do that.

                Don’t do that especially if you self-identify in any way as a ‘new atheist.’

              3. No, the whole point of “the supernatural” is that it makes Mind and/or its products prior to and independent of matter.

                Again, your very own position on the example of the flying carpet belies this. Minds are irrelevant to flying carpets, but the fact that carpets very emphatically can’t fly is the whole point of the trope.

                We think nature is all that ever has, will, or does exist. But we could be wrong, and we could change our minds.

                This truly is a case of dueling definitions, and this gets right to the heart of it.

                We need a term for all that ever was, is, or will be. And “nature” fits that term supremely well.

                If we agree that the definition of “nature” is all that ever was is, or will be, then the inescapable conclusion is that anything that’s not part of nature never was, isn’t, and never will be.

                The question then becomes not one of definition, but one of classification.

                I think where you might be confusing my position is that you seem to have, in your head, a list of phenomenon that you’ve labeled “supernatural,” and you see the point of the exercise as determining which of those supernatural phenomenon are real and which aren’t. To you, even if a supernatural phenomenon is discovered to be real, it will remain supernatural.

                In contrast, I make the determination of whether something is natural or supernatural based on whether or not it’s real. If something we today understand to be imaginary and therefore supernatural were to be demonstrated real tomorrow, it would no longer be supernatural and would instead be natural and real.

                If somebody tomorrow were to win a million dollars from Mr. Randi by, say, demonstrating telekinesis, I would conclude that, contrary to our earlier assessment, TK is a natural phenomenon and not a supernatural one. You would conclude, however, that the supernatural is real…and don’t you see the problems that arise? How do you now distinguish real supernatural TK from (e.g.) not-real supernatural prayer fulfillment?


              4. Minds are irrelevant to flying carpets, but the fact that carpets very emphatically can’t fly is the whole point of the trope.

                The flying carpet has special intrinsic mental properties, in that it can sense and know what someone wants it to do. A non-supernatural carpet doesn’t have a mind-like capacity. If someone uses magic powers to lift an ordinary carpet, we don’t call the flying carpet “magic.”

                If something we today understand to be imaginary and therefore supernatural were to be demonstrated real tomorrow, it would no longer be supernatural and would instead be natural and real.

                There is no value in a definition which can be re-shaped to include anything and everything outside the definition. It’s not only unfalsifiable — it’s uninformative.

              5. How do you now distinguish real supernatural TK from (e.g.) not-real supernatural prayer fulfillment?

                We’d look at which supernatural claims passed scientific scrutiny, and which didn’t. Same as always.

              6. If something we today understand to be imaginary and therefore supernatural were to be demonstrated real tomorrow, it would no longer be supernatural and would instead be natural and real.

                There is no value in a definition which can be re-shaped to include anything and everything outside the definition. It’s not only unfalsifiable — it’s uninformative.

                Astrology once was science; now it’s not.

                Vitreous humors once were science; now they’re not. Same with the luminiferous aether.

                Transmutation once was science; then it wasn’t; and now it is again.

                It’s not the definition that’s changing, but our understandings of that which fits into the definition.

                This is no different from any other taxonomic enterprise. Whales were fish before they were mammals; birds are now dinosaurs, and the Joshua Tree is no longer in the lily family.


            2. Ben Goren wrote:

              We need a term for all that ever was, is, or will be. And “nature” fits that term supremely well.

              No, the term “reality” fits that definition supremely well. That way, when we say that only natural things are real, we mean something. Otherwise, we’re just restating our definition and what science discovers means nothing.

              Astrology once was science; now it’s not.

              Yup. Science showed astrology was wrong.The supernatural was wrong. It made predictions which failed, and the hypothesis was falsified. Using your method of avoiding falsification by defining truth into a term, however, a person would not say that astrology was wrong: astrology is “how the stars work.” They would just incorporate astronomy into it.

              By defining “Nature” as “all that ever was, is, or will be” and then excluding the supernatural in advance of empirical investigation, you’re coming perilously close to making an Ontological Argument for Naturalism.

  15. How can you treat a supernatural agency as a theoretical possibility when supernatural is a negative term? Aliens would at least make the problem explicable, with a supernatural origin it’s mystery wrapped in mystery. How can science rule on it other than to say it’s something?

  16. I think it’s an interesting intellectual question whether there could really be a god or not, at least in terms of maintaining your ontological hygiene, but every time I try to think about it I get lost in the semantics of the terms handed down to us and don’t make any real progress.

    What keeps tripping me up is conceptualizing any kind of interface between the natural and supernatural.

    What is *actually, physically happening* if, say, a statue miraculously weeps blood? It’s clearly a physical phenomenon, the blood is real and right there.
    But whose blood is it? What’s the blood type? Are there antibodies and white cells in it from agents this person has been exposed to over a lifetime? How oxygenated is this blood? What’s the glucose or iron level or other signs of what this person has been eating or drinking? Are there isotope ratios that show the source’s lifetime diet? Are there any pathogens? Prions? Cancer cells? Is each cell stamped out from an identical template or are they designed individually with Russell’s proverbial “holes in their socks”? If its genome has been copied from someone, why them? If it’s been created from scratch, why these specifics and not others, and are there still introns and genome parasites? If so, why were they left in?

    Farther down, where is the mass/energy for this blood coming from? Is it being converted from the stone in the statue? Borrowed from the Vacuum? Simply injected de novo into the universe? Why that method over another? Is the blood being “printed” a layer of particles or cells at a time as it’s flowing out, or was it all created together in a central reservoir and then tapped? If so, how much pressure was it under? What temperature is the blood? Are uncertainty principles being followed in the placement of the particles? Is each one placed individually, or is it the massive wave function of the whole system that’s being manipulated? What effect is this having on the surrounding systems? What would it look like in a detector to see the particles appearing? Do they go through any intermediate stages? Do miracles have waste heat?

    These kinds of thoughts are why I can never keep up with the plots of Fantasy movies.

    Sure, an omniscient, omnipotent being could easily set every one of these characteristics and many more, but if each one has to be individually decided on and implemented in a technical way to match the infinitesimal complexities hiding inside everything around us, what is the functional difference between a deity with thoughts intricate enough to “wish” all these into existence, and some asymptotically powerful alien AI zapping matter into alignment with forces still unknown to us? Is that a god? Are there things it can’t do? If it made a simulation of someone’s brain out of the slipperiest, Planck-iest stuff possible, could you call that a disembodied soul?

    It’s easy to accept magic when all you see is a drop of red liquid rolling down a stone face, and easy to imagine willing it into existence if only you were imbued with whatever power was required (What’s different about a god that it can do that and I can’t?), but it starts to fall apart when you think about how and why we have things in the universe like blood and statues (and electromagnetic fields the better to see them with) in the first place.

    The only thing I could really countenance as “supernatural” would be the objects of Mathematical Platonism, since it’s so easy to visualize them as some kind of scintillating crystal lattices in an aloof psychedelic void right out of an Alex Gray painting, but even then I think a better metaphor is a look-up table or “grooves” in the fabric of reality that things just most easily follow.


    I dunno.

    1. Atheists just ask better questions. I can’t think of any religious or spiritual concept which doesn’t fall apart under real analysis.

        1. Me too — at least, I hadn’t encountered the term. Thanks for the suggestion.

          Since Polkinghorne uses it as part of his scientific argument for God, I wonder if he’d agree it’s falsifiable? Frankly, it just seems unnecessary to me… unless, of course, you’re trying to fit God in somewhere.

    2. This is great. Those are exactly the kinds of questions that, if the related phenomenon had actually been observed and if we could make any headway answering them (and I don’t see why we couldn’t) would turn the supernaturalist off. We’d be taking all the “super” out of it.

      But even if we never do observe the alleged supernatural phenomenon (which, of course, we won’t), I think what you’ve written here shows that the concept of “supernatural” entails more than just a suspension of physical laws in given specific instances. It’s much more problematic than that. As you say, it falls apart when you consider not just how something real works, but why real things work and why they exist in the first place (proximately speaking, of course).

    3. As your comment so nicely illustrates, there are countless details that an omniscient, omnipotent being would have to take care of just to pull off a silly trick like a bleeding statue. It occurs to me that the “asymptotically powerful alien” hypothesis is a lot more plausible than an “Abrahamic God” and that’s just because Epicurus had such a God nailed a long time ago. One might imagine how human affairs would the poignancy of mosquito breeding to an asymptotically powerful alien. A “God” who is supposed to give a shit about humanity would really be just an asshole.

  17. I am with Jerry on this, for I can imagine examples of evidence which, if discovered or encountered, would be sufficient to persuade ME beyond reasonable doubt that a supernatural, cognizant being actually exists. But UNTIL I am confronted by such evidence (should such evidence exist), I cannot believe that a supernatural creator God exists.

    1. But it’s not just a matter of showing that a supernatural being exists. If you want to call it a “creator God”, then you also have to show that it’s responsible for the existence of everything else.

      I’m curious to know what sort of evidence you (or Jerry) imagine would be sufficient to establish the latter point.

      1. “If you want to call it a “creator God”, then you also have to show that it’s responsible for the existence of everything else.”

        “I’m curious to know what sort of evidence you (or Jerry) imagine would be sufficient to establish the latter point”

        See my reply to you up the page.

        There is a solid point to be made about the type of bad inferences made in theism, especially current religions. It’s a ridiculous leap to simply go from “someone did apparent miracles” to “therefore that being is God!” Even if Jesus rose from the grave that does nothing to demonstrate he is a God, by which we would be talking about the Creator Of The Universe.

        If you are trying to support the proposition that “X is the creator of the universe” then
        X ought to show it has powers related to creating the universe, not just raising the dead.

        That’s why I keep bringing up the idea of a Being who shows up and manifests mountains of evidence all pointing toward the proposition that he/it created the universe (shows powers that relate to creation of life, creation of planets, suns, new galaxies, ability to alter laws of physics,
        and shows us countless lines of evidence that we can find in nature that only make sense in light of it’s claims to be creator. At some point it just gets perverse to refuse to look where every spec of evidence would point toward).


        1. “..a Being who shows up…”… which makes all the “Why” questions legitimate. “Why” show up now? Why didn’t you show up and defy Hitler and Stalin? Why did Romans never get to drive automobiles, and fly airplanes, and why didn’t Jesus arrive in Australia instead of Palestine?? Why do I have size twelve shoes?

          Because the sudden appearance of a being with God powers legitimizes all the “WHY” questions, that Being is damned to an exponentially-expanding task of providing information about reasons about every aspect of the universe, and the reasons why a particular atom of hydrogen is over “here” and not “there”. That is information HE creates with every atom created, and it would swamp the universe, so to speak (not literally! heh heh!)

          It is inherently illogical for such a Deity to arrive, or “show up”.

          1. Scott near Berkeley,

            “It is inherently illogical for such a Deity to arrive, or “show up”.

            I don’t see how any of that follows.
            We don’t need all logically possible “why” questions answered: we only need evidence for the proposition this Being likely created the universe.

            Just as we don’t need to ever know why the Colorado massacre gunman James Holmes was responsible for the massacre, so long as all the evidence indicates he did the deed.

            The proposition that the entire universe began as something near the size of a single atom is mind-bending. And no scientist demands that every single question associated with the universe must be known – the trajectory, location, history of every atom, every star, every galaxy – before accepting the conclusion it happened. We just need to acknowledge that is where the strongest lines of evidence point.

            Same with a God. If we are talking about “could this Being be the Creator Of The Universe?” then we just need to satisfy the normal line of inferences: Does this Being display the characteristics (powers) that lend evidence to it’s ability to create the universe, and do we have lines of evidence supporting the hypothesis that this Being DID create the universe. It’s quite easy for me to imagine that a Creator Of The Universe could supply both lines of evidence.
            Nothing illogical about it.

            As for all the “why” questions, again, that’s a different issue. He may tell us, we may like the answers, may not, but like the shooter in the theater massacre, that does not negate the fact that there could be
            substantial evidence that this Being created our universe.


      1. Yeah, people who regularly use “fairies” as their example of something so ridiculous that it’s safe to say there absolutely are no such things must live in a safe little social bubble. Welcome to modern paganism. There are people out there who “follow the Faerie faith.” They can walk and talk and make very good organic jams and jellies. You have to use some other analogy than “beautiful fairies in the recesses of your garden” because they believe the probability is quite high.

  18. Regarding what might constitute evidence pointing to the existence of a deity, consider the following:

    Assume – as some, though not all, historians maintain – that there was a 1st Century apocalyptic rabbi named Jesus, who served as the inspiration for the Jesus of the gospels. And assume – as, again, some (though not an identical set of) historians maintain – that this apocalyptic preacher Jesus was crucified. Assume further that – contrary to the initial scientific testing suggesting that it is a 14th-Century fake – the Shroud of Turin was Jesus’ actual linen burial cloth, and that the rusty stains on it are dried blood from his body. Now assume geneticists were able to extract sufficient DNA from these blood stains to sequence Jesus’ full genome.

    The examination of Jesus’ Y chromosome would be the most momentous inquiry in the history of Christendom, I would think. If the DNA in that Y chromosome did not consist of the type of base pairs ordinarily found in human males – if instead it was code spelling out “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased” – then, though I suppose that might be explained as a grand cosmic practical joke by an advanced race of aliens, I would be inclined to a seemingly more parsimonious explanation and give the God of Christianity another look.

    That would hold even if the apparently divine message in the Y-chromosome DNA were not quite so blatant – if, for example, that DNA turned out to be made of some holographic material that from one viewpoint looked entirely human, while from another appeared not human, but entirely otherworldly (which is a hypothesis one might expect from Christian theologians, if they were inclined to make one, though as far as I know, they’re not). That would be sufficient to cause me, as a non-believers, at least a severe bout of cognitive dissonance.

    On the other hand, if (indulging the same assumptions) the genetic testing of the Y chromosome extracted from Jesus’ dried blood on the Shroud of Turin revealed DNA entirely consistent with that of a 1st Century Palestinian Jew (or of a coeval Roman soldier), then that should be an event causing acute cognitive dissonance among Christians (though I do not doubt that apologists of the Sophisticated Theology school would rush forward to explain “Why, of course, that is exactly the way we expect God would have done it!”).

    Therein lies a crucial distinction between the religious and scientific mind set.

    1. Well, ignoring the layered sky castle faery cake you’ve just built…I’d still think that James Randi had gotten Craig Venter to help him pull off the world’s ultimate April Fool’s prank.


      1. You call the hypothetical I posed a “layered sky castle faery cake,” but the assumptions I made there for the sake of argument (though counter-factual as I plainly acknowledge) involve no logically impossibilities and in no way beg the question posed.

        If the facts were as assumed, and the results of the proposed scientific testing pointed in the direction of one of the two possible outcomes — to the one that appears to contradict Naturalism rather than to confirm it — I would consider that some evidence for supernaturalism, evidence I would have to deal with in formulating my world view; you would not. (I do not, of course, expect that that would be the actual outcome of the testing anymore than you do.)

        In so contending — in asserting that you’d “still think that James Randi had gotten Craig Venter to help him pull off the world’s ultimate April Fool’s prank” — you resemble nothing so much as the religious apologists I mention (are, in a sense, merely their mirror image): the same a priori commitment to a particular outcome, the same consequent need to explain away all contradictory evidence, no matter how far-fetched the explanation, the same unwillingness to follow that evidence in whatever direction it points.

          1. No.

            But if you have a starting time to meet three of your buddies at the country club, dressed in goofy plaid clothes, specifically for the purpose of hanging out in the clubhouse NOT playing golf every weekend, it starts to resemble a sport.

            Wouldn’t you say?

          2. Here’s a better example, S near B: Not drinking and drugging isn’t an addiction. But I’ve known guys who have quit The Life and taken up twelve-step meetings. For some, working the program at group takes on the feel of an addiction.

            Point being, whenever I hear the faithful declaiming their “atheism is a religion” line of BS, I write it off as a species of Urban Legend. But when I hear non-believers essentially asserting “I know what I know” and “no puny evidence could ever change my mind,” it looks like the a priori commitment one finds among the religiosi. That’s not skepticism; it’s more like denialism. And it’s sure not scientific: it’s inconsistent with rationalism, turns empiricism on its head.

            1. Perhaps it is a matter of time: one cannot always invest time in a full explanation of one’s position. Not an excuse, just a description.

              Here’s another counter-example. Taking a dip in a warm hot tub leaves you ninety percent covered in water, a major feature of people who have drowned. Water a centimeter below your nose is not much physically different than water a centimeter above your nose, but your subsequent condition in this world is vastly different, comparing the seemingly “same” episodes.

        1. The absurdity of Christianity is very deep indeed. The scenario you describe would be something to take note of, but the first and most plausible explanation would undoubtedly be fraud. As you say, the God of Christianity might deserve another look, but any reasonable person should expect that second look would turn up fraud; that was the most plausible explanation for the Shroud of Turin and that’s what it is.

          1. Look, I find the entire religious enterprise incoherent. To the max.

            I’ve never gotten the whole all-knowing, all-powerful Supreme-Being thing – at least not so long as even we mere mortals can plainly see that the universe is not optimized for any apparent purpose. Especially not for the purpose suggested by Scripture: To provide a forum for the battle between good and evil, God and Satan, over the fate of men’s souls (structured in essence, that is, to ensure that some men’s souls never reach heaven, that they spend the rest of eternity in the fiery bowels of hell).

            Why, after all, this 13.7 billion-year-old universe with (speaking on order-of-magnitude scale) 100 billion galaxies, each with a 100 billion stars? Why, for that matter, any physical universe, for an eternal Supreme Being who knows all, and has the power to have it all deemed played out even before it begins?

            (Believers will tell you that the concept of time doesn’t have the same meaning for God as it does for man – and then tell you in the next breath that one of His Ten Commandments requires you to keep holy a particular day of the week, the 24-hour period He’s deemed The Sabbath. (Back in my days in parochial school, you could also go to hell for eating meat … on Fridays.). They will tell you too, some of them, that He cares greatly about what you give up, as a sacrifice in His name, during the six weeks of Lent. Religions are keen as well on high holy days or holy days of obligation, especially those that require fasting between sun-up and sun-down. When it comes to Scripture, it has as many time-spans measured by magic numbers as numerology – forty days and forty nights, forty years in the desert, generations counted in multiples of seven. Methuselah’s 969 years. And on and on .. and on … and on.)

            It is equally incoherent to me that man was supposedly created in the “image and likeness” of this omniscient and all-powerful Being. I mean, all-powerful? Forget about it. We’re not even the biggest, or strongest, or fastest, or most prolific reproducers in the animal kingdom. As to all-knowing, don’t make me laugh. We may not come in as blank slates, but we are born of this world with actual knowledge of virtually nothing (and many of us manage to depart this mortal coil in much the same condition). What knowledge we have achieved, we’ve gained collectively over our short life spans, scratching it out of this world generation by generation.

            Then, when we add to omniscience and omnipotence a third vector of the characteristic attributed to the God of monotheism – that He is all-good (or “omni-benevolent”) – we have a rough means of measurement revealing the God concept to be not just incoherent, but falsified – the Problem of Evil being prominent among its shortcomings.

            In addition to this incoherence problem, we also have, of course, the dearth-of-evidence problem. Only it’s even worse than usually thought: Not only do we have an utter lack of evidence for the God of monotheism, we have no clear inkling of what kind of evidence we ought to be looking for. And before we even begin thinking about what kind of evidence should be there, we must clarify which kind of God we have in mind:

            If it is a Deist God – a God who either kick-started the universe and/or set the laws by which the universe operates (and subsequently stepped back to let the universe unfold on its own) – then, evidentiarily, this universe is indistinguishable from the universe of the null hypothesis. Thus, we’re scientifically unable either to prove or disprove the God of Deism – and will remain so at least unless and until we have some observational or experimental means to confirm the existence of the multiverse or to trace the Big Bang back to its boundary conditions, back to the very “instant of creation,” if you will.

            On the other hand, if we are talking an interventionist God, one who guides and/or otherwise interacts with His creation, our problem is the utter failure of the faithful even to propose any methodology by which such interactions occur (at least aside from the half-wits mouthing vague assertions about quantum woo). If God interacts with the universe – if he touches men’s hearts, if he poofs things into and out of existence – then there must be some means by which what was initially entirely notional in the supernatural realm becomes manifest in the physical universe, in the world made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons and the fundamental forces operating on the human scale. We ought to be able, at least in theory, to trace any such physical manifestation of divine will back to this transition point, or at least as close to it as our available technology permits. But we are blinkered not just by the believers’ refusal to proffer any process, but by their inability to specify which features in the universe are the result of such intervention, rather than of the universe unfolding naturally.

            These problems of incoherence and lack of evidence notwithstanding, the polar opposite of religious closed-mindedness ought not to be a like close-mindedness on the part of non-believers. It should be instead an open-mindedness tempered by robust skepticism and a commitment to the scientific method. We ought to, all of us, aspire to be seekers after wisdom and truth, willing always to follow the evidence – wherever. it. may. lead. Even where – especially where – it tends to contradict our preconceived notions of how the world works.

            1. As I have stated before, with other words, incoherence is the footprint (or, signature) of imaginary beings and places.

        2. If the facts were as assumed

          That’s just it.

          That ship sailed, long ago.

          We know the Shroud is a fake, and not a very good one at that.

          We know that nobody on the ground noticed even a hint of any of those amazingly spectacular things Jesus did; the most you could argue for is a Jesus who was some random schmuck so inconsequential that nobody noticed him — and, of course, that Jesus radically contradicts everything we do have about him.

          And we know that the earliest Christians argued in favor of Jesus by directly comparing him and his biography to, basically, every other pagan demigod popular at the time.

          So, even if there’s some sort of “real” alien Jesus who planted visions in Paul’s head or whatever, if he’s since planted non-functional designer DNA on the Shroud, so what? He’s still not the Jesus of the Bible; we know, without doubt, that the Jesus of the Bible is a fictional character, period, full stop, end of discussion. And we know that with every bit as much confidence as you know that there aren’t any grizzly bears gnawing off your arm as you read this: the evidence would be so overwhelming if it were true, but the evidence is absent.

          So, yeah. Even granted all that you hypothesized, in the universe I’m living it, it’d be a fraud of some sort. Maybe a very impressive one, but certainly a very transparent one.

          Now, could it have been possible that history could have been different? Well, sure…but it also could have been possible that I’d have been born a Jedi Knight destined to defeat the Emperor and establish a New Republic. So what?



          1. Jesus, man, I wasn’t trying to make the case for Jesus; I was responding to the question raised in the OP about what might constitute evidence of a deity – regardless of how improbable in the extreme the actual existence of any such evidence would be.

            In hypothesizing an historical Jesus who left an artifact bearing his DNA, I wasn’t proposing a logical impossibility or cooking the books. The remains of a bloody 1st Century C.E. cloth shouldn’t fun afoul of anyone’s first principles. And I was by no means suggesting that the DNA testing of such a cloth, if one were to exist, would reveal anything out of the ordinary. To the contrary, I am (provisionally) entirely certain that it would not, that it would utterly fail to show that this historical Jesus, assuming he even existed, was anything beyond a rabble-rousing rabbi roaming the 1st Century Levant,

            If we were to apply Bayesian reasoning here (and I think we should), the issue is, assuming some non-zero prior probability of the supernatural (no matter how minuscule that possibility may be) whether evidence of the kind hypothesized (and assuming, solely for the sake of argument, that this evidence had been validated to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty) would it move the needle on the posterior probabilities? I think the intellectually honest, scientific answer is it would have to.

            Doesn’t mean I’d up and pledge the seminary or start reciting the mass in Latin. Doesn’t mean I’d renounce my non-belief. It does mean that I’d have to honestly adjust my thinking to take this evidence into account. It is always up to us to adjust to the universe – to update our mental map to reflect the universe’s known territory – not up to the universe to adjust itself to our beliefs. The universe, as far as I can tell, doesn’t give a damn about us. And I would expect the universe to go on not caring, even in the extremely unlikely event that it turns the universe, well, cares about us.

            What you’re saying is that your mind is made up, 100%, no chance of change; no way, no how; I know what I know, there ain’t nothing there, period, full stop, end of discussion. That kind of evidence-be-damned a priori rejection of a proposition from the get-go based on first principles alone is what you encounter in science denialism. It is what you regularly hear from the AGW-denying crowd: I don’t care what the scientist say; they’re LYING, because they want more regulation. Their results are FORGED, look at those emails! It can’t be warming because, hey, SNOW LAST WINTER! Even if it is, it’s a cycle, not green-house gasses! I like it warmer, who wants all that ice, anyway?!

            That’s not science; it’s anti-science. And it remains anti-science whenever anyone refuses to consider evidence due to his commitment to a particular outcome, whatever the topic under consideration. It’s one thing to say (as Shermer seems to) that I can’t imagine any evidence that would cause me to change your mind; it’s another to say (as you seem to) that even if presented with such evidence, I would refuse to consider it since I already know the final answers, and because I know in my gut that any evidence contradicting those answers would perforce have to be fraudulent. That’s the difference between accepting points for the sake of argument and just arguing. And, ultimately, it’s the difference between science from faith.

            1. Sorry. I wasn’t trying to suggest that you thought Jesus was real; you made it pretty clear from the outset that you didn’t and that you were just offering this up as an hypothetical.

              But my point still stands. Simply presenting new evidence doesn’t invalidate existing evidence, and we’ve already got more than enough evidence to know that Jesus isn’t real. New evidence that might come to light would have to be explained in light of existing evidence. Therefore, the conclusion couldn’t possibly be that your hypothetical DNA was evidence of the actual Jesus, but it would be powerful evidence of somebody wanting us to think that it was.

              Of course, if this DNA evidence was presented along with other evidence showing that there was a systematical cover-up of convincing evidence of an actual historical Jesus, that might change the equation…but I can’t even begin to imagine what such evidence could possibly look like.


          2. So this raises the possibility that Jesus was the protrusion into our dimension of some hyper-intellegent pan-dimensional being? And all the devlopments since have been the result of some subtle psychological experiment being run on us?

            (Hey, that’s not original. I got it from Adams. That’s DNA, not Scott).

            1. That’s hyper-intellIgent, of course. Not my speling misteak, would you believe I copy-pasted that phrase from a BBC website. You’d think the Beeb could spell, wouldn’t ya? Sheesh.

  19. “Again, so I don’t give succor (or out-of-context quotes) to the faithful” The only way to avoid that would be to somehow weave your statement throughout your post, aka almost impossible.

  20. Emily Rosa’s experiment debunking healing touch, which led to her publishing that study at the age of 11 . . . she’s still the youngest person to publish a paper

    But, but it says different here:

    “Amy O’Toole is a 12-year-old student who helped run a science experiment inspired by Beau Lotto’s participative science approach. At age 10 she became one of the youngest people ever to publish a peer-reviewed science paper.”

  21. “I still feel as a scientist that the existence of a true supernatural god is a theoretical possibility”.

    Jerry, I must disagree with you here. As a scientist, I feel that the existence of a true supernatural god is a hypothetical possibility.
    Certainly not a theoretical one.

    1. What is a “theoretical possibility” or a “hypothetical possibility”?
      The three basic kinds of possibility/necessity are logical possibility/necessity, ontological/metaphysical possibility/necessity, and physical/natural possibility/necessity.
      It is obvious that the existence of hyperphysical/supernatural entities is not physically/naturally possible, so the question is whether it is logically or ontologically/metaphysically possible. Everything ontologically possible is logically possible, but not everything logically possible is ontologically possible.

      – The existence of an object or state of affairs is logically possible iff (if and only if) its linguistic representation (description) is formally consistent, i.e. iff it is neither self-contradictory nor contradiction-implying. This is a very weak condition.
      – The existence of an object or state of affairs is ontologically possible iff it is actualizable, i.e. iff it can be or become part of (actual) existence/reality. What is rational, a priori evidence for ontological possibility? Answer: coherent conceivability/imaginability/intelligibility. Correspondingly, the (apparent) absurdity or nonsensicality of something is rational evidence for its impossibility.

      Alas, as opposed to the purely logical concept of consistency/inconsistency, these concepts lack a strictly formal definition. Nonetheless, it is arguably false that logical possibility entails ontological possibility. The concept of God may be formally consistent, but this alone doesn’t justify the belief in the ontological possibility of God’s existence. The concept of an incorporeal spirit may be formally consistent, but this alone doesn’t justify the belief in the ontologically possibility of incorporeal spirits.

      “[M]en may put together words of contradictory signification, as spirit and incorporeal, yet they can never have the imagination of anything answering to them[.]”

      (Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651, ch. XII: Of Religion)

    1. Why would anyone invoke aliens unless they can show such aliens existed or were behind the miracles, rather than things being as they seem to us? If some Being showed up wielding amazing powers, there is no need to appeal to other beings for which there is no evidence (aliens) and who do not add any explanatory power to what we are seeing.


    2. Please welcome our first contestant, Infinite Regress. Known as a real “Prime Mover” to his friends. He lives in a condo on the cul-de-sac Recursive Loop. Self-employed as s a chicken-and-egg (or egg-and-chicken) farmer. Flunked out of computer-programming school before getting his degree in philosophy. Hobbies include building Russian nesting dolls, pondering his image between parallel mirrors, and reading metafiction. Pets include turtles(-all-the-way-down) and an a rare Ouroboros snake who dines on its own tail. Competes regularly in the Münchhausen Trilemma-a-thon. He puts the “oomph!” in Omphalos.

      He also merits two entries in our index:

      Infinite Regress
      see Regress, Infinite

      Regress, Infinite
      see Infinite Regress

      Remember to tip your waitresses and bartenders and, please, drive home safely.

      1. I actually foresaw that one day I would read this and have deja vu, the sense that I already foresaw reading this and having deja vu.

        Nicely done.

    3. “But, if aliens are responsible for miracles, who or what created THEM?”

      Same sort of process as created us, just a few light-years way and a few millennia ago.

      Highly unlikely, maybe an order of magnitude less likely than the Loch Ness Monster (whose existence would violate no laws of physics), but a few orders of magnitude more likely than a supernatural all-powerful God-being.

  22. If a hypothetical Initial Everything entity (or whatever) of some sort exists, and it is not natural — as currently defined and demonstrated — but yet is comprehensible by humans in concepts presently unimaginable; and if, one day, advanced knowledge enables discovery of Initial Everything, or it chooses to reveal itself; then there is new information to process and include with what is knowable, and old stories easily disabused as valid information to at last abandon as truth claims (by those who equate belief with knowing, and cling to superstition). And there is no point any longer for either atheism, or religion, or blind faith. Perhaps knot-head denialist contrarians will be few or non-existent in this utopia, too.

  23. “even Abrahamic-god folks can’t agree on what their god is like!”

    Why should you imagine they would?

    Robert Burns famously remarked on the difficulty we have in seeing even ourselves as others see us.

    Then there is the observation, I think by Voltaire, that a private conversation is not possible because there are too many people in the room: the person you think you are, the person I think you are, the person you think I think you are, and so on.

  24. As an engineer, models are the basis of my analysis. when I read “…the existence of a true supernatural god is a theoretical possibility…” my first thought goes to what is meant by the supernatural, mainly because I wonder how much of the natural we understand because that which is beyond suspicion could be seen as supernatural.

    I am convinced that the religions of prehistory were based on that premise; i.e., crediting what was unknown as beyond knowing.

    Thanks for the article and references. Very helpful to the occasional visitor.

    1. If you read “supernatural” as “hyperphysical”, you’re on the right track.
      A supernatural being or thing is either immaterially spiritual or immaterially abstract. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are monopsychotheistic religions, i.e. ones whose adherents believe in exactly one divine spiritual being (*.
      If spiritual beings, i.e. immaterial/incorporeal ghosts/minds/souls/spirits, are generally impossible beings, it follows that the particular spiritual being called God is impossible.

      (* Some argue that, given the doctrine of Trinity, Christianity is actually tritheistic rather than monotheistic.)

      1. Thanks. My dilemma is more fundamental in that I would use the terms natural and non-natural as two terms that are all inclusive. My question goes to what we call the area between where our knowledge of the natural ends and where the natural domain ends. It is an area of the “as yet unknown natural”.

        As for the supernatural or hyperphysical or transcendent (beyond knowing), I am baffled as to how we would “know” its “existence”(if that is even plausible).

        As for the supernatural as described by fundamentalists, my dismissal of that is that if “God exists” as asserted, it is strictly in one’s personal belief, not in the natural domain, hence any argument about it is moot.

        1. We need to distinguish between the hyperphysical and the cryptophysical. The cryptophysical seems hyperphysical but really is physical and physically possible, with its physical nature being hidden from and thus unknown to us.
          For example, many argue that the ego/self must be an immaterial, spiritual substance because it seems hyperphysical from the subjective, introspective perspective. But how can they tell the difference between a hyperphysical and a cryptophysical ego/self on the basis of introspective evidence? They can’t! For from the fact that they are not introspectively aware of their physicality it doesn’t follow that they are introspectively aware of their non physicality; and from the fact that they introspectively appear nonphysical to themselves it doesn’t follow that they really are nonphysical beings.
          What seems nonphysical/non-natural or physically/naturally impossible may very well be physical/natural and physically/naturally possible.

          1. The boundary between the natural/physical and the supernatural/hyperphysical remains unknown to us as long as we are not physically or scientifically omniscient. And probably we’ll never be physically or scientifically omniscient.

            1. “…probably we’ll never be physically or scientifically omniscient…” coincides with my doubt w.r.t. the ability of the human mind–a process of a finite partial mesh neuronal network zapping signals around in subnetworks evoking ‘thoughts’ emergent from the biochemical activity–to discern ultimate reality. Still, it’s fun to try. 😉

Leave a Reply