Thursday, 28 July 2011

Are Proofs or Evidence for Deities Even Hypothetically Possible? -- By Mike K

Ever since de-converting, I've taken things like Occam's Razor and the burden of proof to heart, and enjoyed what was essentially a cleaning out of closets of all sorts of irrational bunk and superstition. There is an unshakable confidence that comes with reasonable doubt, a high standard of evidence and a willingness to accept evidence if it's merited. It rightly puts the burden of proof back on the shoulders of the claimants.

But I wonder if, at least for theists, it's an impossible burden - even if there were a god.

We all know the saying that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” but it's not really true, certainly not in all cases. At least with something like a personal god and creator, an intelligent designer with which you would see evidence everywhere. For something like that absence of evidence
 is definitely evidence of absence, just not explicit proof of any sort. With that in mind, I've occasionally asked, “What would be good evidence of the claims of god?” I honestly can never think of anything and generally give up pretty quickly. There is a central problem when it comes to a standard of evidence for an un-evidenced 'superbeing'.

Consider this video:


My friend showed this to me a few days ago and one of the first things to jump to mind was doing this where I could be seen by some tribal natives - the type that still throw spears at near-flying planes - and land where the impressionable lot would worship me as their sky deity! -Or perhaps not.

What I could do though was disprove my own divinity, and reveal to them there is no magic to flying, something anyone could achieve with the knowledge.

If I didn't demystify the science of human flight, you'd expect them to worship me, maybe even executing doubters for impiety in the presence of a deity. They'd do it because they couldn't imagine a natural explanation for me gliding across the sky. But if I explained it to them, a dangerous idea may occur: that if one thing presumed divine isn't, what does that mean for all the other things presumed divine? What of the sun, rain, lightning and life?

The first scientific discovery of this sort for any people ought to be the start of a philosophical revolution, at least it would if not for our incredible ability to compartmentalise our world view. But if it did, as it has for us, then to a sensible person something that looks magic would never be automatically presumed magic.

Clarke's third law:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. 

The thing is that we can conceive how the apparently magic can be natural. Flying is child’s play to our very knowledgeable minds. But we can conceive of a great deal more than just flying. We have a whole genre for these things called science fiction. It would be very impressive to see, but witnessing a being capable of harnessing the total energy output of a star doesn't for a moment seem godly to us. Some even expect humans to attain that kind of knowledge. The appearance of magic is simply no useful standard of evidence.

A bit closer to home, one of the many "proofs" that believers tote as work of the divine is alleged science in the bible. Now I don't think for a second that there is any real science is in the bible; to me it reads just as belligerently ignorant as the rancid sprawling of any bronze-age farmer would be. It takes real effort to interpret that nonsense into anything that resembles science but they manage - or more specifically manage to interpret to reflect recent discoveries, always after the fact. But even if I conceded that there was predictions of science in the bible, what would that prove?

There was a great deal of fascinating science done in antiquity. In the third century BCE, a Greek scientist named Eratosthenes managed not only to figure out that the planet was round but managed to work out the size of the planet. This discovery makes it interesting that the bible still depicts in Genesis a disk world with a dome sky afloat the deep. The bible was altered greatly over the centuries it was codified, particularly before it was canonised, and yet none of the ancient science found its way into the book. So there is a lot of science that could be in the bible, yet isn't, even though there was opportunity. But what if there was, and not just science from antiquity, but anachronistic science?

What about ancient astronauts? I mean, there's no real evidence for them but it'd be more likely than something divine, wouldn't it? Regardless of the probabilities, there is at least a non-supernatural explanation for something like that, which, due to the virtue of it being a natural explanation means Occam's Razor favours it for its fewer assumptions.

So what's left? What kinds of things do we require before we can treat the divine as a reasonable idea? Well if we were talking about a magic man, like Jesus, the very least we would demand to be shown is not simply something we cannot explain, that would be an argument from ignorance & credulity. I think back to watching Derren Brown on tv with my mum. She refused to believe he wasn't psychic, even after him explicitly saying he wasn't. Simply there is a great precedence of hucksters pretending to be magic, there's no shortage of them today even. Psychic mediums, faith healers, past-life regression hypnotists, take your pick.

A magic man could put on a good show, a fantastically inexplicable show, but that's simply not enough. Even in the best case for a miracle worker, none could ever be distinguishable from a talented huckster so the safer bet is always going to be the huckster.

What about personal revelation? Quite frankly, with the amount of knowledge we already have about the fallibility of the mind and experience, it's hard to understand why it's offered as some kind of evidence for the divine. It could simply come down to the sensing of a ghostly presence induced by carbon monoxide poisoning, sleep paralysis and hypnagogic hallucinations of alien abduction or oxygen starvation causing one of those near death experiences. Revelation and personal experiences just can't be any sort of evidence. I mean, just ask yourself this: "How can I distinguish between revelation and delusion?"

Does that therefore not mean that there isn't anything that could logically convince a skeptic of the supernatural without committing the argument from ignorance fallacy?

We can only ever know something if it's natural. Sure if there is something supernatural above nature and that occasionally interacts with nature, it would be detectable. But we could never learn anything about its mechanism existing outside nature. If we can't know how it works, we can't know its not natural. 

You just cannot parse unknown nature from the supernatural.

Clearly, even if there were a deity or deities out there somewhere, somehow, we could never expect reasonable evidence or proof for them. While the burden of proof is on the theists – its not one a theist could even hypothetically manage. It may feel disingenuous, but when we are asked by believers if there could be any proof we'd accept, the answer must be a simple, “No.”

It raises an interesting issue though. Theists often simultaneously claim that god is good or merciful or something and, “god's ways are mysterious.”

How can you assert anything about something that is entirely shrouded in mystery?

If you are a young non-theist who wants their voice to be heard, consider submitting an article of your own to Generation Atheist. Visit our submissions page for details.

Tomorrow: "Authority" By Harry Bratt 


  1. Your points about science in the Bible make me think that, if there was a God, surely he could have used the presence of Jesus on Earth to greater advantage. If he had told Jesus to tell the people of the Earth the structure of the atom or the theory of evolution, maybe it would have been more convincing that he was in fact a supernatural being.

  2. Right. He wouldn't just go around spitting in peoples eyes to heal them of blindness, there'd be no need.

  3. Or he would do something even more useful like bring them marshmallows. Mmmm....

  4. Assuming that science is (and has been) more beneficial than charity and by-products of the Christian faith e.g. medicine, vaccines, soap in hospitals. Then surely Jesus could of been so much more helpful - God being omnipotent would have knowledge of all science, thus God wants some people to die.
    Do you agree with this thesis?

  5. I remember hearing a suggestion on one of the podcasts I listen to, that Jesus should just have told people to wash their hands before they eat, thereby saving countless lives and only taking a few minutes out of his day. I think that, if a God did exist, it would be preposterous to assume he was a good God. He would be amoral at best, but certainly not the shining beacon of goodness and light he is purported to be. Obviously he would want people to die - things like that can hardly happen against his will if he is omnipotent, like you pointed out.

  6. @ RedRabbitter: "thus God wants some people to die. "
    I think that's pretty clear. The OT portrays god as genocidal. And today you only have to look at all the parents who, because of their faith, forgo western medicine often ending up killing their children.

  7. "But I wonder if, at least for theists, it's an impossible burden - even if there were a god."

    Au contraire. I think Jeffrey Martz (paleontologist) put it best here when he said:

    "What is it about the scientific methodology that requires that a phenomenon operate within the known laws of nature? Nothing. Science does not distinguish between the “natural” and the “supernatural”, just between the real and the imaginary. Science requires that a phenomenon must be repeatable [and] observable to multiple parties…not that it operate according to the known laws of physics or chemistry."

    The burden of proof is only impossible as long as their god refuses to be known scientifically. In which case, the god can be safely ignored. If you don't believe in it, it's because it chose for you not to believe in it.

  8. I did say that if the supernatural thing interacted with the natural universe, then Science can say something about it. But our understanding of the mechanism, and semblance of a theory isn't in the scope of science.

    It's not a "science doesn't say anything about god or the supernatural" copout, it's that any supernatural conclusion will assuredly result from a logical fallacy of some sort, especially argument from ignorance.

  9. "I did say..."
    My mistake. I see it now.