Possibility of Evidence for Gods
There was a recent post on Pharyngula, prompted by a post on RichardDawkins.net written by Steve Zara. And in the time it's taken me to get this post written, there have been multiple follow ups on this subject:
- Jerry Coyne - Can there be evidence for God?
- PZ Myers - Eight reasons you won't persuade me to believe in a god
- Jerry Coyne - On P.Z. Myers on evidence for a god
- PZ Myers - There aren't any zogweebles, either
- Jerry Coyne - 115 years of debate about evidence for God
Let's look at what Zara wrote originally. In that article, he said:
I propose a new strident atheism. No playing the games of theists. No concessions. No talk of evidence that can change minds, when their beliefs are deliberately placed beyond logic, beyond evidence. Let's not get taken in by the fraud of religion. Let's not play their shell-game.
In agreement, Myers wrote this in his first post on the subject:
There is no possibility of evidence to convince us of the existence of a god.
I understand where they're coming from. They're frustrated with the theologian's god, the god that's so vague and nebulous that it might as well not exist, or, as I quoted Zara above, that's beyond logic and evidence.
But I think their position goes too far. To make the blanket statement that Myers did is close minded. While I don't believe that any gods exist, I can imagine a universe where they did, and imagine the types of things that the gods might do. To use an example from the comment thread on Pharyngula, if multiple astronomers somehow received a revelation of exactly when and where a supernova was going to occur (the comment used e-mail as the method of revelation), that would be a good piece of evidence for a god. If people were raised from the dead, or really could walk on water, or any of the points from Ebon Musing's Theist's Guide to Converting Atheists were demonstrated to be true, these would all be good evidence for the divine.
Zara brought up an interesting point, quoting Arthur C. Clarke's famous line, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Even if we had the forms of evidence I listed above, how could we be sure that they were from a god, and not some advanced aliens messing around with us? Or how could we be sure that the responsible entity really was the creator of the universe, and not just some powerful force that came into being after the big bang (a la His Dark Materials or Star Trek V). Even without invoking such god like beings, fulfilled prophecies could just be interpreted as psychic abilities of humans, and some other miracles could be telekinesis, or some other as yet unknown force. This was the direction Myers went in his defense in his follow up posts.
While they're interesting possibities to think about, they're still hypothetical, since nobody has yet seen any real miracles that couldn't be explained with what we already know about the universe. Until someone actually produces an accurate prophecy, there's no need to speculate whether it's a psychic ability of humans, an inspiration from the divine, or aliens beaming signals into our heads. Until we actually hear a voice boom down from the heavens, we don't need to try to figure out if it's Zeus or and Interstellar construction crew. It's a bit pointless trying to come up with explanations for things that haven't happened.
This leads into another point where I have the most sympathy with Myers' and Zara's position. If the types of evidence I listed above had been happening throughout recorded history, that would be one thing. However, considering that there's been no credible evidence for the divine for basically the entire history of human civilization, it would certainly make one question the source if this evidence suddenly began appearing all over the place. Given the choice between 'God thought it was finally time to interact with his creation after 14 billion years of hands off observation', vs. 'a space faring civilization has just now encountered our solar system', the latter seems more likely.
So, in sympathy with Zara and Myers, I can say that no single piece of evidence would instantly convince me that gods exist. There's just too long a history of lack of evidence, and too many alternate explanations for any single phenomenon. However, I won't go so far as to say that I couldn't ever be convinced. Given enough evidence from multiple lines, I would seriously consider the possibility that they were divine in origin. I'm just waiting for somebody to actually show me that evidence.
In anticipation of those people who would simply ask me to read the Gospels for examples of miracles, I'll direct them to a previous blog entry of mine, Liar, Lunatic, or Lord... Or Something Else, for a short description of why I don't think the Gospels are reliable. For a bit of a humorous take on other arguments people use for a god's existence that aren't very convincing, take a look at the Hundreds of Proofs of God’s Existence on GodlessGeeks.com.