There’s a new round of comments on asking theists what would convince them that they’re wrong and that God doesn’t exist, spawned from atheists listing what would convince them that God does exit. Jerry Coyne has a big post here:
Which references Greta Christina:
Which references Ebon Musings and a post asking for that from theists and pointing out what he’d accept as prove that God does exist:
Since the latter has a dearth of responses and is still accepting them, I’m going to toss my hat into the ring.
Before I do that, though, some long caveats and issues to address. Hey, the “verbose” in the title ain’t there for show, you know [grin].
1) He comments that at the time of writing he had not personally met a theist who would accept the possibility of being in error. I am a theist who accepts that. I do this, though, in a not-quite-straightforward way; to me, my belief in God is, in fact, a belief in the epistemic sense. I claim that while I’m a theist because I believe that God exists, I also claim that I don’t know that God exists. Because of this, the implicit claim is that I could indeed be wrong, because that’s what’s implied by having a belief and not knowledge. I accept, then, that I could be wrong. I don’t think I am — else I wouldn’t even believe it — but since I merely believe I could very well be wrong, and I accept that.
2) I’m an agnostic theist; I believe that God exists but also believe that because of the qualities of that God no one can know whether or not God exists. So this, obviously, causes a problem when someone asks me “What would it take to prove to you that God doesn’t exist?”. Because the answer is “Nothing that we can, at least, practically test”. I suppose I’ll have some idea when I die, but that’s not exactly a practical test, now is it? So, for me this may not be a fair question; I don’t think proof — either way — is possible.
3) There is a bit of a difference in what can be said about the evidence that atheists require to accept that God exists and that theists require to accept that God does not. Recall that the claim “God does not exist” is, in fact, a negative existence claim; it, obviously, claims that something — God — does not exist. Thus, proving that God does not exist is proving a negative existential. Thus, atheists asking what it would take to prove to theists that God doesn’t exist is essentially asking theists what prove they’d require to prove a negative … something that many people are skeptical can be done.
Now, I deny that. Negatives can be proven. You can prove that some key quality of an object is incompatible with the existence of something else, and then make the positive claim that that something else actually does exist. This would then show that the object doesn’t exist, since it and the thing that you just proved existed cannot both exist in the same universe. However, you can’t prove non-existence strictly empirically, by looking real hard. That limits the sort of proofs that theists can accept as real proofs of the existence of God. So it isn’t really fair to ask theists to provide the evidence that would get them to accept that God doesn’t exist and compare that directly to atheists doing the same thing; in that scenario, theists have by far the harder job. Because of the nature of the claims involved, that this happens is fair; theists are indeed making a positive claim, and so to have evidence that it isn’t true is going to be, in essence, proving a negative. It’s just not fair to draw conclusions about how they view the belief itself from this.
Now, if the question was “What would it take for you to stop believing that God exists?”, then that’s a little more fair … but becomes both subjective and runs headlong into epistemology (ie when should you stop believing that a proposition is true, and on what grounds) and so is a more complicated question than an off-hand “Give me reasons” response can handle.
So, that out of the way, my initial comment would be to stick with my agnosticism and say that there is no such evidence that would compel me to stop believing that God exists. But while reading Greta Christina’s post, it now seems to me that that would be too pat an answer, because there are some things that would force me to abandon my belief in God and, at the same time, cause me to believe — and even know — that God doesn’t exist.
And it all follows from the claim above: how do you prove a negative? So, they all follow from the arguments that would prove a negative. None of them, therefore, are strictly empirical, and tend towards the deductively logical side … which may be unsatisfying for atheists asking for it.
1) Prove that the concept of God I’m using is, in fact, self-contradictory. So, presume that I accept that it is critically important for God to be omnipotent, and you can prove that onmipotence is, in fact, self-contradictory (the old and hackneyed “Can God create a rock that He can’t lift”). Then I couldn’t accept a God with those qualities. The same would apply if I accept that God must be omnipotent and omniscient and you can prove that He couldn’t be both. In all of these cases, that concept of God is demolished and I could no longer accept it (this doesn’t mean that I can’t accept an altered form, though).
Note, however, that this is really, really hard to do, at least in part because in arguing against such proofs I can point out mistakes or errors in definitions. For example, for me I limit omnipotence to “Can do that which is logically possible”. So in the case of the rock, my reply would be “Either it is logically impossible to create a rock that it is logically impossible to lift or it is logically impossible to be able to lift every rock. If the former, God cannot lift every rock, since there can exist a rock that omnipotence — limited to the logically possible — cannot lift. So God could create a rock that omnipotence cannot lift, and thus that He could not lift. If the latter, then there is no such thing as a rock that cannot be lifted … and so God cannot create such a rock.” To address this, we have to hammer out what omnipotence really means and what it really implies. And I won’t accept definitions that are created just to prove it logically contradictory; we’d need good reasons to think that that was the definition in the first place.
2) The second way is exactly as outlined above: prove that there exists something that is incompatible with the existence of God. The “Problem of Evil” argument is precisely this sort of argument: prove that there would be no — or at least less — suffering in the world if an omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent God existed, and you’d have a disproof of, at least, that God. The arguments that free will and omniscience are incompatible are also of this sort, as it forces a theist to give up something: free will or that sort of God.
These, then, are the ways to “disprove” the existence of God, and as you can see a number of them have been attempted for ages now. Unfortunately, they don’t work, and my agnosticism makes me skeptical that they would ever work. The qualities of God are such that such disproofs just don’t work; God can maneuver around such proofs and most empirical attempts just by, well, hiding really well.
So, in the same light as the atheists, here’s what won’t convince me:
1) Assertions of “There’s no evidence”, “there’s no good reason to believe”, etc. While these sound good, the problem is that they aren’t really true. They rely on specific notions of “evidence” and “good reason” that need to be hammered out at the epistemic level, the level of deciding when evidence is good enough to believe something and what reasons are good or bad reasons to believe something. After all, in most circles religious texts at least count as some form of evidence, just not particularly conclusive or reliable ones. So saying “There’s no evidence” is far overstating the case. Saying “There’s no evidence that you should base a belief on” is both delving into epistemology, and probably contradicts something that they believe. If they were right that there was no evidence, then the point would be a good one … but there’s far more work to do when the claim really is “There’s no evidence that I accept” (which is a fair claim, but only for that specific atheist) or the stronger “There’s no evidence that someone should accept” (which is likely not a fair claim).
2) “Empirical” proofs based around qualities that are not critical to the concept of God. So, arguments of “The Bible gets some science wrong”, or “How come the creation story isn’t accurate?”, or “How come there are multiple religious texts?” aren’t good enough. We aren’t sure why God does things, and they aren’t really critical to His existence. It is very easy to accept that there is a God and that there is some corruption in the religious texts — as they were passed by word of mouth — or that God exists and that the message was pitched differently to different areas, and so on and so forth. So, it has to be over critical features of God: creating the universe being the big one. Now, some may reply that they’ve done that and the concept of God shifts, and yes, that’s probably happened … but as long as the shift is valid your argument is not as convincing as you might have hoped.
3) Arguments that it evolved as a “meme” or anything that links it to it having qualities that mean that it would replicate. Any idea that survives will have those qualities, true or not. That it shares qualities with ideas that survived but were not true doesn’t mean that it isn’t true.
4) Arguments that I’m being childish or superstitious. That’s what you have to prove, you know.
5) Arguments that I don’t know that God exists, or that my arguments don’t prove that God exists. Yes, but I don’t accept that that means that you can’t believe it, and that’s an epistemic claim anyway (so you need to say a lot more than that).
I’m sure there are more, but I can’t think of any at the moment. I’ll update later if I think of some.
So, that’s it. Feel free to discuss.