Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Proof of God

This morning I got an email from one of the religious leaders who spoke at a colloquium I wrote about last week. I opened it with some trepidation, because it was from the one I had disagreed with most emphatically. But I needn’t have worried:

Hi David
I am Ataul LaHaye and I spoke on behalf of Islam on the subject of Evolution at the program you also attended last Tuesday. I read your viewpoint on your Blog and want to initiate a dialogue. I have attached the longer version of my address for you to review, in the meantime. What proof will convince you of the existence of God? If your answer is none, then our discussion will be very short. If you have some type of criteria, then we can progress from there.
Sincerely yours. Ataul LaHaye

Exactly the kind of discussion I went looking for. I wrote in my last post that LaHaye and the other religious leaders seemed the type that would enjoy examining their beliefs with someone who doesn’t share them. I’ve been proven right so far.

I read the attachment Mr. LaHaye refers to. I am probably going to bungle his argument, here, I think it would be pretty easy to do. But briefly, it argues that the Qur'an is not in conflict with evolution, that the Qur'an, in fact, beat Darwin to the conclusion. Except it adds the refinement of Allah being the force behind it.

LaHaye quotes some passages from the Qur'an that do indeed sound a little like evolution, although I bet nobody interpreted them that way before Darwin published. Dismantling this argument would require me to read the Quran for parts that are in conflict with evolution. We’ll see about that, there are a lot of books to read. And even if I read it and find no conflict, I’d still need convincing that the rest of the Qur'an is true, and that Allah need to be part of the theory.

But that is another argument. I am more interested in Mr. LaHaye’s question of what proof I would require to believe in God. I’ve been pondering it all day. I’m sure many writers smarter than I have addressed this, but stuff them. A founding principle of this blog is that I don’t worry about whether I’m writing things that have been said before, or better.

I will assume we’re talking about the least specific form of God. Setting the bar as low as possible, I’ll define that as an intelligence without physical form. I will leave aside questions of what it looks like, whether it intervenes in our lives or hears our prayers, and what it wants us to do on Sundays. Convince me first that the intelligence exists, and then we’ll worry about what it thinks, what it does, and how we know either.

So, what would proof of God look like?

It would not rely on authority. By this I am most concerned with people who “prove” God by referring to “evidence” described only in holy books. For a disappointing intellectual exercise, Google “proof of God.” I found several variations of this chop-logic, an argument so outrageously circular that I’m surprised anyone who makes it can still count. I don’t mean that as a cheap insult, I mean only to say that both reveal errors in basic logic. Holy books have nothing to contribute to the question of whether God exists, because they depend on that very existence for their authority on the question. If you can establish, by some other means, that God exists, and wrote your book, and didn't lie at all in it or get misquoted, then, sure, the book is more proof ... but by that point, why do you need it?

(I don’t mean to say, by the way, that holy books are worthless if they are written “only” by humans. In fact, I think they are cheapened by the requirement that people accept them to be supernaturally inspired. I am sure that any holy book you care to name contains stories worth reading, even models worth emulating. As does Star Wars.)

It would be repeatable. All well and good to say, for example, that God spoke to you out of a burning bush. But if you can’t take me back to that bush so I can hear him speak too, then it’s not proof. It's just your say-so.

As another example, Pope John Paul II, shot point-blank in 1981, attributed his survival to the intervention of the Virgin Mary of Fatima, Portugal, whoever that is. How he reached that conclusion is a mystery to me. I also don't understand how he rules out the possibility that the Virgin Mary of Fatima, apparently in charge of bullets, wasn't trying to kill him. But never mind. My point is that even the Pope would not volunteer to be shot again, expecting the Virgin Mary to save him twice.

God would be the simplest and least spectacular explanation for the evidence. In the burning bush example, when my friend tells me God spoke to him from a burning bush, there are many possible conclusions. God is one. “He’s lying,” is another. If the bush meets my first criteria by talking to me, too, “We’re both nuts,” is another interpretation. I grant you, both my friend and I being nuts in the exact same way is rather unlikely. But people do, after all, lose their minds. My model of the world requires no fundamental restructuring to accept that two might do it at the same time in the same way, not even if one of them is me.

So, we both go to the psychiatrist, and determine that we’re sane. I still want the bush to talk to other people besides us. I also want to investigate the bush’s claim that it is, in fact, God. It might just be a talking, burning, dishonest bush. Of course, that’s not very likely. But I’d still want to rule it out, since it is still a little more likely than an invisible superman who magically creates talking burning bushes.

In the words of Carl Sagan, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

It would not force unwarranted conclusions out of unexplained observations. Lights in the sky are not aliens until you catch one and prove it. Until then, they’re just lights. Maybe nobody knows why they’re there, but you can’t conclude from that … anything at all, really. You certainly can’t take them as confirmation of whatever your dearest fantasy happens to be.

Similarly, inconsistencies in the 9/11 commission’s report do not mean that Dick Cheney ordered the job, Terri Schiavo twitching once a month does not mean that she was aware of anything, and the as-yet unknown origin of life does not mean God made it.

It would lead to accurate, testable predictions. Newton’s law of gravitation gets to be called a law because it makes predictions. You can use it to predict when the next eclipse will be, or how long it will take a bowling ball to fall from a bridge. You can fly to the moon and back with it. Sure, after a few hundred years of scrutiny, people found that if you look hard enough, Newton’s predictions are a little bit off. And then there was Einstein, waiting in the wings to make predictions about that too.

Religion, too, makes predictions. But they generally fall into three categories:

  • Wrong. “The end of the world is coming in 2000, 2001, 2002...”
  • Coincidentally right. “The end of the world is coming in 2025.”
  • Untestable. “Dave Brown is going to hell.”

This last quality of testability is particularly crucial. At the colloquium last week, someone said, “God exists outside of time and space.” I have no choice but to allow that possibility, but with a signing statement: There is no meaningful difference between “exists outside of time and space” and “does not exist.” You can say anything you like about heaven or hell, so long as they are safely on the far side of death. Nobody gets to die, come back from the dead, and tell you you're wrong. (If you just now said, “Jesus did!” refer back to my first point about arguments from authority. If you said, “Near-death experiences!” refer back to my second point about simplest explanations.)


I know that a lot of these requirements sound suspiciously like science. I may even be accused of “applying science to religion,” an act which an agnostic friend of mine said today is, for some reason, impossible. But science has been, since its invention, our most effective method for determining truth. And, as Richard Dawkins wrote, imagine one day that science does prove God exists. Will religion ignore that proof, since science doesn’t apply? Of course not. Science is only irrelevant to religion so long as it keeps finding things religion doesn’t like.

Given all my requirements, it does become tough to imagine an actual proof of God. The face of the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich certainly isn’t going to cut the mustard. How about a four-sided triangle? Or the entire Book of Mormon carved into a mountain of gold on the far side of the moon? That would be persuasive, although I’d still keep an eye out for clandestine rocket launches from Salt Lake City.

I have only ridiculous examples due to a failing of my own imagination, but others have imagined ways that my criteria could plausibly be met. The best I've seen is in Carl Sagan’s novel, “Contact.” It has a fictional proof of God which is so elegant that I refuse to give it away in a blog entry. Even as fiction it blew my mind, and it deserves to be read in context, or at the very least, whispered in private to people who promise I'm not spoiling the book for them. I tried and failed to come up with a proof that comes anywhere close without ripping it off. If Sagan were still with us, I'm sure he could rattle off another fifty suggestions, but he died an atheist.

In broad strokes, however, Sagan imagines a certain subtle observation which, once noticed, would defeat all my obstacles, leading to the conclusion that universe was designed. It could not lead anywhere else. As evidence, it would be even more convincing than a talking burning bush, better than my Book of Mormon suggestion, better than a sudden and convenient parting of the Red Sea. It may, for all anyone knows, be real, and I am sure there are people in the world looking for it as we speak.

I hope somebody finds it. I'd love to be convinced. One good thing about a scientific world-view is that revisions are a pleasure.


Lucas said...

A pleasure to read Dave.

I haven't been to this site in a while, since I thought you abandoned it.

I actually just finished reading 'The God Delusion' - well, I got about half way through...I figured I got his point about 12 pages in.

Good on you for going to the conference and good on the three speakers as well. Amazing we could get representatives from three different religions in one place without violence breaking out.

Logic aside, my biggest issue with organized religion has been the countless lives it destroyed.

Of course, if the religions all start getting along, us non-believers could be the next targets.

Duck and cover.


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Dave Brown said...

Thanks to both. I haven't abandoned it, I am just sticking to a rather irregular cycle. I've got one coming up about hitchhiking in Japan. If you've been reading a long time you know I've already got a story about that, but this is a new one.

Lucas said...

Good Lord Dave. How about a little activity on this blog once in a while. It's been nine months man.

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