…or “Why I am a rationalist”.
I recently came across an article, linked to by my friend Jason, that piqued my interest. The whole article, Why I am an atheist, is well worth a read, but it was a statement at the end that drew my attention:
I could be converted to theism if… God, or a god, showed himself or performed an act that unambiguously proved both his existence and his attributes as an immortal, omnipotent being. As to what that proof would constitute: that god himself, if omnipotent, would be the perfect arbiter of what would conclusively prove to six billion people that he existed.
There’s several important points to consider here. Firstly, just because human beings are not perfect beings does not mean they cannot evaluate some questions or problems perfectly. Take tic-tac-toe (noughts and crosses) for example. We know how to play the perfect game of tic-tac-toe. I’m not talking about very good or even excellent, I’m talking about mathematically perfect. It is possible to play a perfect game of tic-tac-toe so that one cannot lose — only draw, at the worst, if the opponent also plays the perfect game. That doesn’t mean that every person on this planet knows the method to do so, but the potential is there. What this illustrates is that in a game, or scenario, with finite parameters, one does not have to be perfect — only good enough. Once that “good enough” is reached, being any better doesn’t help, right through expert to omnipotent.
Before I continue onto how this relates to proof of God, there is an important question that is raised here: could God beat me at tic-tac-toe? The traditional Christian answer would be, “of course, God can do anything”. This answer however, does not consider the question in any detail. It is simply a blanket-answer that avoids any real consideration, a default answer to can God do…? I can play the perfect game of tic-tac-toe, so that it is impossible to beat me, not only within the laws of physics in this universe, but within the inherent laws of mathematics in any conceivable universe. So if we again consider the question, then we are left with one of two conclusions: either God can defy the inherent laws of logic, or God’s omnipotence is limited by logic — i.e. God can do anything possible, but not anything impossible. If we take the former as the definition of God, then we have proved that God cannot exist, because it is self-contradictory. If we take the latter, then we have a God that is constrained by logic — our definition of “God” has narrowed.
The scenario of how a god would reveal itself to humanity has far more parameters than tic-tac-toe, but is still reasonably finite. We might not know the god side of the equation, but we know the human side pretty well. We know what human beings are capable of perceiving and we can interpret evidence with logic. In fact, I would argue that we have no choice: we cannot perform a fair test of whether a being is a god without defining the test in advance, just as any other matter of science. We must also consider then, that like tic-tac-toe, our efforts might be finitely-limited. It might not actually be inherently possible for us to test whether a being that presented itself to us was, in fact, a god. Assuming that our god is limited by the laws of logic, then it might not be possible for a god, no matter how powerful, to come up with a way to prove itself to us as a god.
One might argue that a god could simply use its powers to make us know it was a god. It might be entirely successful and from our perspective, it would have succeeded, but that would not inherently make it a god from the perspective of a neutral observer. In fact, the only thing that would prove is its powers of brainwashing. In order to actually prove its existence and god-status to use, a god would have to prove to us as unaffected observers that it was a god. Still, the answer to how a god proves its status remains elusive.
It comes to mind that the standard way for any entity to prove its status would be for it to perform some kind of task that only it could do. I am sure that if a “god” came to earth (or sent its son?) it could perform many amazing miracles, which would convince a large proportion of the population of its god-status, but that would not constitute proof on a scientific level. Fundamentally, we must remember a key tenet of rationalism: just because we can’t explain something doesn’t mean it is magic. What this means is that no matter how impressive the feats achieved by the visiting “god”, we would have no way of categorising them as god-work rather than simply as-yet-unexplained. At this point, we realise that our standard test has become worthless: since god is a “magical” being and we cannot presume anything we do not understand to be magical, we cannot presume anything we do not understand to be the work of a god. At the same time, there is no test that we understand that could only be performed by a god. We can imagine great things: turning water into wine, walking on water, &c; yet there is nothing to say that these are truly god-work. In fact, here we run into Clarke’s third law: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
The problem with encountering Clarke’s third law at this point, is that it puts a severe dent in any hope to prove god through its actions. We cannot distinguish the actions of a god from the actions of a being or race that is sufficiently superior in technological terms. This again raises questions about the nature of a god — what if a being utilised sufficiently advanced technology to render it practically omnipotent? That it reached a level where it had the power to manipulate matter and energy in any way conceivably possible? Would that constitute a god? If not, then why not? I’m inclined to agree with the religious folk who would say to this, no, it would only constitute a very powerful being. If we settle for this answer however, then the only god that remains is the god that we have already seen is self-contradictory.
The question of what defines god is important, but often neglected. If there’s one fatal mistake made by rationalists in debate, it’s being willing to have the debate on religious terms. When that happens, the definition of the god that we’re trying to disprove changes constantly — it’s like shooting at moving goalposts. If we don’t force those who ask us Why doesn’t god exist to completely concrete their definition of god, then we might as well be debating Why doesn’t Jiffymoojookuu exist? – it’s completely hopeless. If their definition of god sits outside of logic, then we already know it its self-contradictory and cannot be logically debated; otherwise, we can disprove its existence with logic (if it bleeds, we can kill it!).
So what defines a god? Power? Well, that’s all well and good, but we already know that seemingly-infinite power, whether in the form of omnipotence or omniscience, could quite conceivably be the product of advanced technology and we would have no way to distinguish otherwise. One of the best examples of this in fiction is in Stargate SG1, with the Goa’uld and Ori plot arcs; neither has infinite power, but they are so far in advance of the cultures that they subjugate, that they appear to have infinite power. There’s also a philosophical problem: does having power make one a god? Suppose I had infinite power, but were malevolent and had created humanity in order to watch them suffer. Would I be a god? an evil god? What if I were good, but had only 99% of the power of a god? Exactly what powers are required to be considered a god? We then have to consider, if there is a being with unlimited power, is it inherently a god? or just an being with unlimited power? Does the fact that a being is powerful mean that we should worship it?
The problem with a power-based god can be seen in most modern religions. Followers are told that they should worship god, because he is powerful. When we think about it though, doesn’t this sound an awful lot like a great dictator? You should follow god’s rules, they are told, because god is all powerful. It’s really the ultimate example of might-is-right. Nobody stops to question whether what they are doing by following god’s laws is inherently right, only if they are following god’s laws. Never is the good intent of the god-law questioned. Ultimately, the idea of following commands, even doing good, for the purpose of getting yourself into heaven and keeping out of hell, is rather selfish.
The definition of God seems to come down to the intersection of power with a very sloppily defined attribute known as ‘holiness’. The problem is, since ‘holiness’ is so poorly defined, it does not seem to exist in any rational analysis of the universe. Therefore, it is self-defeating: if the measure of a god is that it is holy, and holiness is a non-thing, then no god can possibly exist.
As a rationalist, I’ve always been open to the idea that even though there is no evidence for the existence of a god, I should be open to the small chance that it does exist. I think I’ve changed my mind on that. The only thing I might consider a “god” is rationally impossible, and I’m not prepared to label any being a “god” and bow to it just because it is powerful. There’s a chance that there are things, even other beings, in the universe, that we don’t fully understand or whose power dwarfs our own; that does not render them gods.
Edit: there’s another good article on this by Theodore Schick Jr