19 November 2014

What would it take to change my mind?

This past weekend I had lunch with a buddy of mine who is a devout Christian. He had no idea that I'm an atheist (I don't make a big deal out of it in my day to day life) until he saw me 'like' this Facebook meme:

It was a telling moment in the 'debate', such as it was, when the two were asked what would change their minds. Nye was very specific about how the theory of evolution could be undermined and, though improbable, evidence could emerge that would force him to change his mind. That's the beauty of an evidence-based worldview: your beliefs are contingent on evidence. Ham, meanwhile, stated (in so many words) that he's a Christian and that nothing will change his mind about the truth of the Bible.

I'm reminded of one of William Lane Craig's debates (I can't find the vid, sorry) in which he derided atheists like Richard Dawkins as being "cocksure". This, despite the fact that Dawkins, much like Nye, has said that evidence could change his mind, while Craig said this:
... even in the face of evidence against God which we cannot refute, we ought to believe in God on the basis of His Spirit's witness.
What is more "cocksure" than a belief that, even in principle, cannot possibly be wrong?

Well, my friend asked me what it would take to change my mind. If indeed evidence would do the trick, what kind of evidence would be enough? This, roughly, was my answer:

1. A coherent concept of God

I think one of the most important arguments against the existence of God is theological noncognitivism: the idea that the concept of God is so ambiguously defined as to render it virtually meaningless.

Take for example Craig's claim that God is a timeless, changeless, disembodied mind. First, there is the problem of what a "disembodied mind" even is, which I talked about in detail in a post "What is God's mind like?", in which I said,
[...] we've never seen or studied a disembodied mind. All the minds we're aware of require this process of subconscious cognition arising from the brain to produce conscious awareness and linguistic meaning. But more to the point, if God is omniscient as he is generally conceived, then he must know his own mind. He must be consciously aware of what are, for us, subconscious processes that allow us to experience a coherent conscious experience. But how can this be? It's a paradox in terms.
I'm not saying a disembodied mind can't exist. I'm saying that whatever a disembodied mind is, it's absolutely nothing like any mind we have ever encountered — so much so that it's not really clear in what sense it's a "mind" at all.

The problem gets compounded when you add "timeless" and "changeless". First, what does it mean for something to "exist timelessly"? We've never encountered such existence. It would, by definition, exist in relation to nothing. What does that even mean? And if God has a thought, it logically entails time — a moment before, during, and after having the thought. Maybe God doesn't "have thoughts" as we'd generally conceive it, but that would just reinforce how ambiguous a "disembodied mind" really is. And what is a mind that does not change? Any thought or action constitutes a change. A changeless mind is hardly a mind at all, as it is by definition a mind that cannot think.

Then we have the myriad of omni-paradoxes, which theologians purport to 'solve' by making omni-qualities highly conditional, in which case one wonders what the point is in using the terms at all.

Lastly we have the even more obscure "pure being" claim of Scholasticism, in which any of God's distinct properties (disembodiment, maximal power/love/knowledge, timelessness, transcendence, etc.) are somehow identical to God's mere existence. Again: what does that even mean? Thomists like Ed Feser try to sweep the problem under the rug by saying that our descriptive language is only analogical, not univocal:
Thomists, when attributing intellect, knowledge, etc. both to God and to us, we have to understand the relevant terms analogously rather than univocally. It’s not that God has knowledge in just the sense we do, only more of it. It’s rather that there is in God something analogous to what we call knowledge in us, even if (since He is absolutely simple, eternal, etc.) it cannot be the same thing we have.
But this doesn't resolve the ambiguity at all — on the contrary it fully admits the ambiguity! Is is literally the admission that whatever God is, it cannot be described with any sort of semantic precision. This retreat to proclaiming God to be ineffable may wash with theists looking to justify an assumption which they have already declared to themselves immutable, but it cannot get a rational skeptic from here to there. One cannot claim that God's existence or nature can be inferred using the semantics and metaphors of human logic, and then when challenged to define what God exactly is claim that those same semantics fall short. It's a classic pedantic sophistry, an unabashed bait-and-switch.

So, that's the first thing: before I can take claims about God seriously, theists have to be able to coherently define it. Then what?

2. Evidence that follows from God's existence and nature

Aside from the whole steaming pile of "necessary being" bullshit, there's one more area in which God's existence ought to be more relevant: explaining the world around us.

In my conversation with my friend, I used the example of prayer. Let's say that a child has terminal cancer. The church gets together and everyone prays diligently. Miraculously, the child recovers. Naturally, the believers will attribute this to an answered prayer. Praise God! But what happens if the child dies? The believer will still claim that God answered the prayer — but they will claim that God has a Divine Plan, and that ultimately God will do His will.

There are two problems here. The first was beautifully articulated by the late comedian George Carlin:
Remember that? The Divine Plan. Long time ago, God made a Divine Plan. Gave it a lot of thought, decided it was a good plan, put it into practice. And for billions and billions of years, the Divine Plan has been doing just fine. Now, you come along, and pray for something. Well suppose the thing you want isn't in God's Divine Plan? What do you want Him to do? Change His plan? Just for you? Doesn't it seem a little arrogant? It's a Divine Plan. What's the use of being God if every run-down schmuck with a two-dollar prayerbook can come along and fuck up Your Plan?
The second is that if God is always answering prayers as either "yes", "no", or possibly "wait", then how does one discern the difference between an answered prayer and something that would have happened anyway?

Take the child's 'miraculous' recovery. Even in rare and deadly types of disease, there is a small probability of survival. Stage 4 pancreatic cancer has something like a 5% survival rate. So 95% of the people who get it will die, but 5% will experience a seemingly miraculous, against-all-odds recovery. If it's an atheist like Lance Armstrong, who recovered from Stage 4 testicular cancer, it's just a lucky break. But to a believer, it was the Hand of God answering a prayer. What evidence could a believer point to that could demonstrate the difference to a rational skeptic?

Many believers who fancy themselves more 'sophisticated' have gotten away from making claims about what, exactly, God does in the world, because it turns out that the Divine Hand of God is a pretty lousy explanation for... well, anything. Still, some will try to shoehorn God into the gaps — perhaps, like Francis Collins claimed in his book The Language of God, God miraculously intervened to create life before letting the cruel indifference of evolution run its course. Most believers, though, are not academic theologians. They perceive miracles in their day to day lives, small and grand events alike that seem to be evidence for God — a near-death experience, a lucky escape from a potentially fatal accident, the generosity of a stranger, etc.

I am certainly in no position to declare that God is not at work in those ways. But what I do know is that, like the semantic ambiguity essential to the various 'necessary being' arguments, it may be sufficient to appease someone who is already a believer, but it won't get a rational skeptic from here to there. My view that the mis/fortunes we all experience are often random ("often" because technically acts of others are not necessarily random) comports perfectly well with the reality that surrounds me. The reason it looks like human suffering is indiscriminate is because it is, not because there is some ineffable Divine Plan underneath it all. My skepticism grants me parsimony that theists will never grasp. 


Whether one believes that God actively orchestrates the world around us or just somehow sustains all of existence, the evidence is simply unconvincing to any rational skeptic. Until the believer can meet this reasonable burden of evidence, there is simply no reason to think that God exists.

By the by, my friend shared what would change his mind as well. He is a Christian, and claims he has had a transformative experience through his salvation. What could change his mind? In his own words: "Nothing".

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