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I'm an atheist, and I've thought about this question a lot, but I honestly can't think of anything; not one thing that would officially sway me to believe that God was real, or probably real. There's simply too many other more-plausible explanations. Even if I met God face to face, and talked with him, and lived in heaven, etc., there's still the possibility that I'm in a matrix being fed these experiences, or the advanced alien race caveat you brought up. At best I could say that the evidence for God was greater than it was previously.

If you see a flaw(s) in this position, I'd really like to know what it is. It's a horrible position to be in when asked what would make you believe in God, as it's almost the same as a christian saying "I'll never stop believing in my God." My position is more rational though, I think, and I really am prepared to change my mind, but it simply doesn't seem possible to narrow the options down far enough to make God most plausible, or at least nearly plausible.


Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from God.

Joshua Zelinsky

Corbin, what in general does it take to convince you of a proposition? One can't in general eliminate all other possible answers to any question, but one can generally pick out one hypothesis as most plausible. If the writing in the sky occurred as Greta suggests would you find any other hypothesis more plausible? Note this is not asking if the collection of alternate hypotheses outweighs that for a deity in that circumstance but rather whether when hypotheses are taking individually whether that's the most reasonable single hypothesis.

One should in general be worried if there's no amount of evidence that will not convince one of a hypothesis being likely. If that's the case, one isn't being a rational individual.

One should in general be worried if there's no amount of evidence that will not convince one of a hypothesis being likely. If that's the case, one isn't being a rational individual.
That doesn't follow at all. Another possibility is that the hypothesis is false. Or unsupportable.

What amount of evidence could convince you of the hypothesis that 2 + 2 = 6? None, one hopes--because that hypothesis is provably false, and "no amount of evidence" could possibly change that reality.

One major issue with the argument Greta has posted here, and the Ebonmuse post she's referenced repeatedly, is that it by-and-large finesses what, exactly, "God" means. If "God" just means a lifeform with far more knowledge and/or power than we have, then the evidence G&E have in mind would be worthwhile. "God" as a mere impressive extraterrestrial intelligence would not be all that difficult to demonstrate, if It were interested in revealing Itself.

But, of course, huge numbers of theists believe in a "God" that is not just powerful but omnipotent, not just knowledgeable but omniscient. How, pray tell, is one supposed to find adequate evidence of another's infinite power or knowledge? "Puzzled," above, is exactly correct to cite Clarke's Third Law: there is no way to tell the difference between (1) a sufficiently powerful being and (2) an infinitely powerful being. The suggestion that Corbin, who merely pointed out this conundrum, is to that extent not "being a rational individual" is nonsense.

Greta deals with the (theist) objection that the evidentiary bar she has set in this post is too high. Actually, the problem (as she notes in the italicized postscript) is that the bar is too low--that real evidence of an omnipotent, omniscient being, differentiating it from a merely very-powerful and/or very-knowledgeable being, is impossible to come by.

Greta's "drawing the line here to prove a point" angle makes sense; well and good. But even the evidence she (like Ebonmuse before her) suggests does indeed make a Jean-Luc Picard a more plausible explanation than a Yahweh. That's not Greta's fault; it's theism's.

Your own reports describe how rational these people are. Millennia ago, they abandoned all belief in the supernatural. And now you're asking me to sabotage that achievement... send them back into the Dark Ages of fear and superstition.

No. We must undo the damage we've caused.

- Picard, "Who Watches the Watchers"

Hal in Howell MI

I've always been amused by The Great God Contest The contest makes the assumption of the existence of gods. It is more of a test which is the best god, but the possibility is open that no god will win. Still, the three challenges, if met (virgin impregnated, corpse raised, sick healed and/or multitudes fed), would be persuasive evidence.

On a personal level, I've considered setting the burden of proof pretty low with the following: Sarah Palin is transformed into an intelligent, thoughtful, articulate, well-reasoned, rational and compassionate conservative. (I don't require she be a liberal, as that might be just too difficult for any deity.)

This is my first comment on this site, which I've followed for quite some time. I hope I am not too far off-topic


Robin Zimmermann

Rieux July 19, 2010 at 08:11 AM:

What amount of evidence could convince you of the hypothesis that 2 + 2 = 6? None, one hopes--because that hypothesis is provably false, and "no amount of evidence" could possibly change that reality.

Even that's not true. It's not overly difficult to imagine a scenario in which you could become deceived about such a thing.

That said, I would struggle to imagine any kind of evidence not involving long-term delusion which would allow for a traditional monotheistic god. If we were looking at something more like the Ursula Vernon Divine-Social-Worker gods ... that's kinda difficult.

Techskeptic Techskeptic


I hear you about the idea that God may be a persuadable arguement for you. But I dont agree that spae aliens is the other possibility.

I have a number of ideas of what it would take to prove god's existence for me.

But the thing is, even with that proof, the fact of the matter is...

God is an alien.

It doesnt matter if he has magic powers, it doesnt matter if he is outside of the universe or the cause of the universe. It would still be a separate entity, with a will of its own (benevolent or wrathful), and it wouldn't be human or born on the planet Earth. God, if he exists, is an alien.

Greta Christina

Corbin: I see what you're saying. But I think you may be overlooking a couple of key elements of this challenge. (Or maybe I just didn't make them clear enough.)

One is that we're talking in counter-factuals. I'm not saying, "Given that the world is the way it is, what would persuade you that God existed?" After all, the world being the way it is it exactly what convinced us that God doesn't exist. I'm asking, "What conditions would have to be different in order for you to think God existed?" Or putting it another way: If there were a God, what would the world look like? How would it be different?

For you, that bar might be set higher (or differently) than it is for me. You might need more than one of the above conditions to be met: maybe you'd need to see the skywriting, AND the holy book with the accurate prophecies and scientific predictions, AND the members of one faith being granted happiness and success. And maybe some miracles to boot. For you, the fact that the world so clearly operates by physical cause and effect, and that once-unexplained phenomena have always turned out to have natural explanations and never supernatural ones, means you'd need the world to be radically different to persuade you of God's existence. But I'm guessing you can imagine a world in which there is a God of some sort. That's what I'm asking: What would that world look like?

You also seem to be assuming (correct me if I'm wrong here) that I'm asking, "What would convince you that one particular version of God -- i.e., the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God of Christianity -- existed? I'm not. I actually think that, if we define "power," "knowledge," and "goodness" in any standard way, the Omnimax God is a logical impossibility -- just as if we define 2, 6, "plus," and "equals" in any standard way, 2=2=6 would be a logical impossibility. I'm asking what would persuade you of the existence of any God. (God being defined here as, oh, let's say, a supernatural being, i.e. not comprised entirely out of physical matter and energy, who created the universe and/or intervenes with it.)

Finally, you seem to be assuming -- and again, correct me if I'm wrong -- that I'm asking, "What would convince me with 100% certainty that God existed?" I'm not. If any of the abovementioned events happened, I would be persuaded that God probably existed. I would be convinced that God was the most plausible explanation. My belief would be as provisional as my non-belief.

Yes, the Matrix option is always a hypothetical possibility. But it's not actually very plausible. Daniel Dennet argued this very successfully: creating a simulacrum or illusion of reality is difficult to the point of impossibility, and it's just as easy or even easier to simply create a new reality. The Truman Show is more plausible than The Matrix. So while it's true that any of the events mentioned in this piece could be illusions planted by powerful but still natural/ physical beings, I don't think that would be the most plausible explanation. I don't need to be convinced that God's existence is absolutely certain, that it's the only possible explanation for the events in question. Any more than I need to be convinced that God's non-existence is absolutely certain. I just need to be convinced that it's probable.

Greta Christina

Techskeptic: Fair point. I should have been clearer about my definitions. I'm defining "God" as a supernatural being, i.e. not comprised entirely out of physical matter and energy. I'm defining "space aliens" as physical beings: very powerful ones with a lot of really good technology, but still physical beings comprised of matter and energy.

It is true, as people have pointed out, that any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic or God. So even if I were persuaded that God existed, it'd be possible that I was being fooled by very advanced aliens. But again, my persuasion that God existed wouldn't be absolute -- it would be as provisional as my current persuasion that God doesn't exist. I don't need to be persuaded that God is the only possible explanation -- just that he's the most plausible one.

And again, as I pointed out in my addendum: Religion can't even meet that test. Even when I give it the benefit of the doubt and make myself more credulous than I arguably ought to be, it still fails.


    If the writing in the sky occurred as Greta suggests would you find any other hypothesis more plausible?

Yes, such as the ones I mentioned: in a matrix, or advanced aliens. And yes, I find them individually more plausible than the God scenario.

Rieux brought up a good point, about "God" not being defined very well. That's one reason God is less plausible: we don't even know what we're dealing with exactly to make a probability judgment. And when we sorta do, such as him being omnipotent and omniscient, we've never seen anything like that, neither in nature nor synthetic.

On the other hand, we can more than speculate on the possibility of a matrix and ETs. For starters, we've seen both computers and life in the universe. That makes them immediately more plausible.



I wrote the above as you were sending your responses apparently, so disregard those as counters or whatever.

Anyway, you've given me a lot to think about, so if I think of anything useful to respond with, I'll do that later after much thought.

Also, no, I do understand you're not speaking in absolutes, but rather in terms of probability.


As far as the "God" vs. "sufficiently advanced aliens" argument goes, I don't really care about the difference.

If Q from Star Trek, or SPOILER from the Suzumiya Haruhi series arrived on Earth and demanded that we being worship it as God, I wouldn't be one to debate the differences.

Joshua Zelinsky

Robin, I was actually going to link to precisely that essay. You beat me to it.

Corbin, ok. If we narrow the situation down to a more specific deity would you possibly change your mind? Say for example, that almost all the born-again Christians and all the little babies disappeared in a flash of light. What would that do to your estimate on the chance that some version of the evangelical Christian deity is real?


    Say for example, that almost all the born-again Christians and all the little babies disappeared in a flash of light. What would that do to your estimate on the chance that some version of the evangelical Christian deity is real?

The chances would certainly go up, and quite a bit, I think. Actually, I could probably safely bump it up to plausible, along with some other theories of course, such as hyper-dimensional beings. In my opinion, your scenario would point to this specific deity a hell of a lot more than, say, letters in the sky, though.


What amount of evidence could convince you of the hypothesis that 2 + 2 = 6? None, one hopes--because that hypothesis is provably false, and "no amount of evidence" could possibly change that reality.

Even that's not true.

Which "that" do you mean? That (a) "one hopes" there's no amount of evidence that would convince you that 2 + 2 = 6? That (b) said hypothesis is provably false? Or that (c) no amount of evidence could possibly change that reality? What, precisely, are you disputing?

Presuming (a), the article you link to simply (and comically) ignores what mathematics is. The provable fact that 2 + 2 ≠ 6 has not the slightest thing to do with counting anything, whether "earplugs," "X"es, or anything else. That 2 + 2 ≠ 6 is merely a direct and unavoidable logical inference from the axiomatic definitions of "2," "6," "+," and "≠."

"Eliezer_Yudkowsky" simply ignores this, which renders his (?) post irrelevant to my comment. His hypothetical situation--in which he wakes up in a universe in which two earplugs, placed next to two other earplugs, become three earplugs--does nothing whatsoever to disprove the fact that 2 + 2 = 4. Even if earplugs (and "X"es) did behave that way, 2 + 2 would still = 4, because that's simply how the symbols in question are defined. All of the parallel universes and capricious earplugs you can imagine can't change that.

So my assertion--the one I gather you dissented from--stands. "One" continues to "hope" that folks understand what it means to say "2 + 2 ≠ 6," such that a few sneaky earplugs wouldn't call axiomatic mathematical definitions into question. Alas, after an exchange like this one, "one['s] hopes" may be dashed. Basic concepts of mathematics are not as widely understood as I presumed. Ah, well.

It's not overly difficult to imagine a scenario in which you could become deceived about such a thing.

Indeed not--but that's hardly novel. Even Yudkowsky himself notices 1984, which directly posits that some severe amount of torture (along with, presumably, considerable technical proficiency in torturing) can create mental defects that are sufficient to make a poor creature like Winston Smith believe effectively anything. What that has to do with my point, however, I don't understand. Following one Mr. O'Brien, I imagine that either Corbin or I could be beaten about the head vigorously enough that we'd be ready to accept the proposition that God exists. That falls rather short of a presentation of legitimate evidence.

So let's run the replay. In response to Corbin's very ordinary observation that he (?)

can't think of anything; not one thing that would officially sway me to believe that God was real, or probably real. There's simply too many other more-plausible explanations admonished him--declaring that
One should in general be worried if there's no amount of evidence that will not convince one of a hypothesis being likely. If that's the case, one isn't being a rational individual.
As I explained, this is nonsense (as well as more than a little haughty): you're simply ignoring the realities that (a) some hypotheses are axiomatically, provably false (to which Yudkowsky's post is not a relevant response) and (b) some hypotheses are unsupportable.

There is, in fact, no way to demonstrate empirically that an all-powerful or all-knowing being exists. As such, your declaration that "one isn't being a rational individual" in the circumstances in question is false. Regardless of what evidence anyone could ever offer, a superior (but material and finite) extraterrestrial intelligence will always be a more parsimonious explanation than an infinite deity.

Corbin did not deserve to be lectured on "being a rational individual." Especially not when he was right.



God being defined here as, oh, let's say, a supernatural being, i.e. not comprised entirely out of physical matter and energy, who created the universe and/or intervenes with it.
I suppose I'm being overly difficult, but I still don't think that actually gets us anywhere. "Supernatural" is another one of those words (religion has so many) that purports to do much more work than it actually does: that a god is "not comprised entirely out of physical matter and energy" says nothing about what the durn thing actually is.

What would convince me that a being-totally-unlike-anything-in-the-natural-universe-but-also-not-a-garden-variety-extraterrestrial exists? Um, I have no idea. I'm not sure how we can even parse the question, much less the evidence that's hypothetically being presented to us.

I emphasize, again, that this problem is neither Greta's nor Ebonmuse's fault: it's theism's. Questions like this one require one to drill down fairly deep into concepts like "god" and "supernatural" (and perhaps "soul," "spirit," "omnipotence," ...). Count me among those who strongly suspect that there's no "there" there, in just about any of those concepts.

Robin Zimmermann

Rieux, July 19, 2010 at 09:34 PM: I'm in a weird sort of bind, actually - in this context (that is, the comment thread on Greta Christina's Blog), the you could be mistaken objection is a quibble ... but if we're going to address remarks to people who sincerely disagree, we have a social obligation to treat their claims seriously. If I were in conversation with an otherwise-reasonable person who was convinced that 2 + 2 = 6, I would claim that I could be convinced to agree by evidence ... and then point out that the evidence was absent, and contrary evidence was present. Otherwise there's no way for them - or any of the spectators - to determine that I would have agreed if I had good cause to.

That's exactly what Greta Christina does, actually.



As far as the "God" vs. "sufficiently advanced aliens" argument goes, I don't really care about the difference.
Okay--but I hope you recognize the very powerful interests that millions of theists have in caring about the difference.

If the one true god in the universe is only very powerful, but not all-powerful, then who's to say where its power ends? Maybe it can't give you the strength you're looking for to face the challenges in your life. Maybe it can't protect your family from harm. Maybe it can't cure your loved one's illness. Maybe it can't redeem your soul. Who knows?

As for knowledge, take a gander at, say, Psalm 139:

O LORD, you have searched me and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD....
...And so on, for twenty more verses of praise of the intimate knowledge God has of the psalmist.

That has tremendous value to a person feeling small and alone on this planet; in contrast, a less-than-omniscient being that--for all you know--doesn't know beans about you has far less pull. And even an omnipotent god is no help to you if it's too dumb or ignorant to realize that you're in trouble.

(The other side of the coin is that a god that's less than all-powerful or less than all-knowing can escape the Problem of Evil entirely. Given that, it seems to me rather significant that so few mainstream monotheists take that particular escape hatch. Omni-gods are apparently much more attractive.)

The standard monotheist god is all-powerful and all-knowing because so many people, apparently, find it meaningful to buy a model with those features standard. I'm no psychologist, but I suspect that says a thing or two about human beings' emotional needs.

Greta Christina

Rieux: I guess I'd ask the question this way: Posit a world in which some sort of god exists. Not necessarily an Omnimax god -- I actually do think the Omnimax God is a logical impossibility, in much the way that 2+2=6 is a logical impossibility, based on the definitions of the terms in question -- but any god. Any sort of non-physical being that created the universe, and/or that uses its non-physical powers to intervene in the physical world.

What might the world look like if this were true?

I agree that religions are vague and internally inconsistent about their definitions of God, the soul, the afterlife, etc. But we don't have to be. And I think this is an exercise worth doing: partly to show that atheism really is a provisional, falsifiable conclusion instead of an unquestioned axiom, and partly because it shows, by contrast, how radically different the world would be if God were real.

Oh, and Joshua Zelinsky: That's a good one. I may have to update my list. If the Rapture happened -- if born-again Christians (and babies/ young children) disappeared in a flash of light, and soon afterward Armageddon started taking place as described in Revelation -- yeah, that'd probably convince me. Too late, obviously -- again pointing to the stupidity and inconsistency of the Rapture hypothesis -- but I'd be convinced that God was real. A sadistic jackass, but a real one.


Robin: I'm sorry, but I'm afraid you're just laboring under a fundamental category error that is preventing you from understanding some of the basic points I am making.

First, mathematics is a system of axioms, and it is nothing but a system of axioms and direct logical inferences therefrom. There is no such thing as "evidence" that 2 + 2 is or is not equal to 6. The simple, provable, logically mandatory fact is that it is not. "Evidence" does not--cannot--enter into it.

Again, the page you linked to is a weird irrelevancy. One participant in a (very silly) dialogue is dunned into forgetting that 51 = 3 * 17, and therefore 51 is not prime. That's not evidence; it's not logic; it's just a brain fart. Who cares?

If I met someone who seriously believed and contended that 2 + 2 = 6, I would conclude (rather quickly) that (s)he had an incorrect notion of one or more of the concepts "2," "6," "+," or "=."

It may be meaningful to speak of "evidence" that the person in question actually believed the falsehood (the main matter in such a situation that I'd be skeptical of)--but speaking of "evidence" that 2 + 2 is or is not equal to 6 is just, as I've said, nonsense. The concept of evidence has no place in mathematics. You're misapplying it.

The relevance of this entire digression to this comment thread is that it demonstrates one reason that your lecture to Corbin regarding when "one isn't being a rational individual" is incorrect. One need not worry in the slightest about "evidence" contradicting one's belief that 2 + 2 ≠ 6, because there cannot possibly be any such evidence. It is not the slightest bit irrational to accept the fact that 2 + 2 = 4, with 100% confidence that no evidence will ever come to light suggesting otherwise. And thus your admonition was wrong.

That's exactly what Greta Christina does, actually.
Uh, not that I've seen. I've been reading this blog for several years, and I don't remember ever seeing Greta confuse (a) questions about axiomatic mathematical facts with (b) questions about empirical reality the way you are here.


I agree that religions are vague and internally inconsistent about their definitions of God, the soul, the afterlife, etc. But we don't have to be.

You can go ahead and accuse me of stubbornly fighting the hypothetical (you'd be right), but I don't think there's any escape from the noncognitivist vise. Sure, we can be less vague than theists are in defining "god," but I still don't see any middle ground between (a) a powerful extraterrestrial and (b) meaningless syllables... that is actually available, even to daydreaming atheists.

If we're talking about evidence that would make it plausible that a crazed, superpowerful, homophobic freak in the sky (y'know, Exodus, Leviticus, all that) exists, then no problem--but the parsimonious hypothesis in that case is a powerful but nasty E.T., an Evil Picard.

(And let's make sure to always add in a version of the "sadistic jackass" coda from your comment above: a real Rapture does indeed suggest that there's some kind of Evil Picard up there with an affinity for the book of Revelation, but that hardly obligates us to worship the freak.)

And I think this is an exercise worth doing: partly to show that atheism really is a provisional, falsifiable conclusion....
Only to the extent that "god" means something. (An Evil Picard is a something.)

And I'm certainly not disagreeing with you that atheism is a provisional, falsifiable conclusion--in large part because I think the most widespread conceptions of the monotheist god do really just amount to a Picard plus a bit of empty fluff about omni-qualities (and "supernatural," "spirit," blah blah blah). Atheists provisionally lack a belief in that silliness for extremely good reasons.

But when God is dragged away from specific personality traits into "super" this and "outside of" that and nothing more, I don't see what sense remains. I'd contend that "a supernatural being, i.e. not comprised entirely out of physical matter and energy" isn't a cognizable hypothesis at all; it's just empty words.

The point isn't that atheism is dogmatic. It's that God (or at least the god of "serious" theologians) isn't actually a concept with any content.

[I]t shows, by contrast, how radically different the world would be if God were real.
Okay, there's a chance to refute me: how can we possibly claim that any state of affairs is more likely to exist in a universe that has "a supernatural being, i.e. not comprised entirely out of physical matter and energy" in it, as opposed to a universe that doesn't? I just don't see any meat on that conceptual bone, any characteristic that such a god qua god has to have.

It seems to me that to make any sense of the hypothetical, we have to add back some of the peculiarities that various religions pin on their gods--"dictated the Qur'an," perhaps, or "crucified and rose on the third day." Religions, as you've frequently argued, are hypotheses about the world--it's just that "god," as a standalone, theologically distilled concept, really isn't.

Joshua Zelinsky


Questions about math are consequences of axioms, but whether we've correctly reasoned about those axioms is an empirical matter. We've all misadded numbers at some point in our lives. And it is known that there are stroke victims who routinely make the same arithmetic mistakes. When I say that for example 1+2=3, it could be that I've just had that sort of stroke, and my example of a true statement is wildly off.

Indeed, there are multiple cases of even widely scrutinized theorems turning out to have the known proofs be incorrect. For example, the Four Color Theorem was thought to have a valid proof in the late 19th century and it took about a decade before anyone realized that the proof was flawed. The difference between that and something like 1+1=2 being wrong is a difference of degree, not a difference of kind (except possibly in so far that if 1+1=2 turns out to be wrong I'm not sure we'd be justified trusting our cognitive abilities even to the tiny extent we can do so now.)


There's an interesting example of this "Evil Picard" idea in David Weber's series starting with Off Armageddon Reef. Now, for him, it's all an elaborate pretext to write swashbucking stories of adventure on the high seas, but the back story is rather interesting.

Basically, it turns out that broadcasting radio waves into space is a Really Bad Idea, because it attracts the attention of some Evil Aliens intent on exterminating life on earth in general and Homo sapiens in particular. (This is not a new idea, see Saberhagen's Berserker series for other examples.)

Anyway, a large group of people are sent out in cold sleep to set up a hidden colony somewhere the Evil Aliens can't find them. It is also imperative that the colony maintain radio silence for at least 500 years until the Evil Aliens declare success and move on.

There's a big debate about the best way to impress on future generations the importance of maintaining radio silence. How do you make sure that out of millions of people, not one decides the dire warnings are all a bunch of crap? There's the "tell them the truth" camp, which gets outvoted by the "make up a religion" camp.

Anyway, a whole bunch of people wake up from cold sleep with odd amnesia. But they do have a holy book which is incredibly detailed, accurate, and useful.

For example, it contains a complete and accurate map of the world. Descriptions of the motion of the stars and planets (including all the subtle long-term polar wander terms). Detailed anatomical descriptions, giving the function of each part of the body and common ways it fails.

It also contains a whole lot of health information, about the curses you will suffer if you don't eat the right foods on long sea voyages or don't follow aseptic procedure properly when treating wounds, or mess about with white phosphorus, or don't rotate your crops, or have the privy too close to the well, or...

Holy Writ doesn't mandate everything, but when it does, you damn well better pay attention, because the curses it predicts actually happen!

And, of course, it's all consistent, as thousands of copies were available to the original colonists ("Adams" and "Evens") and are preserved in libraries.

So when it says that playing with electricity is absolutely off limits, people tend to believe it. If you have any doubts about the accuracy of Holy Writ, feel free to snack on any of the List Of Plants That Will Kill You.

Pretty convincing, eh?

David Fitzgerald

Great post! For me, it's much like asking "what would it take for you to believe the world is flat?" The simple fact is, I think the world and the universe, the scriptures of your choice, and most of human history would look very different if there were a god like the ones described in our religions and philosophical musings.

Robin Zimmermann

Rieux, July 20, 2010 at 01:08 AM: Joshua Zelinsky already made the point I was planning to make, but I think it's pretty clear that the way I described it had to have been confusing, particularly the way I used the word "evidence". So let me try to elaborate a bit.

Suppose someone said "2 + 2 = 6". What might that mean?

Most likely, of course, they won't mean anything - it'll be a hypothetical, like the ones we've been making up, or it'll just be a typo. Similarly unhelpful to the analogy are cases where it's a notational confusion - where "2" does not mean two, "+" does not mean plus, "=" does not mean equals, and/or "6" doesn't mean six - and cases where it's a joke like the missing dollar riddle. Or they might be making some sort of metaphorical point, for example about the sum being more than the parts. (That would probably fall into the category of "notational confusion".)

But they might simply be wrong. Yes, the statement is obviously, risibly, false ... but screws fall out all the time - the world's an imperfect place. Someone in front of you is saying "2 + 2 = 6". How do you show that they're wrong?

In that situation, I suspect you'd argue it like I'd argue it: by pointing out how we do sums and showing that the sum comes out differently. Me, I'd probably say that addition of natural numbers is like putting counted sets of items together and counting the total set, and if "2" is "one two" and "4" is "one two three four", you can run the test yourself and confirm that the set "one two one two" has the same number of items as "one two three four", not "one two three four five six" - "6". If abstract argument isn't convincing to that person - perhaps they're bad at analytical thinking - you might pull use objects on the table to do the same operation. "Here's two pennies and two quarters. Two and two. How many coins are there? Four!" Maybe you'll draw a straight line and measure off two touching two-inch segments, make a picture like:

  |- 2"-|- 2"-|

and measure the distance from the the beginning of the first to the end of the second and show it's four inches.

My point is not that the answer is empirical, but that you can actually make the argument as if the question is not resolved. And by reference to that argument, you can say, "If two plus two were six, then this line segment would be six inches long."

Similarly, if there were a benevolent and omnipotent God, I would expect (say) flood waters to part like Moses at the Red Sea around the dwellings of the righteous, leaving them unharmed. And there is a similarity between these two statements, despite one being a statement of mathematical inference and the other a statement of empirical observation. In both cases, it's possible to describe some result which would make the answer at least seem to be different.

Nurse Ingrid

Extra points to Robin Zimmermann for the Breakfast Club reference.


Why do I keep seeing Eliezer's name mentioned in comments above? Has he commented here?

Joshua Zelinsky

DSimon, no but he runs a website called LessWrong which is dedicated to improving rationality, thinking about cognitive biases, and similar issues. He's also just a very good writer and often says things much more concisely and much more effectively than many other people. (He has a few quirky ideas (he's very much a Singulitarian for example) but even there he's one of the most sensible Singulitarians out there). So Eliezer is often the goto person to reference for lots of issues that come up here.

(And while we're discussing Eliezer I'll note that he also writes fiction and is in the process of writing the absolutely hilarious fanfic Harry Potter and the Method of Rationality:

which retells the story of Harry Potter if Harry had grown up with a loving scientist as his adoptive father.

Greta Christina

So I want to get off the topic of what it means that 2=2 does not equal 6 (not that y'all should stop that conversation), and back onto God.

Rieux, I'm puzzled by you saying that "a supernatural being, i.e. not comprised entirely out of physical matter and energy" isn't a cognizable hypothesis. It seems to me that I can cognize it pretty well. But I'll drop that for the moment (no promises to drop it permanently), and come back to the key, original question:

If you think that atheism is a provisional, falsifiable conclusion -- what would falsify it for you?


Joshua, thanks, I actually already knew about the guy but I was just curious where the reference to him re: this article first came from.

You're right, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality really is totally fantastic. Isn't it strange that more fantasy characters don't notice the obvious loopholes in their worlds' magic systems? :-)

Another really good short story by Eliezer on the theme of people who try to meta-argue "Well, what is truth anyways?" is here.

Robin Zimmermann

Nurse Ingrid, July 20, 2010 at 04:10 PM: Much to my transient shame, I haven't seen it yet.[1] But a relative of mine that I visited during the vacation I'm on in Texas liked that line, and on reflection[2] I liked it too.

1. It's ... *edits* ... on my list, I promise!
2. Coincidence. I swear.

Robin Zimmermann

DSimon, July 20, 2010 at 08:02 PM:

Joshua, thanks, I actually already knew about the guy but I was just curious where the reference to him re: this article first came from.

I posted a link to an essay of his in reply to Rieux, July 19, 2010 at 08:11 AM.


Ah, okay, thanks Robin. It's a good article, too, and now I can compose a response to Rieux's point.

Yes, it's true that mathematics isn't subject to empirical evidence (or bound by inferential reasoning in general) because it's all about abstractions. However, when we say "mathematics" what we really mean is "a mathematics", one possible choice out of many potential sets of axioms.

We could've picked another set that said 2 + 2 = 3, but we didn't. If we lived in a universe where setting two apples by another two apples resulted in three apples, then we could say things like "no evidence should ever change our belief that 2 + 2 = 3" with the unspoken addendum of "... in the system of mathematics that we've devised based upon empirical evidence".

Therefore, in the three-apples universe, it really would be the case that 2 + 2 = 3, because that's what their system of mathematics would provably say.

Greta Christina

Joshua, you completely suck. I have a lot of things to get finished today, and I do not have time to get sucked into rationalist Harry Potter fanfic. Which I just spent the last 45 minutes doing. Bad commenter! Bad!

Joshua Zelinsky

Greta, I'd apologize but I generally only apologize for things I actually feel bad about that, so...

gruntled atheist

What would it take to change my mind?

If one day geologists from around our planet rushed to announce that overnight the edges of tectonic plates had become smooth and could now pass without causing earthquakes, I would give it a rethink.

Kevin Lahey

Hey, fun discussion. I haven't thought about things like this in years and never really came up with something that would make me believe in God.

I find most of the things mentioned above as being more likely caused by an alien race trying to take advantage of simpler people instead of a super being who also thought it important to talk about how menstruating women are unclean instead of actually telling people what menstruation is (or pick your own goofy example of something from the old testament). Now when you started talking about what a world with a god in it would look like, that got me thinking. The only thing that really would make me think it most probable that God exists is if the world functioned like theists talked about it working.

I mean when people get injured in a car accident, it actually made more sense to pray instead of calling an ambulance. In other words, more people survived by praying instead of going to hospitals. Or if when you are attacked, praying caused your enemies to drop dead or flee more often than calling 911.

You can some up with many other examples. If millions prayed for better schools and suddenly test scores went up. Millions prayed for an end to world hunger and that night the number of people going hungry decreased by a large number. If in answer to prayer storms disappeared.

I wouldn’t even require it to happen 100% of the time. Or even 50%. If say... 10% of the time these things worked I’d believe that God probably existed.

I guess this would mean that when large numbers of bigots got together and prayed then civil rights leaders would drop dead or maybe all members of minority group X would suddenly want to do menial tasks for majority group Y for their entire lives. Or when various “conservative” groups got together and prayed then millions of women would leave their jobs and spend all their time trying to find husbands. Or large numbers of people would return to their abusive spouses instead of getting divorced.

...boy would that world suck.

Anyway, it is a fun exercise. Kind of makes me wonder what it would take to change my mind in other areas. Change political parties for instance. Or thoughts on economics or morality.

Tao Joannes

What would convince me: If any sacred text in any religion were consistently accurate in its writings about science -- including scientific knowledge that was not known at the time the text was written -- I would be persuaded that this religion was divinely inspired.

Gimme a little time to work on this one.


Good evening:
For, "Tao Joannes." Obviously, sacred religious texts are going to be far older than the discipline of science.
Perhaps a simple reference might do? I will submit a reference to you and you take it from A - Z, that is, when it was written, by whom, where and when. Would this be of interest to you?
Keep in mind that once upon a time, "modern" Western civilization believed the earth was flat.
If you have access to a Bible, look up: Isaiah chapter 40 verse 22, and ask the question - how could the writer have known this if not informed?
Thank you

Ken Grace

Dear Maxx, this old chestnut keeps coming up so once
more... Isaiah 40:22 describes flat Earth circle, with skies described as tent. And no, author was not trying to say ball or globe, as that word is used in 22:18. Boring...



Citation needed that the writer (whoever he was) wasn't informed. The earth has been known to be round since at least the 5th century BCE and its circumference was calculated in the third century BCE. Ancient Greeks weren't exactly stupid.

Some Matt or other

This is an interesting discussion, since I've never seen an atheist define God so loosely in this kind of questioning. Kudos to Greta for engaging this.

But I'm in Rieux's camp that it's not for us to come up with a sensical definition of "god." That's the job of the people who believe in it. We atheists have done our job when we've knocked their definitions down as fundamentally meaningless.

That having been said, I actually do have something akin to a falsifiability standard when it comes to atheism: The strength of the evidence I would accept in favor of the divine is directly proportional to the amount of absolutism in the claim. For example, if the claim is that there is a being with complete control over reality who created the universe, will judge my soul according to my actions and determine its eternal fate, and embodies perfect goodness and justice, then we're in the-ability-to-have-this-conversation-disproves-the-hypothesis territory. If this god is "greater" than the universe itself, then the evidence for it should be a knowledge as certain or more certain than my own existence. Literally unquestionable. Anything that can be doubted is in the realm of human reason and therefore cannot support the absolutist conclusion.

But if we start stripping attributes away from that god, the standard of evidence will also go down. For example, if the claim is merely that there is a being with an unprecedented amount of power over the physical universe, then sure, spontaneous sky-words and suchlike would be valid evidence. (Note that the sky-words wouldn't prove anything about the nature of the power; i.e., whether it's intrinsic to the being's existence or if it's a technology the being has access to, but the power itself and intelligent control thereof would be demonstrated.) The problem is that this stripped-down "deity" is never actually argued for. It's a weird kind of inverse strawman. The whole point of theism is to tack unreasonable qualities onto this hypothetical power. And when that starts to happen... well, is it still "falsifiability" if the evidence could exist but I already know it doesn't (i.e., my unquestionable-knowledge standard)? I say it is.


I don't think you can disprove disbeleif

nonbeleif doesn't leave traces

S. Anne Johnson

I would need a plausible scientific explanation for how a consciousness could be disembodied. What is the physical mechanism by which this consciousness exists? I would need a plausible scientific explanation for how this disembodied consciousness was able to control physical forces and matter. By what mechanism can a disembodied consciousness control physical forces and matter? Your required evidence goes more to the what, not the how.


Hi there all!

What a lively discussion. I must say that my own atheist "beliefs" encompasses the spectrum of all the supernatural. So I don't believe in God, fairies, dragons, elves, demons, Satan, Odin, or Zeus. However, when trying to falsify atheism, how does one go about figuring out what evidence would prove that a SPECIFIC god exists? For all that Greta's list includes some spectacular power, why does GOD have to be the natural conclusion? Why couldn't it be Odin? Or Zeus? Heck, given the bi-polar sadistic God of the Bible, it could be Loki, the Trickster God. There are various gods throughout the worlds' religions that are capable of performing the feats on that list. That doesn't make them the #1 all powerful Creator.


Lively and important discussion. But allow me to insert that even with all of these tests being met...that you would still not believe. This is not a new discussion. Its been occurring for thousands of years. Even in the face of some quite dramatic signs and wonders over thousands of years in the Bible, skeptics were always seeking "one more sign." Even as I reference them you refute them as being worthless allegories. So perhaps you aren't as open minded as you claim. Or are you waiting for God to craft a special customized sign just for you? And would you honestly accept it? I have more respect for those that replied "no."

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