The latest entry in the ongoing theological throwdown between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan (about which I hope to offer some more general thoughts once the dust has cleared) contained a claim that made me perk up, because I’d just been discussing this very question with a friend:
I remain open to evidence and argument on this and all other fronts. In fact, I could easily imagine a scenario that would persuade me of the existence of God, the divinity of Jesus, and the utter sanctity of the blessed Virgin. Granted, this communication would have to be of the crass “signs and wonders” variety, for I am a very doubting Thomas, but there is no question that my mind could be fundamentally changed, even in this email exchange.
Here I have to make a confession: If “God” is understood to designate an infinitely knowledegable, infinitely powerful being, I actually can’t imagine any evidence that would suffice to convince me of His/Her/Its existence. Aha! (you say) Because you’re a fundamentalist atheist every bit as dogmatic as the most fervent theist!
Well, no. Here’s the problem: Imagine the best, most clear cut evidence for God you can. Maybe some spectacular bit of mind-reading or prophecy of the sort Harris goes on to imagine. Or go further. Maybe we find some transformation by which different bits of the Hebrew Bible are written into what we’d previously regarded as the “junk” DNA of every living thing. Maybe next Thursday afternoon, the oceans boil, day becomes night, the moon turns to blood, the heavens crack open, and a chorus of thousands of radiant cherubim appears, sublimely beautiful voices all ringing out in perfectly harmonized Latin: “How about that, smarty pants?” Or maybe I’m just spontaneously filled with a warm, serene, unshakable conviction that there is a God, and Jesus his son or Muhammad his prophet or whatever additional details you prefer. What would I be justified in believing as a result?
Let’s say I rule out the rather mundane explanations that I’ve just lost my marbles or confused the Splenda with the lysergic acid when I was making my morning coffee. Suppose I’m willing even to take it as given that some external supernatural entity is responsible for these unusual experiences. Can I infer that it’s an omnipotent, omniscient God? Well, no, because it would take substantially less (strictly speaking “infinitely less”) than omnipotence or omniscience to produce any of these phenomena. Plenty of what we do with contemporary technology, after all, already outstrips what passed as “miraculous” a few millennial ago. In fact, the entity responsible wouldn’t even have to be powerful enough to actually make seas boil, turn moons to blood, or manifest a host of angels. It would just have to be powerful enough to make my poor primate brain, with its poor primate sensory apparatus, experience all these things. That’s well beyond the capacity of our best neurosurgeons, but seems like the kind of trick one ought to be able to pull off with something short of totally unlimited power.
Granted, if I believed in this sort of being, I suppose I’d be inclined to do what it said out of sheer prudence, whether or not it were omnipotent. But the epistemic barrier remains in principle: The finite experiences of our finite nervous systems could only ever provide warrant for believing in the finite power and knowledge of any other being. That’s not to say an omnipotent and omniscient being couldn’t exist, just that it doesn’t seem as though anything could properly count as evidence for it.