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Impossible Burdens of Proof

January 30th, 2007 · 12 Comments

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.

Tags: Religion



12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 asg // Jan 31, 2007 at 10:57 am

    Does this argument commit you to believing in a bounded (finite) universe?

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Jan 31, 2007 at 12:06 pm

    No, I don’t think so. Even if the cases were perfectly parallel, at most it would entail that no evidence would be sufficient to establish that we live in an infinite (as opposed to “merely” incredibly vast) universe, which doesn’t seem like an unacceptable or preposterous conclusion.

    But I can also think of a potential distinction between the cases. Without wading too far into thorny epistemic questions, I think it’s a difference of defaults. Roughly speaking, you might make your best observation and say: “Well, looks like space just goes for billions of light years, with no signs of stopping.” Since “infinite” in this case would just mean *not* assuming there’s a boundary at some point, that might be the most parsimonious supposition absent some further evidence that one exists. Whereas in the God case, supposing “infinite” power means assuming a complex of properties beyond what you’ve got evidence for. Basically, it’s the difference between “infinite” meaning “no boundary” and “infinite” meaning “an infinite quantity of stuff.”

  • 3 Nick Simmonds // Jan 31, 2007 at 12:24 pm

    Here’s the other end of that argument:

    Posit an omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent creator. For the sake of argument, we will accept that such a being created the world and all the beings within it, including us. However, even if that is the case, we are in no way morally or ethically bound to follow Its dictates.

    The act of my creation, if it occurred, does not then enter me into a contract with my creator in which I am required to obey. This act was performed on me without my consent or prior knowledge. If I feel that existence is better than nonexistence, I may feel gratitude toward this creature. I may even try to comply with its wishes. However, the mere fact that the being is a Creator does not grant it moral authority superior to my own. It does not imply that I should be required to follow Its rules, nor that I should try to force others to follow those rules if they don’t wish it. If such a being attempts to force me to bend to its will by threatening unending, unendurable punishment, then It’s just a bully. If It tries to cajole me with the promise of eternal reward, that’s just bribery.

    Even if we atheists are wrong, I don’t see any compelling reason to fall into line with any God that won’t deign to explain its ethical reasoning to me. Asking for anything less would be capitulation to a tyrant.

  • 4 dr // Jan 31, 2007 at 3:56 pm

    I had a long tedious comment half-written, but had to leave and go do some work. Luckily, Julian stepped in to make more than half of my point. Which was, to summarize, that the real work here isn’t being done by the epistemic premises but by a covert metaphysical premise. This comes out when you see that Julian’s argument only goes through if you accept the metaphysical claim that the God Hypothesis is a more parsimonious explanation of miraculous happenings than is the Really Extravagently Powerful Being Hypothesis.

  • 5 Julian Sanchez // Jan 31, 2007 at 4:28 pm

    I think you mean “less parsimonious.” But otherwise, sure. The premise seems uncontroversial to the point of being borderline definitionally true, though.

  • 6 Jacob T. Levy // Jan 31, 2007 at 10:25 pm

    I wrote up a long comment last night but the site seemed to be having comment-function trouble, and now it’s lost. The short version is: I think that the view Julian expresses might be Hobbes’ view. If it’s not, it’s certainly got a close structural resemblance.

  • 7 John Goes // Feb 1, 2007 at 3:43 am

    Julian, it sounds like you’re taking an essentially polytheistic approach here, or believe it to be “more likely” than there being One God. I understand that you might believe a god to be a merely very powerful but finite being that is somehow making shadow puppets on the cave wall, but this is still polytheism. Would you agree?

    There’s also gnostics, such as found in certain Philip K. Dick stories that speculate that Satan is deceiving us with a reality that is other than the “true” reality. I’m guessing you believe these sorts of theological conclusions to be simpler in some way?

  • 8 John Goes // Feb 1, 2007 at 8:23 am

    I was directed to this thread earlier by a linked post from another blog and only now have I read the exchange between Harris and Sullivan.

    In regard to Sam Harris’ reflections on spirituality, it seems to me there are similarities between pantheism and atheism. Except perhaps in attitude and candor, I don’t see the two as being especially different. I wonder if it might not be argued that the pantheist is more “honest” in his articulation.

  • 9 Julian Sanchez // Feb 1, 2007 at 11:36 am

    Well, I’m speaking in hypotheticals here, so I don’t think I’m endorsing polytheism. And the “very powerful entity” I’m imagining here wouldn’t need to be a “God.” It could be one of those puissant aliens the Star Trek crews area always encountering or something.

  • 10 John Goes // Feb 2, 2007 at 2:39 am

    The sort of entity you mention would be a god (lowercase). I find polytheism to be more ridiculous than monotheism, but perhaps you make a distinction.

    I’m curious if you agree that many atheists are essentially pantheists. Many pantheists are essentially atheists that have a slightly greater appreciation of the mystery of life. Do you agree with this?

  • 11 LP // Feb 2, 2007 at 5:17 pm

    John Goes wrote: “… many atheists are essentially pantheists. Many pantheists are essentially atheists that have a slightly greater apreciation of the mystery of life.”

    I can’t speak for Julian, at whom your question was directed, but first let’s distinguish between polytheism, the belief in many gods rather than one, all-powerful God, and pantheism, the belief that “God is everything and everything is God … the world is either identical with God or in some way a self-expression of his nature” (per the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). These are different.

    Is pantheism different from atheism coupled with a healthy amount of wonder at the infinite complexity and organization of the universe? I think so, because most people seem to understand “God” as having some moral force behind it, some kind of behavioral obligation, while the words atheists use, like “complexity,” don’t carry much weight, ethics-wise.

  • 12 John Goes // Feb 2, 2007 at 9:14 pm

    The moral element may be believed by some pantheists, but certainly not all and I don’t think most. There are varieties of pantheist, but I don’t think the moral element is central to it, in fact the moral irrationality of pantheism is one of the secondary objections to it by a theist. There are gnostics that believe morality is an extension of intelligence that are essentiall pantheists.

    I brought up this line wondering if there might be more communication if everyone just recognized that God existed, but the discussion then became, what is the nature of God? Pantheists and Gnostics have many of the same disagreements with monotheists that atheists do.