Thursday, December 1, 2011

Keeping an Open Mind

This one may be a little too open.
The challenging task of the skeptic is to maintain a careful balance between rejecting claims with insufficient evidence, but accepting even the most extraordinary claims once the standard of evidence is met. In other words, to adhere to the age-old maxim:
Keep your mind open, but not so open that your brain falls out.
When I talked about my atheism with my sister, she was very accepting but rightly insisted that I continue to be open to opposing views. But things get tricky when applying this principle of openness to claims as extraordinary as "God exists" (or even more so, "Christianity is true"). It requires me to ask myself, "What evidence would convince me that God exists?"

When the reverse question is applied to theists, the results are telling to say the least. For most believers—sometimes even by their own admission—there is no possible state of affairs, no logical argument, nothing that would convince them to stop believing. Adam Lee of Ebon Musings challenged theists to describe some circumstance that would cause them to become atheists. In ten years, only six people have taken up his challenge, and their requirements for becoming atheists are usually vague, confused or completely unreasonable—for example, demanding proof that all miracle claims are false, when of course the burden is on theists to show that they're legitimate.

In the same essay, Adam outlines a number of circumstances that would cause him to believe in God or convert to a specific religion. Here's the basic summary:
  • Verified, specific prophecies that couldn't have been contrived.
  • Scientific knowledge in holy books that wasn't available at the time.
  • Miraculous occurrences, especially if brought about through prayer.
  • Any direct manifestation of the divine.
  • Aliens who believed in the exact same religion.
It's an interesting list of very specific possibilities, all of which would be well within the abilities of an omnipotent being. However, I can't help but think that this entire approach is problematic. If God came down from heaven in a flash of light and appeared before me, I sincerely hope that the first thing I would do is seek professional help. For the five criteria above, some combination of coincidence (in the case of the first three) and insanity seem like a better explanation than some uberbeing that defies everything we know about the universe. Extraterrestrials and Nick Bostrom's simulation hypothesis are other unlikely but viable possibilities.

This leaves me in a tough position. To say that nothing would convince me of the existence of God strikes me as incredibly close-minded. And of course, it would leave my lack of belief in gods unfalsifiable: if gods do exist, I would have no way of correcting my mistake.

Maybe the right approach is to say that the proposition "God exists" was once falsifiable, but is no longer. If I'd been born into a world in which spirits manifested themselves regularly, people constantly predicted the future with pinpoint accuracy, lightning crashed down from heaven to smite unbelievers on a daily basis, then God and the supernatural would be an ordinary part of life. But instead, I live in a world where things always behave according to physical laws, where every seemingly paranormal phenomenon that's thoroughly tested either disappears or turns out to be explainable by natural means, where visions and religious experiences have neurological origins. I didn't have to be born into a world where everything happens just as we would expect it to if no gods existed—but I was.

Maybe the hypothesis "God exists" has already been tested, and has been found to be so wildly inconsistent with the data as to be completely unsalvageable.

I don't know. I honestly don't want it to be. I don't want any conclusion to lie entirely beyond my grasp.

Still, while I'm not really sure what would convince me that God exists, there are likely to be some things out there that would. If God appeared to me and I sought a psychiatrist who declared me sane, I could be imagining that as well, but at a certain point it would probably be simpler to assume my experiences were real rather than an increasingly elaborate hallucination.

Then there are the unknowns: there may be some concept floating out there in the vast sea of ideaspace that could change my whole outlook towards how the world works, or some a priori argument with logic so straightforward that I would be compelled to accept it. I'm also far from perfectly rational, so there are probably some circumstances that would convince me even if they shouldn't. Finally, there's the fact that an omniscient, all-good God would know what evidence would be sufficient for me and could provide it just as he has for theists. One could say that it's his job to convince me, not mine.

In any case, I'll continue to be as open-minded as I can—but I'll always be ready to catch my brain if it starts to fall.

No comments:

Post a Comment