Posts Tagged ‘evidence’

Why does God get to be the one thing you have to believe in before you’re allowed to see any evidence?

I’m getting bogged down in that thing about “believing is seeing” again. Have faith and the way will be shown to you. Put your trust in the Lord and you’ll feel the truth in your heart. Even atheists can find God if they just open their hearts to him and accept his presence.

In other words, if you start believing now, for no reason whatever, then you’ll be provided with a reason to.

What’s struck me recently is that I can’t think of a single other question, in any other field of study, where this kind of excuse-making is necessary.

If you drop something and watch it fall, it doesn’t matter what you believe about the laws that govern the force of gravity. Your object will act in accordance with those laws, and in so doing will give you hints as to what they are.

Reality’s good like that. It doesn’t care what you think. It just gets on with its own business. It just is. Reality doesn’t wait and hide, until you agree to have blind trust in it, and only then agree to give a demonstration of E = mc2 in action.

And yet God is often claimed to be a special case. Again and again, atheists are advised that if they just believe as hard as they can, by force of will, then in a complete reversal of the rules of cause and effect and basic logic, they will become aware of the reasons to believe as a result of their belief.

Which is kinda weird, isn’t it?

I mean, I suppose it could just be a fact about the character of this all-powerful tyrant demanding our fealty. It may be that God’s personality is such that he deliberately chooses to hide from anyone being rational, and reveals himself only to those who’ve already bought into his claims based on no evidence at all.

That could be the kind of dick your god is, I guess, though that claim itself doesn’t seem to have much supporting evidence. At least, none he’s chosen to share with me.

But the way some Christians make it sound, knowledge of God is in an entirely different category of information than literally any other kind of thought processes humans are capable of having. Despite God’s omnipotence, and despite all the dramatic healing and sea-parting and genocide he used to demonstrate his presence with, the responsibility is apparently on us to set the bar much, much lower for him than any other human endeavour.

If you want to know about reality, you go and test it, and base your beliefs on what the evidence indicates. But with God? You have to believe first, and then you get the evidence. Or not, if you weren’t believing properly. Or something.

(Even Christians who use the above arguments would, I suspect, have problems with applying the same approach to any gods other than their own. But guys, if you could suspend your faith in Yahweh for a sec and just believe in Ganesha real hard and let him into your heart, you’d finally have a chance to see all the evidence that you’ve been blind to all this time. C’mon, what’s stopping you? Is it maybe the same thing stopping me from “just believing” in your god? D’ya think?)

Doubting Thomas is an example of a religion explicitly rejecting the whole notion of basing your beliefs on what really exists. He takes a position antithetical to faith in the Bible, and is denigrated for it, despite his methods basically being that of rigorous science: he’s skeptical of an outlandish proposition, investigates the evidence, and updates his position based on new data. He doesn’t believe that Jesus is really back from the dead after crucifiction, but then has a poke at the guy’s hand-holes, and changes his mind.

But then Jesus completely fucks up the moral, by saithing unto him:

Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

Repent of your common sense, foolish mortals. Accept improbable claims at face value before there’s any evidence for them. That’s how to make Jesus love you.

Of course, there’s one simple way to explain all this, one reason why the evidence for God’s existence might depend on your own expectations and beliefs at the time – besides God being a malevolent ass, I mean.

The observer effect is a real thing, after all. People behave differently in experiments when they know they’re being scrutinised, and researchers’ reports of their observations is demonstrably affected if they’re told what result they’re meant to be looking for. If you’re primed to see a particular result, or to view some aspect of the world through the lens of God’s work, then you’re more likely to encounter evidence that seems to support your idea, than if you didn’t have this pre-existing “belief”. This could explain why the observations might depend on the observer’s state of mind.

But that would imply that God is just a set of psychological conditions inside people’s heads. And he’s got to be more than that if he’s so powerful and worth all this worship, right?

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Just a very quick update on this today. There’s still no God, so there’s not a whole lot to report on.

And, while I don’t particularly want to be unkind, I thought I should briefly draw your attention to a comment from the Facebook group. I won’t insult you by explaining why it made me laugh as much as it did.

One thing I have found interesting. According to my understanding of the Bible God wants us to believe in him out of our free will. He doesn’t want to force us in any way to follow him. Therefore isn’t providing empirical evidence of his existence, in effect, taking away free will? In other words if we had clear evidence of God’s existence wouldn’t we kinda be forced to follow him? Just a thought.


Christ, that’s desperate.

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One common point of discussion on the Facebook group for this experiment is just how we’re meant to be doing this prayer thing.

I can’t find the exact comment again now, but I think I read someone asking, essentially: “After saying, hi God, let me know if you’re there… what are we meant to do with the next 2-3 minutes?”

Personally, I tend to make my prayer requests waffle on a bit. For instance, today I’m going with:

God, if you’re there, please give me some kind of sign that I should believe in you. If a personal divine revelation is all I can expect, please note that the usual warm fuzzy feelings aren’t quite going to cut it. If the greatest power you’re capable of exerting over my world is less than what I can achieve by stroking the cat or giving Kirsty a hug – or, as some people on Facebook suggest, if you’re going to continue being petty and hiding from me unless I pray in just the right way – then God, God, I don’t even wanna know you.

Some may consider it a little crass to ask whether you take requests, but arguably not as crass as letting thousands of children starve to death every day all over the planet. So, if you’re open to suggestions, but you don’t want to appear in person or do anything too flashy, providing a proof of Goldbach’s conjecture via divine inspiration would do very nicely.

I sometimes go on like this for a while, and end up in something of a back-and-forth in my own head, debating the relative merits of certain suggestions, considering possible religious responses or excuses as to why such-and-such doesn’t undermine their faith…

I can have some good conversations with myself. But it’s worth remembering that they are just with myself. I’m a long way from seeing any reason to believe that this semi-voluntary internal dialogue is a product of anything more than my own imagination.

Things are definitely going on in my head as a result of all this praying. Interesting things, which give me some idea why some people might get ideas about God speaking to them. But there are so many more unambiguous ways that any deity could make me aware of its existence. Goldbach’s conjecture is just the first example off the top of my head. If God can’t come up with something at least that good, and is sticking with vague sensations and slightly odd coincidences here and there, then he’s not really trying.

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Are you a weak atheist or a strong atheist?

Most people who read this blog will have some idea what I’m talking about. And most of them, I suspect, will be one or the other. (Theists and agnostics, you can join in soon.)

To recap briefly, “weak atheism” commonly describes a position which doesn’t accept the existence of God, but doesn’t actively deny it either. A weak atheist won’t say “God does not exist”, but simply doesn’t positively believe in any such being.

“Strong atheism” you can probably surmise for yourself. There is no God, it affirms. It makes a positive statement, an active truth-claim.

I’ve written before about whether any form of atheism can really be wholly without affirmation, as weak atheism is often described. But regardless, it’s accepted by a lot of non-believers that strong atheism is somehow a step too far. We’re not obliged to be convinced by the evidence offered for God’s existence, but we don’t have ground to make truth claims ourselves. We shouldn’t say that he definitely doesn’t exist.

After all, you can’t prove a negative. If you were to claim that there’s a unicorn in your kitchen, I could safely withhold my belief until you offer some evidence. But can I ever really make the claim there is no unicorn? Especially if it turns out to be even more magical than regular unicorns, and can render itself invisible and intangible and otherwise impervious to detection?

I might say I don’t believe in such a beast. But can I ever claim to have proved that it’s not there?

Of course, this may seem a petty distinction. It doesn’t matter to most atheists if they can’t technically prove there’s no God (or unicorn). But a common stance they take is to explain why this lack of disproof doesn’t matter for their position. And I’m not sure they’re going about it quite right.

Let’s take two less contentious claims, and examine whether we need to be “weak” or “strong” in our disbelief of each one:

  1. I have never worn a hat.
  2. The entire Universe was created forty-five minutes ago.

You probably don’t believe either of these statements is true. But, if you had to pick, which would you say is more likely?

I’m guessing you’d go with the first. I mean, it sounds very unlikely, but it’s possible. Maybe it’s just never really come up in my life: nobody ever gave me a hat and suggested I try it on, my ears have always been good at keeping themselves warm, my family never bothered with Christmas crackers and any paper garments that might be kept inside them, that kind of thing. Or maybe I developed an aversion to hats at an early age and made a conscious decision never to let one touch my head.

It’s a bit of a stretch. And easily enough disproved by a picture of me wearing an awesome hat. But it’s less outright ridiculous than the second assertion. What possible reason could there be to suppose that the entirety of creation – all the galaxies already in motion away from each other, the light from the stars already on its way to our eyes, everybody’s memories of years past – were all summoned into existence, created wholly intact, in the last hour?

It’s obviously silly. But how do you disprove it?

There’s not much you can say to that. It’s completely implausible and not supported by a shred of evidence… but there’s nothing you can point to which actively refutes it. The best you can do is note that there’s no reason to suppose it’s true, it goes against every aspect of our understanding of how the world works, and it clearly seems to be something that’s just been made up to make some sort of point.

For the hat thing, though? There are pictures of me wearing a hat. It’s been disproved. Myth: BUSTED.

So, having seen the proof, are you now comfortable declaring it an outright falsehood that I’ve never worn a hat? You don’t have to just be agnostic any more; there’s evidence. Can that claim be rebutted, in a way which the forty-five-minute-old-Universe claim can’t?

I think you’re quite entitled to tell me: “Don’t be silly. You have worn a hat.” You’d be quite rational to base that on that picture of me wearing a hat. But can’t you be just as definite about my other claim, even without an equivalent picture which disproves it?

If you think that making an active negative claim is only acceptable where a palpable disproof exists, then this implies that “I’ve never worn a hat” is a less likely proposition than really really really really young Earth creationism. And that just seems wrong.

For one thing, the evidence you’re basing your truth-claim on might not be that conclusive. Maybe all the pictures that exist of me in hats are photoshopped. Maybe it’s not actually me in that one I linked to above, but just a top-of-the-head lookalike. Maybe there’s a grand conspiracy around it, covering up the truth of my hatless past. Can you prove there isn’t?

Of course you can’t. But despite this lack of disproof, you’re still entitled to actively deny such a situation, not just withhold acceptance. It doesn’t make you dogmatic to believe something sensible, even if you can’t produce knock-out evidence, if it’s a situation where you don’t need knock-out evidence for your claim to be almost certainly true.

It doesn’t mean you won’t be convinced by evidence. Everyone makes many statements of fact every day of their lives, without adding the words “provisionally, according to the best available evidence, but I’m prepared to change my mind if new data arises” to the end of every clause. It isn’t closed-minded to think that some things are true and others aren’t.

So go on, make a few bold claims, with certainty. Actively deny the truth of a claim you can’t disprove, but which has no supporting evidence of any note and which is vanishingly unlikely on its face.

Is there a conspiracy to make you believe I’ve ever worn a hat? No there is not.

Was the Universe only created 45 minutes ago, or less than 10,000 years ago, with every impression of being much older? No it was not.

Can Sylvia Browne communicated with deceased spirits? No she cannot.

Does homeopathy work? No it does not.

Is there a God? No there is not.

Reason is on your side.

This ended up being way longer than it needed to be. I guess that’s what re-writes are for, in principle. Oh well.

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Mark Vernon takes issue with the way skeptics insist on applying a reasonable critical analysis to subjective experience:

They fixate on the many ways in which individuals can be self-deluded, and forget that they can also be wonderfully discerning. They miss truths that can only be known by acquaintance, which is to say, by letting them in.

For which he gets seven points for originality of phrasing, and loses them all again for waffling the same old tosh.

Yes, individuals can often be self-deluded, and they can often be wonderfully discerning. The whole point of skepticism is in trying to determine which of those a person is doing at any given moment.

Which are the truths that should simply be “let in” – which seems to mean accepted and believed, without any criticism, doubt, or regard for reality? All too often, it seems to be only those “facts” which fit the preconceptions of whoever is arguing that rationalism should sometimes be abandoned, because it doesn’t let them believe what they want to believe.

That which can be destroyed by the truth should be, after all, and any truth worth “letting in” can only be bolstered by a rational examination of it.

As for the usefulness of subjective experience, and truth “known by acquaintance”, have a look at this checkerboard with a shadow cast over it:



Think the square marked A is darker than the one marked B? Well, that’s where blithely trusting your subjective experiences will get you.

Here’s another popular one:



See the brown centre square on the top face, and the yellow centre square on the bottom-left face of the cube? They’re the same colour. Save the image and go test it out in MS Paint if you don’t believe me.

That second one still melts my brain. I had to go check it again myself just now. They just look like completely different colours – and nobody else knows what’s going on in my brain when I see it. Nobody else can directly share what I’m experiencing. I have this pure subjective knowledge, which strongly suggests a truth based on my own experiences of the world.

And you can prove me wrong in a matter of seconds.

Rationalists are interested in being right. Knowing how and when we’re most in danger of being wrong is a crucial part of that, and it never stops applying. Things don’t get a free pass just because they’re a “subjective truth” or you have “faith”. We’re never obliged to just assume that this is one of those times you’re being instinctively discerning, rather than self-deluded.

Whatever your claim might be, religious or not, faith-based or not: If it can be destroyed by the truth, it should be.

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In a report published today, the Science and Technology Committee concludes that the NHS should cease funding homeopathy. It also concludes that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) should not allow homeopathic product labels to make medical claims without evidence of efficacy. As they are not medicines, homeopathic products should no longer be licensed by the MHRA.

Nice when people get things right.

That Evidence Check report I mentioned yesterday is now available, and Ben Goldacre shares the full release. As he says, looks like pretty sensible stuff. It’s not medicine; homeopathic pills are just sugar; lying to patients about placebos is not okay. That kind of thing.

Ben also made a good point on Twitter earlier – while the problem with accepting homeopathy as medicine is often cited as a “lack of evidence”, in fact we have a great deal of very solid and reliable evidence. That it doesn’t work. It’s like saying “Well, maybe this elephant will be able to fly… It doesn’t look like any of them can at the moment, but we just don’t have enough evidence.”

Le Canard Noir is all over this, of course, looking through the whole thing in great detail. I’m glad that the authors of the report seem to understand this point:

We do not doubt that homeopathy makes some patients feel better. However, patient satisfaction can occur through a placebo effect alone and therefore does not prove the efficacy of homeopathic interventions.

And, as anaglyph reminded me yesterday, you don’t even need a particular placebo effect to just start to feel better over time, and be tempted to confuse correlation with causation as you simply regress to the mean.

Also reporting on this is gimpy, who quotes a comment from a homeopath named Carol Boyce that made me grind my teeth just a little:

Mr Stewart made a valiant attempt to to [sic] bring balance to the proceedings but was hopelessly outnumbered.

A question needs to be asked in parliament about the conduct of this Evidence Check and it’s [sic] inherent bias.

It’s almost impossible to hear a phrase like “bring balance to the proceedings” and not imagine that this must be a good thing to do, restoring some necessary fairness. But nonsense doesn’t deserve to be fairly balanced with science, and if nonsense is all you have on your side then it’s entirely right that things should be biased against you. That’s another thing that’s meant to sound like it’s inherently negative and unfair and unacceptable, “bias”. And there are many cases where bias is unjustified and should be fought against. But there are some cases where it’s proper and necessary.

I’m biased strongly in favour of eating pasta instead of rat poison. I’m also biased strongly in favour of spending tax money on medicine instead of homeopathy.

This is all being covered in more depth by various intrepid investigative blogojournalists (there just isn’t a comfortable “blogger+journalist” portmanteau), and I’m pretty sure Martin Robbins is planning to have his own round-up of events soon too. (Edit 23/02/10: Yep.) I’m still only really a commentator a rung or two below, only joining in the chatter a little later once all the big players have done the real legwork, but that’s okay. This way I get to be lazy and still feel like I’m joining in.

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(Which you know means I’ve been lazy today and am struggling to get something done before bed.)

I can’t find the letter of October 19th referred to in this post, perhaps because I don’t care and I haven’t really tried. But I’ve never heard anyone in the anti-theistic or irreligious crowd saying that religion is “learned only from parents” (emphasis mine). Most of us are paying enough attention to the world, I think, to have noticed that not every single individual slavishly follows the dogma of their immediate biological predecessors. Many people do indeed make leaps of faith in one direction or another, having been influenced by a variety of factors.

But come on. The culture in which a person grows up, and in particular the people who raise them, are more influential than anything else in determining what religion someone will be. If this wasn’t the case, it couldn’t be true that predominantly Christian or Muslim areas of the world even exist – at least, not for more than a generation or so. If it were a total crapshoot, or if people’s religious views were based entirely on independent thinking and grounded in the same assumptions, there wouldn’t be such obvious geographical distributions.

“If people needed evidence to believe in God, we would all be atheist” is a significantly less ridiculous statement than “there is tremendous evidence for miracles”. Anyway, isn’t the notion that evidence is antithetical to belief in God pretty much the whole point of having faith?

To say God is not real is like saying atoms are not real because early scientists who sought them couldn’t see them.

If early scientists had a notion of something called “atoms”, and expected to see them under certain conditions, but didn’t observe anything where their theoretical model predicted they should, then the correct conclusion for them to draw would be that such atoms did not exist. If we now know that atoms do exist, because of repeated experimental results in which they turn up exactly where we expect them to, then maybe our concept of “atoms” has changed since the time when they didn’t seem to be there. God is still in the former state of not seeming to be observable where it’s predicted he should be. Either that or no predictions that might test his presence are even possible.

Several sources of “evidence” are cited, and it’s promised that they’re really, really good, no honestly they’re great, he just didn’t feel like outlining any of the really, really good arguments in them here. Oh well.

I’m too busy rolling my eyes at this one to really go through it in depth. Most of it’s the usual inane bullshit – tediously misunderstanding the burden of proof, I’ll provide my evidence that God doesn’t exist when you provide concrete proof there isn’t a unicorn in your kitchen, blah blah blah – but I do want to pick up on one thing in particular:

Here we have a lowly man demanding that almighty God prove himself scientifically.

Damn fucking right he is.

The not-so-lowly men claiming to speak for your almighty God are making some pretty grand claims about him. They tell us things like, we know the blessed truth of the all-powerful creator of the universe, and seek to spread the word of a being who has the power and the judgement to condemn you to eternal, infinite suffering if you don’t follow his rules for your entire life, yes, these rules here that we’ll tell you all about.

To be that kind of god is to demand everything from us, to take ownership of our humanity. Do you think that you get to impose that kind of rule on my species? Do you call impudent and arrogant anyone who asks why this god is worthy of our utter and complete self-sacrifice?

Then listen carefully: fuck right off, you evil tyrant.

And stop mischaracterising Einstein while you’re at it.

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