I wrote this text to help me in a discussion with a friend of mine. It was not originally intended as a blog post and was not optimised for this purpose.
This text talks mainly about the Christian god, but the general ideas can be applied to other religions as well.
- 1 Non-empirical beliefs
- 2 Empirical beliefs
- 3 So how do you explain it?
1 Non-empirical beliefs
Some religious people hold the opinion that a belief in a god is something, that is not meant to be based on observation or evidence. That is why we call it a belief in the first place. For atheists, counter-intuitively, is such an opinion absolutely valid. The logic and reasoning is valid, but believers have different premises/axioms. Observation or experiment can never answer questions of meaning and choosing to believe in a particular self-consistent philosophical system is perhaps the only way forward to live a life that one considers meaningful. Because of its separation from empirical observation, there is no way of deciding which system is better apart from internal consistency, be it a god, human rights, liberal democracy, scientific discovery or any other source of meaning. The only real difference is, whether one considers one’s belief system to be unique, or (semi-)arbitrary. (It is an interesting exercise to find someone with your belief system, but an opposite opinion on its uniqueness.)
2 Empirical beliefs
Then there is the second group of believers, who derive their faith from evidence based on empirical observation. These observations can be divided as follows:
Observation of the natural world
Interaction of a god with the world
Interaction with human mind
2.1 Observation of the natural world
Some people imply the existence of a general god from their observation of the natural world. Typically considering the complexity of living organisms, or the fine-tuning of the fundamental constants or of the initial state of the universe. The logic is as follows: The observation is so improbable given the known laws of nature that it seems impossible for it to occur without an intelligent designer. Arguments of the complexity of organisms either reduce their arguments to the initial setting of the universe (“God made the universe such that evolution occurred in this way”) or argue for a divine intervention later on (“Adaptation of species is ok, but major changes are a god intervening.”)
The first line of thought can be opposed in two steps:
The antropic principle
The universe that is observed by humans can only be a universe that can give rise to humans. If the universe happened to be just full of non-interacting gas or even if there were no stable orbits around stars, life could not have evolved at all.
In order for the antropic principle to be sufficient, we have to invoke one of two following arguments:
If there are many universes with many initial conditions, we have to live inside one that allows our presence. We can never have direct observations of other universes, but it would make the existence our universe more likely.
Inability to determine a probability
If there is only one universe and it clearly is a one that includes humans, how can we assess, how probable this universe is. To use this argument for god’s existence, we have to conclude that it is extremely unlikely without a god. Defining probability for the fundamental constants is an impossible task. We cannot repeatedly draw the fundamental constants to see, what their distribution is and to assess the probability of this particular set. Also, we cannot ever exclude the existence of a more fundamental theory determining the values of these constants.
Last but not least, these thoughts, even if they were sound, would never lead us to a religion, only a rather vague belief in a creator.
2.2 Interaction of a god with the world
How does one identify that a god has interacted? The event is either extremely improbable or breaks the laws of nature. This can often be one and the same thing, since some of the natural laws are not unbreakable, but breaking them is extreeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeemely unlikely (like the laws of thermodynamics). [the number of letters ‘e’ is not exaggerated, it is quite the opposite] For the purpose of this argument, we can consider extr(e)50mely unlikely events to be impossible
2.2.1 Event is extremely improbable
These are events that are in principle possible, but unlikely. People were assigning importance and value to rare events since the time immemorable be it a 4-leaf cloverleaf, precious metals and minerals, earthquakes, volcanoes, solar and lunar eclipses, meteors and meteorites, winning in battles while outnumbered, miraculous healings etc. The most popular ones these days are those, that are not yet fully understood by science, like miraculous healings. Humans are variable and so are diseases. In addition, both are complex and the whole situation can get very emotional. This is an ideal cocktail for miracles. There is nothing impossible about a miraculous self healing, simply because there are mechanisms in the body that facilitate healing. Have all other known patients with this disease died and you did not? That makes the healing quite improbable. Usually, once the mechanisms of rare events are known, they lose their appeal as miracles, like weather changes, being struck by a lightning, winning a lottery etc. Not everyone is discouraged by this, though.
Usage as evidence
With rare events, the fact that they happen is often not disputed. Lack of knowledge of a plausible mechanism, while the event is in principle possible, cannot be an argument in favour of a god, except for the god of the gaps (in knowledge). If we are to use easily detectable rare events as evidence we must show that they do not happen randomly. A god that always chooses to conduct miracles in accordance with probability distributions is a mere personification of natural laws.
In order to at least correlate god with miracles, one must have different groups with different expected miracle probabilities while having god as the only variable (or at most one of few). Let us take healing as a miraculous process. If we, for example, take a group of Muslims and a group of Christians in the UK and look at the healing rates those in hospitals, we may not reach the correct conclusions. Not only different religious groups tend to have different life styles, but also Muslim families will have been in the UK for fewer generations than the Christian families, which will have resulted in a different socio-economic status. A typical well controlled experiment is, for example, having one half of the patients prayed for and the other half not. The patients, of course, must not know which half they belong to, which would also affect the result.
This is nothing new and the truth is, that prayers have just not shown to have any effect. There were (and still are?) prizes with ridiculous amounts of money waiting for people to prove such things, which have never been won. Therefore, it is quite safe to say, that improbable events are not a good piece of evidence for gods.
(Some people like to argue, that “God does not wish to be measured.” which is the reason for all these unsuccessful studies. I dare to say this cannot be consistently defended. It would mean, that in any setting, where enough data are collected for a statistical analysis, miracles cease to happen. Some prayers are public. Does it mean that creating a database of prayers from different churches stops those praysers from becoming true? Does it mean, that if you are in a room with a bug and an eavesdropper listening then your prayers will not be heard?)
2.2.2 Event is impossible
Many religions claim that supernatural events have occurred. In case of Christianity, this would be, for example, being raised from the dead, the splitting of the Red sea, turning water into wine. These things are according to all current knowledge impossible and do not even seem to hold the possibility of being explained. They may become possible using technology, but certainly not without it.
Usage as evidence
The problem of impossible events is, that they are usually one-off miracles or miracles connected to specific people, who have already died/disappeared. Therefore, there is not a possibility of repeating the experiment. It would be very convenient to have Jesus with us today, healing ill or even dead people repeatedly to prove his divinity. As far as I know, all such claims in modern times that have been exposed to a systematic research have shown to be false. For all major religions the only evidence there is, is the historical evidence. And this is actually the heart of all problems with using impossible events as evidence for god. Having these events in current time would actually be very strong evidence. It would be similarly strong, if Jesus revealed a piece of information that is inaccessible with iron age instruments, like the existence of electrons, protons and neutrons, the existence Uranus and Neptune, the constant speed of light etc. Unfortunately, there are no such things in the bible. Quite the opposite, the description of Genesis disagrees with the modern day science, even if we forget the time scale.
There are two types of historical evidence: material objects and written accounts. As far as I know, there is no material evidence for miracles. It would be a very strong piece of evidence, if Jesus produced, e.g. a microscopic sculpture inside a piece of crystal that would be impossible to produce using iron age technologies. If such an artefact was here at hand and would be proved to be of the correct age, it would constitute a strong proof for something supernatural.
If we stick to written accounts we arrive at a huge problem. We started of with an event that is, even in principle, impossible and arrive at a book, or a story, that in principle can be made up. It may seem improbable for such a book to be written, but definitely not impossible. The probabilities of impossible events are many many orders of magnitude smaller than those of highly improbable. A funny thing about religions is, that rarely can be more than one correct at the same time. If Christianity is correct, then Islam, modern Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Zoroastrism, Jinism or any other religion is incorrect. Therefore, it is fair to say, that the probability of a religious story appearing is not that low. We only have at most tens surviving reasonably widespread religions that have emerged over the past few thousand years. It is not an easy feat to start a religion (this wording makes it seem like it is something one does intentionally, but I do not claim that). Just a handful people or groups of people have managed to do it in the history, which suggests it is a combination of very special people and very special circumstances. Not “that” special, since it happened many times, but very rare on the timescale of a human life.
Christians like to argue, that their historical evidence is different and much better. Firstly, it suffers from the same intrinsic problem with “in principle any book can be made up” (except for a book containing information otherwise inaccessible). Secondly, it is not actually that different. After some historical events a set of stories was passed orally for decades before being written down. Even if you had a stenographer at the events, it would not make the contents true, but if they were not true, it would imply intentional deception. Because we have this gap, it is entirely possible, even for eye witnesses, to inadvertently provide inaccurate information. Especially given that decades have passed. It has also been shown, that the more you access a certain memory, the more it accidentally changes 1. Since the people present at the events communicated with each other and were spreading the stories, this increases the danger.
Common arguments for Jesus
I have read many books, websites, pamphlets and booklets on the evidence for Jesus. All of them use the Bible as the evidence. Sure, there is evidence from other sources that Christians and that someone called Jesus Christ existed, but there is no evidence for the miracles. Many books that I have seen employ the straw man fallacy: “I argue against a belief that is not actually the one held by the other side, but the one that is easy to argue against.” A typical book about the evidence for Jesus will therefore talk to great lengths about, whether a historical Jesus existed, whether the bible was changed considerably in the last 1850 years and then comes up with a bunch of its own hypotheses for the origin of the gospels that it “disproves”. Well done for disproving something that you made up yourself! In mathematics, it is often possible to prove something, by excluding all other possibilities. In history, one cannot take such approach, because the possibilities are endless. If you “disprove” correctly the swoon hypothesis that you just described, it means that the swoon hypothesis that you just described is incorrect. Also the way the hypotheses are disproved is often by taking chosen bits of gospels as certainly factually correct or taking cultural traditions as absolutely adhered to.
The irrelevant conclusion fallacy is also often employed e.g. In John’s gospel it is written that Jesus was pierced by a spear and water and blood came out. This proves that Jesus has died, because the separation of blood and “water” is a post mortal change.2 What this actually means is, that the author knows, what piercing a dead body looks like, and thinks that Jesus was pierced after he died. So he described what he thought has happened. I am not going to dissect all the arguments one by one, since it would amount to a text longer than the texts describing the arguments themselves.
2.2.3 Interaction of God with human mind
Some people argue that god is present with us at all times and that their spiritual experiences are an evidence for his existence.
Human mind is complicated, it is one of the least explored and most complex objects in the known universe. The problem with experience evidence is, that we cannot be sure of its existence since our mind plays tricks on us all the time. People of all various beliefs and none have different spiritual experiences. There are some experiences that are known to be just flukes and some which have not been explored yet. Meditation or praying can invoke unusual mental states. Therefore, spiritual experiences are in principle possible without the existence of supernatural.
A use of this evidence also often leads to the bandwagon fallacy. “So many people believe it and has changed their lives, so it must be true.” The fact that this has happened in all religions and that they exclude each other disproves this statement conclusively.
3 So how do you explain it?
A typical answer to refuting the Christian interpretation of the bible is: “So how would you explain it?” The only satisfying answer in that situation would be an accurate description of all the events leading up to the creation of gospels. Not only such a thing is impossible to do (it is hardly possible with recent crimes using forensic analysis) but even if someone came up with the events that have actually happened, it would be easily dismissed. The way the gospels have originated will include many more people than those mentioned, many unlikely events and twists, people being at the right places at the right times and under the right circumstances, people making unexpected decisions. Why do I say this? If it was not the case, a religion originating would not be such a rare event.
If someone told you the correct story, it would seem like a complicated fairy tale made up to fit everything in the end. However, that is the way history is. Even if you take a modern historical event like the second world war, where everything is well documented, it is impossible to give a simple story with clear implications. You will inevitably end up with an ever more complicated web of events going decades or even centuries back. The world is a chaotic system. This means that it is near impossible to say what implications events have or why events have happened. The more distant in time events and consequences are, the less predictable they become.
Scientists understand in detail how fluids move. However, predicting the pattern of waves on the Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro is impossible and will always be. The best meteorological models are no better than a guess for predictions more than a week in advance. We understand the principles, but the real systems are simply far too complicated. The formation of Christianity and any other religion is in principle possible without a divine intervention. The details of their origin will remain a mystery.3
Do you find this intellectually satisfying?
There is a quote by Richard Feynman that summarises this quite well:
“You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things. But I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean. I might think about it a little bit; if I can’t figure it out, then I go onto something else. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell – possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.”
Consider living in ancient Greece. You see a lightning, a volcano, a solar or a lunar eclipse or many other things that you cannot explain. You have a choice, you attribute these to gods or you have no explanation. Which attitude promotes progress? Which attitude will spark curiosity and encourage people to find out why these things are really happening? It may take centuries before the civilisation will get sufficiently far to answer such questions and perhaps some questions will remain forever unanswered. You do not want wrong answers, especially if you want to draw life-affecting conclusions from them. We can have a never-ending proper discussion about the direction of our society and meanings of our lives. Or we can have the final answer, the revealed truth, the word of god. Let me answer your question with a question. Do you find that intellectually satisfying?
Citation needed, I know. I can try to look up, if necessary. ↩
I am not a pathologist and have not looked this up, but let us assume that this is correct. ↩
Even if we imagine a distant future, where we have a computer able to model hundreds of thousands human minds of the people in the Middle East in the first half of the first century, it remains impossible. One would have to know the initial conditions of our simulation to reproduce the outcome and it is inconceivable that we could ever know the mental and physical state of these people and their surroundings. ↩