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Could anything convince you that a god exists?

Hemant Mehta the Friendly Atheist was asked a very interesting question. It’s in this video of him with a friendly Christian pastor.

The moment is at 24:15.

Pastor: Is there anything — anything — that might change your mind?

Mehta: I don’t think at this point anything that anyone tells me, because they usually tell me stories about how they came to God, how they came to Christ. It’s like, “Well, that’s nice for you. Unless I have that same experience myself, unless I experience a miracle that I can’t explain, unless something happens to me, I really don’t think I’m going to hear anything that will change my mind.

Pastor: That’s interesting, right? He’s saying if a miracle happens.

You can almost hear the pastor thinking:

This isn’t a great answer for me. Just because there’s something I can’t explain, that wouldn’t be enough for me. I can’t explain lots of things. I’m not good at that sometimes. And a lack of explanation doesn’t automatically mean “theism” — that’s the Argument from Ignorance.

If you’re an atheist, how would you answer this question? It wouldn’t be very open-minded of you if you said “no”, now, would it? You want to seem convincible. On the other hand, as Mehta points out in the video, you haven’t been convinced by the same 49 arguments that you’ve heard year-in, year-out, so what new thing are believers going to come up with?

It’s all a bit moot for me; even if I were convinced that the god of the Bible existed, I’d still never worship him because he’d be a homophobic, misogynistic dickbag.

But if it were that pastor asking me, I’d say “Sure. Something could convince me.” And here it is.

If:

  1. there were some occurrence, happenstance, or phenomenon for which the only explanation were a theistic one, and
  2. that explanation were well-studied, and
  3. this were well-accepted by the scientific community,

then, yes, I would probably believe it.

And this is never going to happen. Theists haven’t done the work of defining their god in a way that makes him testable. They have no interest in doing so. Like naturopaths and chiropractors, they have enough customers to keep going without doing all that work to establish real credibility.

Which really means, no, nothing as it stands could convince me. But that’s not my problem.

I did all this thinking, only to realise that I’m echoing something PZ Myers was writing about years ago. But that’s okay — if believers can come back with the same arguments time after time, then the answers will have to come back around, too.

10 Comments

  1. My answer is always that although I don't know what objectively would convince me, I recognize that persuasion is more about subjectivity anyway.

    So if I had a meaningful spiritual experience (meaning that I felt the best explanation for it would be to call it spiritual), that would probably do it.

    • That's exactly the kind of 'evidence' we should be suspicious of.

      You must be aware that people can fool themselves into accepting all kinds of supposedly spiritual experiences that have normal boring origins. Do you imagine you're unfoolable?

    • Daniel,

      My point is that suspicion itself is also subjective. It is precisely because I am *not* unfoolable, that I recognize that subjective experiences could override suspicion.

      It seems to me that people who don't admit that they could be convinced through subjective experiences are the ones who are imagining that they are unfoolable.

    • Oh, I agree that we all can be fooled and we need to be aware of it. It just sounded like you were saying that would be acceptable to you.

      So, you're saying that you could have a 'spiritual experience' that would convince you, but that this is an unfortunate reality?

    • Well, if I were convinced, I wouldn't see it as unacceptable or unfortunate. My views on what is acceptable/unaccpetable are based on what my worldview *currently* is, but obviously, if I had a change of mind (via some sort of experience), then those criteria would change.

      Yet, to push back…I'm not entirely sure — even now — that such a possibility would be unfortunate. I personally think it would be pretty cool to be a theist and "get" what it is like to feel a greater presence, etc!

      Suppose that we concede that a theistic worldview (one that accepts the validity of spiritual experiences and frames them in terms of a deity) as a particular state of consciousness (because that's what I'm getting at here with all the comments about subjectivity — asking what it would take for someone to believe in God doesn't say anything about the evidence for or against God, but rather about a person's perceived threshold to be subjectively convinced about something like that)

      …well, do people find altered states of consciousness bad (even if they recognize these states may be different from "sobriety"? Not necessarily. In fact, we might try to induce particular states of consciousness. "Sobriety" can have its value, but sometimes you want to get buzzed/high/whatever.

    • So, what you're saying is that you accept reason and evidence now, but if through some kind of experience you decided to abandon that standard, then hey, it's a valid part of the human experience.

      Suppose that we concede that a theistic worldview (one that accepts the validity of spiritual experiences and frames them in terms of a deity) as a particular state of consciousness

      I don't think it is a state of consciousness. I think it's a conclusion based on inadequate evidence.

    • Daniel,

      Well, this…

      So, what you're saying is that you accept reason and evidence now, but if through some kind of experience you decided to abandon that standard, then hey, it's a valid part of the human experience.

      …is pretty loaded from a particular viewpoint. I would say something more like: "evidence" is a pretty neutral term — the question is that different people have different internal senses of what is good or bad evidence. What people accept as premises affects what they will get as conclusions. You aren't persuaded that subjective experience is good evidence, so you say it's not. But if someone was persuaded that subjective evidence is good experience, then it would be (from their perspective). And not only that, but then that would open up a whole world of possibilities as far as what one might believe in.)

      And depending on your definition of "reason," then the same applies for reason as well. (e.g., the statement "People do not reason entirely from objective facts" gets at the point that reason really is neutral. What you put in as inputs will affect what you get as outputs. Barring huge logical fallacies, I would say that much disagreement between people is a matter of different premises — so while you might dispute the premise "spiritual experiences can be valid evidences", if someone starts with that premise and ends up with a conclusion, that's not *illogical* or *unreasonable*.)

      ALL OF THAT BEING SAID, even if I conceded the way you frame it, then I would say, "Yeah, pretty much."

      I don't think it is a state of consciousness. I think it's a conclusion based on inadequate evidence.

      I'm saying that conclusions are states of consciousness. (Maybe this is not quite the right way to put it — but I mean, I don't think it should be controversial to suggest that beliefs are mental states at the very least. Whenever you say "I think…" you're telling me more about the workings of your brain and a snapshot thereof than you are about the outside world.

    • I would say something more like: "evidence" is a pretty neutral term — the question is that different people have different internal senses of what is good or bad evidence.

      If someone thinks that a personal experience — an anecdote — is good evidence for something, then they are mistaken. And this is pretty well-accepted. I can explain why, if you like.

      I'm saying that conclusions are states of consciousness. (Maybe this is not quite the right way to put it — but I mean, I don't think it should be controversial to suggest that beliefs are mental states at the very least.

      They're more than that, though. Beliefs can be wrong. It's not really okay to say, well, you can choose your mental state, and that's just as valid as any other mental state. Republicans collectively chose a mental state in the run-up to the 2012 elections, but that state was challenged by reality.

  2. If someone thinks that a personal experience — an anecdote — is good evidence for something, then they are mistaken. And this is pretty well-accepted. I can explain why, if you like.

    But whether they are mistaken is irrelevant. What matter is if they themselves believe they are mistaken (which they don't).

    But moving on…In your process of explaining why, you would try to persuade them to believe otherwise, but don't miss out that that is exactly what is happening there — you are trying to persuade them to believe otherwise. This is a subjective, not an objective process.

    Let me give another example.

    If you are trying to explain math to someone (I'm using math because math is typically something that I think people can grasp as having an objective right and wrong answer — but there are caveats even here.) then it doesn't matter how objectively right something is. Something that is completely true can nevertheless be unintuitive and resistant to belief (e.g., for a fun example, think of the Monty Hall problem…or 0.9999~ = 1, etc.,)

    Certainly, I would not suggest in this case that one's personal experience makes the reality. And in this case, if you want to get any engineering done, then the reality is going to win 10/10 over personal experience.

    But in a day-to-day lived sense, reality as it actually exists doesn't really matter. It's only the perception that people really engage with.

    They're more than that, though. Beliefs can be wrong.

    Absolutely. The idea that beliefs are mental states is not challenged in the slightest by the idea that they can be wrong.

    It's not really okay to say, well, you can choose your mental state, and that's just as valid as any other mental state.

    I guess that since I'm relatively skeptical of belief voluntarism, I would be opposed to this statement simply because of the first part. It's not really ok to say you can choose your mental state because you can't.

    (hit comment length max…making 2nd comment)

  3. What could convince me of the truth of Christianity (replace by any other god/supernatural story) is if in its first 500 years of teaching ultimate Truth it had bettered the lot of my fellow humans (keeping them fed, healthy, fulfilled and free) more than the first 500 years since the scientific revolution and its teaching of little, practical approximations.

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