Is my atheism a falsifiable hypothesis? or just a belief, like religious faith

I was watching BBC The Big Questions last sunday and the single topic was “Should religions now accept evolution”. It was an interesting discussion and some of the creationists demonstrated their inability to understand the meaning of evidence, as they usually do. At one point though, one of them asked what evidence would make a scientist admit that evolution was wrong. The well known response “A fossil rabbit in the pre-Cambrian”, usually attributed to J.B.S. Haldane was the reply. It is a perfectly good reply, which confirms that evolution, unlike creationism, is a scientific, falsifiable, hypothesis.

This got me thinking.

I would like to think that my atheism is also a falsifiable hypothesis and not, as religious people often assert, just another faith position, but is it really? Atheism can be a passive lack of belief in an unproven hypothesis that there is a God, but I have to be honest my atheism is a bit stronger than that. I would have to describe it more as an active belief that there is no God. I think this is OK but if it is not to be an irrational, faith-based belief it has to be falsifiable.

So what “evidence” might convince me that my hypothesis is incorrect, and there is a God?

Firstly lets look at what many believers claim as evidence:

  1. The Bible – I can immediately discard this. The only reason you would find the bible convincing would be that you have already decided it must be true. The fact that it says in a book that God exists, and Jesus was resurrected, and Lazarus rose from the dead proves nothing if you don’t already believe in God. To an atheist, it’s like claiming that Voldemort must exist because he features in the Harry Potter books.
  2. Modern day miracles like visions of the virgin Mary – Some people find these very convincing, but again, I think this shows a misunderstanding of what science regards as evidence. An eye-witness account might carry considerable weight in a court of law, but science regards it as an anecdote, possibly useful as a guide to what should be studied, but not evidence in itself.
  3. Medical miracle cures – Again some people find these very convincing but if you understand anything about spontaneous remission, the placebo effect, and, again, the unreliability of eye-witness accounts it is not very convincing. If a healer turns up who can make an amputated limb grow back I’ll have a rethink but they are pretty thin on the ground.
  4. Philosophical arguments that God must exist – One often used philosophical argument is called the Ontological Argument click the link and see what you think. I don’t intend to say anything about these, every one I have seen is frankly laughable. They can usually be altered slightly to “prove” that Unicorns, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster exists.  I actually quite enjoy a philosophical argument, but it is not a substitute for evidence. Or as Shane McKee put it in his excellent blog Show me the sausages

OK that’s enough of that I’m sure religious people will think of lots more, but they haven’t come up with any I have found convincing yet. Some religious people at this point will say (and in discussions some have said) “there is no evidence you will find convincing – your atheism is your faith that you can’t give it up”. Well they are wrong, there are things that I might find convincing – here are a few.

  1. If the digits of PI, interpreted as ASCII characters, spelled out the entire text of King James Bible, or the Koran, or the Torah or any other substantial sacred text.
  2. If the genome of human beings, interpreted as ASCII characters, spelled out the entire text of King James Bible, or the Koran, or the Torah or any other substantial sacred text.
  3. A verifiable example of an amputee re-growing a limb after praying for exactly that and no other medical or surgical intervention.
  4. A fossilised rabbit in the pre-Cambrian – Actually this wouldn’t undermine atheism (many religious people think it would) but the theory of evolution would be looking a bit shaky

I think the question “what evidence might convince you that you are wrong?” is a facinating question which makes you think hard about you’re beliefs and opinions and I would be interested to here what you’re examples might be, whether you are a theist or an atheist. So comments please.

PS after writing this a thought occured to me.

Given that PI is an infinite, non recurring, decimal, does that mean that eventually it must spell out the bible? Or indeed any, and every, chosen book? Any mathematicians (or philosophers) know the answer to that one?

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4 Responses to Is my atheism a falsifiable hypothesis? or just a belief, like religious faith

  1. lukeuser says:

    As a mathematician, I thought I would address the pi question. It is something I have speculated on myself. According to sources, the answer is that it depends on a property of pi which hasn’t yet been proven or disproven: that it is a ‘normal number’, which means that all combinations of digits appear an equal number of times.
    According to Wikipedia, many of the digits of Pi have been statistically analysed by a computer and found to be normal, yet that doesn’t prove that all the digits are normal i.e. that Pi itself is normal. But it strongly suggests it to me.
    Of course, if this was a trick question, I would say that Pi can’t spell out anything because it consists of digits and not letters. Though you could easily convert the string of digits into letters obviously.
    So, short answer, nobody knows!

    • lukeuser says:

      Actually, I see you’ve already explained your digit-to-character conversion of choice earlier in the post, I somehow missed that segment out when I first read the post.

    • Dave Watts says:

      Thanks for the comment, very interesting. I didn’t know about “normal numbers”. Are there numbers which are proven to be normal, or not-normal?
      As to the idea of a message in PI, I have to admit that it is not original, I nicked from Carl Sagan (If your going to steal – do it from the best) and appears in the excellent book “Contact”

      • lukeuser says:

        I see. I suppose if Pi is normal, then finding the Bible or Koran in Pi isn’t a sign of it’s authenticity at all, so the concept relies on Pi not being normal, though it’s clearly more a thought experiment than anything else.
        It is fairly obvious that every rational number (a number which can be written as a fraction) is not normal, since they repeat. For example, 1/3 in decimal form is 1.33333….
        If you look at the Wikipedia entry for ‘Normal number’ or the Wolfram Mathworld page here, they are quite informative. It has been proven that ‘almost all’ numbers are normal, though that doesn’t prove normality of any given number. But it does mean that Pi is probably normal. A few obscure irrational numbers have been proven to be normal or not normal, but generally only on a specific base (by definition, a ‘normal number’ is normal on all bases).
        One of the easiest to define numbers which has been proven to be normal on base-10, and hence includes the Bible in ASCII, is called the Champernowne constant, and is obtained by concatenating every integer in order, as follows (the spaces are only for clarity):
        0.1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13…
        When you think about it, it’s quite apparent that this would include every possible combination of digits, so it isn’t very impressive. Knowing that an incomprehensible and fundamental number like Pi was normal would be more satisfying.

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