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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- A verifiable example of an amputee re-growing a limb after praying for exactly that and no other medical or surgical intervention.
- 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?