Experimental theology

Sorry to have been under radio silence for so long, but I’m working on a scientific manuscript for publication. Once that’s off to be savagely critiqued in peer review, I’ll be back for more god-bashing. For now, though, I can only offer this ridiculously lengthy reply I just wrote, to a comment on one of my previous posts on evolution. Enjoy:

I actually don’t think I’m being unfair to theists, in that I don’t claim that all theists are raving maniacs. When I discuss theism as a model I’m addressing a very specific claim that religious people tend to make: that there are one or more gods who administer the fabric of reality. Even a mild theist has to possess that basic belief to be considered a theist at all. Theism is a positive claim, and to be taken as fact – as objective fact – evidence must be provided. Those who claim to be absolutely certain of the presence and intent of their god or gods are making a falsifiable claim, and that claim is either true or untrue. There is no middle ground, in that case. Either the claim is correct as it is stated, or it is not.

As an atheist, I am not convinced that the positive theistic case has been made, and I don’t have to prove the negative. I understand that theists may want to be able to demand negative proof, or else by default their claims are presumed to be factual, but that is simply false. Like it or not, the burden of proof is on the theist. No turning the tables, saying “If I have to prove God, you have to disprove God”. No, it simply doesn’t work that way. No matter what side you’re on, a positive extraordinary claim requires positive, extraordinary evidence. Substitute “God” for “really powerful alien Brainiac mastermind” and you can begin, hopefully, to see where I’m coming from.

Teapots and unicorns aside, let’s say I claim that the Jungian collective unconscious actually exists, as some kind of intangible information stockpile that can be accessed telepathically by all humans, with mental signals moving back and forth regularly between it and each of our brains, daily. I might “feel” the information transfers occurring when I experience deja vu, let’s say. I might be really impressed with the persistence of mythic archetypes among cultures. Whatever, let’s say I have my reasons. Now, either the collective unconscious exists as a discrete object, encoded somehow into something somewhere, or it doesn’t. Signals are exchanged with it, or they’re not. If it exists, the burden is on me – as the claimant – to provide some kind of explanation that fits my subjective experience and doesn’t fit any simpler explanation (such as a momentary dissociative or imaginative state of consciousness).

If it’s not just me, but millions of people who claim the C.U. exists, with a cadre of professional apologists backing that claim, someone really would need to come up with a model to explain all that business. Into what medium is the C.U. encoded, if it’s out there? What is being transferred that we perceive as a signal feed? Exactly how do our brains receive those signals? Where is the there, there, justifying continued belief in the C.U? Can you imagine the frustration of those who might, in such a situation, ask for evidence of the C.U., only to be told by believers that unless someone can prove there’s no invisible information bank built out of who-knows-what that carries who-knows-what kind of data back and forth to the brain via sublimely invisible and unapproachable processes, belief is just as justified as non-belief? Sorry, no.

You say that I can’t define “God”, and then you offer a straw man definition to make atheism look silly. But it’s usually the theist who can’t – or won’t – define their god, and who dances away from the argument when pressed. Well, I think I can provide a very good working definition of a god, and I’m not shy about doing so. To me the most important aspect of an argument is to firmly and unambiguously define one’s terms, otherwise there can’t really be an argument because the arguers are talking in different languages. When people talk about “God” they’re clearly not talking about a synonym for love. They’re talking about a conscious, organized intellect that possesses intent. They’re talking about a thinking mind that can make decisions and process information, and who can perceive and influence our universe. Leave off for now the question of exactly how powerful “God” is, or what it wants, or how it goes about its daily business. Those are questions of quantity, and I’m establishing a definition based on qualities that are necessary, if not sufficient, to constitute a god that one can communicate with and from whom one can receive information in return.

What would a god be made of? What would be its information-processing methodology? How is its structure maintained? Did it really precede the universe, and if so, how? How would it communicate with you? Why does it tangibly manifest only to believers, and never to non-believers with recording instruments? Why do its signals so closely resemble hallucinatory experiences? What is its diameter? If it can be everywhere at once, it must have the capacity for superluminal signal transfer: how does it do that? Can other objects move faster than light? What are the physics involved? These aren’t trivial questions, they’re basic questions regarding something that theists claim is really out there. Either gods exist, or they don’t. If they do, their existence is a tangible, profound fact of the universe that is just as real and rock-solid as the gravitational constant or the rest mass of an electron. Gods, if they exist, are describable in detail. They must operate in some way, using means at their disposal that may be complicated and awesome, but are nonetheless addressable as quantifiable phenomena within the realm of measurement and observation. They would have to leave tracks, in other words, and they would have to possess structure. Maybe they’re billion-year-old aliens composed of highly modified topologies in hyperspace, sucking energy out of vacuum expansion as if it were a gigantic waterfall with them as weird, cosmic hydroelectric generators. Wouldn’t that explanation – though outlandish as all get-out – be more likely than creatures that somehow transcend everything?

When the atomic nucleus was discovered, its discoverers didn’t claim that testing their claims was heresy, or that their claims couldn’t be tested because the nucleus was far too majestic and rarefied to allow itself to be measured by mere mortals. Black holes are literally invisible, but they disturb things in their wake. Everything that exists and influences the world can in return be influenced back in repeatable ways, no matter how puny we are in comparison to it. This is not a comfortable position for theists to take, but nevertheless there it is. Theists claim their gods are real, but resist examining them too closely… but if one loves and is fascinated with something, shouldn’t one want to learn more about it? Shouldn’t one want definitive evidence that the object of all one’s emotional attachment is actually there? Again, it either is or it isn’t. If it is, that’s really important. If it isn’t, that’s also really important. Unlike most theists, I’m simply willing to face that question head-on, deconstruct it into its working parts, and not just give up and assume an answer that makes me feel better.

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~ by Planetologist on February 24, 2009.

4 Responses to “Experimental theology”

  1. See, this is why no one trusts Germans.

    🙂

  2. Ooooops……realized the capitalisation in my comment. Im a friggin’ German and just finished writing a report in german. We do those things all the time.

  3. This is not solely and exclusively reserved for theists but a trait of all …let’s call them “believers”. Homoeopaths, Antivaccine dingleberries, Republicans, Evolution denialists of whatever flavor. You name it. It always comes down to: “YOU CANT PROVE I’M WRONG!”

  4. This is exactly why theists refuse to be pinned down. The minute they make a concrete claim about what god is or does, they are making their god testable. Can;’t have that.

    I told someone recently (in a reworking of the extraordinary claim idea), “When you claim something is true, I have the right to demand evidence for that claim. You do NOT have the right to demand that I refute your claim.”

    I find it very frustrating that the universal inability to prove a negative is taken as positive evidence by the uneducated.

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