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Yeti or square circle? March 18, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Logic, Philosophy, Religion.
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1 comment so far

Is evidence for the existence of God even possible? Biologist Jerry Coyne has published an email exchange with philosopher Anthony C. Grayling on this question. While both are atheists, Coyne maintains that the existence of God is an empirical question, and that it is conceivable (though highly unlikely) that convincing evidence for God might turn up some day. Grayling thinks not, because the very concept of God is incoherent:

on the standard definition of an infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent etc being — on inspection such a concept collapses into contradiction and absurdity; as omnipotent, god can eat himself for breakfast…as omniscient it knows the world it created will cause immense suffering through tsunamis and earthquakes, and therefore has willed that suffering, which contradicts the benevolence claim…etc etc…to say nothing of local suspension of the laws of nature for arbitrary reasons e.g. in answer to personal prayer, which makes a nonsense of the idea that the world or the deity is rationally comprehensible: and if either or both are non-rational then there is nothing to talk about anyway…

The point is that ‘god’ is not like ‘ether’ — it is not amenable to empirical investigation, and does not occupy a slot in some systematic framework of thinking about the world that might be improved on in the light of better theory or observation. It does no work because it purportedly does all work; like a contradiction it entails anything whatever; it is consistent with all evidence and none. These considerations constitute the proof that it is an empty concept. — If you treat the word ‘god’ as a name for a putative entity that might or might not exist and such that something might count as evidence for or against its existence, as you do, then you are committed to agnosticism about everything that can be given an apparent name. But ‘god’ is not like ‘yeti’ (which might — so to say: yet? — be found romping about the Himalayas), it is like ‘square circle’. Trying to explain to someone who thinks that ‘god’ is like ‘yeti’ (namely, you) let alone to someone who thinks ‘god’ is like ‘Barack Obama’ (names an actual being, as Christians and Muslims do) that it is actually not like ‘yeti’ but like ‘square circle’ and that nothing can count as evidence for square circles, is harder work for ‘god’ than ‘square circle’ only because religious folk have been squaring the circle for so long!

Coyne disagrees in principle:

I reject Anthony’s assertion that God is not amenable to empirical investigation, since one can empirically investigate claims about how God interacts with the world. The efficacy of prayer is one of these. I believe Grayling is referring here to a deistic god, since theistic gods need not be “consistent with all evidence.” The existence of earthquakes, for example, is not consistent with a benevolent theistic god. I still maintain that if one claims that a god interacts with the world in certain ways, then those claims can be investigated empirically. To me the existence of a deity is not a matter that can be ruled out by philosophy or logic from the get-go; it’s a matter for empirical observation and testing.

While I find this discussion interesting, I must admit that I don’t find it especially consequential. Even if the God concept can be made coherent, no remotely convincing evidence for the existence of a God has ever been offered, and there is no reason to expect it ever will (as Coyne would agree). The God hypothesis is dead. The existence of such an entity (certainly one that meets the description of any of our obviously man-made religions) is about as plausible as the existence of witches or the belief that suicide bombers really get 72 virgins in the afterlife.

Furthermore: religious people seem to think that if God does exist, then it’s obvious that we ought to obey his every command — but that doesn’t follow. Whether God is a yeti or a square circle, nothing can absolve us of the responsibility to think for ourselves, and to rationally decide how we ought to live our lives.