Told ya so

I confess.  I enjoy being right.  If you have been reading this blog, you know I have laid out a very powerful case for the subjective aspect of evidence.  Yet another example has just surfaced to help demonstrate I am right.

On his blog, Jerry Coyne tells us about some atheist convention where Michael Shermer spoke.  Coyne writes:

Shermer ruled the supernatural out of court from the beginning, saying that, like Hume, a naturalistic explanation is always more parsimonious, even if we can’t find one.  I asked him if there was anything that could make him believe in the existence of a god, and he joked about “A million dollars appearing in a Swiss bank account in his name,” but then said, no, even the healing of amputees might be attributed to the intervention of aliens.

In Shermer’s mind, nothing can count as evidence for the existence of God.  If this was true of all atheist minds, that would mean the whole issue of “evidence” no longer applies.  But, as we would predict from the subjective aspect of evidence, Coyne sees it differently:

While I respect Shermer’s view that invoking aliens or some unknown explanation avoids a “god of the gaps” argument for unknown and miraculous or divine phenomena, I still feel as a scientist that the existence of a true supernatural god is a theoretical possibility, and that there is some possible evidence that could convince me of it. (I’ve described that evidence before; needless to say, none has been found.)

So Coyne not only respects Shermer’s views, and cannot come up with any reason for thinking he is wrong, he disagrees on the basis of a feeling – I still feel as a scientist.  His disagreement is clearly rooted in subjectivity.

Yes, such miraculous evidence for a god might eventually be found to be due to aliens or the like, but my acceptance of a god would always be a provisional one, subject to revision upon further evidence. (We might find aliens behind the whole thing.) After all, every scientific “truth” is provisional.

The provisional aspect is irrelevant.  What is relevant is that Coyne feels there could be evidence for God while Shermer insists there can be no evidence for God.  So who is right?  And how would Shermer know if he was wrong?  How would Coyne know if he was wrong?  Such questions cannot be answered because of the subjective aspect of evidence.  No data can count as evidence for God in Shermers mind because his mind chooses not to interpret any data as evidence for God.  Coyne’s mind is invested in appearing as if he is approaching this as some scientist, so he convinces himself that some data could be interpreted as evidence for God.  It’s all a maze of subjectivity and it’s laughable to insist this could all be resolved with “evidence.”  Clearly, we can all see that evidence only exists if a mind decides it exists.

As always, I find the natural/supernatural distinction confusing, and see that it is possible in principle for some divine being who operates outside the laws of physics to exist.  To say there is no possibility of such a thing is an essentially unscientific claim, since there is nothing that science can rule out on first principles.  We rule out things based on evidence and experience, that is, we consider the possibilities of gods extremely unlikely since we have no good evidence for them.  But it is close-minded to say that nothing would convince us otherwise.

Coyne lets the cat out the bag here.  He recognizes the simple truth that Shermer is closed-minded about this issue.  But is Shermer willing to be honest and publicly acknowledge he is closed-minded?  I doubt it.  Either way, Coyne recognizes the “tactical damage” that the Gnu movement would incur if it became widely known that atheists were closed-minded.  If most Gnus are like Shermer in insisting that no data could ever count as evidence for God, then all those demands for evidence are exposed as dishonest rhetorical tactics. Atheists are atheists not because there is no evidence for God, but because they do not interpret any data as evidence for God.  But that’s hardly significant, for we would not expect an atheist to perceive and behave differently.

Now Coyne does add:

This is not just a tactical move to make me appear open minded; it’s something I really feel.

But that is not very convincing.  Yes, I am sure he “feels” the need to be open-minded as part of that posturing as a scientist when it comes to the existence of God.  The subjective element is undeniable.  But has Coyne, throughout his entire scientific career, ever moved beyond his personal feelings and published a scientific study where the results ruled out the existence of God?  Nope.  Never happened and never will happen.  Like Dawkins and Myers, they love to talk as if science is speaking, but their own science never addresses the issues they address in popular articles.

Look, there is one thing we do know from science – human beings have the ability to deceive themselves.  And while Coyne may feel he is not as closed-minded as Shermer, because he is willing to cite some sensational, super-duper anomaly as evidence for God as long as he can be pretty sure beforehand no such anomaly is out there(a 600 foot tall Jesus walking the streets of NYC), it’s just as likely that Coyne is deceiving himself into thinking he would embrace the God-of-the-gaps argument.

The difference between Coyne and Shermer is rooted only in emotion and the choice of rhetoric.

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10 Responses to Told ya so

  1. Crude says:

    The funny thing about this is, I could have sworn that at one point Coyne used to go on and on about how one reason atheists were rational and Christians weren’t was *precisely* because atheists could at least name evidence that would convince them of God’s existence. But then other atheists started saying that, no, nothing could convince them – and suddenly that dropped as a standard.

    Now it’s some kind of interesting coffee-table-esque point of interest.

  2. Michael says:

    Good point. He doesn’t seem to be aware that this is not some trivial little disagreement. That atheists cannot even agree on this fundamental issue shows us atheism is a personal opinion.

  3. Actually, they do agree, but using differing words, differing positions on the elephant. They are describing the same thing. Coyne says “I still feel as a scientist that the existence of a true supernatural god is a theoretical possibility, and that there is some possible evidence that could convince me of it. (I’ve described that evidence before; needless to say, none has been found.)” and Shermer has ruled out the possibility of evidence. Both are saying the same thing. There might be evidence but it will have to be believable as something other than aliens or some other naturalistic explanation. Some of us go a little bit further and state that we’re tired of waiting for that evidence. If absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, this is a time sensitive claim. If there has never been direct human observation of a god, then we should just move on, secure in the idea that there are no gods.

    Both Coyne and Shermer would pay attention to appropriately effective evidence of a supernatural god. Shermer might be more sceptical in the end, but both would accept evidence which suitable. What they don’t agree on is what evidence it would take to convince them.

    Not believing in gods does not infer what evidence would be required for you to believe in gods. This is not a problem of atheists not being able to agree on important matters.

  4. Crude says:

    Both are saying the same thing. There might be evidence but it will have to be believable as something other than aliens or some other naturalistic explanation.

    No, that’s… actually not what Shermer is saying according to Coyne. Not at all. That is precisely the problem here.

    Here’s Coyne, again, with emphasis added: Shermer ruled the supernatural out of court from the beginning, saying that, like Hume, a naturalistic explanation is always more parsimonious, even if we can’t find one. I asked him if there was anything that could make him believe in the existence of a god, and he joked about “A million dollars appearing in a Swiss bank account in his name,” but then said, no, even the healing of amputees might be attributed to the intervention of aliens.

    So no, Coyne and Shermer are not saying the same thing. Not according to Coyne himself. Now, maybe you’re arguing Coyne is completely misunderstanding Shermer, but that’s not evident based on what’s been provided here.

  5. Crude says:

    Mike,

    And while Coyne may feel he is not as closed-minded as Shermer, because he is willing to cite some sensational, super-duper anomaly as evidence for God as long as he can be pretty sure beforehand no such anomaly is out there(a 600 foot tall Jesus walking the streets of NYC), it’s just as likely that Coyne is deceiving himself into thinking he would embrace the God-of-the-gaps argument.

    What Coyne never does, to my knowledge, is argue about about what standard is reasonable. He seems to begin and end his test at, ‘Well, did you name some discovery that would make you believe in God? Just name anything.’

    The problem is, if he doesn’t have a standard of evaluation for evidence, then he’s gone and made belief in God reasonable for a considerable number of people. All they have to do is name some experience or discovery they had in the past that was sufficient to convince them of God’s existence and boom – they’re no different than Coyne would be if Coyne saw his 900-foot Jesus.

    But of course, I doubt Coyne would leave it at that. His talk about ‘evidence that would convert an atheist’ seems to only count if the evidence is either never met, or that he’s confident it won’t be met. If you have someone with a standard of evidence for God’s existence and it IS met, then suddenly it’s time to unleash all the skepticism you can muster.

  6. L.W. Dickel says:

    “Ahh, another Sunday. Nothing to do but sit back, watch some NFL and scratch my balls.
    Goddamn, but I love Sundays!”–Jesus H. Christ, as told to Chuck Norris.

  7. Crude says:

    Hey LW, did your horoscope tell you today was a good day to comment? You know, as a Scorpio, you take that stuff seriously. 😉

  8. thesauros says:

    “No data can count as evidence for God in Shermers mind because his mind chooses not to interpret any data as evidence for God.”

    Some atheists have told me that if Jesus suddenly popped into existence right in front of them they’d believe. Actually, no, they wouldn’t. That would be a miracle and atheists deny the existence of miracles. If Jesus showed up like they demand, they’d come up with a natural explanation – something like indigestion or . . .

    This is why, on the one hand atheists know there can’t be a material explanation for the existence of a material universe when at one point nothing material existed, while on the other hand they’ll wait til their dying day for a material explanation to be found.

  9. Michael says:

    Both are saying the same thing.

    Not true. See Crude’s response. I would also add two things. First, it’s rather clear Coyne posted not to agree, but to disagree with Shermer. Second, the comments section of Coyne’s posting is full of atheists disagreeing about what would count as evidence.

    Both Coyne and Shermer would pay attention to appropriately effective evidence of a supernatural god. Shermer might be more sceptical in the end, but both would accept evidence which suitable.

    First, you are simply underscoring the effectiveness of my point about the subjectivity of evidence. For note your qualifiers – appropriately effective. So not only is it the case that whether or not data count as evidence depends on the mind that is interpreting the data, but even if two minds could agree evidence exists, now we have to get the minds to agree the evidence is a) appropriate and b) effective. All kinds of subjective wiggle room here.

    Second, while you may want to believe “both Coyne and Shermer would pay attention to appropriately effective evidence of a supernatural god,” that’s wishful thinking rooted in faith. As an atheist, why are you making faith claims?

  10. Crude says:

    By the way, I guess it’s obvious now but, there’s a typo on this post title.

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