At the moment (at least as I type this,) two prominent atheists are tossing forth and back about the old question of what would, or could, constitute evidence for god. Michael Shermer at Skepticblog and Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution Is True have fallen on two sides of the debate over the word supernatural (I tossed out my own take on this earlier.) Basically, it seems to be down to a disagreement on how naturalism is defined – Shermer appears to find it applies to everything that we could experience or interpret, while Coyne seems to find it applies to current physical laws or properties. Anything supernatural, then, may or may not be detectable in ‘naturalistic’ ways.
The whole discussion/debate, however, is exactly why I find philosophy such a godawful waste of time more often than not. This can be considered nothing more than a debate over what sounds the best – neither standpoint offers, or can even hope to offer, anything in terms of testable posits, useful perspectives, or interesting avenues of research. To even have them discussing the same thing, they have to back up and precisely define many of the terms they’re tossing about. It’s easy to see that this could become a perpetual court deliberation on minutia.
The problem is, there is no case to try. Even trials between major corporations in the US, as ridiculous as they can be, never argue over whether or not to accept some bit of evidence that hasn’t been introduced, and that’s exactly what’s happening here. Religious folk continually ask what would serve as evidence of god, not because they have something to present to the court, but only because they’re hoping to score an emotional victory by hearing someone say, “Nothing! I refuse to accept anything! La la la la la la la…!” In that way, believers can happily assume they’re smart for believing, simply because the unbelievers are stupid or petty or something – proof through mistrial.
The only useful answer to, “What would constitute proof of god?” is, “What have you got?” You see, Coyne and Shermer are talking about whether planets spelling out messages could be either a provisional god or simply very powerful aliens, while believers have only produced, “My aunt says she spoke to god and she’s pretty convincing,” and, “The bible says the bible’s true.” This is worse than sitting down in a sandbox and discussing the hydrodynamic issues of building a road on sand with a three-year-old who’s bulldozing with a Lego.
I’m not against anyone doing anything because they have an interest in it, regardless of the impact (he says on a blog,) but this is obviously intended as both a public discussion and a salient point. Yet it can’t lead anywhere, and the reasons for it being introduced at all are too juvenile to treat with respect. Applying deep thought to it doesn’t make it any better. The trap of thinking that we have really cool minds is that we believe our minds can only produce really cool things, despite that formula being one of the first fallacies of logic.
Moreover, there’s an opportunity missed here, and one that both of these distinctive educators should be exploiting. Science isn’t about proof, and cannot be – there is no way to prove something beyond the shadow of a doubt. Everything in our knowledge base is provisional, based on the weight of the evidence and the dependability of the tests. Newtonian physics worked very well for centuries, until it was found that on extreme scales relativistic physics was more accurate. Science can and does accept the new evidence and changes to accommodate it, in recognition that we are mere humans and can not determine absolutes or ultimates, but only probability and replication. We will never be sure, but we can certainly be confident.
That right there is the biggest difference between belief and knowledge: believers want their absolutes, and try to deny to themselves that we cannot reach them – there will always be doubt. Knowledge, however, involves accepting this handily and striving to make doubt as small as possible. I am quite confident that gravity will draw things towards the center of the planet, and 99.999999% of the world’s population is right there with me. Not because it’s proven, but because it’s dependable. That’s been working pretty well for the entirety of human history, with indications that it’s been a hell of a lot longer than that. One would think that was enough.
That’s the bar that we should always set. Stooping to the level of anyone who doesn’t recognize why we use science only implies that we think they’ve got something to contribute; instead, we need to bring them up to the level of the most reliable knowledge structure that we have ever used as a species. Or they can play in the sandbox by themselves.