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There, but for the grace of God, believe I

July 14, 2013

Daniel at Good Reason had a post that asked, Is there anything that could convince you that a god exists? 

I always find nonbelievers answering this question to be interesting because I think people overestimate their ability to talk about what sorts of things could persuade them personally…Maybe they could understand a few general things that would be likely to persuade them, but surely, that’s not the total? Maybe this is a frivolous comparison, but while I can think of several foods, drinks, musical artists, and books that I like off the top of my head (and then formulate generic ideas for what sorts of new things I might like in the future), surely, I do not understand enough about my personality and inner workings to be able to pinpoint with clarity everything I could come to like based on my current situation.

Yet, Daniel writes:

If you’re an atheist, how would you answer this question? It wouldn’t be very open-minded of you if you said “no”, now, would it? You want to seem convincible. On the other hand, as Mehta points out in the video, you haven’t been convinced by the same 49 arguments that you’ve heard year-in, year-out, so what new thing are believers going to come up with?

It’s all a bit moot for me; even if I were convinced that the god of the Bible existed, I’d still never worship him because he’d be a homophobic, misogynistic dickbag.

But if it were that pastor asking me, I’d say “Sure. Something could convince me.” And here it is.


  1. there were some occurrence, happenstance, or phenomenon for which the only explanation were a theistic one, and
  2. that explanation were well-studied, and
  3. this were well-accepted by the scientific community,

then, yes, I would probably believe it.

This answer seems to me a little like saying something like, “If theism as is traditionally understood could fit within the scientific epistemology with which I am now comfortable, then I would buy it.”(Which, by the way, I actually like various science fiction works that take familiar concepts of fantasy and put “rules” to them. Ted Chiang once said the following about the difference between fantasy and science fiction:

Science fiction and fantasy are very closely related genres, and a lot of people say that the genres are so close that there’s actually no meaningful distinction to be made between the two. But I think that there does exist an useful distinction to be made between magic and science.

One way to look at it is in terms of whether a given phenomenon can be mass-produced. If you posit some impossibility in a story, like turning lead into gold, I think it makes sense to ask how many people in the world of the story are able to do this. Is it just a few people or is it something available to everybody? If it’s just a handful of special people who can turn lead into gold, that implies different things than a story in which there are giant factories churning out gold from lead, in which gold is so cheap it can be used for fishing weights or radiation shielding. In either case there’s the same basic phenomenon, but these two depictions point to different views of the universe. In a story where only a handful of characters are able to turn lead into gold, there’s the implication that there’s something special about those individuals. The laws of the universe take into account some special property that only certain individuals have. By contrast, if you have a story in which turning lead into gold is an industrial process, something that can be done on a mass scale and can be done cheaply, then you’re implying that the laws of the universe apply equally to everybody; they work the same even for machines in unmanned factories. In one case I’d say the phenomenon is magic, while in the other I’d say it’s science.

Another way to think about these two depictions is to ask whether the universe of the story recognizes the existence of persons. I think magic is an indication that the universe recognizes certain people as individuals, as having special properties as an individual, whereas a story in which turning lead into gold is an industrial process is describing a completely impersonal universe. That type of impersonal universe is how science views the universe; it’s how we currently understand our universe to work. The difference between magic and science is at some level a difference between the universe responding to you in a personal way, and the universe being entirely impersonal.

It seems like Daniel’s answer meshes well with Ted’s “mass production” answer.

And for whatever it’s worth, I think that would be cool.


I think that human brains are a bit more complex than just that. What is persuasive to someone ultimately comes down to personal, subjective factors. Daniel supposes that the factors that would work for him are those that would align with the scientific method and skeptical ideals. I think that overestimates human rationality.

I can’t say specifically what would persuade me (I can say that at this time, I am not persuaded by the stuff that theists have said to me as third persons), but I suspect that there are experiences that I could have that I would be personally persuaded — no matter what the outside, 3rd party explanations were — to believe were evidence of some higher power. I might not be objectively justified in making that conclusion (and I openly acknowledge that)…but the fact of the matter is that objective justification is not the thing that matters when we are talking about persuasion. Of course the persuaded person will likely think that he is objectively correct in his process…but this still says more about the person than the conclusion.

Daniel’s response to my first comment on his site (most of the conversation is there, so I haven’t retyped it here) was most curious to me:

You must be aware that people can fool themselves into accepting all kinds of supposedly spiritual experiences that have normal boring origins. Do you imagine you’re unfoolable?

As I tried to explain throughout the remaining conversation, though, I don’t take this position because I think I’m unfoolable, but rather because I don’t think that there is anything special to me to suppose that I am different from anyone else (every one of which I recognize has at least some subjectively held conviction that seems to be valued more strongly than what “objective data” would suggest.)

In other words, if Daniel or anyone supposes that he could or would NOT be swayed by some subjective experience, then it seems to me that he is the one who is imagining he is unfoolable.

P.S., as an addendum, I want to take some self-satisfaction about the cleverness of my title. If you take it simply as a play on a more famous phrase, that’s fine and dandy…but it can also quite fit in with the Calvinist theme that this blog dabbles in (namely, supposing Calvinism is true, then really, who believes and who doesn’t is up to God’s discretion.) But generically, I think that “God” could be replaced with “neurology,” “experiences,” “personality,” “genetics,” or something more naturalistic.


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  1. I don’t think you understood my response on that comment thread, so I’ll try again here.

    Of course I could be swayed by some subjective experience. I’m as susceptible as anyone. But at the same time, I’m on guard against that tendency because I know that that kind of evidence is not good. So I try to see such things for what they are: emotional responses, and not guides to external reality.

  2. I’m saying that when you say that you’re in guard, that’s precisely what could change. The things you “know” about what kind of evidence is and isn’t good could change.

  3. Perhaps, but the good news is that you don’t have to rely on your own intuitions about what makes good evidence. There are some guidelines that have been discussed for hundreds of years, and which are fairly well-agreed-upon. For example, you can find lists of fallacies in many places, and this can help you detect spurious reasoning,

    I’m not saying the thinking has been done, but you don’t have to go it alone.

  4. “…and this can help you detect spurious reasoning,”

    Ah, so it’s dependent on you being (subjectively) persuaded that x is spurious reasoning. Right, so subjectivity wins again.

  5. We can’t avoid bad reasoning entirely, but the farther we can get away from it, the better our odds of getting it right.

  6. Isn’t saying “I will never believe in God” similar to saying “I will never again laugh at a knock-knock joke”?

  7. Except, I think the claim here is something like this instead:

    “It’s possible that I could laugh at a knock-knock joke again, but here are the criteria [a, b, and c], and I don’t think those criteria will ever be met.”

  8. Yeah, I see that. But acting on something like that seems like a humorless way of getting through life. You may end up missing out on a laugh simply because you want to be true to the claim. Religious people fall into this trap all the time. The question I have is why its important for some people to never to laugh at these jokes.

    I also think saying that you don’t believe in God and never will is like saying that you will never believe in law or rights as anything other than a meaningless construct. By scientific measures, human rights are “nonsense on stilts” but they are not something anybody would like to dispense with in practice without an alternative construct. It might get very unpleasant.

  9. Its also a bit like saying “I will never fall in love unless the person is really really good looking and stays that way”

  10. Jared,

    right. I think the approach is somewhat misinformed. (E.g., how can I *know* what jokes I will or will not laugh at? how can I know the exhaustive criteria of falling in love?)

    I’m sure that people will chafe at whatever comparison you make. For any number of reasons, God will be deemed similar enough to be compared to invisible pink unicorns or flying spaghetti monsters, but WAY DIFFERENT than concepts like love, human rights, etc.,

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